This time last year, I was in Berlin. One evening, strolling towards Unter den Linden after a concert at the Philharmonie by the Tiergarten, I decided to take a short cut by walking through the Holocaust Memorial.
A lot of print and hot air has been expended on the whys and wherefores of Peter Eisenman’s 4.7-acre “sculpture”, which consists of a grid of 2,711 concrete slabs or “stelae”, implanted in a shallowly sloping depression in the ground. According to Eisenman’s proposal, the memorial is designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere and, let me tell you, alone, late at night in the snowy midwinter, trudging down the long defiles with the slabs rising up above me to twice head height, I felt this and more: an intense oppression and a sense of the man-made as inherently minatory, if not genocidal, began to bear down on me.
This feeling of unutterable desolation was broken only when, mounting up the far side of the memorial, I saw some cheery lights that, as I drew closer, resolved themselves into the neon-lit façade of a Greek restaurant with a name as deliciously inappropriate as Pericles’s Taverna.
I’d like to report that I entered the taverna without demur and replaced the nightmare of history with some stuffed vine leaves – but I’d already eaten. However, the experience did get me thinking on the connections between ordinary eateries and mass murder. A half-Swiss friend tells me that, in his father’s home village in some God-awful backwoods canton, the local Schnitzeleria serves a dish called Chicken Himmler. When my friend asked why, the unashamed answer came back: because Himmler once ate here and this is what he had.
But you don’t have to go that far. In London, there’s a trio of noodle bars with the arresting name of New Culture Revolution. I’ve often passed the one in Notting Hill Gate and wondered what would persuade people to eat in such an establishment. I mean, surely it would be difficult to suck down your ma la niu rou mein without, at least, a stray troubling thought? Possibly the killing that inaugurated the Cultural Revolution would come to mind: in August 1966, the deputy head teacher of a school in Beijing where the children of Mao Zedong and other officials had been educated was kicked and beaten to death by her own female pupils.
This intergenerational frenzy launched a convulsion in Chinese society that resulted in the violent deaths of an estimated three million people . But then, wasn’t it Mao who observed that the revolution was “not a dinner party”? Perhaps I shouldn’t be so squeamish about the sight of dumb-ass trustafarians and baby Cameroons tucking in to dumplings under the banner of a tyrant’s zeal because, after all, I once ate at the New Culture Revolution on King’s Road – and the dumplings were pretty damn tasty.
Still, I couldn’t forbear from writing to David Lau, New Culture Revolution’s senior cadre, and asking about his chain’s nomenclature. Here is his reply:
Dear Will Self,
Our name originates from our style of cooking. This style is from the north of China, which has a colder climate, and where people use wheat flour rather than rice. We cook noodle and dumpling dishes just as people in that region do. Furthermore, we do not use flavour-enhancing additives such as monosodium glutamate. We make our own noodles and dumplings. When we founded the first restaurant, this was an innovation – a revolution – and this made us think of the memorable name.
Culinary art is part of humanity’s culture. If we can be of any assistance on Chinese cuisine in general, please let us know and we will try to help.
Only a churl would press a restaurateur further after such a gracious reply. But I am a churl, so I went on badgering poor Mr Lau. He held firm, even when I pointed out that analogous restaurant names might be New Final Solution (a bratwurst and beer joint in Harpenden) or New Terror (a borscht and vodka bar near Chorleywood). I’m inclined to take him at his word, as I recall the sign my late mother once saw in a café window: “Come in and eat – before we both starve.”