of a literary bent

There, But for the Grace of God, Do I Most of the Time Go.

I saw this article – “Hop Enthusiasts Are Ruining Craft Beer for the Rest of Us.” – go by this morning and was all set to launch into a tirade about its basic stupidity, to point out that craft beer is in fact quite diverse (duh), even or especially in North America where there has been such an interest of late in the resuscitation of lost or neglected European styles; that if a dislike of strong hops is enough to turn one off any further investigation of craft beer, then one can hardly place the responsibility for one’s own feckless laziness with the brewers; that it was the hops enthusiasts who carved out the craft beer world in the first place, quite literally and metonymically opening up the palates of beer drinkers to a greater variety of styles and expressions.

However, then I actually read the article and was disappointed to discover that the author already knows this and makes several of these points in her piece, mostly mooting my initial indignation, but in the process also providing occasion for entirely other a freak-out that has less (but not nothing) to do with the content of the piece and more with its form and superfice. Specifically, I am truly sick of the hyperbole of attention-grabbing headlines for even the most insignificant of articles. It is bad enough with Buzzfeed and the rest of its clickbait legacy, but I find it particularly obnoxious in the case of ostensibly content-based journalism/non-fiction. Taking the Adrienne So craft beer piece as an example, we find that the article has not one, but three, titles varying somewhat in the degree of their intended provocation, all of which are disingenuous:

First, the tagline as it appears in a facebook share: “Hops Enthusiasts are Ruining Craft Beer for the Rest of Us,” which is of course untrue because, as noted above, 1) hops enthusiasts created “Craft Beer”, 2) while hoppy beers remain prominent, and hop-bombs still object of fetishistic appreciation, this has not prevented the explosion of beers in less hop-forward styles (witness the massive expansion in saison-brewing in the past few years), resulting in the availability of a wider variety of beers than in literally any other time in human history – I defy you to go into a beer bar, brew pub, or specialty beer store and be unable to acquire high quality less-hopped beer, and 3) the “Rest of Us” in the title remains unexplicated. As it happens, it does not include the author, who does like hoppy beers, and so in light of points 1 and 2 it can only refer to a complacent, dissatisfied, John Q. Public who is paradoxically presumably interested in “Craft Beer” but unwilling to learn anything at all about it.

Second, the title as it actually appears on Slate: “Against Hoppy Beer: The Craft Beer Industry’s Love Affair with Hops is Alienating People Who Don’t Like Bitter Brews.” Again, the author is not actually against hoppy beer, bla bla bla, and to the extent that the subtitle is accurate, we may see this as the typical conflict involved with the popularization of a niche product, where the level of investment and engagement of the amateur/enthusiast is not matched by the casual consumer, who is by dint of their laziness or non-interest alienated from entering the market.

Finally, the title as it appears in the article URL and consequently in one’s browser tab: “Hoppy Beer is Awful, or at Least its Bitterness is Ruining Craft Beer’s Reputation.” This is my favourite, because it is both the most daring and the most cowardly – not even waiting to be challenged before it retreats from its in-your-digital-face declaration to the softer and more ambiguous position that the bitterness (not the same thing as hoppiness, of course, which is as much or more about aromatics) of craft beer is off-putting. All of which rhetorical surround accompanies an article which ultimately makes no such strong claims. The author opens with an anecdote which highlights their own love for hops, and the realization that they have come to take this for granted, then proceeds to give a potted history of American craft brewing and some of the pros and cons of hops fetishism. It’s actually a pretty decent article in its own right, but the closest it comes to the spirit of any its titles is in the final paragraph:

Craft brewers’ obsession with hops has overshadowed so many other wonderful aspects of beer. So here’s my plea to my fellow craft beer enthusiasts: Give it a rest. Let’s talk about the differences between wild and cultivated lab yeast, and the weird and wonderful flavors that are created when brewers start scouring nearby trees or flowers or even their own beards for new strains. Let’s geek out about local, craft-malted barley and how it compares to traditional imported European malts. And let’s start preaching a new word: Craft beer isn’t always bitter. Who knows? Maybe we’ll finally win over some of those Bud Light fans.

Which is fine, I suppose, although it is not as if this conversation isn’t already happening – arguably saisons have become new darlings of the craft world, with an attendant fixation on wild yeasts and lactobacilli and all things Belgian, and one could even make the claim that brettanomyces obsession is following a similar path to that of hops, with the Platonic ideal of a catbox-and-horse-blanket smoothie in a bottle tracing that of the 1000 IBU objet petit a, which everyone realizes is bad but irresistible idea anyway.

The problem is not the article or the argument itself, but that there actually is no argument. It is a type of journalism (or I dunno, “internet writing”) that assumes the form of confrontation but does not ever deliver on the promise of claims-making. On a certain level I can appreciate this as a prosaic tactic – I think it is a fruit of the desconstructionist turn that we may feel confident in a form of writing that draws us into a labyrinthine rhetorical rabbit warren in order to demonstrate or destabilize the impassible, open up other avenues of thinking, without endorsing the (sometimes) trap of “taking a strong position”. More can be said about the dangers of irony being a dominant mode of cultural discourse (I’m for it, frankly, although it is worth trying to make a distinction between the usefully destructive and the pointlessly destructive), but when it comes down to it, I don’t think that is really what is happening here. This is more like that guy at a party who engages one in absurd arguments, making provocatively absolute claims, from which he continually retreats with the defence “Well, I didn’t mean that so much as…” until one is eventually rewarded for one’s resisting the urge to murder him with the evasion “Don’t worry, I don’t even believe in what I’m saying, I just like to argue.” Which is itself a dissimulation – he doesn’t like to argue, he just likes the attention.

And so in the end, like a modern-day Woodward and Bernstein I arrive at the insightful conclusion that hyperbolic internet headlines are just clickbait, they’re just trying to get our attention! Stop the figurative presses! Where are my Pulitzers in multiple? But seriously, I bother to get into it as much out of sympathy as annoyance. I’m sure Adrienne So had a nice idea for a piece situating and thinking beyond the stereotype of craft beer as totally hops-dominated, and I don’t blame her for the triteness and cynicism of her titles and taglines (unless she wrote them, of course). This sort of hyperbolic feint-and-switch writing is something I often fall into myself, but as this confrontation becomes more and more mere veneer, a window-dressing applied whether or not there is even a cursory analysis underneath, the more accustomed to and forgiving of sucky journalism we become. We can do better.

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Uncategorized

Two Trick Pony.

IMG_20141218_010604

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Not food-related, but just FYI, my friend Simon and I have a cover story in the new issue of Harper’s. It’s a short piece about OxyContin, regulatory gamesmanship, and the FDA, with just the tiniest bit of background on the tangled co-emergence of chronic pain as a major clinical object and the marketing of opioid painkillers. I was really angling for a less sensational tag line, but you can’t win ’em all. Available for subscribers now, I think it’ll hit the shelves early in the new year. I’d like to claim this was what I was working on the past few months, while -not- updating the blog, but in actuality I have been drinking wine and watching Futurama. 

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product review

Tomorrow Might Not Come, If I Don’t Let It.

Stop me before I say too much.

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I ate these sitting on the warm roof of a half-mangled pickup, last May? last June? It was late and warm and we were singing songs to stay awake, and jogging around the truck at every rest stop, feeding on the stimulation of the variety of fluorescent lights.

Two summers ago, I guess. They tasted of pizza pockets.

So ready and specific an association at hand, to my own hand, I wonder whether this did not occur to the makers. But then, who “makes” a Dorito? Where in the network, the chain of translations, is the decision made what a chip “is”, or what it is supposed to be? Was there a moment when, during the fine-tuning of the nth iteration of Summer 2013’s Limited Edition Pizza Dorito, an adjudication was made whether it was more pizza or pizza pocket, and a calculation of the relative market potentials of each? One would almost expect that had the latter presented itself to those concerned, it would have had to have won out, so receptive of novel snack-themed snacks are contemporary audiences perceived to be. So maybe it didn’t come to mind, maybe it was not ready at hand. Maybe, in their heart of hearts, they wanted to produce an evocation of a good pizza, of a better pizza than a pizza pocket, or a (worse still) mini-pizza, an icon undiluted by microwave convenience. Maybe they just weren’t listening.

I was reading Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower at the time, and thinking about David Lynch, for the first time ever. Lynch, in  Lynch on Lynch  describes the genesis of the Red Room:

One night at about 6:37pm in the evening I remember it was very warm. Duwayne Dunham and his assistant Brian Burdan and I were leaving for the day. We were out in the parking lot and I was leaning against a car—the front of me was leaning against this very warm car. My hands were on the roof and the metal was very hot. The Red Room scene leapt into my mind. . . . For the rest of the night I thought only about The Red Room.

Hands on a (warm) hard body. Proust rendering momentary impressions in elaborately exploded view, so thoroughly as to reveal what is in fact not there. Pizza pockets. Mosquitos.

 

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of a literary bent

His Measure of Her Powers.

Photo credit: TCBLRarebooks.com

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A few weeks back, Esquire‘s Food Editor-at-Large Josh Ozersky published a piece on Medium (“Consider the Food Writer”) declaiming what he sees as the continuing influence of MFK Fisher on food writing in America, declaring that if the genre is to emerge from a creatively stunted and parochial bourgeois hegemony, MFK Fisher must die.

Figuratively, of course. She has been literally dead since 1992.

 

On the one hand, I totally agree. Or, to put it more carefully, I share Ozersky’s distaste for the prevailing narrative and stylistic conventions of much contemporary food writing. His critique is pretty on point:

They all grope for depth, via tropes that are now pretty much obligatory. The author will find in some plate of pie a memory of mother and, later, in the act of their own eating, a universal experience that binds us all together. Somewhere in there will always be found some fond memory of a picturesque past or exotic land, some unforgotten tomato or miraculous couscous that still reverberates, even today, and underscores the persistence of the past and the brotherhood of man.

In this way the unwavering predictability of the form threatens to eclipse – or effectively render irrelevant – the actual content. Like the readymade drama of a bad food documentary, the specificity of the life, the food itself, the creepy ephemereality of experience, all are made pat. Undeniably this is boring and usually trite, and undeniably this is -part- of MFK Fisher’s legacy. Hers was a voice that defined modern American food writing, and Ozersky is correct that she occupies a privileged position as the godmother of the genre, universally lauded by foodies and food writers alike. I can hardly take issue with the critical reconsideration of one of the giants of one’s genre. I also think that Ozersky’s compact analysis of the emergence of a particular classed relationship to food – food eating, food thinking, food writing – in the 1960s and ’70s, as a precursor to the modern ‘food culture’ phenomenon is valuable, especially as it emphasizes the publishing infrastructure behind these developments.

 

On the other hand, I think Ozersky is a bit of a fucking fouler, who should maybe fuck off and, you know, check himself.

Let us leave aside for the moment his summary dismissal of Susan Sontag as irrelevant and banal, with the lament that Fisher may not be so casually dispatched – I am not a giant fan of Sontag, but to glibly dismiss her work on, say, the representational violence of photography, or illness as metaphor, as merely part of an “indistinct din” of midcentury writing of interest only to cultural historians seems almost laughably boorish. His estimation of MFK Fisher’s own literary powers are somewhat confused, and this produces and ambiguity in how he characterizes the consequences of her influence.

Ozersky opens with the pro forma admission that Fisher’s merits as a writer are besides the point, which implies that it is her legacy with which he is solely concerned, although this is not exactly so, given that he spends the rest of the article waffling between begrudgingly acknowledging her talents and declaring her work saccharine, superficial and dull. He grants that she is at best an able epigrammatist, but, personal differences in my and Ozersky’s literary tastes aside, I think he sells Fisher unfairly short. I have always found that it is precisely in isolated quotation that her true strengths as a writer are least discernible, and run most toward the ‘superficially profound’, as Ozersky claims. I don’t believe it is necessary here to mount a lengthy defence of Fisher’s writing, but I think where she succeeds most is as a literary stylist who is able in short passages to communicate a frank and disarming – and, perhaps most importantly, unpretentious – sensuality. As one who considers himself an unfortunate, impoverished anti-sensualist, locked in a garbled and loathsome relationship of mutual misrecognition with his own body, I am not easy to impress on this front, and I am almost embarrassed by my appreciation for Fisher’s work in this respect.  If the aphorism is a form of compressed wit, I would argue that it is in her longer passages that the aesthetic richness of her prose is given space to unfold. Even if at times her romance is too high for me, I recognize that there is something special there, that is more than the “treacle” of Ozersky’s evaluation. But anyway, to each their own, I get it.

What leaves me feeling uneasy about Ozersky’s piece is that underpinning his call for what is in effect a dirtier, more conflicted, grotesque, and perhaps pedestrian, if not populist, food writing, is a very peculiar construction of what “contemporary mainstream food writing” looks like. His dystopian hegemonic landscape is populated by the likes of Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth Gilbert, Kim Sunée, Amanda Hesser, Julie Powell; the heir(esses) of Elizabeth David, Judith Jones, Julia Child . . . if this list seems gendered, it is not conspicuously so for who is included, but who is absent. What about Anthony Bourdain (inarguably as great an influence on the 21st-c voice of food writing as Fisher), Calvin Trillin, Adam Gopnik? Michael Pollan and Mark Kurlansky? What of Harold McGee, or professional bad boys Marco Pierre White and David Chang?

Why do these names – some chefs (professional or celebrity), some historians, some critics, none (save McGee, perhaps) innocent of participating in the tired narrative bathos of memorializing their first oyster / summer strawberry / fermented chick embryo – not appear in Ozersky’s sketch of the food writing oligarchy? Certainly one couldn’t exclude any of these best-selling and James Beard-awarded authors from the culinary cultural mainstream. And yet they are neither identified as part of the problem of rule nor even as aspects of -a- solution. Indeed, in spite of their success, these big names remain strangely invisible:

I’ve read moving and resonant accounts of eating, scenes that rang true from my own experience and that of other dirtbags like me. But I’ve never read them in a glossy food magazine, nor can I think of a single one that ever got nominated for an award . . .  There remains an immense, seething, varied, noisy, conflicted, confused, unclassifiable population of people who eat, and cook, and for whom food isn’t a source of community—at least not with that elite class of mandarins that currently control the field. They can all be heard, but they can’t get published or paid, which makes them invisible and unviable, voices in a wilderness that need to be heard. There is no doubt in my mind that if Fisher were alive, she would champion them. But she isn’t, and her legacy suffocates us, immobilizes us, covers us as tightly as the tenderloin in a beef wellington. Food writing today is one great echo chamber, and the voice it echoes must be silenced.

I am as tired as anybody (as or more tired than Ozersky, even) of the unexplicated, unproblematized mobilization of “community” and the trope of food as a mutually intelligible universal in food writing; food is paradoxically the great leveller and the great divider, debaser, destroyer. Food is a shibboleth. Food is a problem. And it is not for this that people call themselves ‘foodies’. But with the scene as he has set it here, Ozersky’s argument for inclusion comes to seem more akin to a backlash against the ascendance of what is pejoratively called “Women’s Fiction” in food-writing. The interrogation of the formulaic and trite is perhaps everywhere some kind of literary obligation, but to cast this mode as a gendered hegemony held in place by a bourgeois female editorial class – as similarly powerful ‘serious’ male writers recede from the analytic frame – is just gross*, and we can do better.

 

* All the more so, and the more readily legible as such, coming from a guy who has also written an apologia for his ogling of women.

 

 

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exploded views

A Vortex of Cuteness, Reduced to Slurry.

Whole beasts.

 

Something like five years into having this blog, and still not having any idea how to “have a blog”, I have decided I am going to start writing more posts that are just pictures of things that are food / have food in them, whether or not I have anything interesting to say about it. You know, for the hits.

So this, this is some cool fish sauce I bought exclusively on the grounds of it being cute. Look at those little guys. Just a vortex of cuteness reduced to slurry.

I am also going to file this under “nose to tail cooking”.

 

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miscellany/etymology

On Nigella Lawson, Impossible Witnessing, and the Reification of Analysis.

And......cut.

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You will have to bear with me, as this involves attempting to take up a thread that I may have lost long ago. Way the hell back in January this Eater interview with Nigella Lawson was making the rounds (three years after it was initially posted, I now notice), and it caught my attention. I have a lazy appreciation for Nigella Lawson, based almost entirely on the one time I caught her show like four years ago and was surprised by how engaging she is, and the casual way the camera moves around the space, but I haven’t watched it since, and don’t know her cookbooks, aside from passing impressions in bookstores.

The interview itself is interesting, if fairly superficial, but I think her take on the sexualization of her image is worth attending to. Elsewhere she has addressed this topic, as in the case of her notorious salted-caramel-facial cover for Stylist magazine, and perhaps what it boils down to is her dual insistence that sensualized and sexualized are mutually reducible ideas, and that male spectatorship is not the ne plus ultra of representation. “The male gaze is such that whatever is there is seen to be there for their benefit,”  she state, “The fact that I’m fleshy looks somehow as if I am trying to display myself.” While this a more generalized sense of “the male gaze” that does not directly correspond either to Laura Mulvey’s original or revised use of the term to critique representation in narrative cinema, nor take account of the various formal strategies of visually representing women as implicitly sexually receptive, there is an important claim about female pleasure embedded here. When she says that, visual insinuations aside, the Stylist photo is about representing a sheer, unbridled appreciation of caramel, one might roll one’s eyes at what one takes an affectation of naïveté, but I think that might be missing an important point. Effectively she is insisting on not only the possibility, but the immanence of female sensual pleasure, represented in print / on television, that is not constituted for nor defined by a hegemonic male spectator.

I don not mean to suggest Nigella as a critical feminist icon, or that it is this easy to step outside the libidinal economy of patriarchy, but I think that taking such declarations of pleasure – arguably of agency – seriously, is part of the critical work of interrogating phallocentrism. To deny the relevance of the representational subject’s interpretation / experience is in a curious way to participate – actively – in their objectification, by foreclosing the possibility of a female pleasure that is not wholly interpellated and recuperated by the male spectator. By assuming the totalizing hegemony of the male gaze as that which organizes all representation and all looking, we render impossible the witnessing of a female pleasure-for-itself.

 

The reason I am coming back around to this now is that I see it as touching upon a larger issue of what we might call the reification of analysis, as it applies specifically to feminist criticism (but to which it is not exclusive, of course). I am reminded of this, if you will please forgive the incongruity of scale of importance, first by the debates over  the recently-unveiled Bill C-36 which effectively re-marginalizes and stigmatizes sex workers after the landmark Bedford case which saw the existing laws around sex work struck down, and again by the undeniably more trivial apology from the dude who coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”.

In the first case we have a set of laws that intertwines the ‘benevolent paternalism’ of the patriarchal state with the radical critique of sexual relations of second-wave feminism, appealing to both social conservatives and anti-sex work liberal feminists. In the second, we have a writer realizing that the critique he developed to foreground a poisonous trope of (male) screenwriting had in a sense lost its critical teeth and become at best institutionalized and merely descriptive, at worst a means of stereotyping and reducing otherwise complex female characters. Although in the case of the MPDG I think the author’s retreat was a little obsequious, lazy, and intellectually cowardly (in lieu of his almost post-feminist sounding apology it could have been an opportunity to critically reflect on questions of authorship, viewership, and the use and appropriation of the term), in both cases what we see is the calcification of a critical apparatus that comes to participate in the violence and the silencing that it was originally intended to interrogate.

With Bill C-36, the analytically and historically useful concept of all heterosexual sex under patriarchal capitalism being a form of violence, and sex work being merely the least adorned version thereof, no longer serves to denormalize asymmetrical gender relations, but instead has come to enjoy the status of evidence itself, a form of evidence that precludes actually listening  to the voices of people involved in sex work. By way of the theory, we may take the structure for granted, the analysis becomes the object itself, the lived realities and analyses of those most directly concerned are occluded, incidental (The sex workers and those who work with them become another kind of impossible witness). With MPDG, Rabin recognizes that the term has ceased to be analytic, and instead operates as a placeholder for actual engagement with characters, texts, actual women as subjects (instead of getting into this, though, he says “This got out of hand, let’s not talk about it anymore”). This can be described as a reification of analysis to the extent that the analytic apparatus no longer helps us to engage with the world beyond its face value, but stands in / in the way, as something more real than the people, the voices, the pleasures, that are being disclosed, but which it cannot accommodate.

This kind of thing is a big deal in social science research and other academic fields, where it is has been in an unending cycle of getting hashed out since probably the 1920s, but it is also, or should be, a big deal in our day-to-day life. For all their reputation for being abstracted from the world, theory and analysis must be (paradoxically) both transcendent and immanent in, of and to the world. It perhaps sounds odd to suggest that tools for “problematizing” the world are about facilitating our engagement with the world, but it’s a hard world, you gotta get into it.

 

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Uncategorized

A Motherfucking Triumph of Goddamn Simplicity.

Radish biscuit, radish butter, radishes. Repeat.

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There is something about radishes. Radishes and butter are such an indisputable French classic that it should seem tiresome and doltishly obvious to draw attention to them, yet whenever I come across an entry for radishes and butter in a cookbook, I am not annoyed by the laziness and pretence of the author claiming that this somehow constitutes a “recipe”. Rather, I take it more as a gesture – a reminder, to the reader, in case he or she has forgotten; and a gesture of appreciation, the devotion of the space on a page to something so simple, yet so unstoppable.

Vin Papillon has been doing this radish biscuit with radish-green butter and radishes this season, and it is nuts. I am not embarrassed to say that I am impressed. Radish butter. Duh.

 

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