It is tired to even mention that we live in a culture that is materialistic. All human cultures have ever been so, and there’s not much of a point to arguing that ours is any more thing-oriented than the culture of our parents (they wanted cars, suburban homes, crystal decanters) or our grandparents (they wanted washing machines, televisions, record players). When everyone has pretty much what they need to survive and be comfortable, they must be sold adjectives rather than nouns. We don’t need soap, we need beauty. We don’t need shoes, we need cool. Where once we wanted things, now we want adjectives. This is all Marketing 101 and familiar to anyone regardless of whether they’ve watched Mad Men. Materialism reaches its apex in the culture of the adjective.
Montgomery, seeking to become something other than the mostly broken city it’s been for so long, has seized on adjectives with a surprising fierceness. The City of Dreams (noun) having largely failed to take hold, slogan-wise, thanks to a high-priced consultant’s advice, we’ve now turned to an adjective (Capitol Cool, which the city uses lavishly to describe basically all local activities, including many that are profoundly un-cool – we’re looking at you, Crusade for Christ).
In other cities, they read nouns (The Stranger, The Village Voice). Here we have been delivered an adjective, Made, which is also (and perhaps not coincidentally) a truism. We once dined at nouns (The Village Kitchen, Roux), but now we eat at an adjective (True – yes, we know it’s the chef’s last name, its vague space between proper noun and adjective does nothing to diminish the point here). Both signify a similar zone of authenticity, the liminal space of the real, a branding sweet spot that assures the consumer of the product’s point of origin and epistemological locale. The thing itself is not important. What is important are its adjectives: the thing is made, never mind by whom; it is true, never mind by what criteria. This is the trick of the claim of authenticity – it is non-falsifiable, a matter of perspective, the kind of floating signifier that happens to be flitting wherever you wish it to be. It both valorizes agency and strips it away in one elegant and perfectly Pantone-d typographical set.
To immerse ourselves in the City of Adjectives the other night, we read Made while dining at True. Other than the wine, which was quite good, and the blue cheese (holy hell, Asher Blue), it was a lesson in authenticity. Which is to say inauthenticity. Which is to say it was like nothing at all had transpired except suddenly we found ourselves presented with an improbably large bill.
We’ve been to all of the incarnations in the True space. We had a rave-worthy experience at the Village Kitchen the first time we ate there, then watched as it rattled downhill to its inevitable demise. The rumor was it was just a place-holder anyway, to fill the space and make sure the lofts stayed profitable in the wake of Nancy Paterson’s sudden exit. Then there was Roux, much-heralded but just not good. I got food poisoning there once, then another time I sent the food back¹ only to have the chef come out and argue with me about it.
We’ve now been to True three times. The first time, I was served one of the all-time worst things I’ve ever had in a restaurant – an oyster stew that seemed to be, basically, a bowl of warm half-and-half with a few sad oysters floating dimly beneath the surface. It was so amazingly bad that I found myself wanting to take other people there to experience it in one of those “I think this milk is spoiled – taste it” moments of sadism. Nobody took me up on my offer. I see they still have an oyster stew on the menu; I hope for the future of our fair city that this dish has improved on its early incarnation. The second time we went, we had a perfectly nice meal. This was when I was still eating fish.
In 1994, I stopped eating animals because I became convinced that it was unethical to do so. When I moved to Montgomery, I conjured up a series of rationalizations that ended up in eating the occasional fish. This was mostly because it is damn hard to find a decent meal in this town if you’re a vegetarian. Salad’s good, but it’s not a meal every time. Vegetarians like fruits, vegetables, fats and proteins just like every other human. Also we need them to survive. But recently we adopted some fish and I decided I was done with eating their extended family.
So the other night at True, seeing no vegetarian entree on the menu, I asked if it was possible to order one. Our server (and let me say here that the service at True has always been outstanding, the sign of a well-run restaurant) checked with the kitchen and said it was. In the meantime, we had the cheese plate (too much Boursin but damn good pecans) and deviled eggs (really, for $4.50 you maybe should get two whole eggs as opposed to 1.5). When my entree arrived, I was stunned. I’d simply never seen anything like it. It was an asparagus puree topped with fingerling potatoes topped with fruit. It was like the kind of meal you’d make out of little plastic foods from the kind of play kitchen I had as a child – the kind your mother would pretend to eat to humor you. Except that it was also covered with salt. More specifically, warm and salty cantaloupe.
But it sure looked nice. So did Made, which has looked like a design class project since its first issue. Here in its third, the content is wearing a little thin but the patient attention to font and color persists. The July cover features a man wearing sunglasses and a sheepskin vest over a long-sleeved red plaid shirt riding a skateboard in an alley holding an American flag behind his back like a wee parachute. This same man, whose name is evidently Luke Lindgren, is posed with the flag-as-shawl on page 11’s “Montgomery Street Style” display with the confusing caption “Board and summer plaid set the local Superhero scene spotted in a Cloverdale alley.” In a July that has so far suffocated us with heat and humidity, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would wear a long-sleeved plaid shirt, much less with a sheepskin vest. Why is Superhero capitalized? Is this person a superhero? If so, is their secret power resistance to heat? Superhero or not, why are they hanging around in a Cloverdale alley?
The July issue of Made begins with a but well-meaning attempt by one of the editors to acknowledge the publication for what it is – something for people of a particular socioeconomic group. Anything we say on this point will be obvious. The first issue featured the work of Natalie Chanin, founder of Alabama Chanin, whose clothing is lovely but unaffordable for all but the very wealthiest people in our city (e.g., the $155 “basics” T-shirt). The second issue’s discussion of our beloved Florida Panhandle advised visitors to 30-A to go to Seaside, Alys Beach or Rosemary Beach, all “made” communities far removed from the working-class wonders of Panama City Beach. This issue takes a more Chamber of Commerce type approach to the city, listing a variety of places one might go in Montgomery, with a layout so big and puzzlingly expansive that it makes those of us who’ve worked in newspapers feel like maybe they didn’t have a lot of content to work with this month. Still, there are some nice features. Some of them are even well written (though Made still needs to work on copy editing).
This issue’s call for writers whose voices might add diversity, while well-intentioned, seems a little bit like anticipatory self-defense. In other words, if other folks not as keen on ironic facial hair don’t chime in, then it will be their fault for not getting involved. Here we find the same logic of meritocracy that powers all kinds of systems that just happen to exclude poor people and people of color. Black people not in the University of Texas’ law school? Got to be their lack of trying. Poor people not voting? Guess they don’t care. After all, we asked them to vote and desegregated our schools.
In the end, we’re not interested in hating on Made in the same way that we have come to despise some of our city’s other free magazines (Montgomery Parent, we’re looking at you). There’s no doubt that they have good intentions and want to make a nice looking product that makes the city look better. They just have the slippery adjective feel, which when paired with the gross noun-ing of “creatives” (as in the weird and baldly narcissistic declaration that “we are creatives”) leaves the reader feeling like they’ve just eaten one of True’s deviled eggs: it’s like what you conjure of the real thing, slipping through memory like an oiled weasel through Astroturf, interesting not in itself but as compared to something else or, more likely, interesting because we have become the kind of person who consumes such things (artisanal deviled eggs, Made).
When the server asked how our entrees were, I tried to be circumspect. I said that if any other vegetarians wandered in on that Saturday night, the kitchen might want to reconsider its approach. Minutes later, an official kitchen presence appeared to discuss the dish. I explained that the plate, as presented, was both incoherent and not super-tasty. She responded by saying that perhaps it could use some work on the composition front. I wanted to say that the emphasis on composition was perhaps part of the problem but didn’t want to quite go down the Of Grammatology front, so settled for some vague comments to the effect of “it was salty,” also “these things don’t quite go together,” and finally “this is not actually a meal,” all of which seemed to result in vigorous nodding on her part and a comp on the bill for the offending (but, again, quite lovely) entree.
So for all of Made’s (really, Oxford American’s) well-founded criticism of “Southern Glossy,” we found the culprit just a few miles from our home: beautiful food, exquisitely presented, giving us the choice between a grimace and a thoughtful nod toward innovation. This took the form of warm, salty cantaloupe. Which of course brought to mind Adolf Loos. Not familiar? His 1908 lecture/essay “Ornament and Crime,” a polemic against Art Nouveau, points out that the emphasis on form (and in particular, continuous innovation in form) devalues the product of labor by pushing us into an accelerated production cycle:
“Changes in decoration account for the quick devaluation of the product of labour. The worker’s time and the material used are capital items that are being wasted. I have coined an aphorism: The form of an object should last (i.e., should be bearable) as long as the object lasts physically. […] A ball gown for a lady, only meant for one night, will change its form more speedily than a desk. But woe to the desk that has to be changed as quickly as a ball gown because its shape has become unbearable, for than the money spent on the desk will have been wasted.
This is well-known to the ornamentalists, and Austrian ornamentalists try to make the most of it. They say: ‘A consumer who has his furniture for ten years and then can’t stand it any more and has to re-furnish from scratch every ten years, is more popular with us than someone who only buys an item when the old one is worn out. Industry thrives on this. Millions are employed due to rapid changes.’ This seems to be the secret of the Austrian national economy; how often when a fire breaks out one hears the words: ‘Thank God, now there will be something for people to do again.’ I know a good remedy: burn down a town, burn down the country and everything will be swimming in wealth and well-being. Make furniture that you can use as firewood after three years and metal fittings that must be melted down after four years because even in the auction room you can’t realize a tenth of the outlay in work and materials, and we shall become richer and richer.”
– Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, 1908
Adolf himself had some issues – notably racism (against the tribes of New Guinea, at the very least) and a hefty dose of Social Darwinism, but still makes a good point: Economies come to depend on design, on presentation, on the adjective. This makes them money even as (and because) it devalues the labor of workers.
More recently, Hal Foster brought Loos into the present day, considering the difference between ornament and design. His writing helps us to understand True and Made; most especially my warm and salty fruit-vegetable medley:
“Design is all about desire, but strangely this desire seems almost subject-less today, or at least lack-less; that is, design seems to advance a new kind of narcissism, one that is all image and no interiority” – Hal Foster, Design and Crime
That’s my dish for you, and the rift Made teeters ever closer toward – all image and no interiority. Foster brings us back home, describing this design culture as “an apotheosis of the subject that is also its potential disappearance. Poor little rich man: he is ‘precluded from all future living and striving, developing and desiring’ in the neo-Art Nouveau world of total design and Internet plenitude.” Why are we precluded? Because design maps our boundaries as precisely as a kitten in the litterbox. How else can it make its point?
Full circle to the confused person at True. Should the dish be more composed? No, that is part of the problem. Can Made become something better? Almost certainly yes. Will there be any place beside El Rey that serves decent vegetarian food? Don’t hold your breath. This is the City of Adjectives, a sultry but struggling heat-sink that makes possible the cantaloupe-potato-asparagus puree combination ($19). We like our cow tender, our newspapers glib and our food salty.
(1) I should mention that I waited tables for many years and as a result try not to be a douche at restaurants. This means I don’t do things like order water with no ice and never, ever send back food. But when the fish has turned, it doesn’t take a culinary expert to taste it, and the appropriate response is to comp the meal and produce a new entree ASAP. Sure, some diners think they are all big time and need someone from the kitchen to come out for the ritual bowing and scraping. I am not one of those people. But I understand why someone from the kitchen does come out. You just don’t expect an argument. In any case, we stopped going to Roux.