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.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

November 2, 2015 Issue (The Food Issue)

This week’s Pick of the Issue – The Food Issue (no less) – is a contest between six pieces: Nicolas Niarchos’s "Bar Tab: Dutch Kills"; Calvin Trillin’s "In Defense of the True 'Cue"; Dana Goodyear’s "A New Leaf"; Nicola Twilley’s "Accounting For Taste"; Michael Specter’s "Freedom From Fries"; and Lauren Collins’s "Who's To Judge?" To help me decide the winner, I’m going to apply the “thisness” test. “Thisness,” you’ll recall, is “any detail that draws abstraction towards itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion” (James Wood).

First up is Niarchos’s terrific "Bar Tab: Dutch Kills." It’s only two hundred and thirty-two words, but what words! It has the concentration of great poetry. Here are two excerpts:

Behind a brown door on a blasted section of Jackson Avenue, a whip-thin saloon that bears the neighborhood’s name is bringing back a version of the past, with the clink of hand-cut ice in tumblers and the waft of freshly cut orange peel.

“Refreshing? You’ll have a Penicillin”—lemon and ginger layered with Islay Scotch. “This is the Bee’s Knees”—a citrusy gin cocktail—“but I added strawberry juice.”

With the clink of hand-cut ice in tumblers and the waft of freshly cut orange peel – how fine that it is. The best food writing, for me, is grounded in details that appeal to the senses. After all, as Nicola Twilley says, in her excellent "Accounting For Taste," “Alongside sex, eating is one of the most multisensory of our activities.” 

Calvin Trillin would no doubt agree. His superb "In Defense of the True 'Cue" chronicles his visits to a variety of pungent North Carolina barbecue joints, e.g., Stamey’s, Cook’s, the Lexington Barbecue, and Allen & Son. My favorite passage is this description of a smokehouse:

The pitmaster arrives at three or four in the morning to start up the pasteboard boxes normally used as kindling. (More pasteboard boxes, flattened out, cover the meat, in order to keep the heat on and the ashes off.) He has to feed wood into the firebox continually. He has to shovel burning coals out of the firebox and spread them under racks of pork every fifteen or twenty minutes. This goes on for about ten hours. “It ain’t too awfully bad,” Brandon Cook, of Cook’s Barbecue, in Lexington, said of the routine, as we watched him arrange coals under some pork shoulders. To me, it looked bad enough to make me wonder why so many barbecue people, including Cook, choose to join the family business. Watching your father or your grandfather tend a pit for a number of years seems like something that would inspire you to go into, say, insurance sales.

I like that parenthetical “More pasteboard boxes, flattened out, cover the meat, in order to keep the heat on and the ashes off” - thisness par excellence.

Dana Goodyear’s "A New Leaf" is about creating a new cuisine based on seaweed. It’s endlessly quotable. It begins and ends spectacularly. Here’s the beginning:

I stared for a while at the placid face of Long Island Sound before I could make out Bren Smith’s farm. It was a warm, calm morning in September. Sixty buoys bobbed in rows like the capped heads of synchronized swimmers. It wasn’t until Smith cut the engine of his beat-up boat, Mookie, that I knew for sure we had arrived. The farm, a three-acre patch of sea off Stony Creek, Connecticut, starts six feet underwater and descends almost to the ocean floor. From the buoys hang ropes, and from the ropes hang broad, slippery blades of sugar kelp, which have the color and sheen of wet Kodak film.

It ends with Goodyear diving in the kelp:

Now kelp was everywhere, ochre-colored, thirty feet tall, flailing like tube dancers outside a car wash. Three bright-orange Garibaldi fish swam past, then a group of opaleye, then five kelp bass. I came up to the surface and dove down again, plugging my nose with one hand and using the other to pull myself down the length of a plant. The water was milky with kelp slough. Southern sea palms swooshed and swayed as the waves tumbled over them. At the surface, Ford held up a loose piece of kelp, shaggy and decrepit with a small holdfast—it was sporifying. “More spores,” he said. “Go, go, go.”

That kelp description – “ochre-colored, thirty feet tall, flailing like tube dancers outside a car wash” – is inspired.

Nicola Twilley’s "Accounting For Taste," is a report on fizz-enhancing cans, sonic potato chips, and other sensory marketing innovations. This is the first piece by Twilley that I’ve read. She seems right at home in this heavy-hitter Food Issue lineup. I like her use of “I,” particularly near the end, when she says,

I knew this particular trick of Spence’s—I had watched him perform it multiple times—but it still worked on me. With only a change in the background music, the deep-brown beer had gone from creamy and sweet to mouth-dryingly bitter.

Michael Specter’s "Freedom From Fries" is about fast casual dining at places like Sweetgreen, Lyfe Kitchen, Chipotle, Five Guys, and Shake Shack. Specter always gets to me with his “visit” sentences, e.g., “A few weeks ago, I drove from Chicago to the suburb of Oak Brook, where McDonald’s has its global headquarters.” I find such lines addictive. I read them and think, Okay, I’m with you. Let’s go! Over the years, I’ve vicariously accompanied Specter to a lot of interesting places – Luanda, Mount Vernon, Maharashtra, Shenzhen, on and on.

Lauren Collins’s "Who's To Judge?" is an examination of how the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list is compiled. Collins says, “The 50 Best, which is as much about a sort of competitive hedonism as it is about connoisseurship, is the restaurant guide its era demands—edible clickbait, a Baedeker’s for bucket-listers.” The list strikes me as a game for the one percent. I’m not interested. But I read the article because it’s by Collins, author of the extraordinary "Angle of Vision," and such first-rate food pieces as "Fire-Eaters," "Bread Winner," and "The King's Meal." I’m glad I stuck with it, because the last section, in which Collins describes the best restaurant she ever went to, totally redeems the piece. She writes,

The snapper came raw, sliced open and cross-hatched. We pulled chunks from the grid, like puzzle pieces, and dipped them in soy sauce. A waiter wearing a marinière and a sailor’s cap brought Almaza beer in mugs with salt on the rim. We ate hummus, then we swam. We ate sabbidej mtabbal—squid cooked in its ink—and swam again. I have no idea what the restaurant was called, but I can taste it.

And now, as I close the magazine, I ask myself what’s my takeaway? What is the Food Issue afterimage that lingers in my thoughts? I confess I find myself thinking of that layered lemon-and-ginger-Islay Scotch Penicillin cocktail at Dutch Kills. That clinches it. Here’s to you, Nicolas Niarchos! Your tantalizing "Bar Tab: Dutch Kills" is this week’s Pick of the Issue.

Postscript: Also in this week’s issue, Dan Chiasson reviews John Updike’s Selected Poems. I’ll post my comment on this absorbing piece next week.

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