The penthouse is a metaphor for the found culture of simple people, which gets upgraded as soon as someone figures out how to turn a profit.
NOUN : 1. a. An apartment or dwelling situated on the roof of a building.
Originally this was a shed atop a building which was home to a caretaker or handyman who had to survive in a poorly heated, and never cooled, lean-to at the top of a lot of stairs. Caretakers, of necessity creative, made gardens and aeries on the roofs of urban buildings. Pigeon coops were popular. What brought about the transformation of these humble abodes into some the most desirable and expensive habitations on earth? The views, the discreet ‘PH’ next to the elevator button which means you’re going straight to…did I say elevator button? Right. As soon as access became convenient, thanks to Otis et Cie., Elevateurs, the caretakers found themselves busted down to the basement, where they remain.
Penthouse Foods are foods which were considered too vulgar or inconvenient for the rich and the refined, until suddenly, they aren’t.
Lobster: The Food Of The Wretched Masses
Until the nineteenth century lobsters over 40 pounds and measuring three feet long were so abundant that you could just pick them of the beach. Native peoples used them for fertilizer, and when used for food they were thought of as good enough only for the poor. The lobster’s over-abundance forced some servants to insist that they would not be served lobster more than three times a week.
According to legend, John D. Rockefeller Sr. rescued the lobster in 1910. The legend is that a bowl of lobster stew, meant for the servants’ table, was accidentally sent upstairs (where it was rapturously received). From then on, it was given a permanent place on his menu. (Whether the lobster thought of this as being ‘rescued’ is not known)
The origin of truffles, obscured by passing centuries, might have a similar story. This ugly lump of subterranean fungus is normally hunted with the aid of pigs. There’s no reason to assume that this food found its way from the hills around Rome to the table of Kings until they’d had sufficient time to observe the health of the more adventurous, and expendable, pig-herd. But, soon enough, Deanus & DeLucus came calling, and the pig herd found himself paying his rent in truffles, and the food pornographers were describing these things in words of four letters.
Some Penthouse foods become appreciated through the creativity of those who need to adapt their world. Spare Ribs are the perfect example, and the art of the Bar-B-Que was developed for just this kind of meat. Tough, bony, cheap and fatty, the long slow cooking of real Bar-B-Que turns this into a true delicacy. Now the split oil can smokers of the southern roadside have given over to multi-thousand dollar stainless steel contraptions, and the dish has entered into high society.
Every time some poor guy figures out a way to make life bearable, it gets pulled out from under him. The origins of many dishes are humble, but there should be some kind of royalty or intellectual property rights on the thing when it’s appropriated by chic-hood.
Such egalitarian concerns aren’t the point, really. What I find unsavory is the way that newly hatched foodies shamelessly hold close to their hearts some new delicacy, when yesterday they were holding their noses. There are clues here to the nature of desire which may help us tease out some meaning from the FastFood fad. Certainly, lobster and ribs didn’t change, and the biological needs of people didn’t change. Only fashion changes this rapidly, and we should question any attempt to subject our tastes to so capricious a master as fashion.