The Gold Standard
Without further context, here is a close reading of a piece that will be appearing in The Spectator – a magazine that people pay money to read – tomorrow.
Zelman Meats — catchphrase ‘great meat’ — is sustenance for a hard Brexit — a harder Brexit, if you will.
Gosh we’re off to a bad start, aren’t we? There is just so much going on in those 17 words! I have read that sentence probably fifty times now and each time I almost grasp it, but it slips through my fingers. Perhaps the best way to read it is as a weirdly-paginated Emily Dickinson poem, complete with authentic em-dashes. I do not understand it. Is the point that the rugged values of the meat-and-two-veg conservative Brexiteer are reflected in by his choice of protein? Is the point that a great bloody chunk of flesh is the sort of thing we need to fortify ourselves for the £122bn-worth of incremental struggle to come? I do not understand what “a harder Brexit” is doing there. Harder than what? Harder than we expected it to be? And how can you then follow that up with “if you will”, making us complicit in rendering something utterly nonsensical meaningful? Thanks for the offer, but I will not.
It is a snorting meat shack in north Soho; it is also, comfortingly for the reader, mid-market.
Why is this a source of comfort? Is the implication that, in these constrained times of austerity economics, we are all so out of pocket that the only sort of restaurant we can afford is mid-market? Is this a joke about the glut of mid-market restaurants that have appeared on the London scene of late – is “comfort” ironic? Is it usual to have so many questions running through your head after just two sentences of an article?
It is from the owners of Beast, who display their meat in cases, as trophies — and Burger and Lobster, where you get burgers and lobsters for £20 a head.
OK. I think I get what the writer is going for – it’s about establishing pedigree. These crazy Beast-owners, who display meat in cases (so… like a butcher, or a supermarket?); these crazy Burger and Lobster-vendors, who dare to charge £20 for a lobster. Isn’t that actually quite good value, though, for a lobster, in London? Wouldn’t it have been more effective to just mention the burger – which at £20, is admittedly a bit of a ripoff? In its current form, does this sentence only gesture at some ideas (flaunting wealth, overpricing food) that could be expressed with much more clarity? If I shove the pen I am looking at through my eyeball into my frontal cortex, will it stop this sing-song questioning cadence from dancing through my skull?
It is thrillingly monomaniacal and simplistic: what do you get at Zelman Meats? Meat, that’s all, comrade. It could theoretically be a butcher’s shop; no, it could be a cow sitting on a bonfire wondering what went wrong. Don’t come here if you don’t like meat because they have nothing for you. Go somewhere else.
That “comrade”, though. Despite the redundancy of spending a paragraph explaining that a restaurant called “Zelman Meats” sells meat, it’s the “comrade” that really sticks in my craw, like an undercooked, underchewed hunk of cow. Is it because it conjures Soviet Russia, and Stalin, and famine? Is it because it – again – forces some sort of complicity on you when all you have been met with so far is dissonant, confusing sentences that do the very opposite of welcoming you into the fold?
I did intend to review one of the fashionable ‘clean eating’ or ‘glamorexia’ restaurants which serve air pollution foam (or demi-soufflé) and the nail clippings of Victoria Beckham in muffins made of air. They are popular now, as anorexics get more mobile. But I knew I didn’t want to. I went to Zelman Meats instead.
I’m going to be generous on two counts here. One: semantically, there is enough distance between “I did intend to” and “I wanted to” that the flip-reverse-it of “But I knew I didn’t want to” doesn’t render what came before it totally redundant (but it’s a close-run thing!). Two: anorexics. The writer thinks they being toughly funny, the sort of black humour you boring politically correct Guardian readers need more of in your life.
But what I can’t abide is the lameness of the humour, the shitness of the jokes. By all means, skate over the troubling links between clean eating and orthorexia and eating disorders; by all means, force your readers to resurrect, in their minds, the memories of anorexics in their families and among their friendship groups – the parents frantic with worry; the brothers biting tight their stiff upper lips as a girl vanishes ounce by ounce in front of them. But get a good fucking laugh out of it. It’s not like it’s not easy to skewer this joyless food: dear AA Gill managed it, as did Marina. If “air pollution foam” and “the nail clippings of Victoria Beckham” is the best you can do, try harder. And make your throwaway punchline, buried in a subordinate clause, actually a punchline, rather than a line that makes people question its basic premise. When I think of anorexics – this may be personal experience speaking – I think of running, running, running – obsessively burning the calories they haven’t even consumed, accelerating their disappearance. Are they on bikes now?
There are many meat shacks in London. Hawksmoor is the best of them, but it has a fragile baroque vibe, and this is not the time for it.
Because Brexit, I’m guessing? I mean, I’m guessing a lot here – guessing, for example, how “fragile” and “baroque” can appear next to each other in a sentence describing the “vibe” in a “meat shack”. I’m sure if you gave the author the floor they’d be able to explain it – as someone who’s visited Hawksmoor, I certainly don’t relate to it – but should we really have to resort to that? Shouldn’t the point of good critical writing be clarity? I’m all for moving away from the same old boring clichéd descriptors of restaurant interiors, but I do at least want my alternative to be valid. To make sense.
Zelman Meats — I wish they would capitalise MEAT, so it is Zelman MEATS, like an article in the Soaraway Sun — is more brutal than baroque.
How much research is enough research? How many restaurants should a restaurant reviewer know of in the local restaurant scene? These are impossible to answer, rooted in the sorites paradox. But we can go in the other direction – start from the bottom up. Would knowing that there is a chain called MEATliquor that does indeed capitalise its animal protein – and that therefore there may be some legal barriers to turning “meat” into “MEAT” in the name of another restaurant – count as “the bare minimum”, when we ask about research, and knowing the market? I would submit that, yes, it would.
It is a place specifically to get high on flesh. It is a restaurant for men, or very drunk women, and in north Soho there are plenty of both. They get drunk on tequila and try to make love to benches in Soho Square. Then they fall over, or come to Zelman MEATS.
This is the only acceptable paragraph in the article.
It is red and livid, the kind of steak house which wants you to imagine that you are actually inside the steak you are eating, in a kind of crazy full-immersion steak-eating experience. The rest is post-industrial chic, so you can be both inside a steak inside an industrial kitchen and hear the screams of your fellow Brexit warriors bouncing off the ceiling. It is not subtle — but why should it be? What is, these days?
Dammit – we nearly got through a whole three sentences without finding cause for comment. I actually quite like the line about eating a steak inside a kitchen – it’s evocative. But then we’re back to the Brexit thing, and the assumed complicity thing, and the vague “sign of the times” arm-waving thing. The Brexit thing is so infuriatingly vague as to be totally redundant: am I a Brexiteer, or a Bremainer? “Warrior” would suggest against Brexit – but remember this is the Spectator, so we can probably assume I’m actually for it. Is the point that it’s such a divisive issue on which people are so single-minded that you’d only ever surround yourself with like-minded “warriors”? Should I really have to parse every other word in this article for hidden meaning like it’s later-period Joyce?
The brightest guy I ever met was on the same course as me at university. He would open his mouth to say something, and then immediately qualify it. He would then qualify his qualification, or refer back to his first utterance, or go off on another thought entirely. It was fascinating to watch – Derridean Deconstruction in action – but fuck me if it wasn’t draining. I feel similarly battered and we’re barely over halfway through.
It is a lunchtime on a weekday, though, and Zelman MEATS is almost empty. Without its normal clientele, who I imagine are Nigel Farage and his gaggle of acolytes fretting that women don’t clean behind the fridge — and all to spite them — I like it. It is pleasingly spectral.
OK – this was it. This was the moment. I have grappled with some of the most deliberately disorienting literature ever written in the English language; I wrote my M.Phil dissertation on the poetry of Susan Howe, which looks like this:
But here is where I gave up on trying to make sense of this piece. It is wilfully keen to contradict itself: Zelman Meats a restaurant for the budget-conscious Spectator reader (comfortingly for the reader, mid-market); Zelman Meats is a restaurant for meat-lovers (It is a place specifically to get high on flesh); Zelman Meats is a restaurant for men, or very drunk women (It is a restaurant for men, or very drunk women); Zelman Meats is a restaurant for people who voted Remain, or Leave, or something (your fellow Brexit warriors); Zelman Meats is a restaurant for people who like hobnobbing with demagogues (Without its normal clientele, who I imagine are Nigel Farage and his gaggle of acolytes). Which is it? It honestly can’t be all at once. This is just bad, bad writing: sloppy and confusing. It throws some vaguely 2016 buzzwords at the wall and is too lazy to even turn back and see which ones have stuck. And what the hell is that thing about cleaning behind the fridge?
They bring, swiftly, a pile of excellent cow flesh. It is as loved as dead flesh can be.
Does “loved” in this context mean “loved by us, who ate it”, or “showed evidence of having been shown genuine love before it was meat, when it was animal”? Why am I the one who has to do this work?
It is soft and charred and bloody and, thanks to the dull sociopathy of the day, precisely measured: 400 grams ‘dirty steak’; 200 grams chateaubriand, and something called ‘holyfuck mayo’. I do not know why it is called that, and I am not impressed.
Holy Fuck sauce is such an established entity that you can buy it online. I’m not especially impressed by the name, either, but at least I recognise it.
At meat restaurants it is a source of pride that everything but the meat be inedible and that is true of Zelman MEATS. (At Beast they do not even attempt anything that is not meat. They have an embargo on chips. They might possibly have a picket line on chips.) We let the chips grow cold — when did all the chips get fat and rectangular, like the feminists, eh? — but we devour the flesh with all the fervour of resurgent nationalism. Then we share a gloopy chocolate brownie, because, despite everything, there is still good in this world.
A joke below Roy “Chubby” Brown. If slighting your sisters in the context of a review of some fried potato is something you want to try at home, here are some suggested improvements to get you started, and which do not force you stumble on the word “rectangular”, which is not a word you’d use to describe a chip or a feminist: When did all the chips get chunky, like the feminists. When did all the chips get fat and greasy, like the feminists. When did all the chips stop being skinny and French, like the feminists. When did the editor of this piece receive it and how did they let it run in this form.
So, Zelman MEATS is a fine place to suck on bones.
Is it really that simple? I feel that poor little “So” is being made to do a lot of work here. If you feel it is not – if you think that everything up to this point has been neat and orderly, and the “so”, like any good conjunction, is just putting a nice little bow on it, and it is not being sentenced to the equivalent of fifty years hard labour in the Gulag, then chapeau. Can you do that cool thing of reading two pages of a book at the same time, like Oscar Wilde?
It is certainly better than any Angus Steak House although I still lay my hat at Hawksmoor Guildhall. (They serve bacon chops, and the menu is done in a delicate calligraphy which makes me weep.) But I am here now, eating meat. Brexit me, baby, I think, throwing a cow bone at a radiator. Brexit me harder.
Here is my generous, one sentence precis of this article: the events of 2016 have revealed the very real anarchy at the heart of our political “order”; in this context, why bother with order, with eating your greens, when instead you could animalistically devour some hunks of cowflesh – embrace the death-drive; bring others down with you.
Here is my other reading of this article: Tanya Gold should not have a job as a journalist.
There is a small but deadly serious movement out there called slobcore. If you don’t care for personal hygiene, for tidy rooms, for the glossy life advertised 24/7 on mainstream media, you might even be part of it. And fair play to you – your body, your choice.
Tanya Gold’s Zelman Meats review is slobcore made prose. It flaunts its disregard for hygienic clear sentences; a tidy, logical structure; the sheen of professionally written criticism. On one level – fair play, more power to her; I’m not here to slut-shame; her pen, her choice. But an article is not like a body: it goes out into the world and touches more people than even the most promiscuous person. People who are interested – maybe even personally invested – in the restaurant; people interested in the London restaurant scene; people looking for a good read. It is borderline sociopathic in its disregard for these people. Its self-regard and selfishness – its sheer fucking arrogance – is writ large in every indulgent, distracting digression, its total lack of coherence as an argument, its unabashed ignorance. It is self-confounding, it is self-satisfied, it is ultimately self-destructive.
Or to put it differently: Tanya Gold has just turned in the first restaurant review in history to be completely written in the language of Brexit.