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If You Get Rich And Famous…

One of you readers suggested that I listen to a recent episode of This American Life in which Neil Drumming, a producer for the show and an old and close friend of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s, did a piece on how TNC’s wealth and fame, which has come very fast, has affected their friendship. So I listened to it today [1], and boy, I’m glad I did. It’s fascinating, and even though I can’t abide his cultural politics, it makes me like TNC more as a person.

In this excerpt from the transcript, TNC and Drumming are at a fancy hotel bar in New York, where TNC is staying while in town from Paris (where he and his family are living for a while) to give a talk. They start by joking about how TNC, who grew up in the West Baltimore ghetto, has become a snob:

Ta-Nehisi knew we were here to talk about his snobbery, and he wasted zero time getting into character. He told me a story about the other night when he’d had dinner in the restaurant of this very hotel.

Ta: And I was sitting at the bar. And the food was OK. It’s like one of these OK food restaurants. But it was decent. I was having a good time. And there was a couple like down the bar, and they had ordered this big-ass thing of oysters. It might have been 24 oysters. It was huge.

Neil Drumming (narration): Ta-Nehisi was fine with that. He loves oysters. It was what happened next that offended him.

Ta: Then the bartender started making drinks, right? And he makes the woman a sangria and the other dude some sweet something, some red, sweet something-or-other that no one should ever drink. And he took it over there, and I was like, you’re going to drink sangria and eat oysters? Like, we’re doing this now? Like, this is a thing you’re going to do? Oh, come on.

[LAUGHTER]
Ta: Come on. Just order a Hi-C. Get the Capri Sun. Just get the Capri Sun with your oysters.

Neil Drumming (narration): See, this is what I’m talking about.

I had to laugh, first because I’m so pleased to learn that TNC and I share a passion for both Paris and oysters (I have written him privately to urge him to go to Huîtrerie Régis [2], the happiest place on earth), but also because had I been sitting in his seat, this is exactly what I would have done — gotten all judgy of the couple drinking crap with their oysters. It’s like going to a fine steakhouse and putting ketchup all over your prime rib. Or like ordering a bourbon and coke, but asking the bartender to use Pappy Van Winkel.

But is that snobby? I say no. Any working-class guy in France would have been appalled to see that, because he knows that sweet red drinks would ruin the taste of the oysters. You want to drink crisp white wine with them, or possibly beer (for me, beer only with Gulf Coast oysters, which are flabby and need cocktail sauce to be at their best). If you learn to love oysters, you will also learn what tastes good to drink with them. The other night I was watching Anthony Bourdain’s Shanghai episode, and saw some Shanghai billionaire eating raw oysters that had been flown in from France, and served on the half shell with their liquor replaced by Champagne. That is just awful; anybody who eats oysters knows that their briny liquor makes them taste great. Replacing it with Champagne is what a real snob (as opposed to a connoisseur) would do.

More from that interview:

(Neil Drumming, narrating): During all those years, I honestly don’t recall fine dining being a big part of our lives, so it’s kind of bizarre to hear Ta-Nehisi go on about it now. The guy talks about food with almost as much passion and conviction as he writes scathing critiques of American institutionalized racism.

Ta: There’s this joint in Chicago called the Girl & the Goat, and they made this asparagus last time I was there, and I think about it. Like I actually think about the vegetables.

[LAUGHS]

Ta: I mean, what is this? [LAUGHS] Like sex or something. Like, I think about it. Like god, that was awesome. That was great.

Yep, that’s me, to the fingertips. Listening to this, I realized that if I ever became rich and famous like TNC, I would do pretty much what he’s doing, using my money in part to enjoy food even more than I do. He seems to have a great sense of humor about it all.

I felt even more of a kinship with him when he talked about how having money makes him uncomfortable. One more clip:

Ta: The money’s uncomfortable. Um– why is the money uncomfortable? Because you have the money, but like, in your mind, you haven’t changed. Like you still rock a hoodie.

Neil Drumming: Yeah, yeah.

Ta: The food is not uncomfortable. The food feels like some bringing to fruition of something that was always there.

That’s a good insight. Drumming goes on to say that TNC now gets invited to hang with celebrities and other important people, and that he (Drumming) has seen TNC blow these people off — though he has taken up their invitations as well. TNC, in the interview, distinguishes between snobs and “bougies,” short for “bourgeoises.” In his nomenclature, a “bougie” (pron. boo-zhee) is a snob who is a snob because he wants to impress other people, and wants to move in the “right” crowd.

It’s a useful distinction, actually. Someone once said that everyone’s a conservative about the thing they know well. I think it’s true that everyone is a snob in the same way. I don’t care much for gin; it all tastes the same to me. But I admire people who really love gin, and can distinguish what makes good gin from bad gin. Similarly, I have never been a clothes horse, but I enjoy listening to people who know what makes for quality clothing, talking about how to recognize a well-made suit, pair of shoes, and so forth. Connoisseurship is not the same thing as snobbery. I don’t think TNC is a snob at all for being a connoisseur of good oysters. It only becomes snobbery when you think you are a better human being because of your superior taste in oysters, liquor, clothes, and so forth. Don’t you think?

That line of TNC’s about how having money brought out something in him that was latent — a love of good food — strikes me as a basically good way to enjoy your money (unless, of course, it becomes gluttony). People who were raised poor, or who have struggled for a long time to get money, and who come into success — I think it’s great if they use some of it to enjoy things that they never would have been able to otherwise. Maybe you always wanted to go whitewater rafting, but never could have afforded it. Or maybe you have always been interested in working on antique cars, and can now afford to take that up as a hobby. Well and good. Money can also call forth and exacerbate latent character flaws, of course, but one hopes to be moderate and sensible about these things. It sounds like TNC is well on course.

About fame, though, that is something I don’t understand people desiring. To me, the best thing about being really rich would be the liberty to be completely anonymous. Unfortunately for TNC, the nature of his vocation and the source of his fortune means that he will always have to be in the public eye.

'Please, Lord, make me rich enough to eat here at least once a year' [3]

‘Please, Lord, make me rich enough to eat here at least once a year’

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72 Comments (Open | Close)

72 Comments To "If You Get Rich And Famous…"

#1 Comment By EKS On December 15, 2015 @ 1:41 pm

Cornbread experts, please help!

As a Midwesterner, I still use a little sugar to cut the metallic taste of baking powder. My daughter, born and raised in a gentler place, wants sugarless cornbread. What do you use to leaven it? Be brand-specific. She will be so grateful.

As for snobbery, he who learns, loves, shares, doesn’t despise those who don’t know, and isn’t a braggart, a poser, or a bore doesn’t need to give a rat’s behind — and should keep saying educational things about oysters, that most alien food, or whatever else amuses him. His joy will be infectious.

#2 Comment By Isidore the Farmer On December 15, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

“When you’ve grown up with gourmet food prepared well and served by an impeccable maid; beautifully tailored clothing in exquisite fabrics; expensive linens and furniture, etc. etc. etc., it’s very very hard to pretend that lesser-quality things are just as good. When you know what the best is, and you’re accustomed to having it, it’s impossible to settle for less…”

I don’t think there is any issue with this. That alone does not a snob make. It is the additional commentary TNC provided, as Sam M. correctly points out, such as, ” Like, we’re doing this now? Like, this is a thing you’re going to do? Oh, come on.”

Knowing the finer things is perfectly well and good, even to be encouraged. Appreciating them – even better. Pointing and sneering at those that don’t know is snobbish. It is doubly so given that we all know TNC knew nothing about oysters growing up. Nothing. That could have easily been him just a few years ago, trying oysters for the first time, while having no idea what to order with them. And if someone had used that line on him he would have written twelve columns on it as another example of racism against black bodies.

[NFR: Well, you know I thoroughly reject TNC’s political philosophy, but let it be said that I did not try my first oyster until I was well into college. I’ve liked them since then, but I did not try my first French oyster until 2012 — and the difference between them and Louisiana oysters are huge. The same is true with Massachusetts oysters, which I did not taste until this year, and which are galaxies better than Louisiana oysters. That said, I do love Louisiana oysters in cocktail sauce; it’s just a different taste. These are things you learn with experience. If I saw someone dipping their French oyster in cocktail sauce, I would think, “Hmm, I wouldn’t do that.” If I saw them dipping any oyster at all in, say, mayonnaise, I would react as TNC did. If you were in the best steakhouse in New York, and you saw someone at the next table ordering a porterhouse well done, then slathering it with ketchup, don’t tell me you wouldn’t pass judgment on their taste. — RD]

#3 Comment By Barbara On December 15, 2015 @ 2:37 pm

I really have a very limited sense of smell – as such my palate is not great. Food is, therefore, something I am very ambivalent about – except for making sure it is organic. I also agree with a previous comment who likened raw oysters to snot – so not my favorite food. Don’t shoot me, but I do like them breaded and fried. Not sure if that violates some oyster rule.

Without a doubt, however, I am a clothes and furniture connoisseur. I grew up very lower middle class in a home that rarely had furniture bought anywhere but goodwill. With a lot of hard work, my husband and I have achieved a modicum of financial success. As a result, I am emphatic about the clothes I put on my back and the furniture that goes in my home. Am I a snob? I don’t think so as I never buy anything to impress someone and never, ever for the label. I just know I love what is beautiful and well-made. In this regard, I am sure I am somewhat like Tahnesi who chooses excellent food now that he is able.

#4 Comment By Sands On December 15, 2015 @ 2:49 pm

What do y’all think about Dr. Pepper paired with fried oysters?Never mind, I don’t really give a damn what you think.

#5 Comment By Baptiste On December 15, 2015 @ 3:40 pm

Off the subject of food, but the more I learn of TNC, and read about him, the less I like him. The man just rubs me the wrong way. He’s been handed the good life on a silver platter, and he’s done very little to deserve it. And it’s magnifying the contempt he has for other people. He strikes me as a complete narcissist.

How does he not deserve his fortune? He worked at alternative newspapers for little to no money, then The Atlantic magazine where he had a popular blog, wrote a provocative, well-discussed article about reparations, and then wrote a book that got excellent reviews and was a bestseller. What else could he have done to “deserve” it? Except be someone you disagree with?

Back to food: I cringe when my friends order steaks well-done but I keep my opinions to myself. What invariably happens when I order mine medium rare, I’m told that it’s disgusting and I’m at risk of e. Coli. It goes both ways.

[NFR: Yeah, I think TNC’s opinions about race in America are deeply problematic, but the man writes for a living, and is genuinely popular. We may choose to fault people who pay money for his work and to hear him speak, but we can’t say he didn’t earn it. — RD]

#6 Comment By James C On December 15, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

I guess the real question is, is there something implicitly racist about fine dining. I mean a row of oysters on the half shell is pretty evocative of a row of black bodies ready to be devoured for the pleasure of the Master, is it not? Or is an Oyster sometimes just an Oyster?

It is in France, which is why I love it.

I grew up in rural New York, and my blue-collar family thinks that if you appreciate anything above Wal-Mart grade, it means that you think you’re fancy-schmancy, putting on airs. I remember the look they all gave me when I brought a 12-pack of Sam Adams to a party. Sam Adams! You’d think I brought a bottle of vintage Veuve Clicquot.

Now, these same folks loathe the French because they think the entire country is built on effete snobbery. It doesn’t help that most of the so-called French ‘bistrots’ in the United States are actually pricey establishments purporting to attempt haute cuisine.

But they’ve never been to the actual France, the earthy, provincial France where you can appreciate quality food without the danger of appearing to be a snob.

It’s just part of life. I can’t tell you how many ordinary oyster bars I pass in French towns. Nothing fancy about them—plastic chairs, affordable prices, yet never ever ever served with sangria. The French, both rich and not, simply love good oysters. That’s it. It’s not a class statement.

Last month I was eating a huge galette stuffed full of succulent duck and melt-in-your-mouth foie gras. It was a casual little crêperie in a small town in Perigord. Cost? €9 with salad including tax and service—and a delightful chat with the owner who made it for me.

Can you imagine how such a dish would be treated (and priced) in America? But there it’s just good local food. Like a burrito in New Mexico or a roast beef sandwich in Massachusetts. It’s tradition. It’s affection, not affectation.

#7 Comment By Turmarion On December 15, 2015 @ 4:30 pm

Rod: It sounds like your friend might be somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Exactly so–he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and it was of sufficient severity that he actually got disability for it. I know disability is often abused, but I was around him long enough that I think it was just in his case–he really couldn’t function very well in normal society. He’s the same one I’ve spoken of in the past who broke off contact with me because I supported Obamacare–never mind that I did so reluctantly and while holding my nose.

dominic1955: I will always gladly share my experiences and tastes to try to introduce more people to a more beautiful world….

Jill A: When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.”

These both nail it–if it’s something you love, and want to share the experience, it’s not being a snob or being snotty about it. I could sign on with both dominic and Jill here.

Thanks, Siarlys–may the revolution come soon!

EKS: I’m not sure how to help–I’ve never really been bothered by the taste of cornbread made with baking powder, myself. [4] and [5] are a couple of good non-sugar cornbread recipes that are about like what I usually make. [6] is a suggestion for baking powder substitutes in cornbread. Maybe you could use one such substitute with one of the recipes above. Good luck!

#8 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On December 15, 2015 @ 7:48 pm

great post, Rod!

#9 Comment By Sam M On December 15, 2015 @ 9:52 pm

“If you were in the best steakhouse in New York, and you saw someone at the next table ordering a porterhouse well done…”

But that’s not the context here. Coates was not in a fine seafood restaurant known for excellent food. He admits it was a hotel bar where the food is meh.

It’s not snobbery to go on and on about artisanal pizza crust at an artisanal pizza place.

It IS snobbery to go to Pizza Hut and carp about the vintage of the mozzarella, the poke fun at the lummox at the next table who picks the wrong wine to go with his stuffed crust meat lovers triple decker.

[NFR: Do you eat raw oysters? Serious question. Oysters go just as badly with sweet red cocktails at a fancy restaurant as they do at a dump. — RD]

#10 Comment By Thomas Kaempfen On December 15, 2015 @ 10:04 pm

Last week, Rod, you disavowed any common identity with TNC. Would you care to revise that now? 🙂

And, you know, it’s the attitude on display in this post that keeps me coming back to read you. You find TNC’s politics appalling, yet you’re still able to appreciate him as a human being. You haven’t succumbed to the widespread fallacy that your political opponents are essentially evil. Well done.

Though I still think that sometimes you’ve been unfair in your assessment of your opponents motives. Forgive me for being so contentious, but if the campus SJW’s had the proper attitude about what to drink with oysters would you stop calling them “villains”?

#11 Comment By dominic1955 On December 15, 2015 @ 10:08 pm

Turmarion,

“I think one could add “cook gourmet food” into that list. IIRC, Marx and some of the early Communists had a streak of the bon vivant about them. Any other criticisms of the Left (I mean, real Left, of course) aside, I think the move towards making food, clothing, and architecture drab as a statement was a way bad move.”

I was aware of that quote from Marx, its just that I don’t believe it for a second. Communism/socialism/leftism/etc. will always end up with East German office buildings and art for propaganda sake-with the real good things behind closed doors for the apparatchiks.

“The idea should be to elevate the masses, and make nicer things available to them, too, not to make drab, insipid stuff the norm for everyone.”

That is what I think the Church has done, traditionally. In following the commies, it did a great disservice in giving us functional church buildings akin to E. German office buildings.

“Turmarion can speak for me on the value of appreciating food for its taste after the revolution. I can’t recall the name for the sort of thinking dominic offers, but its not socialism. Enjoyment is something the bourgeoisie try to keep to themselves, and we want everyone to have it.”

There is going to be no revolution, but if one does ever happen, all it will accomplish is gulags and reeducation camps and killing fields par deux.

On other matters, cornbread is best eaten with honey.

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 15, 2015 @ 11:15 pm

I was aware of that quote from Marx, its just that I don’t believe it for a second.

A classic case of “don’t tell me what you think, I’ll tell you what you think.”

There most likely is not going to be a revolution in the classic sense — our society is too complex, and too vulnerable, for a revolution to seize intact anything that will sustain a prosperous cooperative commonwealth. But political struggle continues, and revolutionary changes seem to occur somehow.

#13 Comment By Turmarion On December 15, 2015 @ 11:30 pm

I tend to think that Marx had the right diagnosis, dominic, but no clue as to the remedy, economically speaking (his anthropology was, like that of most 19th Century intellectuals, pretty much made up, and obviously I disagree with him on religion). As I’ve said before in this space, I don’t think either capitalism or Communism has figured out what to do with modern industrial economies of scale. I don’t think a Communist revolution would necessarily work, but I sometimes am sympathetic to Chesterton’s statement that it’s not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. My inner Commie–or Spiritual Franciscan–I guess.

On other matters, cornbread is best eaten with honey.

AAAAAAHHHH!!! IT BURNS!!! Seriously, it’s obviously culture and personal taste. The only form of sweet cornbread I can tolerate is corn muffins, which actually are pretty good. Aside from that, sugarless, savory, and buttered into oblivion is the only way to go, by me. À chacun à son goût, I guess.

#14 Comment By Sam M On December 16, 2015 @ 6:58 am

“NFR: Do you eat raw oysters? Serious question. Oysters go just as badly with sweet red cocktails at a fancy restaurant as they do at a dump.”

Yes. And that’s true. But even in your own analogy it’s important that the ketchup on steak episode happen in the best steakhouse in NY. There, yes, a degree of foodieism is expected. The hillbilly might want to check his surroundings. But sometimes it’s the foodie’s attitude that needs checked at the door.

I don’t think it makes a lot of sense for a fine french pastry chef to sit outside a gas station and opine about the consumption of Moon Pies, sighing very pastry-chef-ily that, “This is a thing? We are doing this now? Come on, man.” And then telling his magazine interviewer all about it later.

Sighing about food/wine pairings in a hotel bar with crap food is along those lines.

I am not contesting the validity of his opinions about the food/wine pairing. He is correct. Just like the Ferrari oficianado is correct about the balance of torque and aerodynamics in a vehicle. But when that Ferrari guy gets in my Chevy Express 1500 and sighs mightily about how I need to come on, and how he really can’t believe I am doing this now… that’s a snob. EVEN THOUGH HE IS TOTALLY RIGHT. The fact that he cannot ve that I have ordered my life and my priorities differently, that’s what makes him a snob.

It’s the SIGH.

Now. If I were to buy a Ferrari and put 44-inch mudders on it, he’s right to sigh. Just like the steak guy is right to sigh if I bespoil a $118 steak. And someone chugging Mountain Dew at your fancy French Oyster place… yep. Then THEY are out of bounds.

But context is all in snob assessment. And Coates is being a snob here. A correct snob. But a snob.

#15 Comment By Dee On December 16, 2015 @ 7:50 am

To EKS at 1:41pm Dec. 15

Try Rumford Baking Powder.

#16 Comment By EKS On December 16, 2015 @ 9:18 am

@Turmarion: Thank you SO much! These look amazing. I will make one for my daughter’s birthday next week.

(I see we’ve just been trying to compensate for our bad cornmeal. By the same token, I liked the grits I grew up with just fine, but finding the stone-ground ones down here was a revelation).

And, as for snobbery: am I just trying to hide my Midwestern heritage? Probably. There you have it.

#17 Comment By EKS On December 16, 2015 @ 12:47 pm

@Dee: Thanks 🙂

#18 Comment By Blog Goliard On December 16, 2015 @ 2:35 pm

“…if I ever became rich and famous like TNC…”

Well, you may not be as rich and famous as he…but you sure look rich and famous from where I’m sitting.

(Please note: this is not a criticism, just an observation/reminder.)

#19 Comment By grumpy realist On December 16, 2015 @ 3:57 pm

Turmarion, are you trying to tell me that there’s a gourmet version of Russian food? Aside from the appetizers, I’ve just found it to be a heavy version of East European cuisine, with extra dill.

If I’m a snob about anything, it’s making sure that I get real maple syrup on my pancakes and thinking that people who are satisfied with the fake stuff are barbarians. This attitude is often found among New Englanders, since a lot of us make our own maple syrup. (You don’t need many maple sugar trees to produce more maple syrup than you know what to do with.)

P.S. A maple syrup jug in the fridge also makes a great garlic crusher. Just sayin’.

(CAPCHA is showing me pictures of food.)

#20 Comment By Blog Goliard On December 16, 2015 @ 11:19 pm

grumpy realist’s comment reminds me of the day I found myself in a Safeway supermarket in Scotland, gathering ingredients to make myself a homesick-American breakfast.

As a college student of limited cooking experience, I was delighted to find Bisquick on the shelves for pancakes. And there was syrup nearby too, both fake (was it Golden Griddle or Mrs. Butterworth’s?…memory fades) and real maple.

The flabbergasting thing was that both kinds of syrup were the same price.

I can understand getting the fake stuff when you need to save money, and/or have a bunch of undiscriminating people to feed…but who on Earth would pass up the real stuff when the alternative wasn’t any cheaper? (Obviously somebody was doing so…otherwise they wouldn’t have carried both kinds, or would have had to cut the price of the fake stuff.)

#21 Comment By dominic1955 On December 16, 2015 @ 11:49 pm

Turmarion,

“I tend to think that Marx had the right diagnosis, dominic, but no clue as to the remedy, economically speaking (his anthropology was, like that of most 19th Century intellectuals, pretty much made up, and obviously I disagree with him on religion).”

I think that all he had right was that there was some BS going on during the Industrial Revolution that left the underclasses screwed over. Other than that, he’s a nut.

“As I’ve said before in this space, I don’t think either capitalism or Communism has figured out what to do with modern industrial economies of scale. I don’t think a Communist revolution would necessarily work, but I sometimes am sympathetic to Chesterton’s statement that it’s not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice.”

I’ve said before that our “poor” aren’t the poor of the Bible or the Manuals…and neither are our rich. Without the noblese oblige, the rich are often just jackass proles-but with money. So, in that reading, I wouldn’t disagree with Chesterton either. I like to see the possibility of wealth-as patron of the arts and the Church, as someone who can excercise the virtues of magnamity and such. If you are just going to wear hoodies, play with techie gadgets and donate multiple millions of dollars to Planned Parenthood, I’m not going to be too broken up if you get offed by pissed off 99%ers.

“AAAAAAHHHH!!! IT BURNS!!! Seriously, it’s obviously culture and personal taste. The only form of sweet cornbread I can tolerate is corn muffins, which actually are pretty good.”

I think that is where some of the confusion might come in, and which I thought of after reading a few of these comments. What we call “cornbread” in this part of Nebraska is basically corn muffin in sheet cake form. So, honey and syrup go with that.

“Aside from that, sugarless, savory, and buttered into oblivion is the only way to go, by me. À chacun à son goût, I guess.”

I’m guessing southern cornbread is a whole other thing.

#22 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 17, 2015 @ 11:50 am

I think that all he had right was that there was some BS going on during the Industrial Revolution that left the underclasses screwed over.

Well, that’s quite a lot. And its still happening.

Oysters go just as badly with sweet red cocktails at a fancy restaurant as they do at a dump.

When it comes to taste in food, the statement “Well, that’s your opinion” has a legitimacy that it utterly lacks in more communal matters. Because ultimately, its all between the food you put in your mouth and your own taste buds.

I personally think that ginger ale goes well with fried patties of ground turkey mixed with basil and black pepper, eaten with fresh home-made french fries and cold sliced green pepper. But, Coca-Cola classic goes better with hamburger, eaten with tortilla chips and cold sliced green pepper. I don’t eat red pepper with either one, although it goes very well with broiled steak (which I don’t put ketchup on, as I do hamburger, or fries). But I can’t think of any reason in the whole wide world why anyone else should eat their food the same way.