Sunday, August 1, 2010

Proustian moment #3: How to Eat Ice Cream, by Umberto Eco

One of the commenters on the Faith and Theology blog, Ortus Memoria, posted this charming essay by Umberto Eco.  You can also read it via Google Books.

“When I was little, children were bought two kinds of ice cream, sold from those white wagons with canopies made of silvery metal: either the two-cent cone or the four-cent ice-cream pie. The two-cent cone was very small, in fact it could fit comfortably into a child’s hand, and it was made by taking the ice cream from its container with a special scoop and piling it on the cone. Granny always suggested I eat only a part of the cone, ten thrown away the pointed end, because it had been touched by the vendor’s hand (though it was the best part, nice and crunchy, and it was regularly eaten in secret, after a pretense of discarding it).

The four-cent pie was made by a special little machine, also silvery, which pressed two disks of sweet biscuit against  cylindrical section of ice cream.  First you had to thrust your tongue into the gap between the biscuits until it touched the central nucleus of ice cream, then gradually, you ate the whole thing, the biscuit surfaces softening as they became soaked in creamy nectar.  Granny had no advice to give here: in theory the pies had been touched only by the machine; in practice, the vendor had held them in his hand while giving them to us, but it was impossible to isolate the contaminated area.

I was fascinated, however, by some of my peers, whose parents bought them not a four-cent pie but two two-cent cones. These privileged children advanced proudly with one cone in their right hand and one in their left; expertly moving their head, from side to side they licked first one, then the other. This liturgy seemed to me so sumptuously enviable, that many times I asked to be allowed to celebrate it. In vain. My elders were inflexible: a four-cent ice, yes; but two two-cent ones, absolutely no.

As anyone can see, neither mathematics nor economy or dietetics justified this refusal. Nor did hygiene, assuming that in due course the tips of both cones were discarded. The pathetic, and obviously mendacious, justification was that a boy concerned with turning his eyes from one cone to the other was more inclined to stumble over stones, steps, or cracks in the pavement. I dimly sensed that there was another secret justification, cruelly pedagogical, but I was unable to grasp it.

Today, citizen and victim of consumer society, a civilization of excess and waste (which the society of the thirties was not), I realize that those dear and now departed elders were right. Two two-cent cones instead of one at four cents did not signify squandering, economically speaking, but symbolically they surely did. It was for this precise reason that I yearned for them: because two ice creams suggested excess. And this is precisely why they were denied me: because they looked indecent, and insult to poverty, a display of fictitious privilege, a boast of wealth. Only spoiled children at two cones at once, those children who in fairy tales were rightly punished, as Pinocchio was when he rejected the skin and the stalk. And parents who encouraged this weakness, appropriate to little parvenus, were bringing up their children in the foolish theater of “I’d like to but I can’t.” They were preparing them to turn up at a tourist-class check-in with a fake Gucci bag bought from a street peddler on the beach at Rimini.

Nowadays the moralist risks seeming at odds with morality, in a world where the consumer civilization now wants even adults to be spoiled, and promises them always something more, from the wristwatch in the box of detergent to the bonus bangle sheathed, with the magazine it accompanies, in a plastic envelope. Like the parents of those ambidextrous gluttons I so envied, the consumer civilization pretends to give more, but actually gives, for four cents, what is worth four cents. You will throw away the old transistor radio to purchase the new one that boasts an alarm clock as well, but some inexplicable defect in the mechanism will guarantee that the new radio lasts only a year. The new cheap car will have leather seats, double side mirrors adjustable from the inside, and a paneled dashboard, but it will not last nearly so long as the glorious old Fiat 500, which, even when it broke down, could be started again with a kick.

The morality of the old days made Spartans of us all, while today’s morality wants us all to be Sybarites.”  -1989

Umberto Eco, “How to Eat Ice Cream,” in How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt, 1994) 107-110.

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