Sunday 18 April 2021

Pies, Pints and Capitalist Realism

I assume by this point that most people subscribe to Vittles? But for those who don't, this week's article was a rumination by Jonathan Nunn on his (and his cockney dad's) complex relationship with traditional Pie and Mash shops.

A central point of the piece is that a key problem for modern pie and mash shops is that the food is, fundamentally, just not that nice. Or at least, not that well adjusted to modern tastes, which expect mashed potato to be pepped up with butter and seasoning, and which sometimes enjoy sauces that aren't green and gelatinous. But it's the refusal to move with the times, the strict adherence to a formula that evolved for a very different era, that also makes the pie and mash shops so important to the people who love them.

There's an obvious parallel to pubs here. The basic British boozer - dingy, tatty, wet-led, mostly uninterested in drinks that aren't beer, almost completely uninterested in in drinks that aren't alcoholic - seems like more of the same thing: a business from the mid twentieth century soldiering on in the twenty first, simultaneously treasured and threatened because of its refusal to evolve. While I wouldn't describe them as "not that nice", I can't help suspecting that a lot of my favourite pubs would actually do better, financially, if someone spruced them up a bit and tilted the offer more towards family meals instead of sessions on pints.

I think this points to something more complicated in our affection for these places than the simple nostalgia that the Vittles piece talks about. It goes hand in hand with the lionising of the sort of dictatorial landlord who bars punters for looking at a chair the wrong way and of a general "like it or lump it" attitude to giving the customer what they want: "please do not ask for draught lager as a punch in the gob often offends". I think that part of what appeals to us about these places is the refusal bow to the customer-is-always-right adapt-or-die logic of modern capitalism. They seem to contradict the Capitalist Realist assertion that every business must necessarily be on the lookout for ways to adapt to maximise revenue, and demonstrate an escape from an all-pervading competitive ethos that even the biggest proponents of free-market economics must occasionally get tired of. In this sense, you could see a traditional boozer or a pie and mash shop as a sort of Temporary Autonomous Zone for middle-aged white men.

The question, though, will always be whether the logic of modern capitalism can still be kept at bay when the rent comes due or the bills need paying?