Patti Smith’s New York

One of the things that really interests me in life is U.S. regionalism. So today, reader, I’m going to talk about that.

The first part of this blog is about the New York of the late 1960s and 1970s, as viewed through the prism of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. I have to say that, when I was a young woman, I never particularly liked Patti Smith.  (Well, I do like “Because the Night.” But not so much her oeuvre in general.) She seemed like a poseur of major proportions, and, frankly, not particularly musical.

So it was that I had never read Just Kids, about her time as friend, lover, and muse to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1960s and 1970s. Just Kids has been lauded, certainly—it won a National Book award—but I stayed far away.

Until recently. I grabbed it from my local library’s shelves and have read it with some degree of absorption. I ended up with a lot more respect for Patti Smith, who becomes a person of substance as she goes through her life.just kids book jacket

I want to talk about, though, what hit me most forcefully about her recounting of that period, and that was, how crappy New York was to live in during the 1970s. A lot of Just Kids is Patti Smith recounting how poor she and Robert Mapplethorpe were. Literally, not a lot of money—rationing themselves to a shared hot dog. Partly, this is because they were starving artists. But partly, it is because New York took a lot of money to live even in at the time, and they didn’t have it.

I was particularly struck by one anecdote, on their first apartment in Brooklyn. (Which was, at the time, considered cheap compared to Manhattan. It still is, but no longer the place where people restricted to sharing one hot dog can even think about living.) Their first apartment had been used by junkies, and it had used syringes nearly filling the oven and blood on the walls.

This turned my stomach—there’s something about the warmth and comfort of a kitchen being turned inside out this way that’s quite chilling. (I might also add that I just watched the movie CBGB recently, in honor of Alan Rickman, who plays the owner. The time period of CBGB occurs at the tail end of the Just Kids, of course, but the same “incredible and upsetting filth” motif runs through it: huge roaches, overflowing toilets, and so on and on.)

But the anecdote also caused me to start to meditate on New York and the West Coast, because a lot of my own life in New York City at a later period was being shocked that it was so different from the western states I’d come from.

I was completely fascinated by these differences, which manifested in every conceivable way. For one thing, I had grown up on the West Coast and had never really seen a lot of stuff that was really old. And dirty. Which a lot of the apartments I looked at in searching for rentals were. Not as bad as Smith and Mapplethorpe’s rentals, but still.

But also, I was fascinated with the different ways of using space. In both Oregon and California, for example, you found stuff in a grocery store by finding a long horizontal display. Corn flakes, for example, would be in a row left to right.

In New York City grocery stores, by contrast, corn flakes took up the space of one corn flakes box, and the multiple boxes lined up behind it. To a West Coast kid, it was genuinely difficult to see what you were looking for, because your eye was so oriented toward looking for a display that was an expanse.

So that has remained an orienting idea of NY/West Coast; the first is restricted and vaguely crummy in its space (unless you are quite rich); the second is expansive. This idea is one of the reasons I became very comfortable in suburbia. Expansion—spread out houses, spread out parking lots, spread out vehicles—is the animating spatial idea of suburbia, just as it is the animating idea of the West.

That people were expected to put up with so little space, and such crummy space, seemed very bad to me. It seemed bad for art, actually, which is partly about outreach and not constriction. Which is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated with Smith’s narrative, because she accepts the crappiness and the overall idea that artists starve for art completely.

So tomorrow, readers, I’m going to talk about space restriction and space expansion as two separate kingdoms in the US, and further, where we are in these two kingdoms!

 

What’s Represented in Representation?

Today, I want to talk about how different representations can change what we see and how we interpret it.

Why do I want to talk about this? Well, as part of my work, I have been looking a lot at offerings in and around the California Institute of the Arts, an art school in southern California. Poking around their web site, I saw iterations of their logo that I’d never seen before, and they seem worthy of comment.

California Institute of the Arts is often referred to as CalArts.calarts-logo-square-orange It was started as a kind of “Caltech of the arts” by, among other people, Walt Disney. Therefore, it makes sense to think of the logo as the equivalent of that, CalArts, running together the abbreviation for the state and the abbreviation of its main offerings, just as California Institute of Technology does in its shortened name, Caltech.

Except that, poking around, I saw another logo that is often used. It’s right below, here. cal arts black on white

This logo is so different than the one above. It doesn’t seem to be making the case that it’s abbreviating California Institute of the Arts. It seems to be, um, saying Ca, La and then a bunch of letters. It seems to be emphasizing the primacy of Los Angeles (assuming that’s the la) in California, and the mutually reinforcing nature of the two. (CalArts is about 30 miles outside of Los Angeles proper. Interestingly, though, one of the foundational schools that eventually became CalArts was the Chouinard Art Institute, which taught the early animators of Walt Disney studios. CalArts was in part started so that animators, and the rest of the industry, would have a state-of-the-art art school on the West Coast.)

So, since it is well known that the Disney animators like to make visual puns in the Disney films, I couldn’t help but wonder if this were one. If we read the ca and la as mutually referential and reinforcing, the rest of it is “rts”—which could be pronounced “arts.” At a minimum, it seems to be making the point that CalArts is in L.A., not San Francisco (the other California center for the arts) or New York. Is it a response to the fact that Disney was dissed in New York, and his films not considered real art? (This according to the recent PBS documentary on Disney, which is fascinating.) Or, is it just making sure that LARTS is the most dominant part of the logo, with “ca” the smaller brother? Is “ca” a smaller reference to Chouinard Art, even?

I think this is an intriguing example of how letters and their arrangement can work as caltech white on blackart. In the Caltech logo, the “ca” is not set off as much—it reads as Caltech, just the way it is said. And, in other representations of CalArts, as in the orange logo above, it looks that way too. But in the black and white CalArts logo above (or should we call it calarts), the “ca” seems to inhabit a different universe from the rest of the letters.

I think this is some artist, somewhere, making the point that representation, not the letters, the building blocks of words only, matters.

I’d love to know the history of the logo, so if anyone knows, please contact me!

Bernie Sanders’s Hair: or, Marked Men

So, having argued in my last post that professional women are less marked than ever, here’s what I think of Bernie Sanders’s hair. Sanders’s hair is commented upon not less than Clinton’s, I think, but more. (Admittedly, this is a personal sample based on what I read and hear, but I think it’s true.) The fact that his hair is sometimes not neatly combed, or blows in the wind, is alluded to and often serves as a frame for his ideas, particularly on television. (For a perfect representation of the icon of his hair, and one that also ties in the upcoming Halloween holiday, see here.) He’s not neatly coiffed according to some abstract presidential candidate standard, I guess. (Although it looks ok to me.) The sense that he doesn’t look right also underlies some of the Saturday Night Live debate satire, which focused on his having one set of underwear (!). He himself played into this, telling reporters that when he was first elected to office in Vermont, he only had one suit.

And I think it’s commented on more because Bernie Sanders himself is marked. Marked isn’t specifically a gender category, I think, it’s a category having to do with marginality or outsiderness. (Tannen’s article was written when only so many women were in the boardroom, so their presence just attracted heightened scrutiny.) Because of his Vermont-ness (rural state, mix of liberal and gun control, and so forth), his espousal of economic issues few people were talking about before he brought them to the table, and his accent, he isn’t just any generic guy running for president.

And this brings me to a third central point. The exchange between Bernie and the Times is a debate of sorts. On the one side, he assumes that hair is a trivial thing to be asking a presidential candidate about. On the other, the reporter says it’s a valid gender issue. I think both are correct if we delete the word gender.

The problem, really, is that the Times relied on shopworn observations and analysis, because it is Sanders who is the marked candidate in the race, not Clinton. The stance also illustrates the perils of relying on outworn social observations as much as political or economic ones in politics. Social observations change and become outmoded. It takes constant testing of the wind to see what is really, in fact, happening, not relying on decades-old truisms.

In that sense, Sanders’s incredulity about being asked what he seemed to interpret as a fashion question when he was trying to get out an important economic message was a breath of fresh air.

Bernie Sanders’s Hair: or, Marked Women

Happy Rockober, readers!

I want to talk today about Bernie Sanders’s hair. (Whenever I have started to write this, I keep thinking about the fact that the cadence of “Bernie Sanders’s hair,” especially if you write it “Bernie Sanders’ hair,” sounds like the improvised Native American chant “John Wayne’s Teeth.” It was written by Sherman Alexie and featured in his movie Smoke Signals. It’s a big digression, but before we start, here is a relevant clip.)

So. Bernie’s hair.

A few days ago, I was looking up the Saturday Night Live skit spoofing the Democratic president debate earlier this month. I enjoyed the debate, and I wanted to see particularly the Larry David version of Bernie Sanders. Which can be seen here.

Ok. I ran across yet another clip. (Reader! Perhaps the secret subject of this post is clips!) This one had two young men talking about a conversation Bernie Sanders had with a New York Times reporter in which he scolded her for asking him whether, and I paraphrase their clip-within-a-clip (!), is it fair that Hillary Clinton’s hair gets more scrutiny than his does.

He responds incredulously, asking her to verify that she is actually asking about hair when he is trying to talk about massive income inequality in this country. Yep, she responds, I am, and then says something to the effect of “I can defend that—there’s a gendered reason.”

At that point, my meta really swung into action.

First, yes, for the past several decades, analysts have been pointing out that women’s appearance is often the focus of comment and criticism, whereas the appearance of public men (politicians, corporate leaders, etc.) is unremarked on, no matter what they look like. It’s been an issue gendered, yes.

But second, the larger point is that women were subjected to this extra scrutiny because they were what the scholar Deborah Tannen calls “marked.” (If you’ve been anywhere near English of Women’s Studies departments, you have very likely read her essay “Marked Women, Unmarked Men.” The text, helpfully, can be found here.)

Basically, Tannen pointed out that the styles women choose mean something, while the styles men choose, if they are basic office wear, don’t. They mean “basic guy” with no inflection. When clothes meant something—when the meaning had to be decided upon—the women could be subject to judgment or criticism. At the least, a higher level of scrutiny, a gender inequality when people simply don’t think about the way men look.

So as part of my discussion, I want to focus on two things. The first is that it is arguable that women today are not nearly as “marked” as they were when Deborah Tannen wrote her article in the early 1990s. Yes, commentators sometimes mention Hillary Clinton’s penchant for bright colors…but the firestorm over her wearing head bands, also in the early 1990s, was exponentially greater.

The proof of the “less marked than ever” theory, as I guess I’ll call it, was that Donald Trump tried a version of “markedness” on Carly Fiorina by deriding her looks. And, basically, he lost. People generally were much more with her. They supported her dignified response, regardless of what they felt about her being a presidential candidate. She dresses and wears her hair like a generic, regular-type corporate woman, and so, to a large degree, does Hillary Clinton. There is a recognizable female professional style, and they recognizably both walk within its boundaries.

In the sense that anyone who follows that style is no more marked than their respective male counterparts, that’s a victory for women. Trump’s remark may have been the last gasp of being able to deride professional women for looking any particular way, and the beginning of acceptance of their looks just as we accept the looks of every male presidential candidate without serious comment.

I Love School; or, the Bird Has Not Flown

As part of my transition out of graduate school, I’ve been working occasionally for a test prep company. Last weekend, I met my class in a local high school. It was a great autumn day–literally, there was a bright golden haze on the meadow.

I’m not in high schools when I teach, usually, so I was kind of shocked by it. And moved. And here’s the reason why.

It was an English classroom, obviously—I could tell by the posters on the wall. George Orwell. Virginia Woolf. Shakespeare, sitting and holding a quill. (And an oddly technicolor rendition of the Globe, his theater.)

The shock and the emotion emanated from the same place, I think. So often, discussions about education and the younger generation assume a kind of “everything is different now” stance. You know, the young have Facebook. They are digital natives. They face enormous challenges—environmental catastrophes, rogue states, a refugee situation that may remake the face of the globe. And that’s just for starters.

But not everything is different now. There was hardly a single thing in that room that wouldn’t have been there when I was a student. (And I’m midlife, remember, so we are talking decades.) It was startlingly the same. Steinbeck. A poster about Of Mice and Men. (Yep, the very one I’m picturing here!) Tennessee Williams. of mice and menAdvice from Winston Churchill on prepositions: “ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” Dickens. London buses, double decker.

Even the few differences echoed the situation when I was a student. There was a colorful poster of the Khmer Empire. (We worried about Vietnam.) The teacher’s painstakingly annotated copy of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying was on the desk. (We carried around his Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.)

Yes, yes, I know that knowledge is culturally constructed and this cannot be said to mean that the experiences of reading and writing in an English classroom is timeless. (Although I have to confess that it felt that way.) But I did feel I was in a great and good place—where emotions are discussed, thought is encouraged, and empathy holds sway.

Also, it illustrates how much we embrace the shock of the new concept to our detriment. It’s a commonly used frame that often just doesn’t get it right. What we often have is the commonality of the old.

More on Amy Schumer and Twelve Angry Men

In my last post, I discussed the Inside Amy Schumer parody of Twelve Angry Men. I want to say more about both today, because the more I think about it, the richer I think it is.

As I mentioned last time, I think part of the richness of the parody is how much it picks up on metaphors of citizenship and physicality that are already present the original film, just not so explicit. The jurors are representative men, and as such their physical imperfections represent them as average citizens. They get to do the things average citizens get to do. Speak. Vote. And voting’s less explicit daily analog, weigh in on an issue.

However, perceived physical imperfections in women often mark them as less than, and result in their being ignored and simply unrepresented. They cannot speak, or are unheard if they do. Amy plain jane amy sSchumer often mines exactly this vein, as exemplified in the Miami Vice parody “Plain Jane,” where the eponymous character (see picture) states, in voice-over, that she is “invisible to the perfect” and, in fact, other characters sit on her because they literally don’t see her on a bar stool. One picture is worth a thousand words; see this great clip here.

Well, um. I think the richness of the parody, though, is exactly how much it works within the ambiance of the original film, which is two-fold. Yes, looks are democratized; no one has to be handsome or hot to weigh in. But something else happens in the film about looks as well. Looks are also made a symbol of the inner man. And it is precisely the reliance on image as marker of inner worth that has particularly hit women hard—they are the carriers of it.

What do I mean about looks being made a symbol? I alluded to it briefly in the first post. Most of the characters look slightly odd in some way; only Henry Fonda has a classic symmetrical look—and his impressive looks mark him as morally better, and as the leader.

Outer looks as a symbol for the inner man is quite intentional in the film. I watched the Criterion 12 angry men jammed togetherCollection of Twelve Angry Men and, for anyone interested in film art, there is a highly informative second DVD included that includes interviews with (among other people) cinematographer John Bailey. Several interviewees mention the cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who director Sidney Lumet worked with to create a slightly eerie claustrophobic effect. Indeed, the pictures smash the people together to create a kind of “society and conformity oppress us” feel. (And, as a dance fan, I have to say that one memorable scene, below, where all the jurors distance themselves physically from a hold-out who wants a guilty verdict, and their moral disapproval is shown by distance and silence, looks highly influenced by the physical presentation of ballet.)12 angry men ballet

So, although there are plenty of words in Twelve Angry Men, film art has meant that meanings are often carried through images rather than words. The status of movies as a central art of the twentieth century has meant that images are more and more important to us. Nineteenth-century books are often a word torrent (390 pages is nothing!) with a single graphic in the frontispiece. In twenty-first century Web pages, on the other hand, images are often both frequent and gargantuan. Moreover, on news sites especially, the picture is often shorthand for the entire thing, rather than the headline. One’s looks, also, have increasingly become a short-hand symbol for the entire person. This is true for both women and men, but Schumer tackles the grittier issue facing women, of being invisible depending on how one looks, or being mediated only by your physicality, with no representative place in the world if you don’t have a physicality deemed acceptable. And this is partly a gender problem, but also part of a cultural turn toward image rather than words.

Amy Schumer and Twelve Angry Men

There has been a lot of talk in the critical world about the parody of the film Twelve Angry Men in the comedy show Inside Amy Schumer. (See, readers, I not only write blogs but I read a lot of blogs on Slate, Salon, and New Yorker, all of them abuzz with praises of this parody. It ran a few months ago, but I thought I would at least sing the praises of Inside Amy Schumer before I see her film Trainwreck.)

If you didn’t see/read the media hoopla on this and don’t watch the show, a bit of background: the parody takes the claustrophobic room with a jury sequestered inside from the 1950s film Twelve Angry Men, but instead of debating the guilt or innocence of an accused murderer, it is Amy Schumer herself who is on trial. The accusation: whether or not she is sexy enough to have a TV show. (Alas, although the episode-long parody was available for streaming in May, it now seems to be behind a pay wall, but do check YouTube or Comedy Central for clips. I’m at least giving you a picture that gets the point across. Here on the right, the parody; on the left below, the original, with a special inside amy s 12 angryshout-out to the actor in the center who parodied Lee J. Cobb, the original actor pictured alone on the left. Of a group of great parodists, he was the best.)

Most of the critical conversation has centered around the hilariously accurate mirroring of the film’s 1950s milieu: the black and white film, the clothes, the fan blowing air around in the age before air conditioning, the histrionic debates. Several, notably Salon’s Katie McDonough have gone a bit deeper, noting that the parody hits deeper than skits usually do by pinpointing the pain underlying men’s objectification of women.

12 angry menI want to put out another aspect that I think makes this parody kind of profound, one curiously uncommented on by anything I’ve seen so far. And that is the physicality that the 1950s film shares with the meaning of the parody. I saw the movie many years ago but I remember vividly being struck with the irregularity of the men’s faces in the film. They have wens. They have lumps (bulbous areas in both their faces and bodies). They have tics. Not only that: almost everybody is characterized by large waistlines, receding hair, unattractive lee j cobbeyeglasses.

I don’t say this to diss the guys’ overall appearance. In my initial viewing, I remember thinking something along the lines of “that’s how ordinary people looked in the 1950s.” Not a movie star style of attractiveness: these guys look more like Ralph Kramden or Ed Norton (if dressed in suits) than like 1950s icons of handsomeness Gregory Peck or Paul Newman. (Or for that matter, Henry Fonda, who, as the leader who is the voice of reason and charity, is the only actor with a symmetrical, handsome face. I have to disagree with Salon that the actors look like the originals: many of them strikingly do, but the actor in the “Fonda” role is just as asymmetrical and odd-looking as the others.)

And of course, if you do take them as very ordinary in looks, that’s an unstated part of the point. They are the very ordinary citizenry. They are called upon to do justice as interchangeable, unremarkable parts of a functioning democracy—the jurors. They start out dismissive of that responsibility (most of them want to get it over with as soon as possible, although they are weighing a death sentence). They do, though, in the end, through argument and debate, perform that justice. For all its focus on anger and hostility, the film seems to believe in the possibility of ordinary citizens serving justice (….as long as they have a good leader).

That subtext—that looking ordinary is a marker for an ordinary citizen—and that citizens might be called upon to do duty always implicitly theirs but seldom explicitly requiring action, even if they want to go to a ball game—forms an unspoken commentary in the parody. Because they are trying Amy Schumer for not being “bangable” enough to be on television. By extension, they are weighing whether ordinary women get to be public women with a public voice. (Yes, I know it’s television, but it is a metaphor for point of view and voice here, and also given the content of Inside Amy Schumer.) And it’s quite clear that the democracy of the body they enjoy—they get to speak and have a vote no matter how they look— is a) so implicit that they don’t even think about it and b) something they only grudgingly and ambiguously extend to her.

 

American (Food) Revolution: Final Installment

Several weeks ago, I wrote a couple of posts on the history of vegetarian cooking in the U.S. over the past several decades. My posts were mostly centered around the idea that vegetarian cooking out of the 1970s (The Moosewood Cookbook) was not archaic and old-fashioned (as a magazine article I cited had it), but in fact were the progenitors of the revolution that put vegetables at the center of a meal (on one end of the spectrum) and resulted in more emphasis on vegetables than had ever been seen before in U.S. cooking (on the other end).

Then, I had a very wild couple of weeks and had to set the posts aside for a while.

But now I’m back, and I want to wrap up those posts by talking about what I think the attempt to date the vegetable food revolution to the restaurant Greens rather than Moosewood means for this cultural moment.

I kind of alluded to it in my second post. Greens is a very upscale restaurant, and to date the revolution there subtly shifts the general “more vegetables, more often, and more creatively done” movement of the past several decades to groups that are economically upscale rather than the population at large.

It shifts ownership and provenance, as it were, to the wealthy from the funky and the creative. In that, it tracks very closely to other phenomena of the past several decades that have increasingly resulted in a wider and wider split between rich and poor, or even very rich and very medium. And that’s too bad.

Yes, I know all the objections that can be raised to this view. I could itemize them myself. First, Greens is affordable for the middle class and I’ve characterized it as a home of the rich. Second—and broader—the American Food Revolution Vegetable Style was always pretty much about the upscale. At the very least, this argument might run, it came out of the educated classes as exemplified in the Moosewood Café of Ithaca, NY, home to a major university (Cornell). As such, it was arguably populated by the upwardly mobile and striving.

I still think there is a world of difference. Yes, any middle class person can spring for a meal at Greens. And yes, Moosewood and its ilk were pretty much all aimed toward the educated classes. But Moosewood and its kind were accessible, and they were importantly accessible. The cooking they espoused was creative, cheap, and theoretically open to anyone wanting to learn it. As a movement, it employed creators, learners and beginners. Greens as paradigm, in contrast, is about chefs and foodies already established as leaders and their further mega-establishment in expensive real estate. Accessibility as a foundational tenet it has not.

Greens also shows the influence more of Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, founded in Berkeley around chez panissethis time, and dedicated to a more sophisticated palate. Chez Panisse was, initially, also a place for creators and beginners, and struck something of a new way in American cookery at the time. But again, it was not the vegetable revolution that The Moosewood Cookbook was; it simply upped the sophistication of the food. In this, it is arguably more akin to Julia Child’s work in making French cooking more accessible to middle- and upper-class Americans than to either Moosewood or Greens.

If I were writing a history of U.S. cookery since the 1960s, arguably all three of these restaurants, and Julia as a celebrated cook, worked to make different forms of cooking available to Americans. But Greens and Chez Panisse are at home in upscale real estate, and Julia Child arguably made French cooking more accessible than it had been, but never fully part of the average American home. It seems to me that only Moosewood and its kind offered an accessible and flexible form of cooking that was notably democratic. And I salute it for that. And for the vegetables.

 

Language Fun, Canadian Style

Greetings, readers! I had a very wild June and it’s so good to be back in this blog, conversing as I will.

Today, I’m just going to focus on things I find very cool about language. As readers of this blog know, I am very fond of mystery novels, never more so than in the summer. My text is a mystery novel, Old City Hall, by the Canadian writer Robert Rotenberg. (Part of the great NPR “Crime in the City” series.)

Perhaps I should say things he finds very cool, because a character in this novel (a lawyer named Albert Fernandez) is the occasion for extremely interesting observations made about the English language. Fernandez is from South America, emigrated as a child to Toronto, and though outwardly fluent, has worked very hard to not let his struggles with English show. As a kid, falling into a Canadian snowbank, he shouted “aid me” to the other students. And was mercilessly teased by those same kids, for not knowing the proper idiomatic form of “help me.”

So here is Albert, musing about the English language by recalling a college linguistics lecture: “the professor…drew a line down the middle of the blackboard, and wrote…’Anglo-Saxon’ on one side and ‘Norman’ on the other.’” Words with the same meaning face each other across the divide: “go in/enter; meet/rendezvous.” The pairing that previously gave him trouble, “help/aid,” is accounted for: “Thanks to the French invasion of England in 1066, the two main [contributors to the current language] ran parallel throughout.”

Then Albert Fernandez muses on English political speeches: “That’s where Churchill came in…Churchill understood the power of the simple Anglo-Saxon words. He preferred them to the flowery, foreign Norman words. His most famous speech, ‘We will fight them on the beaches…,’ was the greatest example. Every word was Anglo-Saxon, except for the very last one: ‘…and we will never surrender.’ ‘Surrender,’ the only three-syllable word in the whole speech, was a flowery French word instead of the simpler, Anglo-Saxon ‘give up.’ In this way, Churchill underscored how the very idea of surrender was a foreign concept to his British audience.”

Ok, I’ve quoted at some length here. Why? Well, first, this passage exemplifies the kind of close reading that makes study of English so much fun—and so meaningful. It’s what students and teachers in English departments get to do, and this is a very nice example (and done by lawyers, which just underscores how important language is to understanding and analysis). Albert applies this to his experience in courts, observing that a client’s tone changed in a way that caused Albert to believe he was lying; only later, when he reads the transcript and begins to circle the Norman words, does he begin to understand why. When the accused uses Anglo-Saxon words (“I walked into the kitchen”) he is telling the truth; the shift occurs when he begins using Norman words instead (“to the best of my recollection”; “she maneuvered”).

The other pleasure of this is that it’s a clever commentary on the background of the book itself. The maple leaf flagnovel is set in a profoundly multicultural Canada, with a backdrop of many languages, but of course the two official are English and French. Highlighting English and Norman this way implicitly makes a plea that Canada, not Britain or the U.S., is the inheritor and paradigm of the polyglot tongues that underlie contemporary English. (I know the quoted passage about the accused is kind of a swipe at French. Still, the hero of the series—a detective named Ari Greene—drives around listening to the French language stations on his car radio. So there is that.)

And here’s a fun fact I’ve never been able to work in anywhere else: since I referred to the Norman invasion earlier, at least there’s an opening. Early in graduate school, I had to buy The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. To draw a distinction between it and British histories written to assume a proto-empire and English triumphalism already apparent in the medieval period, the introduction implies that the England of this time was more colonized (earlier, by the Danes; by the French) and multivocal than earlier understood. Guess what the last numbered page is? 1066. No accident, think I. A wonderful example, I’ve always thought, of using the physicality of the book to comment on its contents.

Another fun fact:  the picture here is from a great post on the early designs for Canada’s Maple Leaf flag. Click on the link here to read.

And happy July!

More American (Food) Revolution

This is a continuation of my post from a couple weeks ago, on an essay about the growing popularity of vegetarianism—and, more to the point, about how we date the revolution in American cooking that made vegetables a centerpiece.

Last time, I cited a review essay in the New Yorker that characterized The Moosewood Cookbook as the result of “preachy vegetarian communes and collectives…[that] began to proliferate [in the 1970s]….remember the breads and carrot cakes that weighted almost as much as the people eating them?” I focus on this particular set of phrases because they represent a mechanism that particularly fascinates me in life—the overwriting of existing cultural moments, events, or communities into invisibility—and how that takes place.

It quite often takes place through describing or discussing said cultural moments, events, or communities as if they have in fact disappeared, or become archaic and/or just plain wrong. Two examples. In Norman Klein’s The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, he discusses the removal of ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles and their replacement by ambitious but not always realized urban renewal plans (such as freeways), noting that citizens just a few years after the tearing down of the older neighborhoods don’t seem to realize that they were ever there. He says of this phenomenon: “the overall effect resembles what psychologists call ‘distraction,’ where one false memory allows another memory to be removed in plain view, without complaint—forgotten.” Another set of descriptions can be found in Joanne Pope Melish’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and ‘Race’ in New England, 1780-1860, which focuses on the cultural attempts to make New England seem solely white in ethnicity despite the existence of a black population. These attempts were largely successful in the popular imagination until fairly recently.

It may seem a far stretch to analogize the ways in which communities are rendered invisible and forgotten with the way that cookbooks are dissed and removed from revolutions they helped create. But look at how much the methods resemble each other. Characterizing The Moosewood Cookbook and related phenomena as “preachy” and associating them with “heavy” (a dread word in contemporary cookery, as modern-day cooking wins praise by being “light” or “bright”)—and, more tellingly using “remember” as the lead in—makes those things seem a) wrong and b) dated. The latter especially makes it seem as if these phenomena have simply disappeared in the mists of history. A textbook method of cultural overwriting into invisibility.

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This is particularly interesting because in fact most of these cultural plot coordinates are still going strong. Moosewood, for example, is still a restaurant, still open, and still a collective. Mollie Katzen, who wrote and illustrated the original Moosewood Cookbook, is still publishing cookbooks (including an update of the original), and is a major food consultant to the Harvard School of Public Health. She has been inducted into the James Beard cookbook Hall of Fame and named one of “Five Women Who Changed the Way We Eat” by Health magazine.

So does this attempt at overwriting contain a cultural meaning? Coming in a future post.