Excerpt — October 10, 2017, 2:48 pm

The Thing About Eating That Makes Me Stand Up and Say Howdy

From Know That What You Eat You Are: The best food writing from Harper’s Magazine

From Know That What You Eat You Are: The best food writing from Harper’s Magazine. The book is available for purchase in the Harper’s Store.

“Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato.

–Wendell Berry, “Think Little,” from A Continuous Harmony”

I love to eat. Don’t you? How can you not? When it comes to favorite savory occupations of sentient, opposable-thumbed, mammalian life, you’ve got: woodworking, and assembling jigsaw puzzles is a treat, for sure, not to mention forest-perambulating, comprehending written language, making sweet love, and fishing, but (with apologies) what really takes the cake is eating (mainly food, though, to be clear—while I have at times feasted upon such unfortunate entrées as crow, my hat, my words, and humble pie, those experiences were slathered rather more with regret than relish).

The thing about eating that makes me stand up and say howdy is that it can fully titillate the five senses in its execution: the knee-weakening glimpse of a beef brisket breaching the oak-wood smoker; the clarion perfume of frying garlic in a Thai kitchen that can draw me from blocks away, floating like a cartoon varmint under the thrall of a windowsill pie. The sound of anything frying. The muscular flesh of a fresh apple in one’s hand, cleanly calving against the incisors like straight-grained birch under the splitter’s maul. And, of course, taste (sigh). The mouth memory of a warm, butter-slathered slice of my dad’s home-baked bread conjures details and emotions worthy of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

In many households, breaking bread with loved ones can also be considered the main campus of the school of good manners. As we take sustenance onboard together, we learn how to comport ourselves in the presence of others, and how to share (or not, depending on your standing in the sibling hierarchy). I have learned from my family the traditions of a lovely human instinct for seeing one’s company well-fed, and I know that I always try to behave impeccably so that I will be invited back for the next lesson. When we eat appropriately, we are fed more than nutrients and protein—we also taste the founding notions of human decency.

Speaking of “those who feed,” there is among our race a sect of heroes that has done and continues to do the great service of experimenting with every one of the earth’s known edible compounds, mixing and manipulating ingredients and flavors like so many mad but benevolent scientists—and all for our gustatory appreciation. Like so many kitchen ninja, they leap from cutting board to skillet, wielding spatula and spoon like deadly nunchaku. We call these noble men and women cooks. With their attention (born of affection) solely focused upon us and our meals, together we get to upgrade the daily necessity of caloric consumption into a regular self-pleasuring.

That’s it, right? Cooks cook food, and eaters gobble it down. Right? Wrong. Our modern industrial food providers would love for us to believe that food magically appears in the grocery store, so that we need never be troubled by or even aware of the devastation much of their industry has wrought upon the small American farmer. The sour truths behind the lion’s share of our nation’s current agricultural practices will serve to ruin our appetites but quick, as you’ll read in some downright chilling anecdotes of farm production in “How Now, Drugged Cow” (1994) and “Cage Wars” (2014). Therefore another deeper enjoyment of eating can be derived from a curiosity and resultant knowledge of your food’s source. Expending a little extra energy and budget to ensure that what we eat is actually good is an ever-growing responsibility for all of us. Not just good for our personal health, but good for every participant in the chain of produce, from soil to table. Acknowledging this obligation can make those radishes go down even easier, on many levels, which is a central theme of the excellent body of food writing by thinkers like Michael Pollan, here represented with “Cultivating Virtue” (1987).

Even if you don’t adore devouring comestibles as much as I do, you have to admit that we all do it. We have to, because of the, you know, nutrition and whatnot, the sustenance-of-life type stuff that eating provides. “Food helps to enlongen our lives,” is a thing I presume a professor would say (a little bio-ology for you, not to brag), and she would be right. I’ll bet you didn’t expect a science lesson from this altar boy turned thespian/scribe, but I can assure you that this revelation won’t be the last surprise you’ll apprehend in these pages. This collection of pieces, selectively harvested from the garden of Harper’s Magazine across the last 160 years or so, will elucidate the definitive way to serve a proper meal in “The Art of Dining” (1875) as well as some examples in which modern eateries take the form exceedingly over the top in Tanya Gold’s hilarious “A Goose in a Dress” (2015). You’ll find stories of foods coldly regarded as mere commodities demanding our continued vigilance in “The Quinoa Quarrel” (2014) and “The Food Bubble” (2010), and some of our hilarious/frightening efforts to innovate new treats to tuck away for our ever-burgeoning contingent of consumers in “Brave New Foods” (1988) and “Ticket to the Fair” (1994). These examples and many more paint a rich representation of the ongoing marriage between us eatin’ types and the types of eats we favor, as well as the welfare and history of those various foods and those who cultivate or fabricate or sell them.

Marriages, as you may know, are not always filled with sunshine, even in the most loving of homes. Despite its initial disagreeability, this inclement state of being is to be ultimately revered, for it is the occasional rain that instructs us just how precious are those moments of sunshine when they do return. In our perpetual wedlock with our daily grub, there are certainly moments that might be likened to a honeymoon, e.g. a bountiful sweet corn harvest or the arrival at table of a sizzling rasher of bacon, just as there are patches of stormy weather (most salad courses).

Within the narratives that make up this book, I most enjoyed following the loose thread tracing the overall evolution of this matrimony between Americans and their provender. As you might have surmised by the quote kicking off this writing, I am a particular fan and student of the writing of Wendell Berry, whose body of work holds the clearest instructions for all of us interested in perpetuating healthy human life on this planet. The further back one looks into our collective history, back before we became such adept and devoted consumers, the more one witnesses a populace who had a working knowledge of Mr. Berry’s aforementioned potato.

This satisfying spread of essays then (including two by Mr. Berry himself), while an excellent tasting menu of the many-faceted relations between Americans and their foodstuffs, serves as a clear journal of the ways in which we have done our eating right, and of course, how we have burnt the toast to a crisp, as it were. This buffet of critical writing offers flavors that range from jocular to imperative to abhorrent, but in properly pacing our consumption of their mixed courses they will do us a great deal of good service. Why not digest them fully and then share the recipes so that our earthly family may enjoy a renewed awareness of (and affection for) the foods we eat and the people who provide them to us. And don’t forget to help with the dishes.

Know That What You Eat You Are is available for purchase in the Harper’s Store.

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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