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The art of giving a good dinner

“Since people lived more beautifully, they received guests at home.

- 39 reads.

The art of giving a good dinner

“Since people lived more beautifully, they received guests at home. The hostess knew that, and she still had to practice.” This passage is on page 40 of Teresa Präauer's new novel, and by then “Cooking in the Wrong Century” had long since gripped you. The Quiche Lorraine recipe from the Internet, the first bottle of Crémant, the second, the outrageously late arrival of the guests.

"When they were seated, the hostess' partner said calmly: everything is fine. Why have people been so fond of saying everything well lately? Why did they ask: Is everything okay? Why was the reaction to questions, wishes and aggression always: Everything good?” In the past, the narrator hints, it was not sensitivities that were “good”, but food, for example a quiche. A lot is observed in this lean, easy to read and yet highly complex novel, which describes its social setting as precisely as we have come to expect from Teresa Präauer, because she has been blossoming into one of the most interesting writers in Austria for years.

Born in 1979 and living in Vienna, the author has had fans since “Johnny und Jean” and “Oh Schimmi”, among literature professors as well as among ordinary readers. Präauer, who studied painting and art (the cover photo for the current book: by herself), is a master of precise observation, which includes language as well as a sense of aesthetics and social behavior. The fact that her writing is always funny, that she already taught Phil Collins in a previous part-time job as a snowboard instructor, can be read in her wonderful collection of stories "Das Glück ist ein Bohne" from 2021.

Specifically, the current novel is about five characters, all in their early 40s - an age when you invite each other into your home in style - and all of them have no names: the hostess, the hostess' partner and two invited couples, one of whom is married (which is why it is called "wife" and "husband" in the text), while the other couple could only half accept the invitation. The "Swiss" came alone, his girlfriend is in the stress of her job. The fact that Präauer doesn't trivialize her quintet with names, but tells it as a generic constellation, is a clever trick of her successful and also enjoyable novel, the setting of which can be read both sociologically and satirically.

Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are. Rarely has a saying not found anywhere in Cooking in the Wrong Century been cast in a smarter novel. And of course you have to vary the saying. Tell me what you cook, serve, celebrate when you receive guests. Tell me how you live, communicate, interact socially. Präauer captured all these phenomena in a fluorescent description that, like a text by Bourdieu, makes subtle differences visible: the guests' outfits, the topics of conversation, the dynamics of the conversation.

The spices (sea salt, of course), the chairs (Roland Rainer's Stadthalle armchair), the digital filter, and the hashtags you put on your social media-displayed dinner party. The title "Cooking in the Wrong Century" is also very apt because the novel is also implicitly about whether we still learn to cook like we used to, how domesticity has changed over the generations and to what extent it still has to do with gender roles.

The book is ingeniously composed. The whole evening is described in indirect speech, which avoids any platitude trap that a direct dialogue without Yasmina Reza's trip to the scandal ("The God of Carnage") could easily fall into. In addition, we read what happened as if in a time warp, namely more than once. In the end, probably no specific single evening is described at all, but a habitus from many such evenings, a cuvée of today's hospitality and sociability, which - we live in the 21st century -, even before the first bite is eaten, is already in ends up in the timelines - which even influences the further course of the evening, but should not be revealed here. In addition to scandal – whether something passes for mindfulness or aggression is based, like many things in life, on sometimes very subtle differences – there is also eroticism in the air.

The quasi ethnographic description of the dinner is repeatedly interrupted by passages that are kept in the first person form. Here, however, the reader is not addressed, but the personal narrator confronts her own past, her culinary socialization: “Do you remember how you wanted to cook something for the first time in your own apartment, it was no more than one room Elsewhere: "Remember those warm apple hand pies in America after that trip to the Wilson's Orchard orchard?"

Or: “Your first oyster? Late, you were already in your mid-30s.” Eating and drinking, we know that since the Madeleine topos from Proust's “In Search of Lost Time”, is a very powerful core of our ego. It is part of our social identity, and it is always fed by what we are (socialization) and what we want to be (projection). Possibly the weights have shifted due to the internet. Wisely, analytically and with wit, Präauer describes a post-modern banquet in which everyone has long since become philosophers of their own singular way of life.

Teresa Präauer: Cooking in the wrong century. Wallstein, 198 pages, 22 euros

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