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.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

April 4, 2016 Issue

I’ve just finished reading this week’s issue – the Food & Travel Issue – and I’m exhilarated. What a superb New Yorker! All four features are excellent: Lauren Collins’s "Come to the Fair," Dana Goodyear’s "Mezcal Sunrise," Carolyn Kormann’s "The Tasting-Menu Initiative," and Dexter Filkins’s "The End of Ice." I want to consider each one and pick my favorite. To help me decide, I’ll use my old standby “thisness” – “any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion” (James Wood).

Collins’s “Come to the Fair” is about the Salon International de l’Agriculture, “the enormous show that each spring brings the farmers of France together under the eight roofs of the Porte de Versailles convention center, accompanied by nearly four thousand of their bovine, ovine, caprine, porcine, equine, asinine, and canine companions.” Not sure what the “asinine” refers to, unless it’s the politicians who roam the corridors of the exposition halls “playing folksy.” Collins calls the Salon a “political crucible.” She says, “It’s basically an unseated town-hall meeting with tremendous amounts of booze thrown in.” But, for me, it’s the food and the animals, not the politics, that are interesting. I especially like the Seabright chickens (“The Sebrights were crazy-beautiful: proud-looking, with jutting breasts, each of their silver-white feathers edged in black, as though someone had outlined them with a Sharpie”) and the produce-aisle facsimile of the Eiffel Tower with its “soaring midsection of leeks and carrots, topped by a four-layer finial of tomatoes, potatoes, pears, and lemons,” and a burger-and-fries booth where “sauce dispensers—andalouse, mustard, curry, cocktail, barbecue, américaine, poivre—hung from the rafters like udders.”   

My favorite passage in Collins’s piece conveys the rich mishmash of Salon ingredients:

The notaries of France have a stand, as does the national association of drainage. You can buy a beret or a birdcage. You can obtain an I.D. card for your pet. You can subscribe to Pâtre, a monthly magazine for shepherds. Each of the country’s eighteen regions sponsors an area highlighting its gastronomy. Slurp down some oysters in Arcachon, grab some choucroute in Alsace, and then turn a corner and you’re in Martinique, drinking Ti’ Punch. Picture the Iowa State Fair crossed with the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, with the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show going on in a side ring.

How I savor that “Slurp down some oysters in Arcachon, grab some choucroute in Alsace, and then turn a corner and you’re in Martinique, drinking Ti’ Punch”! “Come to the Fair” exudes appetite and pleasure. I devoured it.

Goodyear’s “Mezcal Sunrise” is a search for the ultimate artisanal mezcal. I relish this form of narrative (see my post “Culinary Quests” here). It starts with Goodyear’s visit to Bricia Lopez’s mezcal bar at Guelaguetza in Los Angeles where she tastes Lopez’s prize mezcal (“She poured some into a jícara, the dried hull of a fruit, often used to serve mezcal, and offered it to me. It was tangy and slick, like a dirty Martini, with a whiff of neat’s-foot oil”). Lopez says, “You can’t order this anywhere. You have to go to these places. You have to drink it hot off the still.” With these words, Goodyear’s quest is launched. Goodyear travels to Oaxaca City, Mexico (“Lipstick-red flame trees were in bloom, and the air was filled with the intoxicating smell of gasoline”). She visits a palenque where mezcal is produced (“The palenque was simple and clean, newly built: a pit filled with burning coals; four fermentation barrels brimming with mashed, cooked agave that smelled of apple-cider vinegar; six wood-fired copper stills; two gleaming ten-thousand-litre stainless-steel storage tanks; and a small bottling facility”). She visits Hipócrates Nolasco, the president of the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (“His office, separated from the lab by glass panels, is a museum of mezcal. Hundreds of bottles—his personal collection—line the walls on mirrored shelves”). Lopez arrives in Oaxaca City and takes Goodyear to El Destilado, “a new spot that focusses on uncertified, nano-batch mezcals.” There they meet El Destilado’s owner, Jason Cox. Cox gives them a drink of his favorite mezcal (“It was wonderfully weird and comforting, salty-sweet and leathery, like Old Spice on a beloved cheek”). He says his source is located in the tiny village of Santa María Ixcatlán. He says he’s going there tomorrow. He agrees to let Goodyear and Lopez tag along. In this serendipitous way, Goodyear eventually meets the twenty-five-year-old mezcalero who made the rare mezcal she’d tasted at Guelaguetza. I love “Mezcal Sunrise” ’s quest-like structure. And I savor its sensuous mezcal descriptions, particularly that “tangy and slick, like a dirty Martini, with a whiff of neat’s-foot oil.”

Carolyn Kormann’s “The Tasting-Menu Initiative” has a great subject – La Paz’s Danish-Bolivian restaurant Gustu. Kormann calls Gustu “both a restaurant and an experiment in social uplift.” The piece talks about Gustu’s proprietor, Claus Meyer, who also owns Noma, in Copenhagen, “named the world’s best restaurant for the third year in a row by a jury of international chefs, critics, and restaurateurs.” It tells about a foundation that Meyer started called Melting Pot, “which taught prisoners in Denmark how to cook.” It tells how Meyer decided to create a Bolivian equivalent of Noma and establish a culinary school for disadvantaged youths. It profiles Gustu’s head chef, Kamilla Seidler, “a thirty-two-year-old Dane who had worked in some of Europe’s top restaurants, including Mugaritz, a two-Michelin-star establishment in northern Spain that is known for such whimsical experiments as edible cutlery.” It describes Kormann’s experience of shopping with Seidler at a market in central La Paz (“Venders—mostly fierce-looking women with long braids and bowler hats—sat in stalls between heaps of Andean produce: watermelons as big as a bulldog’s belly, purple corn with kernels like gumballs, plantains the color of paprika”). It talks about Seidler’s challenges (“Seidler needed to please many kinds of people: prominent Bolivians, the local press, the international press, travel bloggers, food tourists, regular tourists, backpackers, Bolivian ex-pats who are nostalgic for flavors from their childhood, and judges for Latin America’s Fifty Best Restaurants, a ranking started in 2013. She had to come up with a formula that nobody else had”). It describes Gustu’s first menu (“The palmito was on it, along with rabbit confit served with pale kernels of choclo and lime zest; papalisas with beetroot and hibiscus; and a boozy dessert made with tumbo, the fruit she had given me in the market. The food was sculptural, deconstructed, Technicolor”). It profiles Coral Ayoroa, Gustu’s first Bolivian employee, who was put in charge of setting up the culinary school. It describes the difficulties experienced by culinary school students in adjusting to the exacting demands of Gustu’s kitchen (“Then, unexpectedly, eight of them quit. ‘It might have been that the work was too tough for them,’ Ayoroa said. The students had long shifts, sometimes training all day and then helping during dinner service. Another problem was the long commute from the neighborhoods where they lived, in the mostly impoverished city of El Alto, which sits on a dusty plain a thousand feet higher than La Paz”). It tells how Meyer devised a two-tiered system for training employees (“Melting Pot would start a network of entry-level cooking schools in El Alto, where their students lived. The top graduates would be eligible for scholarships to continue their studies at Gustu”). It describes the “uneasy position” that Gustu inhabits in Bolivia’s food revolution. It talks about the response of Bolivian President Evo Morales (“Despite Gustu’s social projects, it can’t be easy for a populist President to credit a European chef with ‘rescuing’ local food and farmers. He is not above a private endorsement, though”).

My favorite part of “The Tasting-Menu Initiative” is Kormann’s detailed account of a dinner she has at Gustu. Here’s a taste:

“First, you will eat cauliflower,” Levin Tøttenborg said. He set down a piece of slate bearing a thin triangular slice of what looked like watermelon, neatly cut to leave a sliver of green along the side. A single rectangular grain of salt sat on top. There was no cauliflower in sight, and yet, when I took a bite, the flavor announced itself unmistakably as cauliflower. A waiter set down bread—a pink hibiscus brioche and a coca-leaf bun, served with coca butter and quinoa tofu. The tofu was bland, but the coca butter was savory, like a grassy crème fraîche.

Kormann’s style is plainer than Collins’s and Goodyear’s. There’s less figuration. But she’s a superb noticer of detail. Her Gustu dinner description is a tour de force of close observation – that “neatly cut to leave a sliver of green along the side,” for example.

In his “The End of Ice,” Filkins accompanies an international group of scientists on an expedition to the Chhota Shigri Glacier in India’s Himalayas. The piece opens magnificently with two paragraphs, the first describing the route to Chhota Shigri, and the second bringing Filkins into the action as participant-observer:

The journey to the Chhota Shigri Glacier, in the Himalayan peaks of northern India, begins thousands of feet below, in New Delhi—a city of twenty-five million people, where smoke from diesel trucks and cow-dung fires dims the sky and where the temperature on a hot summer day can reach a hundred and fifteen degrees. The route passes through a churning sprawl of low-land cities, home to some fifty million people, until the Himalayas come into view: a steep wall rising above the plains, the product of a tectonic collision that began millions of years ago and is still under way. From there, the road snakes upward, past cows and trucks and three-wheeled taxis and every other kind of moving evidence of India’s economic transformation. If you turn around, you can see a great layer of smog, lying over northern India like a dirty shroud. In the mountains, the number of cars drops sharply—limited by government regulation, for fear of what the smog is doing to the ice. The road mostly lacks shoulders; on turns, you look into ravines a thousand feet deep. After the town of Manali, the air cools, and the road cuts through forests of spruce and cedar and fir.

A few months ago, I followed that route with an international group of scientists who were travelling to Chhota Shigri to assess how rapidly it is melting.

I read that, and I was hooked. The piece is riveting! Its subject slightly reminded me of Elizabeth Kolbert’s "Ice Memory" (The New Yorker, January 7, 2002). In that piece, a group of glaciologists drill cores in the Greenland ice sheet. In “The End of Ice,” glaciologists drill cores in the Chhota Shigri. But Filkins’s piece is more exciting. He crosses a river in a sketchy gondola lift:

Near the valley floor, we veered onto a rocky trail that tracked an icy river called the Chandra. Our van halted and a group of men appeared: Nepali porters, who led us to an outcropping on the river’s edge. Chhota Shigri—six miles long and shaped like a branching piece of ginger—is considered one of the Himalayas’ most accessible glaciers, but our way across was a rickety gondola, an open cage reminiscent of a shopping cart, which runs on a cable over the Chandra. With one of the porters working a pulley, we climbed in and rode across, one by one, while fifty feet below the river rushed through gigantic boulders.

He explores Chhota Shigri’s snout:

The opening of Chhota Shigri’s snout was five feet high, large enough for us to enter. Pressing ourselves against the interior walls and shimmying along the narrow banks of the rushing water, we worked our way into a vaulting palace of ice, where ten-foot-long icicles hung from the ceiling like giant fishhooks. Underneath the roar, you could hear the drip of melting ice. In the walls and the ceiling, water and earth streamed behind sheets of clear ice, the sediment tinting the walls orange and pale green. Air bubbled in the water, trapped when the glacier’s ice froze around it, more than two hundred and fifty years ago. “It could collapse at any moment,” Azam said. “When we come back next year, it will be gone.”

He camps on Chhota Shigri’s slope:

The sun was setting behind the peaks as we arrived at the high camp, at nearly sixteen thousand feet, and the horizon glowed deep orange. The porters had set up tents, and were donning headlamps to help prepare the equipment for the next day’s ice core. The temperature was dropping fast, into the teens. We ducked inside the main tent and found the rest of the team huddled in the dark around a stove, drinking cups of salty broth. Ranjan arrived just after the sun went down. “I am so happy to have made it!” he said. The camp was just a handful of tents on the glacier’s slope, connected by a little stairway carved into the snow. The porters had made a dinner of lentils and chapati, but we were too nauseated from the altitude to eat more than a few bites. That night, we slept in a ragged tent with no tarp, its doors flapping open, directly atop the ice, nine hundred and fifty feet thick.

Filkins’s brilliant factual style epitomizes thisness. After agonizing consideration, I choose his terrific “The End of Ice” as my Pick of the Issue. But I want to stress that all four features in this week’s New Yorker are extraordinary. I look forward to more Food & Travel Issues.

Postscript: A special shout-out to Michael Sragow for his wonderful capsule review of Sam Peckinpah’s The Deadly Companions (“Goings On About Town: Movies”). The line, “Wills makes a terrific mangy villain; he sweats corruption through his buffalo-fur coat,” is inspired!

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