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, April 28, 2017

April 24, 2017, Issue

Last year’s Food & Travel Issue, containing four brilliant pieces (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”), was my pick for Best Issue of the Year (see here). It’s a tough act to follow. This year’s Food & Travel Issue suffers in comparison. It lacks the kind of pungent, textured specificity I associate with great food and travel writing. Rachel Monroe’s “#Vanlife” isn’t bad, if you relish sentences like “King checked Instagram on her phone; her most recent post, a shot of a storm building over the Pacific, had been something of an aesthetic departure—most Where’s My Office Now images include King, the van, or Penny; the most popular tend to include all three—and it was underperforming.” But I don't. I couldn’t be done with it fast enough. The same goes for Lauren Collins’s “Secrets in the Sauce,” in which the sentence “Barbecue might be America’s most political food” stopped me cold; I didn’t read another line. I skimmed Daniel Mendelsohn’s “An Odyssey,” an account of a trip he and his father took on a cruise ship, retracing Odysseus’ journey. This may strike some as interesting; it didn’t do anything for me. Politics, social media, and patriarchal Greek poetry make a strange and unappealing hash.

Speaking of hash, care for a pot brownie? No, not really, but I read Lizzie Widdicombe’s “High Cuisine” anyway, because … well, because it’s by Lizzie Widdicombe, writer of, among other piquant pieces, the superb “The Bad-Boy Brand” (April 8, 2013). “High Cuisine” contains at least two inspired sentences:

A team from Weedmaps, a “Yelp for pot” based in Irvine, California, was visiting the facility, and a photographer had set up a light box, which he was using to take pictures of pot cookies.

I nibbled a small pie: it tasted like pumpkin, but with a weedy aftertaste, which brought back Proustian memories of high school.

For me, the best food writing in this otherwise dismal Food & Travel Issue is found in Shauna Lyon’s “Tables For Two: King” and Talia Lavin’s “Bar Tab: The Binc.” Lyon’s piece offers pure, sensuous bliss:

A spectacular, bracing salad served at the beginning of March included a pink radicchio that one guest had recently spied in the produce section of Eataly, and a mysterious soft-crunchy, hollow stalk, which turned out to be the heart of a puntarelle, whose chickory-like leaves were more easily identified. The coniglio alla cacciatora, or hunter’s rabbit, came as nubs of tender, gamey meat on a bed of polenta larded with cheese and butter, and the onglet appeared as great red slices of hanger steak, alongside al-dente chickpeas. For dessert, a Pernod semifreddo in a dainty coupe was an inspired touch.

Lavin’s “The Binc” shows a deep pleasure taken in description:

The interior is suffused with a warm, orangey glow, and, though it just celebrated its one-year anniversary, it feels curiously unfocussed in time. There is a faded portrait of a mustachioed man from an indeterminate era, and antique marionettes of soldiers hanging on a cloudy, wall-size mirror; the rest-room signs are done in careful Art Deco lettering. On a recent Saturday night, the bar top was crowded with rows of multicolored tinctures, like cardamom bitters and sweet-potato shrub, which added complexity to cocktails such as the Whitaker (vodka, ginger) and the Fall of Roebling (tequila, habanero). Twelve barflies gave the room a pleasantly full, but not overcrowded, air.

I have a suggestion for next year’s Food & Travel Issue – turn it over to the “Tables For Two” and “Bar Tab” crew, let them write it.

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