Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

03 NOVEMBER, 2011

The Table Comes First: Adam Gopnik on the Meaning of Food

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A cultural history of our modern culinary obsession.

It seems to be the season of intriguing food-related releases. From Adam Gopnik, one of my favorite nonfiction writers working today, comes The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food — a fascinating journey into the roots of our modern obsession with food and culinary culture. From the dawn of our modern tastes in 18th-century France, where the first restaurant was born, to the kitchens of the White House to the Slow Food movement to Barcelona’s bleeding-edge molecular gastronomy scene, Gopnik tours the wild and wonderful world of cuisine, with all its concomitant sociocultural phenomena, to explore the delicate relationship between what goes on the table and what goes on around it as we come together over our food. It’s history, nutrition, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology all rolled up into one delectable streusel of insight and illumination, in Gopnik’s unapologetically intelligent yet charmingly witty style.

Having made food a more fashionable object, we have ended by making eating a smaller subject. When ‘gastronomy’ was on the margins of attention it seemed big because it was an unexpected way to get at everything — the nature of hunger; the meaning of appetite; the patterns and traces of desire; tradition, in the way that recipes are passed mother to son; and history, in the way that spices mix and, in mixing, mix peoples. You could envision through the modest lens of pleasure, as through a keyhole, a whole world; and the compression and odd shape of the keyhole made the picture more dramatic. Now the door is wide open, but somehow we see less, or notice less, anyway. Betrayed by its enlargement, food becomes less intimate the more intensely it is made to matter.” ~ Adam Gopnik

The book opens with Charles Darwin’s famous haikuesque meditation:

We have happy days, remember good dinners.”

Gopnik goes on to explore the two pillars of modern eating — the restaurant and the recipe book — both of which are modern developments, mere blips in evolutionary time, and reflects on their cultural history with his characteristically brilliant blend of keen analysis and ever-so-subtle smirk.

The restaurant was once a place for men, a place where men ate, held court, cooked, boasted and swaggered, and wooed women. The recipe book was traditionally ‘feminine': the kitchen was the place where women cooked, supervised, gave orders, made brownies, to steady and domesticate men. In the myth-world of the nineteenth century, the restaurant existed to coax women into having sex; the recipe book to coax men into staying home.” ~ Adam Gopnik

Deeply fascinating and absorbingly written, The Table Comes First is the kind of read you’ll want to devour in one sitting, despite its Thanksgiving-sized 320-page heft.

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02 NOVEMBER, 2011

Balloons for Bhutan: Jonathan Harris Documents Happiness

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A portrait of happiness in the last Himalayan kingdom.

Since 1972, Bhutan has been attracting international attention as the only country in the world that quantifies its nation’s well-being not by Gross National Product, the narrow and soulless measure of our economic monoculture, but by Gross National Happiness. In 2007, artist Jonathan Harris ( ) traveled to Bhutan to explore the Gross National Happiness paradigm. Balloons for Bhutan documents his effort to capture “a portrait of happiness in the last Himalayan kingdom” in his signature style of multimedia storytelling.

Harris asked 117 people of various ages, occupations, education levels, and social status five questions related to happiness: What makes them happy; what is their happiest memory; what is their favorite joke; what is their happiness level on a scale of 1 to 10; if they could make one wish, what would that be. He then gave each person the number of balloons corresponding to their stated happiness, and wrote each person’s wish on the balloon of their favorite color. On the final night of his journey, he strung up the inflated balloons at Duchala, a sacred mountain pass at 10,000 feet, bobbing amidst Buddhist prayer flags.

Here’s an excerpt from Harris’s 2007 EG / TED talk, where he talks about the project:

Explore the project in its full audiovisual glory for the complete effect. Then, grab some of these 7 essential books on the art and science of happiness to better understand this complex, universal aspiration.

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02 NOVEMBER, 2011

Maurice Sendak’s Rare Velveteen Rabbit Illustrations circa 1960

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Two icons converge in obscure vintage children’s volume.

It’s no secret I have a wicked obsession with vintage children’s book illustration, especially from obscure editions by famous authors or artists. For instance, I recently discovered some fantastic little-known artwork by Andy Warhol for two volumes of the Best in Children’s Books series from 1958-1959. But the series, it turns out, is a treasure trove of hidden gems. The the 1960 volume Best in Children’s Books #35, hidden wherein is a version of The Velveteen Rabbit illustrated by none other than Maurice Sendak, he of Where The Wild Things Are fame. The charming duotone illustrations bring Sendak’s signature style of simple whimsy to one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time — a priceless combination.

Sendak’s new picture book, BUMBLE-ARDY, came out last month and is, expectedly, a treat.

Images via Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves

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