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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

November 3, 2014 Issue

I find the pleasure quotient in this year’s Food Issue noticeably skimpier than in previous years. The prose is still delicious, but it’s used to express anxiety rather than food love. John Lanchester’s “Shut Up and Eat” sets the tone. He writes, “Most of the energy that we put into food, I realized, isn’t about food; it’s about anxiety. Food makes us anxious.” Other pieces in The Food Issue illustrate Lanchester’s point. Michael Specter, in his “Against the Grain,” writes about “gluten anxiety” (“Gluten anxiety has been building for years, but it didn’t become acute until 2011, when a group led by Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University and the director of the G.I. unit at the Alfred Hospital, in Melbourne, seemed to provide evidence that gluten was capable of causing illness even in people who did not have celiac disease”). Dana Goodyear, in her “Élite Meat,” says, “More than any other food, meat focuses cultural anxieties.” She goes on:

In the seventies, beef caused heart attacks; in the eighties and afterward it carried mad-cow. Recent decades have brought to light the dark side of industrial agriculture, with its hormone- and antibiotic-intensive confinement-feeding operations, food-safety scares, and torture-porn optics. The social and environmental costs, the moral burden, the threat to individual health—all seem increasingly hard to justify when weighed against a tenderloin.

And when pleasure is expressed, as it is in Adam Gopnik’s “Bakeoff,” it’s never whole-hearted. Gopnik undercuts his sensuous description of the Cronut’s taste (“intensely sweet, interestingly textured, almost unbearably rich in ‘mouth feel’ ”) with the later observation that it “sits right on the edge of being slightly sickening.” David Owen’s excellent “Floating Feasts,” an account of his cruise on the Royal Caribbean’s Oasis, includes a section on Norwalk virus.

And yet, there are pleasures in this anxiety-ridden Food Issue: Jiayang Fan’s “Bar Tab: Drunken Munkey” (“a Bollywood flick plays, the churidar-outfitted waitstaff deliver railroad chicken on placemats mapping British India”); the delightful last paragraph of Gopnik’s “Bakeoff,” in which he imagines Antonin Carême, the early nineteenth century chef, standing in line for a Cronut (“One sees him outside, waiting for hours, furiously scribbling new ideas for pièces montées—perhaps a triumphal procession in pastry, with a temple of Art and Appetite made of pretzel croissants, blessed by Love in the form of three or four crusty Cronut Cupids, smiling down, for novelty’s sake”); the superb noticing of “the milk coming out of a white rubber hose that was un-pinched when you lifted the metal paddle,” in Chang-rae Lee’s “Immovable Feast”; and – my favorite – Rivka Galchen’s wonderful description of the operation of an ice-cream bar vending machine, in her “Medical Meals” (“Mike and I would listen to each coin fall. Then came a whirring sound as the freezer chest opened slowly, like a vampire’s coffin. A robot arm descended, suctioned up glycerides on a wooden stick, then released the treasure into the dispensing slot of the machine. I’m so glad I’m here, Mike would say”).

But none of the above is comparable to the double bliss of reading delicious prose describing delectable eats, e.g., Lauren Collins, in the 2012 Food Issue, writing that a bite of Poilâne miche “reverberates in the mouth for a few seconds after you’ve swallowed it, as though the taste buds were strings” (“Bread Winner,” The New Yorker, December 23, 2012). Next year, less anxiety and more food love, please.

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