Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Eating for Beginners

Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid
Melanie Rehak (2010, Houghton Mifflin; 2011, Mariner Books)

   A decade or so ago, Melanie Rehak was spectacularly well placed to look into the pleasures and politics of food, because her Brooklyn home was in walking distance of a restaurant called Applewood. (Actually, the owners spell it 'applewood', in an ostentatious display of humility, and so does Rehak, but I'll spare you.) Applewood, founded in 2004 by David and Laura Shea, is committed to local, seasonal, organic food - but sometimes you can't have all three at once. The Sheas, who have two small children, make a sensible division of the considerable labor. Laura is front of the house, and David is the lead chef. Applewood's ethos also includes a certain egalitarianism in the kitchen–cooks are expected to think creatively about the food in front of them.

   Rehak signs on as an apprentice cook. Her skills are not bad in her own kitchen, but sixty meals a night, coordinating with five or six other people, is a different matter altogether. A new menu every night, depending on what the suppliers have had available, multiplies the difficulty. In addition to techniques of chopping and plating, Rehak starts to learn what the chefs are thinking about when they stand in the walk-in cooler, imagining meals.

   She extends her research by spending a few days with the vegetable farmers, who work a long day to fulfill the orders they've had from the city. On another farm upstate, she gets practice milking goats, and disassembles a pig. By way of completing the cycle, she gets a ride with the truckers who bring the food into New York City. She goes out on a fishing boat, thinking about regulation and fishing stocks. Time and chance happen to them all: extremes of weather, insects, regulations, traffic; but all of these people work extremely hard (as does Rehak when she gets a chance to pitch in) and they make it happen, day after day.

   The picky kid of the title is Rehak's toddler, Jules, who starts in on solid food by rejecting most of it. He won't eat hot dogs, chicken, or fish. Or ice cream, or noodles, or toast. Rehak is concerned. Does anyone ever grow to adulthood eating only yogurt and bananas? Are there really kids who hate toast? Well, Jules is just wired differently. He likes "intensely flavored foods that would ordinarily be found on side table at adult gatherings–dry roasted nuts, hummus with carrots, red pepper strips, pita chips, unbelievably sour cornichon pickles, and...pickled cocktail onions."

   There are plenty of books about farms out there, and plenty about kitchens. Rehak has read plenty of them: not only James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher, but Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. Guided by her work at Applewood, she works her way through the issues that balance the health of the planet and the need to feed her family tonight. She'll buy California produce so her son can have vegetables he'll eat, but she'll spend two extra bucks for milk without hormones.

   This is what it comes down to: "I knew it wouldn't always be possible to be choosy–at restaurants or out on the road. There are times when you just have to eat, and if one of those times turned out to be the moment when Jules first decided to try any kind of meat, I wasn't going to stop him no matter where it came from–but I also knew what I was going to choose when I could."

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Cork Dork

Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste.

Bianca Bosker (2017, Penguin Books)

    The first sommelier Bianca Bosker met was preparing to compete to be the World's Best Sommelier. Her journalistic curiosity engaged, she started watching videos of competitors "uncorking, decanting, sniffing, and spitting" and walking in elegant circles, like so many show dogs at Westminster. Just imagine if those same dogs could also find a child at Disneyworld after one sniff of his jacket: a master sommelier is capable of tasting a glass of an unknown wine and telling where and when it was made, down to the vineyard.

    This seemingly occult ability is not born, but learned, by thousands of tasting experiences over a professional lifetime; for purposes of journalistic immersion, Bosker boiled that time down to a year and a half. With a goal of passing the first round of sommelier certification, she plunged into training. The typical tasting group is a half-dozen somms, who gather on some weekday morning around six bottles of wines with foil covering the labels, and try to guess what's in them. The basic properties have physical manifestations: the more alcohol a wine has, the more it burns your throat, and the higher the acid level, the more you salivate. Together with sweetness, body (density in the mouth) and tannin levels (the mouth-puckering quality from grape skins, or aging in oak barrels), these properties find their characteristic balance in each type of wine. Matching all that to the grape variety, the location of the vineyard, and the year's weather? Flash cards, flash cards, and more flash cards. 

    That's to say nothing of the scents the somms claim to detect, because that's where a lot of what we think of as taste comes from. "That first sniff was crucial. If it was intense and unmistakably fruity–plum, fig, cherry, blackberry–that would be a vote for a New World wine, meaning it came from anywhere but Europe. More restrained, savory aromas–dirt, leaves, herbs, even stones–would trigger thoughts of the Old World, aka European wines." These descriptors are conventional, part of the agreed-upon jargon; "If you know the language, you can decipher the code. Mentioning rose and lichee is a giveaway that you're heading for Gew├╝rtztraminer. Olive, black pepper, and meat mean you're barreling toward Syrah. Plum? Merlot. Cassis? Cabernet."

    In addition to drinking herself silly with her hard-drinking tutors, Bosker looks into some scientific, historic, and commercial aspects of wine. Some scientists analyze the chemical components of the classic properties, though their language doesn't translate terribly well into the social world of wine. The wine in your grocery store has very likely been subjected to chemical tweaking, in the interest of producing ten million bottles that all taste the same.

     Of course, that's not what the Park Avenue sommelier is going for. He's looking for a reason to sell the man in the twenty-thousand-dollar watch a seven-hundred-dollar bottle of wine, and make him grateful for it, or at least a little proud. Oneupmanship and conspicuous consumption certainly lead people to try things they're told are good, rather than what they might like best. (The sommelier competitions include a table service section, in which the somms are expected to act like excruciatingly correct English butlers, never spilling a drop, while answering the demanding and impertinent questions idle rich people might ask.)

     Between the industrial-grade wines and the pointlessly extravagant ones, there really is a field of knowledge and pleasure for Bosker, and an astonishing increase of knowledge. "I'd dissected cadaver heads and lugged cases down ladders and eaten dirt and probably done irreparable damage to my tooth enamel. I'd been driven by a desire to understand what made cork dorks tick, what came with a more sensory-aware existence, what it was that made wine so endlessly fascinating, and which aspects of the bullshit-prone industry were meaningful."

     Cork Dork is highly worthy to join your shelf of books about things people obsess and do that you never have to do yourself. Bosker's journalism by immersion is more literal than you ordinarily see, yet she keeps her eye on the nub of the question: "What's the big deal about wine?" Even though Bosker drank more wine in a week than I will in my life, I'm a lot closer to understanding that than I was. Cheers!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Tears We Cannot Stop

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
Michael Eric Dyson (St. Martin's Press, 2017)

Michael Eric Dyson is a worthy prophet for these racially troubled times. He is a sociology professor who's also a Baptist minister, with a background in philosophy; in this book, he is speaking as a preacher, appealing powerfully to our moral sense. Tears We Cannot Stop is structured as a worship service, with a sermon at its heart. It's both up-to-the-minute, from the era of Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter, and steeped in America's history.

By way of invocation, Dyson describes his young daughter coming face to face with racism, and his son fearing for his life in a traffic stop. By way of scripture, he quotes Martin Luther King, noting that King had different messages for his black and white audiences. "That didn't make King a Janus-faced liar. He was, instead, a man of noble forbearance. He understood what white folk could hear; he knew what you dared not listen to. He knew what you could bear to know."

Dr. Dyson is, as Dr. King was, called to press the limits of what white people could stand to hear. His sermon is a jeremiad, a lamentation meant to penetrate our ignorance, and our willful blindness. His urgency is as intimate as it is urgent: "Beloved, let me start by telling you an ugly secret: there is no such thing as white people. And yet so many of them, so many of you, exist." His point is that whiteness exists in a social realm, as a political force. "It is most effective when it makes itself invisible, when it appears neutral, human, American."

Because what does that make the black man? Alien, non-human, un-American; and it has had this effect from the U.S. Constitution making a slave three-fifths of a man, to right-wing websites making Barack Obama a Kenyan Muslim. Most of us would strongly prefer to imagine that this has nothing to do with us; but racial covenants in real estate extended, in law, into my lifetime, and in practice, into the present day.

My local realtor's "Blue Lives Matter" window sign might just as well say "Whites Only", though I daresay they would deny it. And of course, no one has ever argued that the lives of police officers don't matter; no cases of violence against them go unreported. What Black Lives Matter is arguing is that, until the justice system starts treating black people fairly, 'All Lives Matter' will remain a lie.

The traditional defensive retort to that is what-about-ism, 'isn't black on black crime the real problem?' Dyson sees that coming a mile away. "Beloved, why is it that every time black folk talk about how poorly the cops treat us you say that we should focus instead on how we slaughter each other in the streets every day? Isn't that like asking the person who tells you that they're suffering from cancer to focus instead on their diabetes? Your racial bedside manner has always been fairly atrocious."

Dyson is well aware that his sermon is spoken to a congregation variously ready to hear it. But at this moment when outright white supremacy is being countenanced in public, we need to stay in touch with the facts on the ground, and this book has them. We also need to admit the ways the status quo benefits us, without being flattened by embarrassment, shame, helplessness, or the frustration and anger that those feelings often spark. As the Bible says so often, 'Listen up!'

Monday, July 31, 2017

Funny Girl

Funny Girl: a Novel
Nick Hornby (2014, Riverhead Books)

     When we meet the Girl of the title, Barbara Parker is making the most of her face and figure to become Miss Blackpool, 1964. But, facing the prospect of a year of smiling and having her picture taken, she gives up her title and departs for London. She starts out with the same sort of dreary department store job she had up North, but her looks get her an agent, and her agent gets her an audition. (He hates the way all his models want to be actresses, but what can you do? And he comes up with her new name, Sophie Straw.) Once a couple of writers and a producer get a look at her, she lands the lead in a television comedy.

     The show is called Barbara (and Jim). The parentheses are a way to get up the nose of Clive, the actor who plays Jim. He doesn't want to be a second banana in a show he has the lead in; he wants to be a movie star. The pair are written as an odd couple: Jim is university educated, a liberal from the Home Counties, somewhat tame and timid, while Barbara is a working class Tory from the North. Because of Sophie's sparkle and drive, this happy crew get to make a whole new kind of comedy: "The class system, men and women and the relationships between them, snobbery, education, the North and the South, politics, the way that a new country seemed to be emerging from the dismal old one that they'd all grown up in."

    At the same time, and very neatly, Hornby gets to write a novel about all those things. Sophie is legitimately working class, though she takes pains to learn a more posh London accent. Her Dad and aunt, back home, are wildly proud about her being on the telly; they are the intended audience of such mass entertainment. The producer, Dennis Maxwell-Baker, is from the educated middle class; he gets no respect from his wife, a humorless blue-stocking who is cheating on him with an even more humorless intellectual, the sort who pontificates on the BBC Third Program, (and brags about not having a TV.) These two high-hat Sophie so badly at a party that Tony and Bill get an episode out of it. Dennis, naturally, has a huge but agonizingly silent crush on Sophie.

     It's a fact of life: a new thing is always being born, especially in the 1960's. In the time it takes the Beatles to go from "She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)" to Revolver, Jim and Barbara have a baby, and go in for a fateful round of marriage counseling. Clive and Sophie get so famous that they date each other because the public expects them to (which is not, in private, so awfully much fun.) Tony, somewhat improbably, acquires a wife and child of his own; Bill writes a memoir about his wild gay youth; Dennis divorces his wife. And Barbara (and Jim) goes from 'Have you seen it yet?' to 'Oh, my Dad watches that.'

     As Hornby shows us, there are many kinds of success. Would the critics of the day have disdained the laughs Shakespeare got? Is a script written to keep a kiddo in nappies less worthy than a slim volume of poetry? Is a book that sells 12,000 copies more important than a half-hour of television that seventeen million people watch? Maybe the end was written in the beginning; and maybe the best time of all was the first day Sophie walked in, a beauty queen with a genius for comedy, before the public had any stake in the world the five of them were making together.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

White Trash

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Nancy Isenberg (Viking, 2016)

    There's a long-running class war among white people in this country, which the upper class is winning. Nancy Isenberg's White Trash explains why it could hardly be otherwise. Generation after generation, the class of people with property, education, and money ascribe undesirable traits to the class without, as though they somehow deserve to be dirty, uneducated, and landless. This war tends to be underground, or invisible; or perhaps it's hiding in plain sight.

    From the days of the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements, America was seen as a place to send people England considered expendible. Paupers, orphans, and petty criminals were sent to these shores, usually in indentured servitude, so that a householder would be responsible for them. Indebtedness could become a legacy, and many such immigrants had no other. Especially in Virginia, a few wealthy men claimed all the good land, leaving swampland or the rocky hills for those who had no legal claim.

    This was still true after the colonies became the United States. "Both crackers and squatters–two terms that became shorthand for landless migrant–supposedly stayed just one step of the 'real' farmers, Jefferson's idealized, commercially oriented cultivators. They lived off the grid, rarely attended school or joined a church, and remained a potent symbol of poverty. To be lower class was to be one of the landless." These were the people who were so cut off from state governments that, when the southern states left the nation, they tried to leave the states - in the case of West Virginia, actually succeeding.

    After the Civil War, Freedman's Bureaus brought federal help to refugees both white and black, but "[I]n the race for self-reliance, poor whites seemed to many bureau agents never to have left the starting gate." The moneyed interests in the southern states had not seen fit to provide an education for their poor neighbors, preferring to keep them desperate and indentured as share-croppers, an attitude that has not entirely disappeared. The unstable equilibrium between pity and censure usually leaned toward the latter: there must be something wrong with people so backward. Was it genetic? In some places, the proposed solutions included sterilization of women at the behest of the state. 
    The Great Depression opened the way for a renewed Federal effort at helping the rural poor; electricity and sanitation were definite improvements, while some housing projects were public catastrophes. Photographers and sociologists roamed the South, gawking at the crackers and rednecks, who understandably bridled at the resulting portrayals.

    Isenberg covers the past fifty years by way of some of the cultural and political figures you may remember. We meet the Joads, the migratory clan from The Grapes of Wrath, and Robert E. Lee Ewell, the scrawny, brutish villain in To Kill A Mockingbird, who lives behind the town dump "in an old Negro cabin." There was a vogue in the 1960s for comedy about rural whites, exemplified by Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; later, The Dukes of Hazard glorified moonshining and the Confederate flag.

     Country singer Dolly Parton played the part of the redneck made good. "Her image, as Parton confessed in her autobiography, expressed the desire of poor white trash girls to see themselves as magazine models." Evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, though she came from Minnesota, captured the same hyper-feminine image in her Pentecostal television ministry, which she and her husband Jim produced in North Carolina. They enjoyed lavish wealth, while fund-raising almost continuously. "The people whom the Praise the Lord Ministry conned were mainly poor whites; the majority of the program's viewers were born-again, with less than a high school education, and were most pitifully, unemployed." 
    White Trash is a serious, comprehensive history, seemingly distilling a book into each paragraph. The primary conclusion seems to be that we always have the poor with us. It's essential to be aware of the history, though, because people don't deserve to be invisible. Knowing what has happened before lets us see how it's happening now, and how far we fall short of our democratic ideals. We may not be able to cure poverty, but there's no good reason to be blind to it.