Ghostbusters: The Compromise Candidate of Summer Blockbusters

When Sony announced that it would be remaking the rightly beloved 1984 Ghostbusters movie, with women wearing the proton packs and Bridesmaids‘s Paul Feig on board to direct, you didn’t have to look too hard at the galleon being craned up for a retrofit to see the unsavory barnacles of terrified white manboys clutching onto the hull for dear life. Fan entitlement, long rooted in a patriarchal sense of childhood nostalgia that the Daily Beast‘s Arthur Chu shrewdly pinpointed as “‘pickup artist’ snake oil — started by nerdy guys, for nerdy guys — filled with techniques to manipulate, pressure and in some cases outright assault women to get what they want,” once again failed to do a little soul-searching and reflection on what its inflexible stance against the natural evolution of art truly means.

Just as some vocal fans protested the excellent film Mad Max: Fury Road for being “a piece of American culture ruined and rewritten right in front of their eyes,” the Ghostbusters absolutists knew that the studios wanted their dollars and that they could still get away with voicing their reactionary sentiments through the same cowardly anonymity that allowed Donald Trump to emerge as presidential candidate.

Much as a “silent majority” had propped up Trump under the illusion that a billionaire’s outspoken sexism and bigotry somehow represented an anti-establishment “candidate like we’ve never seen before,” these fans downvoted the new Ghostbusters trailer in droves when it was released online in April. One month later, a smug bespectacled mansplainer by the name of James Rolfe put a human face to this underlying sexism, posting a video (viewed by nearly two million), shot in what appeared to be a creepily appropriate basement, in which he vowed not to review the new remake:

You know what everybody’s been calling it? The female Ghostbusters. I hear that all the time. The female Ghostbusters. Does that mean we have to call the old one the male Ghostbusters? It doesn’t matter. But I can’t blame everybody for identifying that way. Because there’s no other way to identify the movies. There’s no other name for it.

Maybe you’d view movies this way if you’d spent a lifetime refusing to live with your shortcomings, carving the likenesses of Stallone and Schwarzenegger onto your own personal Mount Rushmore when not ordering vacuum devices or getting easily duped by Cialis scams. But the crazed notion that gender isn’t just the first way to identify a remake, but the only way to do so, speaks to a disturbing cultural epidemic that must be swiftly remedied by more movies and television starring women in smart and active roles, unsullied by the sexualized gaze of a pornographic oaf like James Rolfe.

It’s worth observing that Sony — a multinational corporation; not the National Organization of Women, lest we forget — had been in talks with the Russo Brothers well before Feig for an all-male remake, a fact also confirmed in a leaked email from Hannah Minghella. The Hollywood machine only cares about gender parity when it is profitable. It continues to promulgate superhero movie posters that are demeaning to women. It erects large outdoor ads flaunting violence against women. (Deadline Hollywood reported that the infamous X-Men Apocalypse ad featuring Mystique in a chokehold was approved by a top female executive at 20th Century Fox.) And when the studios do flirt with “feminist” blockbusters — such as Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punchthe results are dismayingly objectifying.

Despite all this, I entered the press screening of the Ghostbusters remake with an open mind and the faint hope that there could be at least a few baby steps towards the game-changing blockbuster that America so desperately needs to redress these many wrongs.

carolmarcusI’m pleased to report that the new Ghostbusters movie does give us somewhat reasonable depictions of women as scrappy scientists, at least for a mainstream movie. The film is refreshingly devoid of Faustian feminist bargains such as Sandra Bullock floating around in her underwear in Gravity or Dr. Carol Marcus flaunting her flesh in Star Trek: Into Darkness. We are introduced to Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) practicing a lecture in an empty Colubmbia University classroom, having to contend with an embarrassing pro-ghost book (Ghosts from Our Past: Both Literally and Figuratively) that she co-wrote years before with her friend and academic peer, Abby Yates (played with the expected enjoyable verve by Melissa McCarthy). Erin, who dresses in wonderfully dorky plaid suits that the dean cavils about, is up for tenure and is understandably queasy about anything that stands in the way of her reputation. Leslie Jones plays Patty Tolan, an MTA inspector with a necklace telegraphing her name who serves as a counterpart to Winston from the original film, and has far more scenes to establish her character than poor Ernie Hudson ever did. Screenwriters Katie Dippold and Feig deserve credit for making Patty more than a token African-American, active enough to ensconce herself with the founding trio and provide some New York know-how in a way that Winston, confined to “Do you believe in God?” car banter and doing what he was told, never quite received in the original.

katemckinnonThe sole disappointment among the new quartet is Kate McKinnon as weapons expert Jillian Holtzmann. McKinnon mugs artlessly throughout the film, almost as if she’s channeling William Shatner or Jim Carrey at their worst, too smitten with an impressionist’s toolbox of overly eccentric tics. While McKinnon’s performances have worked in five minute doses (especially in her very funny impressions of Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live), this is not an approach that is especially suited for ensemble work on an IMAX screen. McKinnon quavers her bottom lip and enters each shot with a distracting “funny” walk that contributes nothing whatsoever to her character or the scene. The effect is that of an actor exceedingly ungenerous to her colleagues, one that not even the continuity person can track. (Jillian’s glasses disappear and reappear several times during any given scene.)

loripettytankgirlMcKinnon seems to be doing a caffeinated and charmless impression of Lori Petty from Tank Girl. She’s a terrible stage hog throughout the film, whether by her own choice or by Feig’s design. Even accounting for the script supervisor’s absenteeism, one gets the suspicion it’s more of the latter, perhaps shoehorned into this movie because of a studio note. How else can one explain an early moment in the film where McKinnon stands passive before a ghost and says, “You try saying no to these salty parabolas” while chomping potato chips? This line, which sounded more like bottom-of-the-barrel Madison Avenue than a honed sentence written by Parks and Recreation alumni, justifiably did not get much of a laugh, not even among the ringers who were planted in the middle rows at the screening I attended. And when your source text has indelible lines like “Back off, man, I’m a scientist” and “You….you’ve earned it,” it’s probably best to work interactive human behavior rather than commentary upon a snack.

haroldramistwinkieI’ve long maintained a loose theory that you can tell a lot about a comedy movie by the way it refers to food. Weird Al Yankovic’s gloriously underappreciated UHF celebrates its benign strangeness with a Twinkie wiener sandwich (and the original Ghostbusters, of course, features Harold Ramis holding up a Twinkie with some class). Zoolander revels in its splashy flash with an orange mocha frappuccino. Shaun of the Dead features a completely invented snack called Hog Lumps, suggesting the mad invention pulled from cultural reference.

The Ghostbusters remake features a tired repeat gag of Abby constantly complaining about the lunch delivery man not including enough wontons in her soup. And there’s really no better metaphor to pinpoint what’s so wrong about this movie. Because while I loved 75% of the ladies here (and grew to tolerate McKinnon’s annoyingly spastic presence as the film went on), there weren’t enough dependable wontons floating in this movie. Not the dialogue, which isn’t as sharp and snappy as it needs to be. Not the generic CGI look of the ghosts (including Slimer), which can’t top the organic librarian and taxi driver in the original film. Not the story of a bellhop who hopes to unleash a torrent of trapped spirits into New York (although this is better than Ghostbusters II‘s river of slime). And based on the exasperated sighs and silence I heard around me, I wasn’t the only one. It says something, I think, that the Ghostbusters end up fighting a giant version of their own logo at one point.

I really believe that there’s a very smart story buried somewhere within this somewhat pleasing, if not altogether funny, offering. For example, Dippold and Feig have replaced the original film’s EPA as meddlesome government entity with the Department of Homeland Security, which wants the nation to believe that the Ghostbusters are cranks. This is an interesting and timely premise to pursue in a reboot made in a surveillance and smartphone age. (Indeed, there’s even an appropriate selfie stick gag halfway through the film.) It’s moments like this where the Ghostbusters remake wins back your trust after a clunky moment. But there comes a point when the movie decides to throw its hands in the air, becoming yet another loud, boring, and predictable romp featuring the destruction of Manhattan. Again?

And there are cameos. Annoying, purposeless, time-sucking cameos from the surviving members of the original Ghostbusters cast. This not only adds needless bulk to the story, but it isn’t especially fair to the new cast trying to establish themselves, especially in a movie that is already on somewhat shaky ground. Bill Murray as a famous debunker is the only cameo that is fun (and it also buttresses the film’s half-hearted exploration into belief). But instead of confining Murray to a walk-on role, the filmmakers have Murray show up at Ghostbusters HQ (a Chinese restaurant instead of a firehouse), where one can’t help but be reminded of the original’s considerable strengths.

Feig and his collaborators have forgotten what made the first film become a classic. It was the funny human touches of Rick Moranis parroting William Atherton’s pointing as Louis was possessed by Vinz Clortho or Bill Murray wincing as he opened up the lid of Dana’s leftovers or Janine peering around a partition in the back (a shot repeated in the remake, but with tighter focus and less art and subtlety) as Venkman and Walter Peck squared off at the firehouse. There simply isn’t enough of this in the remake. Today’s filmmakers — even somewhat decent ones like Feig — seem to have turned their backs on why we identify with characters and why we go to the movies. And who the hell needs to pay a babysitter and bust out the credit card for a far too large tub of popcorn when there are far more interesting characters on television?

I want to be clear that I am not here to write a hit piece. This remake isn’t awful in the way that Ghostbusters II was, but it’s far from great in the way the original film was. This should have been a groundbreaking motion picture. It damn well needed to be to beat back the James Rolfes and the Gamergate trolls and any other boneheaded atavist with a keyboard and an Internet connection.

We sometimes have to vote for compromise candidates in two party political races. But when the summer gives us several dozen blockbusters to choose from, is the half-hearted Ghostbusters remake really the progressive-minded movie we should accept? Is an incremental step forward in mass culture enough to be happy with? Or should we demand more? I’ve thought about this for the past few days and I’ve increasingly come around to believing that audiences — and women in particular — deserve far better soup and a hell of a lot more wontons.

Among the Distasteful: A Jeremiad Against Pizza

Amid the bacchanal of culinary dilettantes, let us pause to honor and pontificate upon the Seamless junkies, the strapless smartphone whores of Babylon, and the editors who will never edit my prolix copy. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of pizzerias and Italian restaurants, which have been invaded by the greatest, biggest, plus-sized, vilest, ugliest, most malicious, thorniest, and savviest of hooligans in the history of the food industry. There are baleful brutes who stab at their slices with forks and knives, and these include a Gotham City Mayor elected by delusional liberals who now complain of turned backs from those stalwart officers in blue rightly wishing to uphold the old Paul Anka white bread standards in the name of American justice and the occasionally playful choke hold or wrestling move gone wrong. Eaters, when they are not hanging from a trapeze, hover between a decent share of a pie and an indecent bite cadged off some smelly bum; they are expected to open a plastic wrapper containing a mass-produced square of spiral noodles produced in some exotic export processing zone when they are not eating a gluten-free meal at gunpoint, and all the miracles of electronic pizza dissemination somehow do not suffice for the experience of a home-cooked meal cooked and curated by a bromidic homemaker who no longer exists in our world of career equilibrium and gender parity. There is not a stove in the New York City area that is turned on, unless it compensates for a tetchy radiator in the blistering cold. Everybody — and by “everybody” I mean the three magazine articles I read in a drunken, self-loathing haze over the holidays — talks frantically about pizza, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as if the prospect of tomato sauce vanishing into a bed of “cheese” is a cataclysmic event rivaling the First Battle of Ypres. “Cheese” must be contained in quotes, for it is very much a part of the crisis; its ineluctably paralytic hold was once embraced in rap by a hip young man named Marshall Mathers, from whom I quote: “Here I go again hammerin stammerin grammerin and eat it like cheese, pass me the crackers please / I’ve got a craving.” But what does this understanding of “cheese” contribute to to the understanding of life? Pizzerias and restaurants have slowly transformed themselves into hammerin stammerin grammerin venues in which customers willfully fill their stomachs with subpar Mozzarella and pepperoni from questionable meat vendors, without regard for last century’s pizza standards, the greatest pizza generation, or the way pizza used to be, and the gurgling of bellies bellows above all stabs at grace and thrusts at aesthetic consideration. As the frequency of hammerin stammerin grammerin expression grows, the force, nay the power, of proper pizza consumption diminishes: Pie expectations of plentiful toppings and extra crispness confer the highest prestige upon the masticating cacophony of stertorous belches and promotional coupons promising a two-for-one special during the next vulgar visit. It was always the case that all pizza eaters, especially those too indolent to saunter down to the local establishment and pick up the pies in person, must pass gas, but this is ridiculous.

Meanwhile the discussion of higher dinners is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of “bidness” – a shorthand slang term I first heard from this Mathers fellow and that a young African-American friend (I assure you that, as a cultural expert, some of my best friends are black, although only one returned my call for this essay) recently educated me on. Apparently, today’s youth is now pronouncing “business” this way. Are they ashamed of sibilant consonants? I haven’t a clue, but I’m not at The New Republic anymore and unpacking these seminal and intricate issues is a more complicated and arcane professional task in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. For example, it was my “bidness” to write this paragraph with my trousers tousled around my ankles, gaping at my study window to ensure that nobody was looking. Scummy little pizza! Kill the bastard! Am I straying from my point? Perhaps. But I was guaranteed a 3,000 word count. I am scared.

Anyway, “bidness.” There are no known “metrics” between the relationship between “cheese” and “bidness.” Numerical values are assigned to orders that ping from the deepest recesses of the electronic vortex, as a voracious digital consumer logs onto Seamless and contributes to the “cheese” industrial complex. Economic concepts grow into great kaiju destroying our proudest metropolises: There is, in fact, an economist standing next to me right now! He does not answer to the name of Krugman but he is growing big bigger BIGGER! Oh shit! There goes my 19th century bronze chandelier! To paraphrase Yoda (and I’m not sure this benign, large-eared, fictitious creature actually said this; I have not actually seen these movies), where ceiling once was, bitter tears will now be. Ergo, pizza is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. This draconian hold is enabled by the video game characters Mario and Luigi, two Italian stereotypes from Nintendo who should rightfully be employed as co-owners of a pizzeria (this was, after all, Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s source of inspiration), but who were ignobly cast as jocular plumbers, thus subverting the consumer’s expectations and therefore the pizza scholar’s. Yet in a Pavlovian salivation tactic worthy of America’s most craven marketers, one looks at Mario’s red and Luigi’s green and sees tomato sauce and bell peppers. Beyond their predatory and symbiotic relationship with pizza, all distastefully clandestine, Mario and Luigi penetrate even deeper levels of identity and experience, to cognition and consciousness. Such transformations embolden certain high culinary priests in the church of nostalgia to espouse the doctrine of “transmarioism” and to suggest, without any recollection of the bankruptcy of Atari or the guy who created the Pong game, that our pizza-eating acumen will carry us magnificently beyond our affinity for Mario and “allow us to, like, chill out with an old GameCube if you can bring the weed, bro…Smoke a few bowls and there will be no distinction, post-Luigi’s Mansion, between human and Mario.” (The author of that frivolous nonsense, a random email that someone forwarded to me to help me pad out this piece, is a twenty-five-year-old pizza delivery man known among his peers as something of a beer pong champion. One sees how transmarioism and the great pizza lie feeds on itself.)

And even as pizzaism, which is not the same as pizza and not the same as “cheese” and not the same as any other sinister neologism I may coin, asserts itself over more and more police precincts that subjugate human life the thrill of a warm fascist bath, so too does hamburgerism, which is not the same as hamburgers and not the same as hot dogs and not the same as pizza and not the same as pizzaism and if you send $9.99 to my home address I will provide you with a flowchart on all the terms I am establishing in this highly intellectual essay (not even my editor could figure it out!). I am Leon Wiesltier, which is not the same as Leon Wieseltierism and not the same as Wiener Schnitzel and not the same as the emotionally cleansing experience I have when spilling my guts out to my therapist, which may very well be better for me than accepting these assignments. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of pizza must be explained in terms of the material dimensions…OH WHO THE FUCK AM I KIDDING? I AM A 62 YEAR OLD MAN AND I HAVE NEVER EATEN A SLICE OF PIZZA! THERE! I SAID IT, GODDAMMIT! PIZZA, I JUST DON’T GET YOU AND NEVER WILL! DAMN YOU KIDS AND YOUR FUN AND YOUR SUPER MARIO AND YOUR CHEESE AND YOUR HAMMMERIN STAMMERIN GRAMMERIN!

Okay…calm down, Leon. Let’s get it together. We can get to the end.

A complacent eater is an eater who has not picked at his pizza closely. But never mind the pizza. Our solemn responsibility is to stop writing dull and incoherent essays that fail to inspire anyone and that say absolutely nothing at all.

Guns, Part One (Follow Your Ears #1)

This is the first episode of Follow Your Ears, a new weekly radio program committed to original inquiry and the pursuit of a specific subject through several unusual angles.

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Aurora, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech. We’re shocked by the massacres and the loss of life, but how did we get to this? This is the first of a two part program examining guns at length.


1a

Edge of the South Bronx

On the edge of the South Bronx, everybody we talk with has an opinion about guns. One man, held up at his store twenty years ago, developed a lifelong fear. (Beginning to 2:49)


1b

Falling in Love with Guns

Before she was the acclaimed author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects, Porochista Khakpour fell in love with guns. In an essay for Slate published in December, Khakpour wrote that she thrived on the attention, even posting a series of sexy shooting range photos on MySpace. Khakpour talks about why she could relate to Nancy Lanza and why guns proved both seductive and problematic. (2:49 to 7:51)


1c

“1776 Will Commence Again”

After Alex Jones’s meltdown on CNN, we talked with Saul Cornell, a a professor of American legal history at Fordham University and the author of A Well-Regulated Militia to untangle the Second Amendment’s true roots. Cornell points out that the Second Amendment has a good deal more to it than the right to keep and bear arms and the “Red Dawn fantasy” and discusses how militias and civic obligation were more what the Founding Fathers had in mind. (7:51 to 23:26)


1d

Interpreting the Second Amendment

Adam Winkler is a professor of constitutional law at the UCLA School of Law and the author of Gunfight. He provides more answers on the Second Amendment, describing how the NRA was originally for gun control before a fateful meeting in Cincinnati when gun rights radicals took over an annual meeting and pointing out how recent Supreme Court decisions such as District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago have helped to curtail regulation efforts. (23:26 to 44:46)


1e

Living with Guns

Our final guest is Craig Whitney, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and author of the book, Living With Guns. He is a liberal who believes that the Second Amendment should be honored. (44:46 to end)


Follow Your Ears #1: Guns, Part One (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Diana Abu-Jaber

Diana Abu-Jaber appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #419. She is most recently the author of Birds of Paradise.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Salivating in tandem with his diminishing wallet.

Author: Diana Abu-Jaber

Subjects Discussed: The dangers of French pastries, Abu-Jaber’s propensity for describing food in lurid terms, growing up with food-obsessed parents, wooing people and readers with food, Abu-Jaber’s former life as a restaurant critic, the atmosphere of revolving restaurants, getting irate letters from restauranters, early skirmishes with vegans, faux meat and tofurkey, the differences between foodies and egalitarian food lovers, Brillat-Savarian, MFK Fisher, needless food elitism, gourmet food trucks and gentrification, people who shy away from cooking, overpriced farmers markets, the dark side of sugar, writing without a routine, writing while cooking and while being stuck at a red light, Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, studying elements of craft, consumerism and literature, finding precision within a chaotic work environment, outlines, laborious revision, setting imaginary deadlines, working with artistically-minded editors, characters who play with their hair throughout Abu-Jaber’s novels, writing about hair loss in women, being bitten by a brown recluse spider, suppurating wounds, when writing about a subject leads you to people who are living with the subject, the difficulties of cutting curly hair, exploring the Florida gutterpunk culture, real estate and Glengarry Glen Ross, talking with street kids, predatory people in their thirties living with kids in abandoned shacks, income disparity in Miami Beach, the dregs of club kids culture, earning the trust of street kids, maintaining an optimistic sheen while writing about victims of capitalism, readers who have complained about Birds of Paradise being too dark, Last Exit to Brooklyn, whether fiction has the obligation to solve problems, Dickens, Cristina Garcia’s review, Cynthia Ozick, Amazon reviewers who demand uplifting stories, unlikable characters being stigmatized in contemporary fiction, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, literary audiences and competing reader desires, Meghan Cox Gurdon’s uninformed YA stance, Sherman Alexie’s response, encouraging readers to take risks in fiction, commercial forces and offering novel samples, the origin of Origin, the pros and cons of having a genre-reading husband, the benefits of having a writing group (as well as having actual human beings in your life), character names names after notable American figures (Muir and Emerson), Idiocracy, autodidacts and American spirit, finding the good qualities within monstrous people, serial killers and the 1%, being very inspired by sunlight and water, cinematic imagery within Abu-Jaber’s prose, colons, Graham Greene, laziness and thwarted screenwriting ambitions, Elizabeth Taylor as a model for Felice, Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, tinkering with the idea of beauty, steering readers away from flattened culture, the narcotic allure of cooking shows, how food can enlarge a story, European novelists and food, T.C. Boyle, Kate Christensen, and food memoirs.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Abu-Jaber: Writing about a French pastry chef? All these venues are bringing in French pastries. People are bringing me pastries.

Correspondent: Oh no.

Abu-Jaber: People bring me cookies and croissants and Napoleons. I mean, it’s just fantastic. But it’s kind of like, oh my god! How am I going to fit into my airplane seat on the way home? Because it’s wild. And, of course, I have to eat them all.

Correspondent: So you have to eat them all? You can’t give them away to generous readers who have been standing in line?

Abu-Jaber: (laughs) Yeah, right. My excellent interviewers. Actually, I have given out some of my pastries. But I have to admit. I want to eat all of them, if possible.

Correspondent: I noticed that with Ron Charles, the first sentence of his review in the Washington Post was “Diana Abu-Jaber’s delicious new novel weighs less than two pounds, but you may gain more than that by reading it.” So this seems as good a time as any to talk about your propensity for describing food in very lurid terms. I mean, to offer an example, you even have those moments between dialogue. In Crescent, you have, “She starts splitting open heads of garlic and picking at the papery skin covering the cloves.” Now this is between lines. So it forces one to both be engaged with the text and it forces one’s saliva to start running. And so the question is how this business with food started.

Abu-Jaber: Oh! It’s not something I did deliberately. I didn’t choose this metaphor. It’s weird. I think that a lot of it came up because of being raised by a food-obsessed parent. My dad always wanted to have his own restaurant. As an immigrant from Jordan, he used food as a way of giving his children culture. And so I grew up with a sensibility just informing the very fabric of our days. And then my grandmother was a very serious Irish Catholic baker. And so my grandmother and my father waged this war over our souls — the children — to try and woo us through their separate crafts. And so I grew up between falafel and cream puffs. And between Dad’s wonderful Jordanian cuisine and my grandmother’s incredibly yummy cookies and cakes and pastries.

Correspondent: And no doubt, along with that, came a very imposing exercise regimen.

Abu-Jaber: (laughs)

Correspondent: I mean, that’s got to be terrible. Wooing people through food. You’re wooing your readers with food. Why was food the ultimate axe to wield here? As opposed to, say, fashion or conversation or what not?

Abu-Jaber: It’s something that kind of happened organically in this book. I saw this woman. I was thinking about the book. And I had this image in my head of a woman wearing a chef’s apron. And I could see her back. And I could see that she had these very strong arms and shoulders. So I knew that she was someone who worked with her hands. And it became very clear to me that she was a pastry chef. And I had worked in food journalism for a while. I used to have a restaurant column.

Correspondent: You were a restaurant critic?

Abu-Jaber: I was.

Correspondent: Did you ever tear a restaurant to shreds?

Abu-Jaber: I think…I’m a pretty nice person! I tried to offer constructive criticism.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Abu-Jaber: But you are aware that you’re doing a social service by being a food critic. So you have to help the consumer, as well as the purveyor. And I might have shredded a little bit.

Correspondent: Like…such as what? What kind of constructive criticism was the worst that you possibly endowed?

Abu-Jaber: Oh jeez! Well, you know what I would do? I would try to offer people little guidelines about what to avoid in general. And I remember one of my big ones was that, if a restaurant has a great view, beware of the food.

Correspondent: (laughs Yeah. That’s actually very true.

Abu-Jaber: Uh huh.

Correspondent: Especially in this city too.

Abu-Jaber: Yes. Exactly. Or if it’s in a railroad car. Or if there’s a gigantic playground in the middle. It’s probably not going to be the best.

Correspondent: Or the infamous revolving restaurants.

Abu-Jaber: Ah, yes! If it moves, don’t chew. (laughs)

Correspondent: Which is a shame! Because it’s such — I’m a big fan of revolving restaurants. Not for the food, but for the kitsch of the experience.

Abu-Jaber: Sure. Sure. Just remember that some people are going for experience.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Abu-Jaber: I am somebody who likes to eat for the food. But I know that for many, many people, atmosphere trumps all.

Correspondent: Did you ever get a restaurant wrong during these early days? Did you get irate readers sending you letters saying, “Diana! You are absolutely off! Who do you think you are?” Anything like that?

Abu-Jaber: I used to get irate letters from restauranters.

Correspondent: Yes.

Abu-Jaber: From the people who felt that I’d gotten them wrong. I remember that I did a vegetarian roundup once. The vegetarian restaurants of Portland. And one of the local restaurant owners wrote to me irate. Absolutely irate. Because he had some vegetarian dishes on his menu. And he just thought that I should have included him. And he just really wanted to let me know that I had disrespected him.

Correspondent: Be thankful that you didn’t get involved with the vegans. Because they weren’t around back then.

Abu-Jaber: Yikes! Oh, lord in heaven. I think at that time — now this was the late ’90s.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Abu-Jaber: So at that time, there was maybe one vegan restaurant. And what they tried to do was present faux meat. So you’d go and you’d have turkey sculpted out of soy bean.

Correspondent: Tofurkey.

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. Exactly. So that was a whole other can of beans, so to speak.

Correspondent: So just to be straight here on the food issue, I mean, you would not identify yourself as a foodie, but a more egalitarian food person?

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. I’m sympathetic to the whole foodie idea. But I think that foodieism — if that’s a word — tends to elevate food to this sacred thing. It’s like this exalted object on an alter place, basically. And I just have never felt that that was never the point of enjoyment of any kind of primary activity like eating. That food is something that adds enormously to our lives, but that it’s a simple thing. And that we’re animals and that animal enjoyment is just a natural easy part of our lives. Or it should be.

Correspondent: Well, it went from something that was fairly harmless. Like Brillat-Savarin and MFK Fisher, who offer the perfectly sensible advice, “Well, if we’re spending so much of our time eating, we should probably pay attention to it,” but who are also championing food culture during the Great Depression. And this is the thing. It went from this rather egalitarian place to something that was ridiculously elitist or Ortega y Gasset-like, you know?

Abu-Jaber: Yes. Yes. We have started rhapsodizing about food and nobody wants to make it. People go out and buy cookbooks because they love the images and they love the idea of it and reading the cookbook like literature. But really nobody tries the recipes.

Correspondent: Yeah! I know, that’s the fun part!

Abu-Jaber: Yeah.

Correspondent: Especially when you make it with other people, who are as clueless as you are.

Abu-Jaber: You’re all in it together. You know, as an individual and as a parent, I want to make good, easy, nutritious food. And as a writer, I like the metaphor of food. Because it’s so malleable. It casts light on all these different elements in our psyche. All the different ways that we look at relationships in general. I don’t write about food to stop in food. That’s not the point. It’s more a filter through which to look at experience.

Correspondent: Sure. Have you seen, while you’ve been here in New York, some of our ridiculous gourmet food trucks? It totally defeats the purpose. Where before you’d get a hot dog for a dollar.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: Or you’d get some shish kabob or some sort of falafel really cheap. Now they have gourmet food trucks here. You should check these out. Empanadas that are really overpriced. Like six bucks.

Abu-Jaber: Oh really.

Correspondent: It’s now become — they’ve taken our food trucks!

Abu-Jaber: (laughs)

Correspondent: The food trucks have gentrified!

Abu-Jaber: (laughs) Wow.

Correspondent: I mean, this leads me to wonder, just as a fiction writer, whether you may explore this in a future book. This issue of, well, we make our food, but now even the price of food goes up and the experience of eating food goes up.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: And even something like white trash cuisine, even the good parts of that, becomes taken away from us. So there is no affordable base. Like there used to be. The traditional kind of food.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: I guess I have some feelings on this issue, now that we’ve talked about this.

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, because it’s an economic issue. It’s health and it’s relationships and family and economics, for sure. And that’s part of the problem with the foodie movement. Foodies indulge in a kind of extreme experience. They’re the top of the pyramid. The people who can afford to go into Williams-Sonoma and buy a special strawberry huller. Or just that experience of going into a glorious kitchen in which none of the instruments in the kitchen have been touched. You know, it’s s more like an operating room than it is a kitchen.

Correspondent: It’s almost like the Trail of Tears.

Abu-Jaber: (laughs)

Correspondent: Because you have to find the produce places that the middle-class people have not found yet.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: So I’m never going to name them on the air — the places where I get really kickass produce.

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. And you see that in the farmers markets.

Correspondent: Overpriced. Needlessly organic. God, don’t get me started on that.

Abu-Jaber: Absolutely.

Correspondent: We will discuss fiction. Don’t worry!

The Bat Segundo Show #419: Diana Abu-Jaber (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Mark Kurlansky II

Mark Kurlansky recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #292.

Mark Kurlansky is most recently the translator of Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris and the editor of The Food of a Younger Land. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #220.

segundo292

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pushing past the patois of a forgotten linguistic formation.

Author: Mark Kurlansky

Subjects Discussed: Wanting to be Zola as a kid, thorough food research, the difficulties imposed by lawyers, racist patois, Don Dolan’s failure to understand the burrito, why so many unqualified people got jobs with the Federal Writers Project, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, manuscripts that were never intended for publication become published thanks to Kurlansky, investigative anthropologists, Coca-Cola parties, lost culinary rituals, Brunswick stew and the original recipe involving squirrel, Kurlansky’s obsession with recipes involving beaver tail, Vermont maple trees, “Nebraskans Eat the Weiners,” corroborating dishes and rituals that made it into the present day, the Nebraskan Popcorn Queen, trying to whittle down Library of Congress material for a book, food conflicts, regional gaps in the America Eats project, Kenneth Rexroth, Basque inaccuracies, Claire Warner Churchill’s extraordinary fury concerning mashed potatoes, World War II’s effect on the WPA, editorial oversight with the Federal Writers Project, geoducks, rarefied cuisine, drying meat over an open fire, hoecakes, low-class and slave forms of cornbread, an altogether different notion of Texas chuck wagon, sheriff’s barbeque, and the mint julep controversy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

kurlansky4Correspondent: First off, just a general question to tie in Zola with the Federal Writers Project book. In an introduction to The Belly of Paris, you confess that, in fact, you wanted to be Zola when you grow up. And this is very interesting because Zola, of course, was a serious investigator. And, of course, going through the endnotes of The Belly of Paris, I see all these references to sausage and meat, and simultaneously I’m thinking in terms of the investigations in this book, The Food of a Younger Land. I’m curious if you think that investigation of that particular time is comparable with Zola and the Federal Writers Project and whether you think perhaps that there’s something that is missing from that type of investigation today. What are your thoughts on all this? Just to start off here.

Kurlansky: Well, Zola was — especially as fiction writers go — a very thorough researcher. This book takes place in the Les Halles market. And he spends a lot of time in the Les Halles market and actually followed wagons from the entry of Paris to the Les Halles market. And when he did Germinal, he spent weeks and weeks in the mines with the miners. I don’t know how much writers do that now. I certainly do. And I think other writers must. Of course, there’s a lot of things where it’s getting more difficult in America to do these things. Because lawyers won’t let you.

Correspondent: (laughs) Yeah.

Kurlansky: There are all these legal issues if it’s a dangerous workplace.

Correspondent: Is this why the time of the past is better then?

Kurlansky: (laughs)

Correspondent: Because you have the statute of limitations.

Well, the concept of “proceed at your own risk” has been lost through lawyers. I’m married to a lawyer. I understand this.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Kurlansky: I mean, part of the reason I admired Zola, outside of the fact that he was such a great writer, was that he had deep political commitments. And those commitments can be found in his writing. But his writing never descends into political diatribe. He always had it very clear in his mind that art was above that kind of thing. That in art, you could show society with all its faults, but you couldn’t rant about it. And, in fact, in The Belly of Paris, he has characters who he probably very much agreed with who he makes look ridiculous. Because they go into these rants all the time.

Correspondent: But in terms of this level of investigation, also in the anthropological folklore component of many of the Federal Writers Project’s writers, I mean, there is something interesting in reading an entry or an article in a particular dialect and essentially listening on the page to someone essentially listening a recipe. The question though is whether this is entirely accurate of the patois at the particular time or whether there are problems. I mean, you allude to a lot of racism that you uncovered and that you didn’t put into the book.

Kurlansky: Yeah, well, some I did. My original reaction was not to put any of it in. But since my whole idea of doing Food of a Younger Land was that I wanted to give readers the experience that I had when I looked through these boxes and accidentally falling into another time into 1940 America, and how different it was, and different in a lot of positive ways. And why cover up the negative ways? This was pre-civil rights South. Black people were referred to by their first name, comma “a Negro.” And a lot of the dialogue sounds like master and slave. And the black dialect is stretched to absurdity. To a point where it’s clearly racist.

(Photo: Lawrence Sumulong)

BSS #292: Mark Kurlansky II (Download MP3)

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Eat the Rich

One reads Laura Miller’s review of Mark Bittman’s Food Matters with unwavering chagrin. Here is a review of a clearly ideological book, a review written by a humorless bourgeois reviewer who boasts about cooking “the vast majority of my meals from scratch,” but who does not wish to dissipate from the self-righteous upper-class foodie twits who refuse to comprehend the ineluctable associations between food and class. In Miller’s view, cooking is considered by Americans either “an elite hobby” or “an esoteric mystery,” and Bittman’s book exists as some halfway house (or, perhaps more appropriately phrased, a luxury rehab clinic) transforming eating into a Pollan-inspired prescribed formula for “better living,” with cooking becoming something accomplished with little to no effort. The snarky “Yummers!” with which Miller attempts to level the ostensible country bumpkins could just as easily be applied to Miller’s unchecked conformism.

What has not occurred to Miller, who is here an eager and unquestioning acolyte of Bittman, is that cooking is not necessarily about subscribing to a handbook, but very much about the act of discovering tasty combinations in the process. (And incidentally, a Lancashire hotpot, contrary to Miller’s anti-casserole prejudices, ain’t necessarily a bad thing in a pinch and does get people excited at a potluck.) More important than any of this is that cooking is a practical act in which one must feed a family. When there’s less than $100 in the weekly food budget to feed a family of four, sacrifices become necessary. But here’s the good news: from limitations emerge spontaneity and innovation. The bad news is that the Bittmans and the Millers of our world see fit to capitalize on these underground innovations without acknowledgment and more than a little bit of douchery.

Let’s consider some examples.

Impoverished 18th century Italians began adding tomato to their flat bread, others perfected the formula, and pizza took off. And if you want to go back further in time to find the flat bread prototype, you can find this passage in Book VII of the Aeneid:

Their homely fare dispatch’d, the hungry band
Invade their trenchers next, and soon devour,
To mend the scanty meal, their cakes of flour.
Ascanius this observ’d, and smiling said:
“See, we devour the plates on which we fed.”

Sushi emerged as a method of preserving fish. In China, fermented rice was wrapped around a salted piece of fish. This was known as nare-sushi. And the original idea was that you would crack open the rice bubble and enjoy yourself a nice piece of preserved fish. Then some culinary innovators in Japan realized that you could enjoy eating the rice as well and came up with seisei-sushi.

John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, held his corpulent title on an innovation that emerged because Montagu was too much of a lazy bastard to leave the gaming table. The man aspired to chow down while playing cards. We’ll never know whether or not some hapless stiff in the kitchen was threatened with being sacked if he did not satisfy the Earl’s gustatory wishes. But one thing remains certain throughout history: behind every culinary decree and resultant innovation is the desperate eleventh-hour maneuvering of a terrified and often underpaid chef.

I am not against the pursuit of good food. Anyone can be a foodie if they apply some sensible chops to the task. I am on record singing the praises of MFK Fisher, whose excellent volume, How to Cook a Wolf, considered how to love food in dire times. (And let us likewise commend Jeffrey Steingarten for having the courage and curiosity to try just about everything.) But I am against the idea of being so blinded by your gourmet pursuits that you cannot possibly consider that there’s some good eating to be had with the common folk. Miller is notably bothered by the idea of balsamic vinegar being available at places like Applebee’s, and the way she marinates in her seeming “superiority” by eating in a fast food restaurant “once a year, and only when I’m ravenous and trapped with no other alternative” is disgraceful. More egregious is her failure to consider the above-mentioned hypothetical family of four. Why is the ubiquity of balsamic vinegar a bad thing if people enjoy it? Like anything along the wondrous trajectory of human development, food shifts from its origins, whether they be lower-class or upper-class. But why should we be discriminatory about it? If there is good food, should we not let other people know about it? Do such efforts not augment the taste buds of everyone? In fact, don’t we have a certain obligation to improve upon food as we cook if we can? (There’s that spontaneity in the kitchen again.)

It has also never occurred to the Bittmans and Millers of our world that there may indeed some virtue in vices, and that attempting to maintain a svelte physique merely through healthy eating is only half the problem. (There’s this little thing called exercise.)

But there’s also something more irksome here. If you’re calling for “responsible eating” and you’re not considering the origins, needs, spending patterns, and eating habits of everyday people, you’re a smug simpleton of the highest order if you think your casual condescension translates into revolution.

A Can of Grape Soda

It’s safe to say that most of us fail to observe where our food comes from. I am currently examining an empty aluminum can of Welch’s Grape Soda, which was imbibed about four hours ago and was abandoned on my desk. In tall and semi-gothic lettering, the words NEW YORK appear — as if to suggest some homestate affinity, perhaps a reason for another beverage enthusiast to slap me on the back with an avuncular gusto as we down a few cans of Welch’s. Less comforting than these words is the NATURAL & ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, which was somehow invisible to me when I procured the soda in questions. These words are more troublesomely legible than NEW YORK. And I ponder whether this is really a strong selling point. Turning the can on my side, I learn that I have put into my system the following ingredients:

carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, grape juice concentrate, citric acid, natural and artificial grape flavors, sodium benzoate (preservative), red 40, blue 1

The drink was “produced under the authority of Welch Foods, Inc.,” which I am assured is “a cooperative” based out of Concord, Maine. And yet the drink was “canned by Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New York, Inc.” So I’m wondering where Welch Foods’s authority left off and Pepsi-Cola’s bottling began, and I’m pondering what happened between Concord and Queens. (College Point is fairly close to LaGuardia.) There isn’t an answer on this can. We accept that some complicated process has occurred and we don’t ask questions about whether any of this is good for us.

I don’t know if I completely trust “the authority of Welch Foods, Inc.” And yet I placed my trust in this authority when I decided to enjoy a can of grape soda, little realizing that I was experiencing a form of “high fructose corn syrup” that Michael Pollan has probably fulminated about somewhere. I am especially disturbed that grapes are not a part of this beverage, at least not in any direct manner. It’s all concentrate and natural and artificial grape flavors here. But what of the grapes? Did anybody inspect these? In the rush to mass produce cans of Welch’s, did someone decide to skimp out on the grapes? “The authority of Welch Foods, Inc.” may very well be an austere and ruthlessly efficient force that keeps the cans running down their tracks on time and into the ebullient hands of consumers like me, but I really want to know where the grapes come from. And this website isn’t exactly forthcoming about which grapes are used.

When I obtained the can of grape soda, I naively believed that some jolly group of vintners had smashed the grapes with their feet, that there was some natural process that permitted the grapes to ferment, and that everybody had congratulated each other on a job well done. But the truth is I know nothing about the complex machinery that put this drink together. Perhaps there was scant human intervention. I’m pretty sure that what I happily ingested was probably quite bad for me. 51 grams of sugar in one can! I mean, that’s phenomenal and it’s certainly a sign of high fructose. At least Welch’s is being clear on that point. (Of course, they have to, what with federal law and all.) But Welch’s hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about how much sugar this is. They have informed us, quite predictably, that the can contains 12 fluid ounces (or FL OZ for short, which suggests that one should probably floss shortly after knocking back a cold can of grape soda). In parentheses, we are informed that this amount is also 355 milliliters. But why not be forthright about what this amounts to in grams? It’s probably because 12 ounces is roughly about 340 grams. Which means that one sixth of this beverage is composed entirely of sugar! That’s more sugar than someone is likely to spoon into a cup of coffee!

I must conclude that Red 40 and Blue 1 are both forms of food coloring that are hiding some terrible truth about what these grapes have been through or how they have been sullied by the fructose and the concentrate.

There is a 1-800 number on the side of the can urging me to leave a “consumer comment.” But it’s now too late for me to call and I fear that this number exists for me and other consumes to explain to Welch’s how I feel about their beverage, perhaps in polite and enthusiastic terms. But the truth of the matter is that I have questions, not comments. And the person who would answer at this 1-800 number might panic because they didn’t have these answers at their fingertips. Or I might have to climb my way up the bureaucratic ladder to find out who does know. “Uh…grape juice concentrate. I’ll have to get approval from Bob before I can tell you what this is.”

The Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New York, Inc. is based in College Point, New York. It is a place that employs 1,100 people and made $166.60 million in 2007. There are two bottling plants and six warehouses. Yahoo! Finance assures me that this is “one of the largest private bottlers in the U.S.” But it doesn’t tell me where the grapes come from.

The Welch’s website assures me that their beverages are made from dark grapes. And there is this:

These dark grapes contain flavonoids, which are a likely source of heart heath benefits. Both red wine research and purple grape juice research have shown antioxidant, anti-clotting, and arterial flexibility benefits. Many scientists believe that these properties are linked to heart health.

I am somewhat suspicious of flavonoids. They sound too much like the “electrolytes” that the futuristic population of Mike Judge’s film, Idiocracy, so passionately believed in. And while flavonoids are indeed good for you, a UC Berkeley study in 2000 revealed that high concentrations of flavonoids, particularly in supplements sold at health food stores, may assist in cancer formation. A 2007 article from Science Daily is somewhat more encouraging, pointing out that high-sugar drinks with flavonoids are still beneficial because of the flavonoids.

So many questions! But then trying to find answers is what the Internet is for. Thankfully, there are a few enthusiasts out there who care about these seemingly pedantic but alarming issues. A new blog, Food Mapping, appears determined to use topographical technology to answer these questions. It promises “a visual representation of the how, where, and why of our food.” And it has (so far) explained the effects of humans eating too much fish and has provided helpful maps for local dairies. It also led me in turn to this map of New Orleans, in which one can view an overlay of stores, restaurants, and sundry markets across the city — important questions for anyone curious (and indeed hopeful) about how this ravaged city can restore itself after Katrina.

It’s self-evident that independent experts and enthusiasts need to investigate these culinary mysteries. And perhaps with serious inquiry, we might loosen a few answers into the great mysteries we blindly accept. Perhaps there is a can of grape soda somewhere that is completely transparent about the manner it is manufactured and canned and that doesn’t use nearly as much sugar. Or perhaps drinking grape soda is an unhealthy fait accompli. One obvious solution would be to avoid grape soda. But wouldn’t it be better to know precisely what one is avoiding?

Pommes Frites

It was an unwonted warm afternoon in January when my corpus decided that it required protein. My culinary id had screamed for the wrong kind of protein, the messy kind that requires many napkins. We settled ourselves inside a rectilinear restaurant in Fort Greene. I procured a burger, along with a large gantry-like basket of fries that towered over my small glass of RC Cola. I was hungry and had eaten without wisdom that day, but there were more potato slivers here than even the most ravenous soul could devour. The basket was an apparent bargain for three bucks, but ultimately a remarkable waste. Having been instructed as a young boy to “clean my plate” and having maintained this half-hearted economic virtue over the years, I considered all the fries that this restaurant, like many others, had willfully wasted on a daily basis.

pf.jpgDays before at a French bistro, there had been an elliptical receptacle of fries (or, to be specific, pommes frites, lightly seasoned with salt and fresh parsley). A bonus. An unanticipated side dish, really. We masticated on ten out of the perhaps ninety thin rectangular wedges jutting upward like baked and irregular flowers. But the waiter had not waited to take them away. Indeed, he had not given us the choice of picking away at more fries or a moment of silence in which we could grant them the eulogies they clearly deserved. Perhaps he wanted this table cleared so that another set of customers could use it.

More fried casualties. If someone possessed the foresight to construct a potato cemetery for all these fallen soldiers, there would surely be ten Vietnam Memorials for one day in Manhattan restaurants alone. And yet over three decades of existence, I had never thought to name any of the fries. I had never eaten a French fry and said to it, “Hey, Joe, you’re about to be eaten!” or “Phyllis, nice curves! How did you get away with that daring French fry figure? I hope you don’t have body image problems. Here, let me straighten you out with my bicuspids!”

I speculated to my dining partner that it hadn’t always been like this. There must have been a time in culinary history in which one ordered a burger and there were about five steak fries on the side. A reasonable portion that was neither wasteful nor encouraged sloth on the part of the diner. But at some point during the twentieth century, there may very well have been a collusion between the fries suppliers and the restaurant managers. Perhaps it was not economically sound to throw five mere steak fries into a fryer. From an economic standpoint, it was better to use as much of the fryer’s cooking juice at one time instead of spoiling the oil with small orders. Plus, there was likely a large bag of fries that had to be used, along with many other large bags that had been included in the bulk box purchase. And all the fries had to be used before the expiration date.

Additionally, if the supplier was going to deliver frozen food, expending gas and labor to ship many boxes to many restaurants, then it really needed to be worth his while. The restaurant manager was forced to order too many fries and then had to find a way to move fries. And a dainty portion that came with a meal would result in a surfeit of fries. If, however, the restaurant manager could sucker the customer into paying two or three bucks to order too many fries as a side dish, the restaurant manager could not only move the fries rapidly, but he could also make a large return and ensure that all of his fries would be cooked.

But this does not discount the fact that too many fries are wasted. Now I’m not a religious man, and, as such, I don’t believe in life after death. So I must presume that these glorious fries wither their flaxen luster away, going nowhere in particular and remaining unremembered by anyone save Mama and Papa Spud, both of whom would enact a Charles Bronson-style death wish against ape-descended bipedal life forms if they had minds, mouths, and, most importantly, an ability to use a Luger pistol.

And how does one reuse these abandoned fries? Because of their terrible nutrition value, they cannot be recirculated among the less fortunate with any ethical grounding. They grow cold too quickly. They lose their oily taste if they are microwaved. They cannot be mashed up into a delightful potato concoction because the majority of the fry is a crisp affair and mushiness has been compromised.

Thus, for the moment, suppliers and restaurant managers turn a profit on a product that is readily wasted. And the French have the temerity to call these pommes frites! (The British had gone further with the benign-sounding “fish and chips,” which resulted in a tasty but rather unhealthy fried concoction and more waste.)

I now feel tremendously guilty for having eaten so many fries over the years, because I have never been able to entirely finish a serving. From a dollars-to-food perspective, I am likely losing more money with fries than I am with other dishes.

The only ethical solution here is to stop eating fries or to insist to the person who serves me that I really don’t need that many of them. But even if I were to carry out the latter, more fries would be wasted and led to that black plastic coffin within the garbage can.

There are clearly no winners here in the fries scenario except those who are making the money. And I harbor a not-so-small revolutionary fantasy in which diners rise up, boycott restaurants, and demand smaller portions of fries. It seems only fair to the maligned fries, who are being thrown away every day by the thousands, and this would probably help in a small way to combat the national health problem.

Does Maragaret Atwood Hate Food?

atwood.jpegIn the Margaret Atwood universe, not even an innocent cookie is safe.

From The Blind Assassin:

“Myra had left me one of her special brownies, whipped up for the Alumni Tea — a slab of putty, covered, in chocolate sludes — and a plastic screw-top jug of her very own battery-acid coffee.” (37)

“She says [hamburgers] are pre-frozen patties made of meat dust. Meat dust, she says, is what’s scraped off the floor after they’ve cut up frozen cows with an electric saw.” (44)

“On the menu, displayed in the window — I’ve never gone inside — are foods I find exotic: patty melts, potato skins, nachos. The fat-drenched staples of the less respectable young, or so I’m told by Myra.” (51)

“jars of jam with cotton-print fabric tops, heart-shaped pillows stuffed with desiccated herbs that smell like hay” (52)

“I sat on the park bench, gnawing away at my cookie. It was huge, the size of a cow pat, the way they make them now — tasteless, crumbly, greasy — and I couldn’t seem to make my way through it….I was feeling a little dizzy too, which could have been the coffee.” (54)

“There was nothing much I wanted to eat: the draggled remains of a bunch of celery, a blue-tinged heel of bread, a lemon going soft. And end of cheese, wraped in greasy paper and hard and translucent as toenails.” (56)

“Consomme, rissoles, timbales, the fish, the roast, the cheese, the fruit, hothouse grapes dressed over the etched-glass epergne. Railway-hotel food, I think of it now; ocean-liner food.” (60)

“Breakfast in a haze of forgiveness: coffee with forgiveness, porridge with forgiveness, forgiveness on the buttered toast.” (77)

“I purchased a small iced tea and an Old-fashioned Glazed, which squeaked beneath my teeth like Styrofoam. After I’d consumed half of it, which was all I could get down, I picked my way across the slippery floor to the women’s washroom.” (83)

“I’d eaten too many cookies, too many slivers of ham; I’d eaten a whole slice of fruitcase.” (96)

“We’d have buttered white bread spread with grape jelly translucent as cellophane, and raw carrots, and cut-up apples. We’d have corned beef turned out of the tin, the shape of it like an Aztec temple. We’d have hard-boiled eggs.” (138)

I’d keep going, but I think the point is clear. Either the narrator’s very being is hindered by eating, or Atwood is a closet anti-culinary type. To which I reply, if music be the food of love, play on.

Addendum (May 21, 2013):

Margaret Atwood’s remarkably nihilistic food description has continued unabated in the past decade, helped in large part by the fact that she’s spent much of her fiction writing time building an apocalyptic universe in the Oryx and Crake trilogy. Here are more recent samples:

From Oryx and Crake:

He said it was only pure dumb chance he wasn’t dead — that this fucking country hadn’t killed him with its lousy food.

Worms and grubs were what he recommended for a snack food. You could toast them if you wanted.

…the food in the cafeteria was mostly beige and looked like rakunk shit.

No point thinking about it, not in this heat, with his brain turning to melted cheese. Not melted cheese: better to avoid food images.

From The Penelopiad:

Have I mentioned that there’s nothing to eat except asphodel?

He was sorry he’d asked them for something to eat.

From Moral Disorder:

I was not an orphan, I told myself; I was not nearly enough of an orphan. I needed to be more of one, so I could eat food that was bad for me… — “The Other Place”

As a child she’d separated her food into piles: meat here, mashed potatoes there, peas fenced into a special area reserved for peas, according to a strict plan of her own. One pile could not be eaten before the one already started had been consumed: that was the rule. — “Monopoly”

From The Year of the Flood:

“Why would we hunt?” said Zeb. “To eat,” said Amanda. “There’s no other good reason.”