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Posts Tagged ‘books’

24 APRIL, 2013

How Cooking Civilized Us: Michael Pollan on Food as Social Glue and Anti-Corporate Activism

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What the four elements have to do with corporate exploitation and the story arc of culinary craft.

In 2006, Michael Pollan penned what became the most important food politics book of the past half-century, which spawned everything from a motion graphics tribute to an exquisite sequel illustrated by Maira Kalman. Now, Pollan returns with Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (public library) — a powerful manifesto for reclaiming food in a way that liberates us from our reliance on consumer culture while at the same time strengthening our shared sense of belonging and connection. At the heart of his case is the conviction that cooking — as well as understanding the ecosystem which food occupies — is not only one of the most interesting things we do, but also one of the most human.

Intrigued by the disconnect between the dramatic drop of home cooking in the past fifty years and the increased interest that has turned food preparation into a spectator sport elevating professional chefs into celebrity status, Pollan sets out to investigate what he terms “the Cooking Paradox” and emerges with several hypotheses. First, he traces the age-old roots of our culinary voyeurism, lingering over the nostalgic memories of watching his mother cook as he considers the narrative arc of cooking:

In ancient Greece, the word for “cook,” “butcher,” and “priest” was the same — mageiros — and the word shares an etymological root with “magic.” I would watch, rapt, when my mother conjured her most magical dishes, like the tightly wrapped packages of fried chicken Kiev that, when cut open with a sharp knife, liberated a pool of melted butter and an aromatic gust of herbs. But watching an everyday pan of eggs get scrambled was nearly as riveting a spectacle, as the slimy yellow goop suddenly leapt into the form of savory gold nuggets. Even the most ordinary dish follows a satisfying arc of transformation, magically becoming more than the sum of its ordinary parts. And in almost every dish, you can find, besides the culinary ingredients, the ingredients of a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Pollan goes even deeper, down to our very evolutionary underpinnings. While some scientists have pointed to music and maps as the holy grails of civilization, Pollan turns to anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who has argued that cooking is the act with which culture begins, to explain why watching food being made would mesmerize and stir us so profoundly:

According to the “cooking hypothesis,” the advent of cooked food altered the course of human evolution. By providing our forebears with a more energy-dense and easy-to-digest diet, it allowed our brains to grow bigger (brains being notorious energy guzzlers) and our guts to shrink. It seems that raw food takes much more time and energy to chew and digest, which is why other primates our size carry around substantially larger digestive tracts and spend many more of their waking hours chewing— as much as six hours a day.

Cooking, in effect, took part of the work of chewing and digestion and performed it for us outside of the body, using outside sources of energy. Also, since cooking detoxifies many potential sources of food, the new technology cracked open a treasure trove of calories unavailable to other animals. Freed from the necessity of spending our days gathering large quantities of raw food and then chewing (and chewing) it, humans could now devote their time, and their metabolic resources, to other purposes, like creating a culture.

But more than mere physical sustenance, the pivotal role cooking played in our evolution as a species was in providing the social glue that came with shared meal occasions:

Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place. This was something new under the sun, for the forager of raw food would have likely fed himself on the go and alone, like all the other animals. … But sitting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food, and exercising self-restraint all served to civilize us.

Even more than that, Pollan argues, as we grew accustomed to cooked food and our cognitive capacity expanded “at the expense of our digestive capacity,” uncooked food was no longer an option, essentially baking cooking into our very biology. Pollan offers an apt aphoristic analogy:

What Winston Churchill once said of architecture — “First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us” — might also be said of cooking. First we cooked our food, and then our food cooked us.

But since with any dependency comes a dangerous opportunity for exploitation, we have paid for our evolved taste and the rise of industrial cooking — which is where we’re reminded of Pollan’s razor-sharp political awareness:

Corporations cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do “food processing” instead of cooking). They tend to use much more sugar, fat, and salt than people cooking for people do; they also deploy novel chemical ingredients seldom found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher than it really is. So it will come as no surprise that the decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.

[…]

The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. What have been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” — its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on — are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there.

And in some grim turn of cosmic irony, this contradiction has permeated our relationship with the natural world from which we evolved, funneling us further and further into a world where simulacra fill in for the real thing:

Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is. Indeed, the idea that food has any connection to nature or human work or imagination is hard to credit when it arrives in a neat package, fully formed. Food becomes just another commodity, an abstraction. And as soon as that happens we become easy prey for corporations selling synthetic versions of the real thing — what I call edible foodlike substances. We end up trying to nourish ourselves on images.

Pollan’s approach to cooking, his remedy to the worrisome disconnect, is guided by the four elements — Fire, Water, Air, and Earth — to each of which a section of the book is dedicated. In fact, he likens cooking to a kind of alchemy that both encompasses and transcends science:

The fact that modern science has dismissed the classical elements, reducing them to still more elemental substances and forces — water to molecules of hydrogen and oxygen; fire to a process of rapid oxidation, etc. — hasn’t really changed our lived experience of nature or the way we imagine it. Science may have replaced the big four with a periodic table of 118 elements, and then reduced each of those to ever-tinier particles, but our senses and our dreams have yet to get the news.

To learn to cook is to put yourself on intimate terms with the laws of physics and chemistry, as well as the facts of biology and microbiology. Yet, beginning with fire, I found that the older, prescientific elements figure largely — hugely, in fact — in apprehending the main transformations that comprise cooking, each in its own way. Each element proposes a different set of techniques for transforming nature, but also a different stance toward the world, a different kind of work, and a different mood.

Though Cooked is essentially a how-to book, it is also very much a kind of systems-thinking blueprint that illuminates the many interrelated processes, technologies, and social forces that propel and permeate food. To understand those is to reclaim an essential kind of knowledge that we’ve all but forsaken:

Nowadays, only a small handful of cooking’s technologies seem within the reach of our competence. This represents not only a loss of knowledge, but a loss of a kind of power, too. And it is entirely possible that, within another generation, cooking a meal from scratch will seem as exotic and ambitious— as “extreme”— as most of us today regard brewing beer or baking a loaf of bread or putting up a crock of sauerkraut.

When that happens — when we no longer have any direct personal knowledge of how these wonderful creations are made — food will have become completely abstracted from its various contexts: from the labor of human hands, from the natural world of plants and animals, from imagination and culture and community. Indeed, food is already well on its way into that ether of abstraction, toward becoming mere fuel or pure image.

Driving this deterioration of essential knowledge, Pollan contends, is the same byproduct of capitalism that Buckminster Fuller admonished against and that cheats us of doing fulfilling work: specialization. He writes:

Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force. And yet it is also debilitating. It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.

Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: We’re producers of one thing at work, consumers of a great many other things all the rest of the time, and then, once a year or so, we take on the temporary role of citizen and cast a vote. Virtually all our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to the food industry, our health to the medical profession, entertainment to Hollywood and the media, mental health to the therapist or the drug company, caring for nature to the environmentalist, political action to the politician, and on and on it goes. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves — anything, that is, except the work we do “to make a living.”

But besides the point of vulnerability which this learned helplessness creates for corporations to exploit, Pollan argues, the most troublesome problem with this division of labor is how, in disconnecting us from the connectedness of everything, it blinds us to our individual responsibility for the consequences of even our most mundane actions:

Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon. Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.

Pollan sees cooking as the connective tissue between us and the rest of the ecosystem we inhabit, the vital antidote to this fragmented, compartmentalized inclination of modern life:

Cooking has the power to transform more than plants and animals: It transforms us, too, from mere consumers into producers. Not completely, not all the time, but I have found that even to shift the ratio between these two identities a few degrees toward the side of production yields deep and unexpected satisfactions.

Thus, Cooked is at once a philosophical journey into the depths of that transformation and practical handbook for tilting the ratio back to its natural, satisfying balance.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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24 APRIL, 2013

How to Create the Perfect Wife

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How an 18th-century bachelor enlisted Rousseau’s teachings in Frankensteining his better-ever half.

In the spring of 1769, twenty-one-year old Thomas Day received a letter informing him that his fiancée was breaking up with him. Margaret, the attractive, cultured, and spirited sister of a friend he had met the summer before, was clearly no match for the awkward, sullen, and serious Day, who had resolved at a young age to live a hermetic life with a devoted wife at his side. Margaret’s ultimate folly wasn’t that she was in every way incompatible with Day, but instead that she had been corrupted by the world by simply living in it.

Women were “universally shallow, fickle, illogical, and untrustworthy.” But Thomas Day wasn’t bitter. He had simply thought he could bend the will of a grown woman into his perfect partner. He would have to experiment with a less fully formed individual. He wrote to a friend:

There is a little Girl of about thirteen upon whose Mind I shall have in my Power to make the above mentioned Experiment … she is innocent, & unprejudic’d; she has seen nothing of the World,& is unattach’d to it.

“Since he had not found the right woman,” writes Wendy Moore in How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate (public library), “the right woman simply did not exist.” Much like Pygmalion, or perhaps even Dr. Frankenstein, Thomas Day would have to create her.

'Pygmalion and Galatea' by Jean-Léon Gérôme, c. 1890. In Ovid’s 'Metamorphosis,' Venus grants the artist Pygmalion a beautiful wife by bringing his sculpture to life. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Thomas Day had a plan for his perfect wife: he would train her according to the principles of John-Jacques Rousseau, whose novel Émile outlined a radical new form of education. When they were born, children had previously been blemished with original sin, but Rousseau maintained that a young child was essentially perfect, it was the world that corrupted. “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things,” he wrote, “everything degenerates in the hands of man.”

In Émile, Rousseau explained that children should learn through play and discovery, not rote memorization, which was the vogue in classrooms of the day (and, sadly, of today to a large degree). They should be encouraged and nurtured, allowed to take part in scientific experiments, but also should experience the harsh elements, such as cold and hunger, to strengthen their character. (Rousseau didn’t care to test his methods on his own flesh and blood: the five children he had out of wedlock with his mistress were sent directly to the orphanage.) In the novel, young Émile is successfully brought up according to these rules, but when he goes in search of his mate, her education has been less well-planned: the perfect wife for Émile was “a simple, artless, country maid”

'An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby,' 1768. The children present at this experiment reflect the Enlightenment education promoted by Rousseau. (National Gallery, London)

Day wanted a wife who was a magical joining of the two: the intelligence of Émile, and the unquestioning obedience of a country maid. At twenty-one, after his rebuff by Margaret, Day came into his considerable inheritance and determined that it was time to begin his experiment. He went to the foundling hospital and picked up two girls of eleven and twelve, under the assumption that they would be maids in a friend’s household. He gave them new names, Sabrina and Lucrecia, new clothes, and a new life, sweeping them off to France, where he began their new education.

There he taught the girls reading, writing, and arithmetic, and also had them perform all the household duties of a maid. In less than a year, he determined that Lucrecia was “invincibly stupid” and sent her to apprentice with a milliner, providing her with a generous dowry of £400 (about $96,000 today). The intelligent and obedient Sabrina would be his wife.

Day ramped up his education, beginning trials of endurance that Rousseau had claimed would turn boys into men: Day poured hot wax into Sabrina’s arms; he threw her into a lake, unable to swim; and he fired unloaded pistols at her to accustom her to loud noises. He would also test her “feminine” will by giving her a new dress, the first she ever had, and commanding her to throw it into the fire and watch it burn.

'Thomas Day,' by Joseph Wright, 1770. Painted when he was 22 and deeply invested in the upbringing of thirteen-year-old Sabrina as his wife. (National Portrait Gallery, London))

The tests left Sabrina confused, angry, and willful. Her education made little sense, as did her place in Day’s household, where he continued to tell her he was training her as a housekeeper. At fourteen, an age when her “wifely” qualities should have bloomed, Sabrina was no closer to Day’s perfection. Annoyed, he packed her off to boarding school, providing her with an allowance and a dowry, but otherwise discarding her as a failure.

Day would eventually marry a devoted woman that he could order around as he pleased, and Sabrina at twenty-six married one of his close friends. At the age of forty-one, Thomas Day was thrown from his horse and never regained consciousness. A strong believer in animal rights, he had failed to properly break the horse.

How to Create the Perfect Wife is the tale of a modern Pygmalion, whose intentions, however misguided, reflected an extraordinary age of educational reform for children, male and female alike. Writing to a friend about his former fiancée Margaret before he began his lifelong quest to train a wife, he had and uncharacteristic moment of insight that would have served him in his desire for a perfect partner: “I loved an imaginary being.”

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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23 APRIL, 2013

Daily Rituals: A Guided Tour of Writers’ and Artists’ Creative Habits

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Hemingway wrote standing, Nabokov on index cards, Twain while puffing cigars, and Sitwell in an open coffin.

“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone,” the William James’s famous words on habit echo. “Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.”

Given this omnibus of the daily routines of famous writers was not only one of my favorite articles to research but also the most-read and -shared one in the entire history of Brain Pickings, imagine my delight at the release of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (public library) by Mason Currey, based on his blog of the same title. Currey, who culled the famous routines from a formidable array of interviews, diaries, letters, and magazine profiles, writes in the introduction:

Nearly every weekday morning for a year and a half, I got up at 5:30, brushed my teeth, made a cup of coffee, and sat down to write about how some of the greatest minds of the past four hundred years approached this exact same task — that is, how they made the time each day to do their best work, how they organized their schedules in order to be creative and productive. By writing about the admittedly mundane details of my subjects’ daily lives — when they slept and ate and worked and worried — I hoped to provide a novel angle on their personalities and careers, to sketch entertaining, small-bore portraits of the artist as a creature of habit.

The notion that if only we could replicate the routines of great minds, we’d be able to reverse-engineer their genius is, of course, an absurd one — yet an alluring one nonetheless. Currey’s feat is in at once indulging and debunking the mythology of our voyeuristic routine-fetishism by exploring the wildly diverse ways in which celebrated creators structure their days, while at the same time engaging in delicate pattern-recognition to reveal a number of recurring undercurrents essential for creative success. Here is a small sampling of some favorites:

Mark Twain — master of epistolary snark, unsuspected poet, cheeky adviser of little girls — followed a simple but rigorous routine:

He would go to the study in the morning after a hearty breakfast and stay there until dinner at about 5:00. Since he skipped lunch, and since his family would not venture near the study — they would blow a horn if they needed him — he could usually work uninterruptedly for several hours. … After dinner, Twain would read his day’s work to the assembled family. He liked to have an audience, and his evening performances almost always won their approval. On Sundays, Twain skipped work to relax with his wife and children, read, and daydream in some shady spot on the farm. Whether or not he was working, he smoked cigars constantly.

Photograph courtesy Poetry Foundation

Gertrude Stein’s routine, as detailed in a 1934 New Yorker piece, relied heavily on her partner, Alice B. Toklas, who all but managed Stein’s life:

Miss Stein gets up every morning about ten and drinks some coffee, against her will. She’s always been nervous about becoming nervous and she thought coffee would make her nervous, but her doctor prescribed it. Miss Toklas, her companion, gets up at six and starts dusting and fussing around. . . . Every morning Miss Toklas bathes and combs their French poodle, Basket, and brushes its teeth. It has its own toothbrush.

Despite his astounding creative output, from Ulysses to his lesser-known poetry to, even, children’s books, James Joyce once described himself as “a man of small virtue, inclined to extravagance and alcoholism.” And yet he followed a steady regimen, as outlined in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce:

He woke about 10 o’clock, an hour or more after Stanislaus had breakfast and left the house. Nora gave him coffee and rolls in bed, and he lay there, as Eileen [his sister] described him, “smothered in his own thoughts” until about 11 o’clock. Sometimes his Polish tailor called, and would sit discoursing on the edge of the bed while Joyce listened and nodded. About eleven he rose, shaved, and sat down at the piano (which he was buying slowly and perilously on the installment plan). As often as not his singing and playing were interrupted by the arrival of a bill collector. Joyce was notified and asked what was to be done. “Let them all come in,” he would say resignedly, as if an army were at the door. The collector would come in, dun him with small success, then be skillfully steered off into a discussion of music or politics.

Photograph courtesy BBC

On the most eccentric end of the spectrum, we find Vladimir Nabokov — beloved author, butterfly-lover, no-bullshit lecturer, hater of clichés, man of strong opinions:

The Russian-born novelist’s writing habits were famously peculiar. Beginning in 1950, he composed first drafts in pencil on ruled index cards, which he stored in long file boxes. Since, Nabokov claimed, he pictured an entire novel in complete form before he began writing it, this method allowed him to compose passages out of sequence, in whatever order he pleased; by shuffling the cards around, he could quickly rearrange paragraphs, chapters, and whole swaths of the book. (His file box also served as portable desk; he started the first draft of Lolita on a road trip across America, working nights in the backseat of his parked car — the only place in the country, he said, with no noise and no drafts.) Only after months of this labor did he finally relinquish the cards to his wife, Vera, for a typed draft, which would then undergo several more rounds of revisions.

But perhaps Leo Tolstoy, man of great wisdom, had perhaps the most emblematic relationship with the purpose of routine, professing in his diary to write “each day without fail” not necessarily in pursuit of creative merit but to avoid falling out of his routine.

Daily Rituals features such beloved creators as T. S. Eliot, Honoré de Balzac, Sylvia Plath, Alexander Graham Bell, Frank Lloyd Wright, Tchaikovsky, and Georgia O’Keeffe. But more than a mere voyeuristic tour of creative routines, what makes it particularly enjoyable is that Currey manages to take these seemingly superficial rotes and weave of them something so rich and representative of the human impulse for creativity, at once incredibly diverse and uniform in its compulsive restlessness.

Excerpted from Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. Copyright © 2013 by Mason Currey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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