Being Extra and Adolf Loos’ Roast Beef

I am an extra.

I am a non-speaking character in a coffee shop background sipping coffee and staring at my laptop. There are raindrops on the windows, a blade of grass moving in the wind outside, cars moving past on the road, murmuring conversations, a large orange sculpture, a concrete floor, a sneeze, a ding, words, a child’s cry, salt and pepper shakers, mugs, music wafting above the hum of mid-morning conversations, a green shirt, smell of eggs and coffee, fingers on the keyboard, people behind the counter waiting, people cooking lunch, yellow road signs, an itch on the neck, words on the wall, wood tables, metal chairs, stripes and me.

I don’t despair being an extra. Extras in books, movies or television are never credited with names, just actions, like, “shopkeeper” or “crying child.” I am a silent actor in your story, a voiced actor in mine. You can only see my actions, my role as an extra. You don’t see my inner monolog, my struggles, my joys, my worries or my guilt. Recognizing that I am an extra in the world, a silent actor is surprisingly empowering. As you walk by my table where I type, I can trip you or smile, I may not change your story but I can color it with my actions. I don’t have to be the main protagonist. The main character depends on the extra. That is the secret: we are all extras. I came to see myself as an extra and found an extraordinary life. I stopped trying to be named, stopped trying to be the main character, a proper noun.

Philosophy, art, religions all try to address our longing to connect to something larger, more meaningful than us, as disparate individuals. This is an extra attempt, an exercise in noticing the small so that the big comes into focus. We all share the small things, like coffee cups, salt, phones, chairs and walls and the big, like cities, roads, landscapes, clouds, and water. How we focus on either shapes how our individual perspectives live and interact. You are an extra in the stories of almost everyone you meet today. You are also your own, more than. Depending on your outlook you could interpret “being extra” as either, being more, extraordinary or being waste, extraneous. I suspect that each of us, are always both.

I first arrived at this question when reading architect Adolf Loos’ 1908 modernist manifesto Ornament and Crime. All sauces he said were ornamental. He announced, ” I eat roast beef.” From my South Asian perspective beef was ornamental, mostly used as flavoring for curries and only rarely the main component during weddings and celebrations when a sacrifice was offered. Always ritualized and associated with a momentous occasion. Eating beef was considered an extra, a luxury. Never taking up the center of a plate like a steak. By Loos’ definition, I could never be modern. The vivid image of Loos eating a dinner of roast beef to explain the socio-economic value modern architecture stuck in my thoughts and made me wonder how my style of eating might inform my style of living, my philosophy.

How would you complete his sentence: I eat ________________________.

Beef French Dip Sandwich Recipe

Place a slab of beef in a slow cooker. Add water and soy sauce ( a least 1/2 cup) to cover the meat. (Hint: the soy sauce and slow cooking enhance the meat flavor).  Cook for 3-4 hours. Shred meat. Fill crusty rolls with shredded meat. Dip the sandwiches in meat juices. Add sliced onions, pickles, horseradish or whatever sauce or extras you like.

What would Loos make of this recipe? Is the sauce extra or is the meat extra? Doesn’t matter, as long as you are satisfied. Enjoy in moderation. The recipe can easily feed a crowd. Good for buffets and potlucks. If you want to avoid meat and the design debate altogether, just eat a cheese sandwich.

Here is a recipe with exact directions and measurements.