Archive for the ‘Food’ category

For Good Times In Cambridge: Fallows/Kummer and Merry White Distant Early Warning

December 2, 2013

Good stuff coming up this Thursday, Dec. 5.

First off:  I’ll be introducing The Atlantic’s James Fallows and Corby Kummer at the last MIT Communications Forum event of the year.  It’ll run from 5-7 in MIT building 66, room 110. (Map at the link.)

Fallows you all know, I think.  He’s been national correspondent at The Atlantic since forever, with a stint at Jimmy Carter’s head speechwriter thrown in.  He’s covered an enormous range of stories from a great range of places — Washington, Shanghai, Beijing,  and any civil aviation landing strip he can find.  Politics, flight, international relations, China-watching, beer and much more.  He’s a National Magazine Award and American Book Award winner.  Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he has shepherded many of its signature pieces from wisp in a writer’s eye to publication.  (He’s also one of America’s leading food writers, winner of 5 James Beard Journalism awards including one my previous post would suggest I find most impressive, the M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

Here’s what the two of them will talk about: “Long Form Journalism: Inside The Atlantic.”

Mary_Cassatt_Woman_Reading_in_a_Garden

The session will focus on two questions: what goes into the making of a major piece of journalism.  First: what’s required to conceive, report, develop, refine, fix, verify, and then, finally, produce a long piece of writing that can both demonstrate the proposition and persuade its readers of its truth and importance.  Second: why such journalism matters (and, perhaps, some commentary on the curious fact that despite the internet’s supposed slaughter of attention, long form non-fiction seems it be entering something of a golden age.)

This will be videotaped, and I’ll post the clip and/or links to same when it goes live (and I  know that I’ve still got to get the promised Coates-Hertzberg video ready to roll…)  But if you’re in town on Thursday, this should be a good one.  We’ll probably be focusing on a single, maybe a couple of signature Fallows articles that went under Kummer’s watchful eye, and as I find out the texts, I’ll post those links in my next reminder.

The other event that Greater-Cambridge folks might want to check out is a truly happy book event for one of my oldest and dearest friends, Merry “Corky” White, (my college tutor, as it happens), whose classic Cooking for Crowds (illustrated by Koren!) is being re-iussed in a 40th anniversary edition.

Jan_Steen_-_Feast_of_the_Chamber_of_Rhetoricians_near_a_Town-Gate_-_WGA21727

She’ll be talking the book at Harvard Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Thursday — and I’ll be dashing as fast as I can from 02139 to 02138 to cheer her on.  If you can, you should too.  (No media for this one, alas.)

BTW: here’s the Amazon link to Corky’s book — but in the spirit of time, place and season, get it at Harvard Books if that’s near you, or from and the independent bookstore you normally use if you’re one of the lucky ones to still possess such a community treasure.

Images: Mary Cassat, Woman Reading in a Gardenbefore 1926

Jan Steen, Feast of the Rhetoricians Near a Town Gate, before 1679

Self Aggrandizement Alert + Some Kitchen Goodness In Aid Of A Friend

December 18, 2012

First — a head’s up to another one of my internet-radio conversations.  Tomorrow at 6 p.m EST I’ll be talking (live!) to David George Haskell.  David is a biologist teaching at the University of the South.  He blogs here, but the proximate reason for the interview is the publication of his book, The Forest Unseen.

The Forest Unseen is simply one of the best natural history cum science books I’ve read in years.  David’s concept — in less adept hands it would have been a conceit — was to take a single meter-in-diameter patch of old growth forest and visit it over the course of a year.

Paul_Cézanne_-_Interior_of_a_forest_-_Google_Art_Project

From those visits to what he called “the mandala” he drew essay after essay, pretty much all of them built on the idea of making a practice out of observation.  Most of the chapters in the book begin with a single point of entry into the life of the mandala, and then Haskell’s writing flows and leaps as he finds his veins of connection.  Along the way, quite gently, he leads his readers into an increasingly sophisticated understanding both of natural history side of things:  what’s there, what’s happening in that patch of forest (and through that one little scrap of land into the beyond, of course); and of the science involved, ideas from biology and ecology.  You learn a lot — I did — and it’s not until much later that you (I) realize just what a rich lode of fact and concept we’ve just taken on.

In all, a really worthwhile book — not a bad choice, if  I dare say it, to stick in somebody’s stocking in a few days.  (BTW — for more on the project, check out Jim Gorman’s article from October, published in the Grey Lady.)

Now to the kitchen goodness.  Fair warning:  what follows is a plug for something a good friend of mine is trying to do.  If you aren’t into knives, kitchens, or cooking, and/or don’t want to read about what is at bottom (and top, actually) an attempt at business, then please, get off the bus now.

OK?

So, back at the dawn of time, my friend Adam — Adam Simha — graduated from MIT rather at loose ends.   He found himself more interested in craft than formal science or engineering.  He bounced around some kitchens in town, and then found himself really looking at the tools chefs use, and then figuring out that he might have some skills and knowledge and sheer desire to see what he could do in that arena.

The result has been a number of years developing himself into an exceptional knife maker.  You can see what he does here — check out the custom knives he’s made for chef-clients, and see also the ready-made line for the rest of us.  After some years of nerving myself up to it, I finally bought one of the latter – the 10″ chefs’ knife with the black rubber (Pedro) handle.  It is, simply, the best knife I’ve ever owned, by far.

How better?  It starts sharper than the decent knives I’ve used for decades; it holds its edge longer; it sharpens more easily, and being made of better steel than any other knife I own (a Wursthof and a Sabatier for chef’s knives), it is thinner, harder, and is easier in my hands to manipulate than any big knife has a right to be.

And yeah, it costs a fair amount.  Not an utterly crazy number for something that, properly cared for, should outlast me  — Adam’s prices for his ready-mades fall in the middle of what a yuppie cooking store charges for its cutlery.  And hell, I’ve been promising myself a really good knife since we first elected Obama, and finally I just decided that this purchase was going to be my victory cigar for the re-election celebration.

An aside:  I’m not a great person with my hands, but I purely love the knowledge and history built into any good tool — plus the fact that better tools make the jobs they’re designed for easier to do.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Still_Life_with_Fish_Scallions_and_Large_Knife_-_Totoya_Hokkei

I learned this first when I started working with good camera-people when I was just getting going as a documentary film-maker.  One of those DPs, an older guy (Bob Elfstrom,* for those of you in the business), took me aside and made sure I understood how and why he used each of the bits and pieces he needed to make his images.  Great training!  Throughout he drummed into me the necessity, the almost religious obligation, to use the best tools to do a job one could possibly acquire.  And he was right, at least in my experience.  It’s because of him that I would hire or buy really good optics when I needed to –  leaving me fewer options on location than I would have liked, sometimes, but better, in ways I could see on screen.  And as I started to cook I found I didn’t like gadgets very much, but I truly valued a good knife.  Those of you who cook (and that’s most of us, I guess) know what it’s like when you get one that fits and balances and that takes and holds an edge without fighting you for it.  That’s the context in which I’ve come to Adam’s knives, and that’s why I am posting this to try and help him realize an ambition.

What Adam’s doing now is to take what he’s developed as he’s built knives for his custom clients to come up with versionss for a larger audience.  There are a fair number of costs that go with that ambition, mostly for a build out of his shop, and he’s launched an Indigogo campaign to try to raise the necessary.  He’s got a video up there that explains what he’s trying to do better than I can.

I’m a little diffident about putting this up.  A buddy of mine is trying to get a new business off the ground, and I’m using this community platform to spread the word.  But I guess the usual answer applies. Don’t bother with all this stuff if you aren’t interested.

But even if you have no time to cook, no money for what is indeed a luxury, or just own every last bit of kitchen gear you, your kids and their kids will ever use, still, if you’d like to get just a sense of what a wonderful obsessive does when unleashed on metal-working shop, check the stuff out; if nothing else it’s fine kitchen porn.

*Among much else, Elfstrom directed and appeared as Jesus in Johnny Cash’s rarely-seen feature film Gospel Road, and he was one of the Maysles brothers’ cameramen at Altamont.  Hell of a guy to take out on the road for one’s very first film.  I’m deeply grateful to him and to John Else (my other first-cameraman) for the generosity with which they made sure I didn’t do anything irrecoverably stupid — all the while teaching me a whole lot of stuff they don’t necessarily cover in film school.  I will say, though that even some jobs later it still came as something of a shock when Al Maysles showed up (unannounced) at the end of a day’s shooting in New York.  It had been a long day, and something of a fraught one, and it was literally the last set up on the final shoot for that particular film.  I was seriously ready for the bar.  But there he was, Mr. Maysles — who, it must be said, understood exactly the state I was in (had been there once or twice himself, I reckon). In the event, he was gentle, encouraging and blessedly brief in his hellos.

Images:  Paul Cezanne, Interior of a Forest, before 1890.

Totoya Hokkei, Still Life with Fish, Scallions and Large Knife, c. 1830

Federalism For Me And Not For Thee…Food Safety Dept.

July 14, 2012

As long as we’re talking about food….

Government by referendum is not a great way to run a railroad, IMHO.  Certainly, California voters have wandered down some deeply damaging alleys with the referendum process in that state.  (The referendum-induced 2/3rds majority required to raise taxes has been a stunning success, for example, if by success you mean rendering the world’s 8th largest economy largely ungovernable.

But there is no doubt that if you are into federalism and the return of power to the most local level possible, then it ought to be hard to find fault with the notion  that citizens of state ought to be able to decide that they want there food supply raised under certain regulatory conditions, and they want to ensure local standards of food safety.  So, who should object to this:

A California voter-approved law…requires that caged veal calves and breeding sows as well as laying hens should be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and freely extend their limbs.

The initiative was approved by 64 percent of California voters after animal rights activists released undercover videos of strangled, deformed and mummified hens in cages.

This isn’t even that controversial among at least some of the affected producers, according to reporting at SFGate.com:

The egg industry, in a landmark agreement with the Humane Society of the United States, has embraced the hen law and enlisted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to enact it nationally so that all egg producers operate under the same rules.

Other states have similar laws, but all that may change (cue the usual suspects music) if the House GOP, fronted by poster child dangerous idiot Steve King (R-salmonella) have their way:

The latest salvo came in a midnight vote in the House Agriculture Committee on an amendment to deny states the ability to regulate any farm product, potentially overturning not just California’s farm laws but animal welfare, food safety and environmental laws related to any farm product in all 50 states. [King introduced the amendment]

Read that again:  “potentially overturning not just California’s farm laws but animal welfare, food safety and environmental laws related to any farm product in all 50 states.” [Emphasis added, obviously]

For just a taste of the implications, here’s a California egg farmer who supports the law:

Riebli, the Petaluma egg farmer, said that if King’s amendment survives, “California also has pesticide laws for fruits and vegetables. They’re gone. California has its own standards for fluid milk (requiring fortification with vitamin D). They’re gone.”

Who needs a race to the bottom when Congress can just teleport us to the floor of the Marianas Trench?

There’s a lot more to this issue — we’ve got a pigs vs. chickens battle going on; an argument over what states can regulate that has genuine complexity and so on.  But look at what the GOP is trying to do (to be fair, along with Democrats from some ag/agribusiness heavy states): deny the ability of any state to regulate the health and safety of the food it’s citizens consume.

John’s running tagline is basically right: anyone voting Republican now and for the foreseeable future is voting to turn the United States into  Somalia.

Discuss.

Image:  Gustave Klimpt, Garden With Roosters, 1917

The “Have A Beer With Primary”…

July 14, 2012

…is over.

Well, actually, it’s been over since Mitt clinched the increasingly poisoned chalice that is his nomination, given his religion’s prohibition on consuming alcohol.  (See:  Mitt and Osama do/did have something in common…)*  But this piece in Mother Jones by Tim Murphy (via Ed Kilgore) captures yet one more reason to believe that Mr. Romney is not in fact a human being, but rather a strangely ill-designed bot intended to simulate human behavior.  Consider:

Mitt Romney has a complicated relationship with fast food. He likes pizza, but insists on scraping off the cheese before he ever takes a bite. He likes fried chicken, but only when the skin has been removed. He likes Big Macs, but only after removing the middle bun. He likes Coca-Cola because, he explained in his 2004 book Turnaround, it reminds him of polar bears, but he rarely drinks it because he can’t have caffeine. On the trail, Romney has name-dropped Carl’s Jr. and spoken of the wonders of WaWa but subsists mainly on granola he carries around in one-gallon Ziploc bags.

Anne Laurie blogged on this general topic this morning, quoting Taibbi on how most presidents have some capacity for engaging other human beings — a liberal could enjoy watching football with George Bush and so on.

That seems basically right to me, at least in principle.  I’m not sure if I could at this point stand being in the same room with 43, but I can at least see how it might be possible to have a reasonably pleasant interaction watching my team shred whoever it is he supports.

This is more of the same.  I’ve spent plenty of time in red states or settings, surrounded by folks who are as different from me politically as it is possible to be, and had absolute common ground in the matter of getting elbows deep in food that’ is gloriously bad for us all.  I’ve been taught to suck the heads of crawfish in rural Lousiana with folks with whom I dared not mention politics or faith.  I’ve done double duty at one of the true Meccas of American junk food, the Minnesota State Fair, (bacon ice cream? cheeseburger sticks?) where the proposition that there is nothing that can’t be improved by immersion in vats of fat is annually put to the test. I’ve…well, you get the idea, and we have ample evidence from this blog that lots of folks here take enormous pleasure in dining high and low.

But then you read Mitt’s preferences — or rather I do — and what I see there is someone who’s hinky.  A bit weird.  A control freak and someone deeply uncomfortable — unprepared, even — for the daily reality of, well, just being.  And hence, in some deep way, unprepared, unqualified for the job he seeks.

Seriously.   Put youself in the scene:   imagine you’re at parlous sitting at the counter when Mitt Romney of the Perfect Hair And Teeth walks in.   The guy behind the counter hands you a fresh pie, and a few minutes later RMoney gets his.

You grab a slice (the one you have to kind of torque so the cheese doesn’t slide away), and you get that first bite when the cheese hasn’t fully set yet and it’s still hot enough to burn the tongue if you’re not careful, and it has that same satisfaction that one gets from the very first gulp of a very cold beer on a day as hot as it is as I write this — and then you look up and there’s RMoney, delicately picking at the mozzarrella with a fork as he tugs and pulls with precise movements until the surface of what he’s about to eat is pristine, utterly free of dairy products.  He completes his task, and all he’s got left is a drooping triangle of bread slathered in tomato goop.  A perfectly innocent morsel of wood-fired arterial disease transformed into something miserable, mutilated; almost an atrocity worthy of the folks at the Hague.

By this time, if the “you” here is me, I’m (a) done with my first slice and grabbing more and (b) nervously realizing that there’s something really wrong with the guy next to me.  I’d start to edge away from the counter as I watch him consume in perfect, portion controlled bites the entire tomato-crust exercise in pointlessness.  Horrified, fascinated, I’d find it hard to pull my eyes off him as he takes the next piece and does it again.

Finally I’d come to my senses. That’s when I grab the counterman’s eye and ask for a take-out box.

All of which is to say that Mitt Romney has all the money it takes to become president and then some.  He has the advantage of a complaisant and oligarchic media whose owners have a direct interest in a Romney victory.  He has the challenger’s advantage that the economy still sucks while his allies try to make sure that it continues to do so through November.  And yet I’m not at all sure he can overcome his greatest problem:  he can’t cease being Mitt Romney, and that is someone — or something – that is deeply weird, and not at all in a good way.

Oh — and go read the rest of Murphy’s article; it captures a microcosm of who wants Romney to win and why.  The shorter:  Romney is the candidate for those who think the minimum wage is and ever was too high.

*BTW — I don’t think I’ve seen it written, and it hasn’t occurred to me till now, but how do the geniuses of the birther crowed line up Barack Hussein Obama’s not Islamic and very public pleasure at hoisting a brew and his Sekret Moooslim status.  I mean, I can guess — it’s not a lie if it’s intended to deceive the infidel and all that, but still, I’m not sure there’s enough tin foil in the cosmos to channel the mixed messages those folks must process.

Image: Pieter Breughel the Elder, Peasant Wedding, c. 1587

Roast Chicken Obsession

May 7, 2012

I haz it.

I haven’t done much food writing here, except when baiting Megan McArdle.   Partly, it’s because even though it’s truly fun scribbling, and I’ve even made some money at it in the past,  life is too short to blog about everything.  But in the end, why not — and I just enjoyed something y’all might, so what’s the harm in using up some of the Intertube’s surplus bytes.

That would have been a (to me) novel twist on that Broadway standard of a supper, roast chicken.

This would be my ur-comfort food.Some of my fondest early memories are of trying to stab my mother with a fork as she maneuvered to steal the crisp chicken skin I saved for last. My sister is still pissed at the times Mum got away with this evil ploy — and this even though our Mum is fifteen years gone beyond the reach of our griefing on this point.  It’s this kind of memory that makes me think I should put away as much cash in my son’s therapy fund as I do his college trove.

I’ve used a lot of recipes to come up with a good bird since I left my mother’s home.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve often turned to one from Carol Field’s In Nonna’s Kitchen, in which you stuff the cavity of the bird with a cup or so pitted kalamata or niçoise olives, a few sprigs of parsley and a cut and squeezed half lemon, skewer the cavity shut, squeeze some lemon juice and drizzle some olive oil on the outside (lots of salt too) — and then roast upside down in 425 degree oven for about 20 minutes before flipping it over and cooking it breast-side up ’till done.  Good times.

I’ve also greatly enjoyed roast chicken porn.  I first encountered Gordon Hammersley’s recipe — legendary in Boston — in Julia Child’s In Julia’s Kitchen With The Master Chefs.  Given Hammersley’s cook-twice method, well enough suited to a restaurant kitchen, but not so much to my distracted condition, it’s one I’ve left better read than done.   Then there was the time I picked up at a remainder-price the ultimate food-porn cookbook, Alain Ducasse’s Flavors of France.  This is truly one you buy for the pictures; Ducasse demands your whole paycheck and more skill than I can muster to put together just about any of his dishes. But the recipe — well, if I ever choose to devote at least thirty bucks to a chicken dinner, maybe more, along with the better part of a weekend in prep, this will be the one.  And I may yet try, sometime.

But all of this is prelude to a very quick recommendation.  This week I came across Melissa Clark’s video and recipe in The  New York Times for what is for me a real variation in method on roasting a bird — the assignment which is to food writing what the  10 ways to please your man/woman is to the sex guides in the women’s and men’s books (a  hardy perennial on which there is almost never anything new to say).   Clark proposed splaying the bird — cutting through the skin and thigh joints to get the dark meat to lie flat — and than roasting the chicken in a very hot pre-heated skillet.

My wife and I tried out the recipe last night, with just a bit of deviation — we used scallions and shallots instead of ramps, for example, and kept the temperature down to 425 degrees from her 500.  Next time we plan to add a few elements to the vegetables with which the chicken communes — fennel, perhaps, and maybe a little bit of tomato.  But I’m here to tell you that the basic idea worked great, turning out a wonderful, mellow chicken in very little time, with a trivially easy prep.

All of which is to say — as long as  you are so nice as to ask — then, yes, I happily  endorse this path to a good night’s supper.

Image:  Peter Jakob Horemans, Still life with plucked chicken, apple and carrot,  1768

A Factoid On Which To Chew

May 2, 2012

The US ranks second — to mighty Luxembourg! — in per-capita meat consumption, per a review of 2007 data. (h/t Jag Bhalla)

I actually find the numbers both surreal and plausible.  By these numbers, Americans in 2007 ate about 275 pounds of meat and poultry each — 125.4 kg, to be precise — or about 3/4 of a pound per day.

Update:  this particular chart has some head scratchers in it—see this comment thread at Crooked Timber for some of the details.  Other numbers for the US seem to hover between 200 and 230 pounds per capita per year, depending on which source you trust, or on the order of 2/3 of a pound per day.  The underlying implications remain basically the same.)

Right there, friends, is the nexus of all kinds of interesting issues, from climate change to health care costs.

Masticate among yourselves.

Image:  Alfred Grey, Highland Cattle, 1887

Eine Kleine Sunday Light Reading

September 25, 2011

I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet the last several days, I know.  That’s what happens when a lot of years thinking about Albert Einstein brings one an invitation to the city of Medellin, Colombia to talk Big Al to the public.

Medellin is a fascinating place, as it happens, though I didn’t get that much time to explore.  I was struck throughout my visit at the oddness of the mix of circumstances that brought me to a place I’d truly never imagined I’d go, to speak of relativity, Hitler, and all kinds of things.  Funny old life and all that.

It’s not that complicated to get to Medellin from Boston — a hop to Miami and then a direct flight from there — but the plane rides and the layovers added up to the longest stretch of uninterrupted pure reading time I’ve had in a while.  On the way down, I finished Tom Bissell’s really interesting Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter — I may write about this non-gamer’s reaction to Bissell’s attempt to locate the game-specific artistic core of the genre — but what has me captivated from a couple of days ago is my re-entry into Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet.

That book, a memoir written from deep within the consuming fact of Judt’s last illness — ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — is really a collection of short essay/memories.  Judt was a historian — his work centers on post-war Europe — and a public intellectual, the author of essays that detailed the flaws and follies of politics and culture on both sides of the Atlantic with bite — even ferocity.  The Memory Chalet touches on such concerns only obliquely.  But even so, in the midst of this exercise of recollection, flashes of connection arc across time and wit to produce sudden, wonderful set pieces.

Like the one prompted by a remembrance of Britain’s end-of and post-war Prime Minister Clement Atlee — so precisely rendered as to strike switchblade slash of political observation that makes me wish (again) that this particular wit were still unsheathed:

Moral seriousness in public life is like pornography:  hard to define but you know it when you see it.  It describes a coherence of intention and action, an ethic of political responsibilty.  All politics is the art of the possible.  But art too has its ethic.  If politicians were painters, with FDR as Titian and Churchill as Rubens, then Atlee would be the Vermeer of the profession:  precise, restrained — and long undervalued.

 

Bill Clinton might aspire to the heights of Salvador Dali (and believe himself complimented by the comparison), Tony Blair to the standing — and cupidity — of Damien Hurst.

Blair as Hurst.  Perfect.

See what I mean, though?  Would that Judt were around to wrap mind and apply pen to the freak show of contemporary Republican politics!

One more thing.  Given that it’s Sunday, and we should not live by politics alone, here’s a bonus bit of Judt, pure memory here, in a brief passage that tries to capture an identity formed through a childhood transected by warring cuisines:  the postwar English assaults against food; his grandparents’ resistant strain of Eastern European Jewish Sabbath meals; the first hints of a world of food beyond Land’s End.  What did all this add up to for the grown up Judt, that sophisticated citizen of Intelligentsia?  This:

As for the madeleine that would trigger the memory?  Naan dunked in matzohball soup, served by a Yiddish-speaking waiter from Madras.  We are what we ate.  And I am very English

For me, it would be the wonton soup from the long lost Yee’s Canton Café — the consequence of having a Jewish historian of China for a father, who declared that the Chief Rabbinate’s writ ended at the door to a Chinese restaurant — followed by my mothers’ leg of lamb with red currant jelly.  You?

Image:  J. Vermeer, The Geographer, c. 1668-1669.

 

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong (Again!): Kitchen History Edition

February 4, 2011

There are those who think the least snark directed Megan McArdle’s way is a waste of time — that her Our Lady of Perpetual Error persona is a considered ploy to grab enough attention to make it worth her masters’ while to retain her as Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic. (Yes, the sound you just heard was Emerson spinning in his grave.)

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Me, I’m actually sympathetic to that view, for all the joy I’ve taken in McArdle gigging over the last few years.  It would be better for both the body politic and the culture at large if McArdle’s fifteen minutes simply dwindled to their inevitable end. Certainly, I’m not helping every time some new howler evokes a bloggy response.

But the problem is that her quarter of an hour is not yet over, and McArdle is still The Atlantic’s most prominent economics blogger, and she continues to weigh in on a whole raft of stuff about which she willfully knows nothing, all in order to advance an agenda that has only one item:  to comfort the comfortable.

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So, despite the truth that each time someone points out she’s made another howler it only adds to her profile, I think there is a duty to do so. Once upon a time, in organizations that saw themselves as doing real journalism for audiences with an understanding of the term,  errors actually mattered.  Anyone starting out would get a chance or two, or even three.  But when gastritis broke your calculator once too often, you’d seek a new line of work.  You’d go become a shill, perhaps — a time honored retreat into expense account heaven for plenty of hacks who couldn’t hack the hard work of actually getting stuff right … or for whom, as in McArdle’s case, getting things wrong is a feature and not a bug.  That this hasn’t happened here is a problem for McArdle’s colleagues, I think, or it ought to be…about which a little more below.

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So what’s today’s problem post?  Nothing overtly political actually, which in some ways makes the case of McArdle’s unfitness for her claimed role yet more clear.   In her post, “The Economics of Kitchens,” she attempts to engage an ongoing discussion between Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen on the pace of innovation.  Krugman and Cowen point out that there isn’t a whole lot new in kitchens today compared with those of sixty years ago.  Not so, says McArdle.  Rather, we live now in culinary paradise compared to those bad old days:

1953 kitchens did not have electric drip coffee brewers, stand mixers, blenders, food processors, or crock pots….

Err, no.  I’ll give McArdle this.  Electric drip coffee makers do first appear in the 1970s.  The electric vacuum coffee maker was, however, a common appliance and a very competitive marketplace. Not to mention that it was a technology that offered such incredibly cool options as the Faberware Coffee Robot:

Stand mixers in the 1950s?  Oh, you mean the standing mixer invented in 1908 by Herbert Johnson, sold to commercial bakers in 1915, and released for the home as the KitchenAid Food Preparer in…wait for it…1919?  Sunbeam released its cheaper alternative in the ’30s, and in 1954, (that kitchen of the 50s thing again) one could actually purchase a KitchenAid in a color other than white.

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Blenders? Same story. The blender was invented in 1922 first as a tool for soda counters, and the iconic Waring Blender hit the market in 1937.  By 1954, one million had been sold. As a sidenote, the Vitamix Corporation introduced a competitor to the Waring machine, and in 1949 sold it with the aid of a thirty minute broadcast on a brand new medium:  WEWS TV in Cleveland, in what is thought to be the first ever direct response ad.

You get the idea.  In the list above, food processors and slow cookers are in fact inventions that have their roots in the sixties and their commercial release in the early 70s.  Give McArdle that — but the point to take away from this is that in a list of five statements of fact, McArdle gets two wrong unequivocally, is deceptive in a third case (there were no automatic drip coffeemakers, but automatic makers using other brewing methods were readily available) and right only in two cases.  .400 may be fabulous in baseball.  In journalism, it wouldn’t even propel you to the Cape Cod League.

Then there’s this:

…aside from the privileged few who could afford copper, most Americans were cooking on thin, low-quality stainless steel and aluminum pans that deformed easily…

McArdle knows this how?  It’s a pretty bald declaration that would have come as a shock to a company like Lodge (founded 1896) or Wagner (founded 1891).  And if you want to think about the availability of high-end cookware aimed at more regular folks, what about the company born of a trip to Paris in 1952, on which Chuck Williams first encountered “classic French cooking equipment like omelet pans and souffle molds whose quality I’d never seen in the U.S.” Williams opened his first store in 1956 in the then very ordinary small-town farming community of Sonoma, California.  Williams-Sonoma proved to have legs, I believe.

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Again, the point isn’t that one store in Sonoma in 1956 = sauciers for everyone.  It is that McArdle has neither knowledge nor diligence enough to investigate even this really elementary question of fact:   whether or not Americans in the ’50s cooked in lots of different kinds of pots.

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And how about this:

I don’t believe that they have gone without fresh produce for six to eight months at a time, as my mother did in her childhood–and was told to be grateful for the frozen vegetables which hadn’t been available when her mother was young…Is the shift to flash frozen produce greater, or less great, than the shift from flash frozen to the fresh produce made possible by falling trade barriers, rising air travel, and the advent of container shipping?

There’s a lot wrong with this little passage, but here, let me just point out that McArdle is simply wrong in what she implies here about the history of the transport of refrigerated food.  The earliest prototype of a mechanically cooled railroad car received a US patent in 1880.  It certainly did take a long time for that to yield practical diesel-powered refrigeration on rails, but the use of natural ice for refrigerating specially designed rail cars — “reefers” dates back to the mid 19th century.  By the early 1880s, the Swift company were using ice-cooled cars to deliver 3,000 carcasses a week from the midwest to Boston.  When ice production on industrial scale took off around the turn of the twentieth century, refrigeration on rails became so pervasive that 183,000 reefer cars were on US rails by 1930.

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All of which is to say that the delivery of fresh food to locations distant from production is something that has evolved over the last century and a half — and is not simply, or even mostly, the result of falling trade barriers, air transport or containers.

Or, in other words, McArdle — again — knows not whereof she speaks.

Of course, this being a piece by McArdle, it is not possessed merely of  factual howlers.  Misused citations also do their duty.

For one:  McArdle writes that you can tell Americans in the ’50s ate badly by looking to the sources:

It shows in the cookbooks.  The Betty Crocker is full of economizing tips: ways to stretch ground beef by adding Wheaties; noodle and rice rings that artfully disguise the fact that there isn’t much protein to go around; “one egg” cakes praised for being economical.  This was not a handout for welfare recipients; it was expected that the average housewife would be anxiously counting the cost of the eggs and milk used in her baked goods, and looking for ways to stretch out even cheap cuts of meat at the end of the month.

A couple of things here:  cookbooks published in the late ’40s and early ’50s often retained some of the traces of WW II rationing; they are very useful documents for the social history of that era, but they are not wholly reliable guides to the cooking practices of the post-rationing world.

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More to the point of method and intellectual honesty, there’s the question of whether or not a 50s era “average housewife” text is that different from later, similar works.  I checked my ’75 edition of The Joy of Cooking, a perhaps slightly more upmarket cookbook than the Betty Crocker, and I find that when you get to the ground meat section, for example, there is a section on stretching animal proteins with starches, how you flavor such mixtures and so on. (And I’m not even going to go into the wealth of “improving” cookbooks that were also the rage in the ’50s, and that would give the lie to McArdle’s suggestion that those benighted days were wholly nasty, brutish, and full of hamburger helpers.  I’ve got a classic double-volume edition of the Gourmet cookbook from that period that shows that would be pink-Himalayan saltanistas would have had plenty of guidance.)

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And finally, this: it wouldn’t be a McArdle piece in all its glory without a bit of gratuitious viciousness to the poor:

Now, I’m sure there are still people in this country who worry about the price of adding an extra egg to their cakes–but they are not the average, or even close to the average.

Current percentage of Americans in poverty?  As of 2009, 14.3% nationwide, according the US Census Bureau. Almost exactly the same proportion — %14.7 — American households suffered food insecurity according to the Department of Agriculture.

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That is to say, those who might weigh the price of eggs may not be not average — but more than one out of every eight Americans had a moment recently when they might have thought twice and thrice about cracking that last shell  — or rather, had no cake at all to ponder.

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This, of course, is the point to which McArdle was tending this whole time.  Even here, in a seemingly weightless post about cooking and memory,  McArdle is still working her one consistent vein of propaganda:  We live now at the apex of history, in the best of all possible worlds and hence would alter the existing power structure at our own great risk … and BTW f*ck the poor.  Same old, same old, in other words and just as dishonestly advanced as in the more obviously political of her work.  Which makes it more dangerous, I think, not less.

Oh well.  I could and probably should have got to this point in the story much sooner.  But all the overkill above is actually aimed at anyone who still takes McArdle seriously on any score — and it is especially intended to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about the damage she does by association to anyone and any institution that claims to be serious about journalism.  That she still survives — hell, holds a prominent position at The Atlantic — casts a shadow, fairly or not, over the work of the genuinely thoughtful real journalists who still publish there, folks like James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates along with many others.

As they care for their reputation, they must wince at the collateral damage inflicted every time McArdle hits the “publish” button.

Images: “Coffee Robot” Original 1938 hang tag.
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Diego Velasquez, Old Woman Frying Eggs, 1618
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Pieter Claesz Tafel mit Hummer, Silberkanne, großem Berkemeyer, Früchteschale, Violine und Büchern, 1641.

This Is How Bad Ideas Become Received Wisdom: Mark Ambinder, Regulation, and Evil edition

April 16, 2010

I’m not an Ambinder hater.  He knows the mechanics of politics really well, and when he chooses, he’s got useful material to share.

But I’m no fan either — I think he’s allowed himself to play Villager too much too soon.  He’s a good reporter, I think, but his pleasure at being a member of the Washington in-crowd is palpable, and I find his site less and less interesting the more reliably conventional its wisdom becomes.

It’s kind of sad, actually.  He’s too young and too smart to make it pretty to watch him turn into a kind aspiring Broder with internet skillz.  But that’s what’s happening,  I think.

Case in point — look at this reflex in action on what would seem to be a subject pretty far removed from the usual Washington sacred cow.  Ambinder wrote a  very interesting article for the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly about  obesity, spinning of his own experience an in depth look at what can and/or should be done about the very real harm obesity is causing in this country.

Mostly, the piece is a pretty good bit of feature writing, with a clear understanding of its subject and its aims.  But even in a matter very near to his heart, and one in which he has already made the (for the contemporary Village) significant leap of recognizing a role of government action in confronting the very complex issue of obesity, he still can’t help straying into the easy, mindless tropes of elite posturing on the evils of policy action.

For example, in one passage, he describes President Obama’s choice of FDA chief, Margaret Hamburg, as “another New York City veteran with a strong nanny streak.”

That would be this Dr. Hamburg

Dr. Hamburg, who was appointed by Mayor David N. Dinkins as acting commissioner in 1991 and became commissioner the following year, was one of the few top officials asked to remain when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani took office in 1994. She was best known for developing a tuberculosis control program that produced sharp declines in the incidences of the disease in New York. Under her tenure, child immunization rates rose in the city.

She left New York in 1997 to become assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, where she created a bioterrorism initiative and led planning for pandemic flu response.

And what was Dr. Hamburg’s sin? That under her leadership, the FDA “warned 17 food manufacturers that their food labeling made misleading health claims that needed to be corrected.”

This is, if I may steal someone else’s snark, Your Liberal Media In Action.

Ambinder seems to see as a nanny — by implication, I think, an emasculating female authority figure — someone who helped roll back what many consider to be one of, if not the greatest looming public health crises around these days (TB) — not to mention someone who has tried to plan ahead for a couple of the most significant anticipatable but not predictable medical threats we face as a nation.

I’m not sure what you would call someone who has that skill set and resume, but she’s a nanny only if you think proactive government planning and decisions in the face of real dangers is somehow Satanic Mary Poppins territory.

But that, of course, is the current elite Washington chattering class consensus.  Three decades of hard, effective work by the radical right propaganda apparat — the AEIs and the rest — have produced the unthought conclusion for too many that government action of any sort is an infantalizing, illegitimate assault on the individual’s corporation’s right to lie about the effects of its products.

What’s weird — or rather, telling — is that it actually appears from the passage in question that Ambinder actually admires the FDA’s action in this case. He writes, “This was the most significant FDA enforcement action on such matters in more than a decade.”

But even so, he can’t stop himself from spitting out a cliched epithet that undercuts his own apparent conclusion — and, more broadly, the whole idea that it might make sense for the government to be active in the arena of protecting the public from deceptive practices implicated in a major health concern.

You see this pathology more bluntly in a blog post that Ambinder wrote to follow up on the article, in which he outlined in brief what he thought ought to be done about the American obesity plague.  There he writes that  we should

Accept that regulation is a necessary evil. (Emphasis added.)

Oh FSM.  Not this again.

Easy snark aside, here you have the political editor of The Atlantic Monthly taking as absolutely uncontroversial the idea that regulation, necessary or not, is bad.  It’s a truth universally acknoweledged– in his worldview —  that such government action cannot be better than the lesser of two lousy outcomes.

And this is the problem.  There is no argument that there can be good and bad regulation — as in rules that fail to achieve their policy goals.  But the idea that the tool of regulation is itself evil — now that’s the true accomplishment of the Reaganite long war on the whole idea of public governance, of a public interest.

And, of course, it’s false, a lie, told wittingly by some, unconsciously, I think, here.

This really isn’t complicated:  regulations are the tools we use to ensure that private ambitions do not trump public interests.

Ambinder even gets this, sort of.  In  his longer article, he writes of the ways regulatory change works.  Sometimes it is simply a rule that compels a change in behavior.  Other times, it is process that evokes such changes.  He writes,

There is a creative tension here, and the conversations can be difficult,” said the [National Restaurant Association] president, Dawn Sweeney, of its negotiations with the administration. “Having said that, we have to have real things to offer, because if regulation is in the offing at some point down the road, we want to be out in front of it.”

Well, yeah.

To recap:  what has Ambinder tried to say here?  One — that our current food practices have led to a deeply damaging national crisis of obesity.  Two — that the organization of  our food industry and culture are among the primary drivers of this crisis.  Three — that absent changes in the way the industries involved do business we are unlikely to resolve said crisis.  And four — that such change comes only in the context of explicit incentives to do so, and this administration is using the regulatory process to provide those incentives.

Nothing evil to see here — except, if I may hyperbolize — Ambinder’s swift and sloppy appropriation of a cliche that advances the very political interests that would derail the changes he wants to see here.

Which is to say Ambinder has to choose, as must all the rest of us, which side of this rhetorical and real divide he wants to defend.

*Ambinder himself notes this problem, writing, inter alia, that “wide evidence suggests that advertising feeds obesity, triggering what the psychologist Robert Cialdini has called the brain’s “click-whirr” response.”

Images:  James Gillray “A Voluptuary, under the horrors of digestion” (a caricature of the Prince of Wales, later George IV) 1792.

And why not two  Weird Tales covers in one day, this one, dated November 1942, vol. 36, no. 8, featuring Nursemaid to Nightmares by Robert Bloch. Cover art by Richard Bennett.

Top of the Morning to you all…

April 1, 2010

And I hear that the spaghetti harvest is particularly fine this year.

(Skip to 0:30 to miss the incredibly long archive trailer).

Special bonus natural history video:

Update: Special, special bonus announcement from the local Boston public broadcasting station today:

WGBH is announcing an exciting collaboration today: Starting this morning, in partnership with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority’s new “Explore the Pike” campaign, WGBH will feature 3-D images on our digital mural. Free “WGBH 3-D” glasses are being distributed at the eastbound Weston tolls to give commuters the full effect. “We want to expand and enrich the public experience while encouraging the 500,000 commuters a week who pass our mural to give WGBH a deeper look,” says Marketing and Communications VP Jamie Parker. All it took for ‘GBH to obtain city approval for the innovative imaging was a simple programming promise, Jamie notes: the third Monday of every month, the mural will now showcase that acclaimed Boston architectural masterpiece, Government Center. The Development team quickly jumped in to get more bang from the 3-D initiative: WGBH MemberCards will be handed out to drivers who sign up for the FastLane program, and a portion of their annual membership dues will be deducted each time they pass a toll. (Take the Pike to New York and you’re automatically a ‘GBH Sustainer!) Drivers of Toyotas will receive a special invitation to participate in WGBH’s vehicle donation program.


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