One of the defining sites for modern social science was the doorway dividing the kitchen from the dining-room in an early 1950s Shetland hotel. On the kitchen side of the door casually employed crofters swiped their filthy fingers through any passing pudding they found particularly toothsome; smelly socks hung steaming on tea-kettles; and butter partially unused by guests was reshaped for later diners' consumption. On the dining-room side all was smoothly polished presentation, or, being realistic, as smooth as one could expect from hostelries in the Highlands and Islands at the fag-end of rationing. Circulating freely between kitchen and dining-room was the young Canadian American sociologist Erving Goffman, who had come all the way from Chicago to observe what passed across the boundary between stage performance and backstage preparation. That kitchen stood proxy for all the social world's backstages. If the passage between that kitchen and that dining-room created a desired illusion, then social life was indeed possible. 'The man who founded the first restaurant,' Brillat-Savarin judged, 'must have been a genius endowed with profound insight into human nature.'
LRB 30 November 2000 | PDF Download