What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, November 8, 2013

November 4, 2013 Issue

This week’s issue – The Food Issue – brims with wonderful, sensual, tactile writing, e.g., “the cymbal clang of heat” that occurs when a flake of Trinidad Scorpion Butch T chili pepper hits the tongue (Lauren Collins, “Fire-Eaters”); Spanish gooseneck barnacles that look like “tiny dinosaur claws” (Hannah Goldfield, “Tables For Two: Toro”); air that is “warm and moist and pungent with the scent of soured milk, like the cleavage of a nursing mother on a warm day” (Rebecca Mead, “Just Add Sugar”); “the beery, yeast-release aroma that spreads around the kitchen, the slowly exuding I’m-on-the-way smell of the rising loaf, and the intensifying fresh-bred smell that comes from the oven as it bakes” (Adam Gopnik, “Bread and Women”); “air of rosemary so delicate and light that it’s almost invisible; you know it’s there by the burst of flavor on your tongue” (Jane Kramer, “Post-Modena”); “a dish of raw oyster, poached quail egg, and crab guts, meant to be slurped together in one viscous spoonful” that – “quiver on quiver on quiver – was almost impossible to swallow, but it rewarded you with a briny, primal rush” (Dana Goodyear, “Beastly Appetites”).

That “quiver on quiver on quiver” is inspired!

All five pieces are admirable for the subjective, experiential approach their authors take to their material. Collins, Mead, Gopnik, Goodyear, and Kramer not only observe; they participate. Here, for example, is Collins, sampling one of the “superhots” she describes, a Trinidad Scorpion Butch T (no less):

Taylor took a knife and whittled off a flake no larger than a clove. I put it in my mouth and chewed. The capsaicin hit loud and fast, a cymbal clang of heat. My face flushed. My eyes glassed over and I started pacing the kitchen, as though I could walk off the burn. It took twenty minutes and a can of Dr Pepper to banish the sensation of having sort of tinnitus of the mouth.

Of the five features, I think my favorite is Gopnik’s “Bread and Women.” It’s the most richly sensuous (e.g., a fresh-baked loaf of his wife’s bread is “braided like the blonde hair of a Swedish child”; broissants “crumble, with a spray of soft crumbs, under the lightest touch”; “real bagels, as produced in the Montreal bakeries, with a large hole, a bright sesame glow, and a sweet, firm bite”).

My least favorite is Goodyear’s “Beastly Appetite.” Reading about eating cod sperm, cut-in-half live lobster, horse tartare, scorpions on toast, yak sausage, and other “new things” is almost gag-inducing. I couldn’t read it fast enough and be done with it. Gross!

And – one more cavil - please, New Yorker, next year, return to using Wayne Thiebaud for The Food Issue cover. Ivan Brunetti’s liney, textureless, Pac-Man-like cartoon is an anemic substitute for Thiebaud’s gorgeous, creamy, thick-painted creations. (Googling Thiebaud’s name, I see he’s age 92; perhaps he’s no longer painting? But, as a replacement, Brunetti is so obviously not the answer. Only sensualists need apply. Maybe Maira Kalman? See the scrumptious bowl of tomato bisque soup in her The Principles of Uncertainty).

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