Fast food and pulp fiction

imagesI want to talk about fast food and pulp fiction by linking the writer Elmore Leonard and those little dishes eaten – first in Spain now all over the world – known as Tapas, the fast food of the Gods.

Now it seems to me that when Elmore Leonard began to write, westerns at first, (after advertising) the original pulp fiction, he didn’t give a toss about literary recognition.

If you’d told the young Elmore Leonard that at the age of 72 he’d be lionised by the likes of Martin Amis he would have told you to “get lorst.”

He just put his head down and got stuck into the sheer pleasure of writing. He wrote himself into some sort of perfection of his art.

If you had told the first inn-keeper in Spain that the free snack he handed out, usually salty to encourage more drinking, would one day be elevated to a way of life, that whole streets in cities would be turned over to the practice of tapeando – ‘tapasing’ – that books would be written about it, he would have snorted as incredulously as Leonard.

The point is that while Leonard got on with the business of writing and lifted himself out of the pot boiler category, the makers of tapas flourish in a society where food is seen as a pleasure and not a problem – so they too graduated from a slice of ham on a chunk of bread to such pinchos as they are known in Northern Spain as wild mushroom stuffed with raw ham and roquefort served in the Bar Vizcacha in San Sebastian.

Fast Food, in the pejorative sense, is served not by people who love food, but by corporations who love money, and invented by a people who see food not as a pleasure, but as a problem.

The fast food wolfed down while speeding along the freeways is eaten with guilt, not pleasure, leisure and friends. Like those crappy airline books that are devoured frantically on long flights, more to be finished than to be savoured.

There’s no love or poetry in that kind of fast food. The Big Mac is a portion controlled industrial product to the last slice of chemical pickle. It’s clean, it’s uniform, but it has nothing in it of its maker. It is food with no soul, no loving hands have touched it.

Chilli Palmer, the loan shark turned Hollywood producer in Leonard’s masterpiece Get Shorty would understand the fast food business. As a loan shark, he needed only one phrase: “just give me the fucken money.” When you boil it down, that’s what McDonalds and KFC and all the other purveyors of empty food stuffed with advertising are telling us – just give us your fucking money.

It’s not the speed of the food that is so distressing. It’s the lack of care, craft, or devotion attendant on its making.

It needn’t be haute cuisine. It needn’t be art food. It just needs to be loving food, and if you keep doing it with care and attention for long enough, it will turn into something beautiful.

Wander down Calle San Juan in Logroño one warm summer’s night, and stand at the bar sipping a beer and eating a tapa of anchovies or stuffed mussels or a bacaloa croquet. You might get them fast – but that’s not the point.

Since writing this piece Elmore Leonard did something almost inconceivable to his fans: he died. On 20 August 2013. He was not only a great writer but a great teacher about writing:

“Write the book the way it should be written, then give it to somebody to put in the commas and shit.”

In a funny sort of a way, the best film made from one of his best books, Get Shorty, has something to say about food and America. The film star Martin Weir played by Danny de Vito orders an egg white omelette and then leaves before eating it because he’s too busy. Egg white omelette. Does anything epitomise the American syndrome of food fear more? I would have left before eating it too.

I’ll bet Elmore never ate a egg white omelette in his life.


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