Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Milton Glaser’

25 NOVEMBER, 2014

Eating Delancey: A Love Letter to Jewish Food and Its Iconic New York Bastions

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A warm celebration of knishes, kasha, lox, and the people and places of which collective memory is woven.

If it is true that we are what we eat and that telling stories is what makes us human, then at the intersection of these two adages lies an immutable truth about the stories we tell about the food we eat. That is why the greatest books of all time are full of memorable meals, why we find food so sensual, and why the best cookbooks tell the stories of their time and place.

That’s what food photographer Aaron Rezny and magazine creative director Jordan Schaps explore in Eating Delancey: A Celebration of Jewish Food (public library | IndieBound) — a delectable compendium of recipes, mouth-watering photographs, profiles of legendary establishments, jokes, and food-related sentimental stories by some of New York’s most interesting Jews about the beloved foods their immigrant ancestors transplanted from Europe to the Lower East Side in the early 20th century: knishes, kasha, dill pickles, bagels, lox, pastrami, whitefish, egg creams, and more.

The project, which features contributions by luminaries like violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman, graphic designer Milton Glaser, artist Debbie Millman, and music legend Lou Reed, does for edible memories what Emily Spivack’s wonderful Worn Stories did for wearable ones.

Lower East Side pretzel vendor in the early 20th century

Joan Rivers writes in the introduction:

My mother was a very chic woman, very well read, a great hostess, and a horrible cook. She literally couldn’t cook anything beyond just a few dishes. And we weren’t kosher but she always went to kosher butchers. She thought the meat was better quality—not that it mattered since she didn’t know what to do with it in the first place. You know how they butcher kosher meat, right? The cows aren’t slaughtered. They’re nagged to death.

There’s an old joke: What does a Jewish woman make for dinner? Reservations. That was my mother. She did cook a few things: kasha varnishkes, eggele (or eyerlekh, which is Yiddish for “little eggs.” These are creamy, flavorful unhatched chicken eggs, either cooked inside a chicken or in a soup), and gribenes, which I just loved until I was about 13 and realized how fattening they are. And we always had challah.

So how did I develop my love for good Jewish food when it wasn’t on our table daily? I’ll tell you. My father was a doctor with a huge ethnic practice in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Obviously, most patients paid him but some could not afford to, and so they’d bring food in exchange for medical services. We got soups, blintzes… you name it. Stuffed derma was a big one for fixing a burst appendix. Oh my God, the food… it was just terrific and this is how I grew up — eating such food cooked with love and delivered by infirm and dying patients.

Joan Rivers, age 5

In a sentiment rendered inevitably poignant by Rivers’s recent death, she adds:

If I had to choose, my last meal would be a good piece of gefilte fish with some fantastic freshly grated horseradish on it.

In his 1968 homage to the true potato knish in general and Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes Bakery at 137 E. Houston Street in particular, legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic I♥NY logo and one wise soul, writes:

Although the knish has played an active role in many New York political campaigns, some readers may still never have seen or eaten one.

The authentic hand-made knish made at Yonah Schimmel’s is an irregularly shaped, fat, bun-like amalgam of mashed potatoes, flour, and onions, all encased in a thin, crisp, brown pastry skin, and as a food contains great stomach-filling properties. As is the custom with simple dishes, the knish is at its best when fresh, hot and made of ingredients of good quality. The mass-produced commercial knish most often encountered in New York delicatessens lacks these essentials. It can be recognized immediately by a thick, embossed surfaced of an unnaturally yellow hue. Another clue of its identification is its hard-edged rectangular shape. Because the commercial knish is often kept on a hot grill for days at a time, the potato filling tends to go sour. The real tragedy of this abuse is that many people brought up on this inferior product have never known a real knish. Yonah Schimmel’s is perhaps the last bastion of the genuine item.

Milton Glaser as a child

The humble bakery, Glaser notes, is the stuff of legend — a waiter who worked there for forty-five years recalls the fateful day when Eleanor Roosevelt walked in and bought a bag of knishes for her presidential husband.

In an touching essay titled “Grandma Lillian’s Cookies,” artist, author, and interviewer extraordinaire Debbie Millman explores how we imbue food with the comfort and love we long for:

I didn’t see my dad for a long time after he and my mother divorced. One day she told me he wasn’t coming home, and I saw him only one time again in the next five years. I remember seeing his car down the street where we lived when he was visiting the woman he left my mother for. But he didn’t visit us. I must have missed him, but I don’t remember thinking about it much. My father stopped paying his alimony and child support so my mother had to take him to family court to get him to pay. My mother took my little brother and me to court with her, and I got all dressed up because I wanted to look nice when he saw me. I wore an orange and pink dress with puffy sleeves and white rubber boots and I remember feeling both excited and nervous about facing him. We waited and waited but he never showed up and we went home without ever seeing him. Then my mother met a new man, and shortly thereafter they got married.

Everybody loathed my stepfather except my mother. Her mom and dad — my grandparents — disliked him so much they moved to North Miami to be as far away from him as possible. This devastated me, as my grandmother was my favorite person in the world. Grandma Lillian was a feisty little lady with coiffed silver hair and shimmery pink fingernails. She made mouth-watering meals whenever I came to visit her Brooklyn apartment on McDonald Avenue: melt-in-your-mouth pot roast with fluffy kasha varnishkes, crunchy potato pancakes, and the softest, sweetest cheesy blintzes with cold sour cream. Every meal ended with my grandmother’s famous butter cookies. Shaped like daisies with a single, perfect chocolate chip in the center and baked to a golden perfection, my grandma’s cookies were the very definition of happiness to my 10-year-old self.

All that ended when my stepfather moved in. He was short and thick and had the stubbiest fingers I’d ever seen. He was curt and violent and I was terrified of him. My brother braved it in our home until he was 13. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he called my father and he came and took him away. I didn’t see much of my brother for the next ten years. Neither did my grandmother.

Every couple of months Grandma mailed me a care package filled with cookies. I was gleeful when it arrived — I could always recognize her loopy script and the 50 two-cent stamps haphazardly stuck on the box. I’d take my time opening my precious package, and I would ration the cookies so they’d last as long as possible. I’d imagine her with me as I slowly ate them, fantasizing what it would be like to hear her laugh or feel her hand. I missed her.

Years later, after Grandma Lillian died, my mother, my brother, and I met at her funeral. I hadn’t seen my brother in a long time and we were both cautious and glum. We tentatively talked about our memories, and I waxed sentimental about our grandmother’s cookies. Suddenly he perked up. “Hey!” he said. “Grandma sent me a box of cookies when I was at school. But as I opened them up, I realized that mice had eaten through the box. I had to throw the whole thing away. What a waste.”

I didn’t know what to say. I looked at him and tried to find the years between us. I wasn’t sure if they were there.

Debbie Millman, age 10, with her Grandma Lillian

The great violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman recounts moving from Israel to attend Julliard in New York and rediscovering a childhood favorite in Manhattan:

In Israel, my family didn’t go out to eat. For dessert, my mother used to bake a two-layer cake with yellow cake, chocolate butter cream filling, and chocolate butter cream frosting on top — it was delicious.

My mother’s cake was probably the reason why I wandered into Cake Masters on the Upper West Side. Cake Masters made cakes for Liberace, President Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor and was known by its slogan, “where baking is an art.”

Cake Masters made the best seven-layer cake that I ever had. It tasted just like my mother’s! Their seven-layer cake was layers upon layers of yellow cake and butter cream frosting. Each layer had a nice soft texture and wonderful taste. I still remember how they used to sell it by the slice with each slice separated by wax paper. Cake Masters was close to my parents’ home so I would stop by again and again and again.

Nestled between the profiles of legendary establishments and stories of family memories are also a number of recipes that reveal the secrets behind beloved treats:

KATZ’S DELI EGG CREAM

by Jake Dell, owner

Alright, so the perfect Katz’s egg cream is really simple. The oldest recipe in the book for egg creams is a little Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup—although if you’re kinda a chocolate wuss you can use a little vanilla syrup instead, but let’s be honest, chocolate egg creams are infinitely better in my humble opinion — fill that up about an inch or so. Put an equal amount of milk in there. Top it off with a little bit of seltzer and as you’re pouring the seltzer you stir vigorously and that’ll get you the nice head on top. Voila! You have the perfect egg cream.

Eating Delancey is a treat in its totality. Complement it with Liberace’s little-known cookbook, the Modern Art Cookbook, the vintage gem Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, some real recipes from Roald Dahl’s children’s books, Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction, and Andy Warhol’s forgotten illustrated recipes.

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19 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Milton Glaser on Art, Technology, and the Secret of Life

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“You learn more and more that everything exists at once with its opposite, so the contradictions of life are never-ending and somehow the mediation between these opposites is the game of life.”

Few things today are truly iconic, but the I♥NY logo is among them. Its beloved creator, the inimitable Milton Glaser — who also co-founded New York Magazine in 1968, and who is one of my most beloved creative and spiritual heroes — is an icon in his own right: often considered the greatest graphic designer alive, a remarkable educator who has shaped lives for more than half a century, a man of uncommon wisdom on art, integrity, and the kindness of the universe. In this beautiful and wide-ranging interview from The Good Life Project, Glaser offers an unprecedented tour of his magnificent mind and singular spirit. Transcribed highlights below.

On where the seed of his creativity originates:

I have no idea where it comes from. The thing that I do know is that after a while, you begin to realize, A) how little you know about everything and, B) how vast the brain is and how it encompasses everything you can imagine — but, more than that, everything you can’t imagine. What is perhaps central to this is the impulse to make things, which seems to me to be a primary characteristic of human beings — the desire to make things, whatever they turn out to be. And then, supplementary to that, is the desire to create beauty — which is a different but analogous activity. So, the urge to make things is probably a survival device; the urge to create beauty is something else — but only apparently something else, because, as we know, there are no unrelated events in human experience.

Glaser echoes Tolstoy’s timeless conception of art as a mechanism of human connection and Robert Henri’s notion of art as a brotherhood of mankind, reminding us that the creative impulse is integral to what makes us human:

There is something about making things beautiful, and we sometimes call that art, that has something to do with creating a commonality between human beings so that they don’t kill each other. And whatever that impulse is, and wherever it comes from, it certainly is contained within every human being. … Sometimes, the opportunity to articulate it occurs; sometimes, it remains dormant for a lifetime.

On his own unrelenting expression of that profound human characteristic:

I imagined myself as a maker of things from the age of five. I realized that to make something was miraculous, and I never stopped.

Recounting the formative moment in which he awakened to art, when his older cousin drew a bird for little Milton on the side of a paper bag and it suddenly came alive for the young boy, Glaser reflects:

I suddenly realized that you could create life — that you could create life with a pencil and a brown paper bag — and it was truly a miracle in my recollection. Although people are always telling me that memory is just a device to justify your present, it was like I received the stigmata and I suddenly realized that you could spend your life inventing life. And I never stopped since — at five, my course was set. I never deviated, I never stopped aspiring or working in a way that provided the opportunity to make things that, if you did right, moved people.

On how being the “class artist” in his childhood, constantly creating on-demand drawings for his friends, shaped his sense of purpose and belonging:

I always saw myself as being a facilitator of other people’s needs, in that very primitive way. I liked the fact that I had status, I had a position in life, and I could also be of service. … That designation was a useful one to me in terms of developing my own sense of who I was.

The story of “how 20 seconds can change your life” he relays at 12:22 is an extraordinary testament to the power a single moment of kindness has in profoundly changing another human being’s life:

When I was in junior high school, I had the opportunity to take the entrance examination to either Bronx Science, which is a great New York school, or the High School of Music and Art, another great school. … And I had a science teacher who was very encouraging for me to enter into science — I was very good at science — and he wanted me to go to Bronx Science. And I was evasive about that, because I didn’t want to tell him that it ain’t gonna happen.

But the day of the entrance exam — they occurred on the same day — I took the entrance examination to the High School of Music and Art. And the next day I came into school, he was in the hallway as I was walking down, and he said, “I want to talk to you.” I said, “Uh-oh — the jig is up, he’s going to find out I took the ‘wrong’ exam.” He said, “Come to my office… Sit down.” And, as I was sitting there, he said, “I hear you took the exam for Music and Art.” And I said, “Um, yes.” And then he reached over, and he reached into his desk, and he pulled out a box of French Conté crayons — a fancy, expensive box — and he gave it to me, and he said, “Do good work.”

I can’t tell that story without crying, because it was such a profound example of somebody — an adult, authority figure, sophisticated man — who was willing to put aside his own desire for something, his own direction for my life, and recognize me as a person who had made a decision. And he was, instead of simply acknowledging it, encouraging it with this incredibly gracious and generous gift. … The thing about it that always astonishes you is that moment — it couldn’t have taken more than two minutes — was totally transformative about my view of life, my view of others, my view of education, my view of acknowledging the other.

Echoing Joss Whedon’s fantastic Wesleyan commencement address on embracing our inner contradictions, Glaser reminds us that the art of life is not in choosing between opposites but in reconciling them:

You learn more and more that everything exists at once with its opposite, so the contradictions of life are never-ending and somehow the mediation between these opposites is the game of life.

Much like philosopher Daniel Dennett argued that “the chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself,” Glaser counsels that the first step to making better life choices is acknowledging the bad ones you’ve made, and drawing cultivates mindfulness and the essential art of seeing that doing that necessitates:

The first step is always, in the Buddhist sense, to acknowledge what is — and that’s very hard to do. But, incidentally, drawing — and attentiveness — is one of the ways you do that. The great benefit of drawing … is that when you look at something, you see it for the first time. And you can spend your life without ever seeing anything.

On how welcoming the unknown helps us live more richly and why we should try to, as Rilke put it, “live the questions” and cultivate the “negative capability” that Keats insisted was essential to creativity:

I can sound as though I know the answers to these things — I don’t know the answer to anything. You have to constantly be attentive to what you deflect in life, and what you pay attention to, and all the things that you can’t see, and all the preconceptions that you do have about everything. Those preconceptions basically blur your vision — it’s very hard to see what’s in front of you.

On how technology is changing us:

Everything changes everything. There are no independent events. … The virtual world has created a very different kind of nervous system for people who spend their lives in that world. And it produces different sets of appropriateness — of time, of morality, of ethics, of behavior. … [But] we don’t know what this is doing to the human psyche or the human behavior or any of it — we know it’s changing, we know it’ll be a profound change and it won’t be what it was, but we don’t know what the nature of that will finally be. It will probably have some benefits and significant drawbacks, but it is just emerging. [We] are creating a new kind of person.

On how we can ensure technology enhances rather than enslaves us:

The computer is dangerous because it shapes your capacity to understand what’s possible. The computer is like an apparently submissive servant that turns out to be a subversive that ultimately gains control of your mind. The computer is such a powerful instrument that it defines, after a while, what is possible for you. And what is possible is within the computer’s capacity. And while it seems in the beginning like this incredibly gifted and talented servant actually has a very limited intelligence — the brain is so much vaster than the computer. But, the computer is very insistent about what it’s good at, and before you know it — it’s like being with somebody who has bad habits, you sort of fall into the bad habits — and it begins to dominate the way you think about what is possible. … [Counter this] by doing things that are uncomfortable for it to do.

On always harnessing the gift of ignorance and never ceasing to expand oneself:

Professional life is very often antithetical to artistic life, because in professional life you basically repeat what you already know — your previous successes. It’s like marketing — marketing is the enemy of art, because it is always based on the past — not that art is always based on the future, but it’s very often based on transgression. So when you do something that basically is guaranteed to succeed, you’re closing the possibility for discovery.

Reflecting on art education and the cultural tension between art and business, Glaser adds to history’s finest definitions of art:

You have to separate making a living … from enlarging one’s understanding of the world, and also … providing an instrumentality for people to have a common purpose and a sense of transformation. … That is what the arts provide — the sense of enlargement, and the sense that you haven’t come to the end of your understanding, either of yourself or of other things.

Echoing Maira Kalman, who herself echoed Freud when she said that “in the end … it’s love and it’s work — what else could there possibly be?,” Glaser ends by reflecting on the meaning of life:

The things that I think are important [for a good life]: the friendships that I have with people I love; a marriage that has endured and continues to endure; teaching, which I’ve been doing for well over half a century; and feeling that whatever you know has a possibility of being transmitted and shared.

Complement with this superb interview with Glaser from How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer and Glaser’s own 2008 classic, Drawing Is Thinking.

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26 JUNE, 2013

Iconic Graphic Designer Milton Glaser on Art, Money, Education, and the Kindness of the Universe

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“If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be.”

Milton Glaser — legendary mastermind of the famous I♥NY logo, author of delightful and little-known vintage children’s books, notorious notebook-doodler, modern-day sage of art and purpose — is celebrated by many as the greatest graphic designer alive. From How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (public library) — the same fantastic anthology of conversations with creative icons that gave us Paula Scher’s slot machine metaphor for creativity and Massimo Vignelli on intellectual elegance, education, and love — comes a fascinating and remarkably heartening conversation that reveals the inner workings of this beautiful mind and beautiful spirit.

What E. B. White has done for writing — “A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down,” he memorably asserted — Glaser has done for the visual arts, a legacy Debbie Millman captures beautifully in the introduction to the interview:

While other great designers have created cool posters, beautiful book covers, and powerful logos, Milton Glaser has actually lifted this age he inhabits. Because of his integrity and his vision, he has enabled us all to walk on higher ground, and it is that for which we should be especially grateful.

In fact, this ethos is reflected in Glaser’s timeless addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

Work that goes beyond its functional intention and moves us in deep and mysterious ways we call great work.

Glaser shares the wonderful and sweetly allegorical story of how he became an artist:

The story of how I decided to become an artist is this: When I was a very little boy, a cousin of mine came to my house with a paper bag. He asked me if I wanted to see a bird. I thought he had a bird in the bag. He stuck his hand in the bag, and I realized that he had drawn a bird on the side of a bag with a pencil. I was astonished! I perceived this as being miraculous. At that moment, I decided that was what I was going to do with my life. Create miracles.

His early childhood, in fact, was a petri dish for his genesis as an artist. He recounts another memory that presaged his gift for welcoming not-knowing in order to know life more richly as the muse of his mastery, a skill that would become the guiding principle of his creative ethos:

I was eight years old, and I had rheumatic fever. I was at home and in bed for a year. In a certain sense, the only thing that kept me alive was this: Every day, my mother would bring me a wooden board and a pound of modeling clay, and I would create a little universe out of houses, tanks, warriors. At the end of the day, I would pound them into oblivion and look forward to the next day when I could recreate the world.

[…]

I think that, to some degree, this is part of my character as a designer: To keep moving and not get stuck in my own past. This is what I try very hard to do.

I think at that moment in my life, I found a peculiar path: To continually discard a lot of the things that I knew how to do in favor of finding out what I didn’t. I think this is the way you stay alive professionally.

In the context of discussing those early memories, however, Glaser offers an important disclaimer about the limitations of our memory and its imperfections:

Memory is treacherous; you can’t depend on it. It is basically always recreated to reinforce your anxiety or to make yourself look better, but whatever actually did happen is totally susceptible to subjective interpretation. I absolutely don’t trust my memory.

Glaser seconds Alan Watts’s timeless wisdom on profit vs. purpose and gets to the heart of how to find your purpose so you can worry less about money:

I never had the model of financial success as being the reason to work. When I was at Push Pin, none of the partners made enough money to live on. It took ten years for us to make as much as a junior art director in an agency. We were making $65 a week! But money has never been a motivating force in my work. I am very happy to have made enough money to live as well as I do, but I never thought of money as a reason to work. For me, work was about survival. I had to work in order to have any sense of being human. If I wasn’t working or making something, I was very nervous and unstable.

Echoing Frank Lloyd Wright’s aphorism that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows,'” Glaser rejoices in the glory of keeping the internal fire of learning ever-ablaze:

That is a great feeling: when you feel the possibility of learning. It’s a terrible feeling to feel you can’t learn or have reached the end of your potential.

Touching on Sister Corita Kent’s 10 rules for learning and Bertrand Russell’s commandments for teachers, Glaser — a revered educator himself — goes on to offer an articulate vision for what the art of education really means:

What you teach is what you are. You don’t teach by telling people things.

[…]

I believe that you convey your ideas by the authenticity of your being. Not by glibly telling someone what to do or how to do it. I believe that this is why so much teaching is ineffective. … Good teaching is merely having an encounter with someone who has an idea of what life is that you admire and want to emulate.

Echoing Rilke’s counsel to live the questions, Richard Feynman’s advocacy of allowing for doubt, John Keats’s insistence on the power of “negative capability”, and Anaïs Nin’s faith in the richness of living with ambiguity, Glaser reflects on the immutable impermanence of everything, the very thing he once intuited in his childhood experience of sculpting and destroying his modeling clay creations:

There is no security in the world, or in life. I don’t mind living with some ambiguity and realizing that eventually, everything changes.

But the most powerful aspect of Glaser’s ethos, one all the more necessary as a lifeboat amidst today’s flood of cynicism, is his unrelenting optimism — an essential antidote to the zero-sum-game mentality of success that plagues so much of our modern thinking:

If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be. And I never thought of the universe as one of scarcity. I always thought that there was enough of everything to go around — that there are enough ideas in the universe and enough nourishment.

In extending this conviction to the most tender aspiration of the human heart, our longing to belong, he echoes Ted Hughes’s poignant reflection on our inner child and adds to literary history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

Do you perceive you live your life through love or fear? They are very different manifestations. My favorite quote is by the English novelist Iris Murdoch. She said, “Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.” I like the idea that all that love is, is acknowledging another’s reality.

Acknowledging that the world exists, and that you are not the only participant in it, is a profound step. The impulse towards narcissism or self-interest is so profound, particularly when you have a worry of injury or fear. It’s very hard to move beyond the idea that there is not enough to go around, to move beyond that sense of “I better get mine before anybody else takes it away from me.”

How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer remains indispensable from cover to cover. Complement it with this lovely short film on Glaser by the late and great Hillman Curtis.

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