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Eating School

I came without a journey to an ideal city. It had been built, I observed, during the Renaissance; but time and romantic patination and eruptive modernity had softened its rigid geometries. Still every path through that city was like a strain of music; a harmony of architecture, geomancy, statuary, mural, ironwork and garden.

After some time wandering and admiring, I found on sitting that I was tired and hungry; so I went in search in food. In the first restaurant I came to, I saw people sitting, each alone, eating from bowls of porridge, pablum, and gruel, with glasses of a gray drink at their elbows. Health food, I thought, and looked farther; but all the restaurants were like that one.

I resolved to do as the people of the ideal city did. I sat and ordered, with an encompassing gesture, “Whatever they’re having.” Sitting among them, I could see from their hunched postures and pinched faces that they took no pleasure in their food.

The porridge had the consistency of diluted cottage cheese, and tasted of dish soap. The gray drink tasted of chalk. I asked the man at the next table: “Where can I find some real food? Maybe a hamburger?”

He laughed at me. He whispered something to the next table. I looked away, but I could still see them in reflection: they were laughing at me. A third, with his head thrown back and nose in the air, aped the act of cutting meat, reducing the others to near-hysteria.

I swept my food from the table, laid down paper in payment, and left the restaurant. Someone ran up behind me and tapped me on the back. When I turned, there stood a well-suited man with a bright chain of office around his neck. “I am the Mayor,” he said. “I want to apologize to you. I know that our city has a food problem. We’ve made attempts at establishing serious restaurants, but we can’t seem to keep up the patronage. But I don’t want foreigners to take home the impression that nothing is being done. In fact, we’ve just completed a major renovation of the Eating School. Would you permit me to give you a tour of the new facilities, and tell you about our programs?”

“Of course. I would be honored.”

The city was so sensibly laid out I was not sure that we had left before we arrived. There was a long wall, and a broad gate, over which appeared in lettering worthy of Trajan’s column:


“Why is it behind a gate?” I asked.

“People pay for their children to come here and have their palates trained,” said the Mayor. “How could the Eating School support itself if anyone could wander in and eat there?”

“They could pay for what they ate,” I said.

“Don’t be silly,” said the Mayor. “Good food is wasted on those not trained to appreciate it. And if we made it available to everyone, they would use up the supply. There’d be nothing left for real eaters. The Eating School is for those who live to eat, not those who eat to live.”

By this time we had been heard, and the gate was open for us. We entered onto an long avenue, where gracious brick buildings ran to either side of us, and we and they alike were shaded by the trees. Young people, from children to late teenagers, milled or ambled, or sat and talked on the spacious grass.

“I don’t see anyone eating,” I said, “or smell any food.”

“Eat outside!” The Mayor shook his head. “Where any passing smell could distort the olfactory experience? Or let the smells of food just drift around to clash with each other? You’re joking, sir.”

“The smell of food raises the appetite.”

“Now I see,” said the Mayor. “You think that just because we’re out of the way, we’re yokels. I’ll have you know that we begin training in appetite suppression on the very first day of school. We may not be New York or London or Paris, I grant you that, but that doesn’t mean we just gorge ourselves whenever our stomachs start rumbling. Just look over there. That’s our graduate cafeteria – the largest in the world. The chefs there can re-constitute samples of any dish known to man, from the cuisine of any country or ethnicity. Or look over there! That’s world’s largest walk-in freezer. Frozen samples of every fruit, vegetable, livestock meat, game meat, fish, grain – anything you could get anywhere from hunting, fishing, gathering, agriculture or aquaculture. I did my doctoral research there on calamari.”

“You like calamari?” I asked.

“Like!” He laughed. “As if I made a meal of a squid. I’ll have you know, sir, that I’ve sampled calamari on four separate occasions, under controlled conditions and with fully provenanced ingredients. I’ve written twelve research papers on calamari. I have, in fact, conclusively proven that it tastes nothing like chicken.”

“I believe you.”

“And look over there. There is our finest accomplishment – the Adult Eating School. Classes day and night. In a year, sir, only a year, we can take a common hardtongue – forgive my language – and teach him to distinguish at first taste between seven different grains, twelve different spices, and six kinds of meat. We hope to be able to offer sour training by the end of the year – it’s a question of keeping up the lemon supply.”

“Where do they eat? The adults you train? Your graduates?”

“Many of our finest eaters return as instructors. We also have a certain number of positions open for visiting eaters – and there are fellowships in the Eating Institute. Institute fellows are entitled to three meals a day with no charge and no teaching duties. And we have outreach programs, which make high-quality sandwiches available from roving kitchens.”

“I would like to eat something. Is there somewhere here I can get real food?”

“Of course. Here, come with me, we’ll register you.” We walked into a low building full of computers and unsmiling people, all behind a counter. The Mayor leaned meaningfully on the counter and talked to one of them in a soft voice. He returned smiling. “I threw my weight around. I can get you in for the faculty gumbo.”

“Can you show me the way?”

“I’ll send someone to show you on Tuesday.”

“That’s three days from now!”

The Mayor nodded. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get you in this month.”

I told the flabbergasted Mayor that I had lost my appetite, and took the short walk out of the ideal city.