Self-Advert Note:
Lunch With Elizabeth David
9 January 2018

¶ Over at The Daily Blague/reader, I have a few words to say about a novel inspired by the great British food writer, Elizabeth David. And by others, particularly the now almost totally forgotten Norman Douglas. (Would he have been pleased, really pleased, that his protogée‘s Wikipedia entry is so much longer than his own?) Roger Williams’s 1999 novel, Lunch With Elizabeth David, disappointed me when I read it the first time, but I liked it a lot the second. Perhaps it taught me things that I took forever to appreciate. I know that this book survived numerous culls only because David was in the title; I held onto it for the silliest of reasons. Well, whatever it takes.

After-Dinner Note:
Really Roast Chicken
5 January 2018

¶ We Anglophones have a thing about meat that we cook in the oven: we don’t want to call it “baked.” But the very essence of baking is the absence of a focal flame. A baking oven is equally hot everywhere, and very hot nowhere. It’s great for cakes and breads and casseroles, and necessary for high-collagen cuts of meat that require long cooking. But roasting requires fire. What we call “broiling” is just a manner of roasting small pieces of meat that cook very quickly (ie, before the outsides turn to black ash). 

For years, I have been suffering odious comparisons between the chicken that I “roast” at home and the “roast chicken” that they serve up the street at Demarchelier. My chicken is so awfully heavy. Even when it’s not quite cooked at the bone, still a little rosy, and not altogether delicious as a result, it tastes as if it has been too long in the oven. I’ve been tempted to ask how they do it at Demarchelier, where it’s my favorite dish, but I would feel honor-bound to confess that I’d never eat theirs again if I could figure out how to do it myself. Over the years, in any case, I have ruled out (a) special chickens and (b) magical marinades. This leaves only cooking technique, which I probably wouldn’t be able to reproduce without professional-kitchen equipment. 

Because this entry is getting too long, I am going to spare you my thoughts on opening the mail one afternoon a month ago and finding the 2017 edition of Cook’s Illustrated. (Yet another!) All I need to say now is that I actually looked into it after dinner last week and found, to my great surprise, that there were at least four recipes that I wanted to try, pronto. 

Lan Lam’s “Fastest Weeknight Chicken,” from the March & April issue, was one, and I find, on putting it to the test, that it takes me more than halfway to Demarchelier. The chicken is, yes, broiled, but at a distance. I couldn’t have done it in the kitchen upstairs, because the wall oven there had a broiler drawer beneath that allowed a maximum distance from the flame of about five inches. In this apartment I have a stove with one of those dual ovens, oven heat below and broiler heat on top. So the chicken could sit about a foot below the fire. Thanks to one of Lan Lam’s astuces, the skin browned lightly and evenly, with no puckering: I had taken a larding needle to the bird, and poked holes at 3/4-inch intervals. 

Another trick calls for putting the oiled and seasoned chicken in a lightly-oiled, smoking-hot skillet right before putting it in a cold oven and then turning the broiler on. This gives the dark meat a stretch of extra heat. 

Kathleen thought that the chicken done this way just tasted very good, maybe a little better. For me, it was like a new species of fowl. A birthday present that I really do wish I could have opened up thirty or forty years ago. 

After-Dinner Note:
4 January 2018

¶ The Christmas tree has been carted off, leaving fewer needles behind than trees of the past, owing to the diligence of old friend and indispensable man Ray Soleil. It was a lovely tree, just the right height and fullness, and even though we didn’t get round to putting up ornaments until a day or two after Christmas, it gave our hearts a seasonal buoyance. Now it is time to clear up for the New Year. Not to mention my birthday.

Morning Note:
Why So Long?
3 January 2018

Katja Grace spills a crowdsourced cascade of things to consider when trying to ask the question: Why did it take so long, say, to invent rope? My favorite:

  1. Posing the question is a large part of the work. If you have never seen rope, it actually doesn’t occur to you that rope would come in handy, or to ask yourself how to make some.

After Dinner Note:
“What do you do?”
2 January 2018

¶ Major Hoot: At a party at Clay Felker’s, Tina Brown, then new to New York, commits a slight faux pas.

Everyone at the party was so famous but unfortunately I had never heard of them. I said to Shirley MacLaine, “What do you do?” She gave me a manic, hostile stare and went on talking to Ed Epstein about how he should research a book about flying saucers.

 (DBR link.)

¶ Cracked open a tin of MarieBelle Aztec Hot Chocolate, a deluxe product that Kathleen bought a long time ago at Dean & Deluca. It has been sitting around, unopened, and I wondered at the instructions, which called for boiling water, not hot milk. And since when does half a cup of water fill a mug? Nevertheless, Kathleen liked it. She said that it was a little thin, and I was prepared to make another cup with milk, but it turned out that a good deal of the chocolate shards had not quite dissolved.

¶ Remembering the bean slicer that I had years ago at the lake house, I searched Amazon and found it. It looks almost exactly like the Leeuwenhoek microscopes that a bunch of us bought by mail from an outfit in Cambridge, Massachusetts back in the Sixties. Putting it to work with some green beans that I’d bought a week earlier at Fairway, I discovered that the bean slicer doesn’t work well with beans that aren’t really fresh. The slicer has a little blade, reminiscent of a guillotine, for topping and tailing, and it doesn’t work well with old beans, either. But with nice, fresh, firm beans, the slicer is a dream. Cheap, too. The microscope, in contrast, was expensive, and something of a hoax.

Auld Lang Syne Note:
Retour à la blogue
1 January 2018

¶ For a few months, I’ve been itching to blog, the old-fashioned way. Tweeting is still much too short for my shortest thoughts, but not everything that crosses my mind swells naturally into a DBR entry. Also: the link thing?

¶ Happy New Year!

Ancient History

Radical Note:
3 September 2014

¶ We could have looked it up, but we didn’t do more, whenever the word “endorphin” came up, than frown. What a funny-looking word. Derived from what, possibly? “End-” was vaguely Greek, but the rest was gibberish.

Now we know. In a fantastic piece about the seesawing problems of pill and heroin abuse on Staten Island, Ian Frazier writes about the “antagonistic” opioid naloxone, which, injected by nasal spray, saves lives that might be lost to drug overdoses. Naloxone was discovered in Queens, and promptly led to important discoveries.

If naloxone could reverse pain relief when no drugs were present, researchers guessed that the body must have its own pain-relief systems. “Endorphin,” the word, comes from “endogenous morphine.” A number of such natural chemicals were later found, along with receptors in the brain upon which they and the opioids acted. Other studies showed that naloxone may block the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture and placebos, temporarily suppress the urge to eat, and reduce the body’s shock and stress reactions.

We have no suggestions for an improved word, but dropping the “m” in “morphine” was an illiterate move.


Media Note:
2 September 2014

¶ While the Editor was on vacation, Nick Bilton published a piece in the Times about the tweetfall from Ferguson that captured the gist of our misgivings about the replacement of professionally digested news by amateurs’ eyewitness accounts.

When Mr. Carson of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch shared pictures on Twitter of a Molotov cocktail found by the police, Twitter users accused him of lying and making it up. One group even perpetuated a hashtag #mythicalmolotov. When he said he had GoPro footage of protesters firing bullets at the police, naysayers said it was simply fireworks.

Maybe this alternative reality won’t be a surprise to anyone. A survey by Rasmussen Reports nine days after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown found that half of those surveyed had already made up their minds as to who was at fault. By that reckoning, it doesn’t matter what the facts are, people are going to find the tweets that support their viewpoint.

Memory Lane:
Hole in the Mould
31 July 2014

¶ At Aeon, Kristin Ohlson writes beguilingly about memories of childhood — how rare the truly early ones are, and how completely they are overshadowed by those of adolescence and early adulthood. (3 Quarks Daily; via The Morning News)

To form long-term memories, an array of biological and psychological stars must align, and most children lack the machinery for this alignment. The raw material of memory – the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations of our life experiences – arrive and register across the cerebral cortex, the seat of cognition. For these to become memory, they must undergo bundling in the hippocampus, a brain structure named for its supposed resemblance to a sea horse, located under the cerebral cortex. The hippocampus not only bundles multiple input from our senses together into a single new memory, it also links these sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations to similar ones already stored in the brain. But some parts of the hippocampus aren’t fully developed until we’re adolescents, making it hard for a child’s brain to complete this process.

‘So much has to happen biologically to store a memory,’ the psychologist Patricia Bauer of Emory University told me. There’s ‘a race to get it stabilised and consolidated before you forget it. It’s like making Jell-O: you mix the stuff up, you put it in a mould, and you put it in the refrigerator to set, but your mould has a tiny hole in it. You just hope your Jell-O – your memory – gets set before it leaks out through that tiny hole.’

In addition, young children have a tenuous grip on chronology. They are years from mastering clocks and calendars, and thus have a hard time nailing an event to a specific time and place. They also don’t have the vocabulary to describe an event, and without that vocabulary, they can’t create the kind of causal narrative that Peterson found at the root of a solid memory. And they don’t have a greatly elaborated sense of self, which would encourage them to hoard and reconsider chunks of experience as part of a growing life-narrative.

Money Clip:
Econ, Yukon
29 July 2014

¶ John Lanchester’s “Money Talks,” appearing in this week’s New Yorker, could have been written (perhaps a trifle overwritten) by our Editor, who is forever haranguing his readers to sit up, pay heed, and learn how the world really turns. Lanchester’s argument is all the more urgent for concerning money, not culture. For fifty years, sophisticated discussion of the dismal science been abandoned to traders with a stake in it. If this high-minded dereliction was intended to starve finance of life-sustaining attention, it failed more than dismally.

The language of money is a powerful tool, and it is also a tool of power. Incomprehension is a form of consent. If we allow ourselves not to understand this language, we are signing off on the way the world works today—in particular, we are signing off on the prospect of an ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else, a world in which everything about your life is determined by the accident of who your parents are. Those of us who are interested in stopping that from happening need to learn how to measure the level of the Nile for ourselves.

When you read the piece, you’ll see how the Nile flows into it.


Brokenland Note:
Human People
28 July 2014

¶ What makes human people so special in America? They’re the ones who pay most of the taxes. Corporate people pay much less. Our current regulatory scheme, flourishing under right-wing nurture, favors the dispensation in many ways, most currently in the vogue for “inversion,” whereby an American company buys a foreign one but claims that it was the other way round, so that profits not generated in the US are not taxed. (I remember when, four or five years ago, Chinese firms launched a vogue for these transactions, not for tax purposes but in order to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Global Boulevard is a two-way street.) Paul Krugman takes a crack at inversion in his column in today’s Times.

The most important thing to understand about inversion is that it does not in any meaningful sense involve American business “moving overseas.” Consider the case of Walgreen, the giant drugstore chain that, according to multiple reports, is on the verge of making itself legally Swiss. If the plan goes through, nothing about the business will change; your local pharmacy won’t close and reopen in Zurich. It will be a purely paper transaction — but it will deprive the U.S. government of several billion dollars in revenue that you, the taxpayer, will have to make up one way or another.

Does this mean President Obama is wrong to describe companies engaging in inversion as “corporate deserters”? Not really — they’re shirking their civic duty, and it doesn’t matter whether they literally move abroad or not. But apologists for inversion, who tend to claim that high taxes are driving businesses out of America, are indeed talking nonsense. These businesses aren’t moving production or jobs overseas — and they’re still earning their profits right here in the U.S.A. All they’re doing is dodging taxes on those profits.

And Congress could crack down on this tax dodge — it’s already illegal for a company to claim that its legal domicile is someplace where it has little real business, and tightening the criteria for declaring a company non-American could block many of the inversions now taking place. So is there any reason not to stop this gratuitous loss of revenue? No.

We think that official tolerance of inversion is the strongest evidence to date that American government is depraved.


Inside Voice:
Silence and Slow Time
2 July 2014

At Smart Set, Willard Spiegelman meditates on the importance of quiet in museums. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, he encountered it memorably last fall at the installation of Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet at the Cloisters.) His advice: don’t wait for noisy gawkers to go away. Just stand still and firm; the racket will recede on its own, as you radiate the quiet.

Every so often a miracle occurs. The crowds vanish. Perhaps no one is around to begin with as was the case for me in Philadelphia. Or perhaps something marvelous so transports the viewer that he can forget the crowds, noisy or inconvenient though they may be. At New York’s Frick Collection last winter, I waited for a spot to open and I just planted myself in front of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, on loan from the Netherlands, until I had looked my fill. I made myself ignore my noisy, jostling neighbors. The thrill of slow looking has also happened when I come to an art exhibition that changes my mind about an artist I never knew well: Kandinsky; Arshile Gorky, most recently. Or that opens my eyes to an artist of whom I have previously known nothing at all: Howard Hodgkin, for example, first in Fort Worth and then at the Metropolitan Museum; L. S. Lowry, at Tate Britain last summer. A world opens itself up and invites you in. The surroundings melt and it’s just you and the pictures. These things happen. Keats described the experience as feeling that a new planet has swum into your ken. He was thinking of literature — in his case George Chapman’s translations of Homer — but the analogy obtains.



Dept of Too Big:
Power, Not Price
2 July 2014

¶ In today’s Dealbook, Steven Davidoff Solomon notes that huge business combines have roared back into existence notwithstanding the anti-trust legislation that was designed to stifle them at birth. This has happened because the new megafirms are not nearly as interested in eliminating competition as their Gilded Age predecessors were. What the new behemoths crave is not monopoly but political power — the negative political power to retain their freedom to do as they wish.

Every industry now has its own Washington-based nonprofit to push its agenda. For wireless it is CTIA, and for cable it is the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. There is even an e-cigarettes group called the Electronic Cigarette Industry Group. The new megacorporations, simply by virtue of their size, can use these organizations to lobby for significant change. And with the political-spending rights given to them by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision, these corporations are even more powerful. They are able to steer large sums to preferred candidates. Though they have yet to flex that muscle to the extent that they might, the fear that they could do so is enough to give these companies significant political power with politicians.

This accretion of power is manifestly undesirable — is it not? Solomon is right (if unrealistic) to call for a legislative overhaul.

Market Note:
Inescapable Regulation
22 July 2014

We try to learn something every day. This is easiest when we turn our attention to economics, a field of almost immeasurable ignorance for us. Today, we discovered Karl Polanyi, author of The Great Transformation and the subject of a new book by Fred Block and Margaret Somers. Block and Somers were interviewed by Henry Farrell at the Washington Post(via 3 Quarks Daily)

HF –  How do those ideas help us understand the vexing economic problems we still face today?

FB & MS – By putting government and politics into the center of economic analysis, Polanyi makes it clear that today’s vexing economic problems are almost entirely political problems. This can effectively change the terms of modern political debate: Both left and right today focus on “deregulation”—for the right it is a rallying cry against the impediments of government; for the left it is the scourge behind our current economic inequities.  While they differ dramatically on its desirability, both positions assume the possibility of a “non-regulated” or “non-political” market.  Taking Polanyi seriously means rejecting the illusion of a “deregulated” economy. What happened in the name of “deregulation” has actually been “reregulation,” this time by rules and policies that are radically different from those of the New Deal and Great Society decades. Although compromised by racism, those older regulations laid the groundwork for greater equality and a flourishing middle class.  Government continues to regulate, but instead of acting to protect workers, consumers, and citizens, it devised new policies aimed to help giant corporate and financial institutions maximize their returns through revised anti-trust laws, seemingly bottomless bank bailouts, and increased impediments to unionization.

The implications for political discourse are critically important: If regulations are always necessary components of markets, we must not discuss regulation versus deregulation but rather what kinds of regulations we prefer: Those designed to benefit wealth and capital? Or those that benefit the public and common good? Similarly, since the rights or lack of rights that employees have at the workplace are always defined by the legal system, we must not ask whether the law should organize the labor market but rather what kinds of rules and rights should be entailed in these laws—those that recognize that it is the skills and talents of employees that make firms productive, or those that rig the game in favor of employers and private profits?

This puts a new name to a few ideas that we happen to endorse, and makes them clearer, too.

Dept of Urban Legend:
Knausgaard-Free Days
21 July 2014

¶ At Pacific Standard, Casy Cep reviews her correspondence with Daniel Bloom, an American gadfly currently living in Taiwan. The object of their correspondence, as yet not absolutely resolved, was to demonstrate that the publicity story that accompanied the English translation of Min Kamp — that Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic autobiography was so popular that all discussion of it in the Norwegian workplace had to be prohibited in order to get anything done — was, to put it mildly, an exaggeration, tipping into patent untruth, that ought never to have been reprinted by reputable newspapers and magazines. In the course of her piece, however, Cep repeats another unfounded myth, all the more meretricious for being about the book itself.

And what did it matter? I’d long decided Bloom was a more interesting story than Knausgaard, whose own work documented every inch of his own life.

Knausgaard is in fact far too good a writer to waste his time on such a documentary project. We don’t understand why it is so fashionable to deny — as the author himself seems inclined to do — Knausgaard’s artistry.

Reading Note:
On Considering the Great American Novel
18 July 2014

¶ At TLS, Sarah Graham (currently at work on a book about Salinger’s short fiction) reviews Laurence Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel, and Buell’s approach to that dream, which carefully avoids the selection of one great American novel, sounds both comprehensive and intriguing. According to Graham, Buell sorts novels into four headings, or “scripts”:

  • Novels “made classic by retelling,” such as those concerned with the “ordeals of immigrant transplantation,” ranging from The Scarlet Letter through The Holder of the World.
  • “Up From” Novels. The great novels written to this template are extremely ironic about success. The Great Gatsby, late Roth.
  • Novels that “romance the divides” — between groups and races. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Beloved
  • Meganovels, in which a cast of characters collaborates on a massive project. Moby-Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow.

Graham concludes that Moby-Dick is “the most likely contender” for Great American Novel — a book that we find pervasively rubbishy and steeply unreadable, unquestionably the worst book on any syllabus. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

Mirror Note:
14 July 2014

¶ At Prospect, Jim Holt reviews a couple of books that diverge on what the self is while agreeing that it does exist. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

If the spectrum of selfhood begins with the roundworm, surely it ends with Proust—whose own oversubtle explorations of memory and the self are sadly neglected in these two otherwise estimable books. Moving from Barry Dainton’s philosophical conception of the self—pure, pristine potential—to the endlessly variegated empirical self traced by Jennifer Ouellette, I was reminded of Proust’s description (near the beginning of The Guermantes Way) of what it’s like to wake up out of a leaden slumber. At first, there’s just a glimmer of undefined consciousness; you’re not even a person. Then gradually, in a sort of resurrection, you recover your thoughts, your memories, your personality; you become you again. Proust’s narrator likens the awakening process to finding a lost object. What baffles him is how, “among the millions of human beings one might be,” he unerringly manages to lay his hands on the very self he was the day before. Puzzling as the self is, that might be one puzzle too many.

We feel that there is something very “modern” about the quest for the self — something that we have moved beyond, in our attempt to grasp the civil.

Flying Cars
17 July 2014

¶ We don’t spend a lot of time on gee-whiz prognostications of the wonders of tomorrow, but we are nonetheless very impressed by the quality of Dan McLaughlin’s thoughtfulness on the subject of driverless cars. We don’t expect to see driverless cars on mainstream roads anytime soon, but, hey, we were surprised by the first same-sex marriage wave, and automated vehicles do seem, somehow, inevitable. McLaughlin sees upsides, for the most part, but there are a few downsides, too: army recruits could not be counted on for driving skills; today’s “used car” will probably never find a correlative among more complicated machines; and driving will be much less private and solitary. One item stuck out for us:

11. Destroying Taxi and Driving Jobs: Driving provides a lot of jobs, mostly jobs held by men, and in the case of urban taxi and limo drivers, many of them immigrants—cab drivers, truck drivers, delivery drivers. Those jobs can be hazardous: one Labor Department study in the 1990s, examining the nation’s population of 3 million truck drivers and 200,000 cab drivers at the time, concluded:

From 1992-95, truckdriving had the most fatalities of all occupations, accounting for 12 percent of all worker deaths. About two-thirds of the fatally injured truckers were involved in highway crashes. Truckdrivers also had more nonfatal injuries (over 151,000) than workers in any other occupation in 1995…Cabdrivers had the highest homicide rate—32 homicides per 100,000—among the occupations most affected by deadly violence. This rate is four times more than that of police officers (emphasis added).

Driverless cars and trucks won’t eliminate these jobs entirely, particularly jobs of deliverymen who will still need to bring groceries, the U.S. mail, and UPS and FedEx packages to your doorstep. But they will undoubtedly reduce employment, especially among cab drivers, and reduce the hazards of those jobs (and the higher pay that comes with taking those risks). Along those lines, eliminating the need to constrain trucking by the limits of human endurance promises the potential for a faster network of distribution of goods.

That provides both a risk and an opportunity for a business like Uber, which is already trying to disrupt the taxi paradigm. The risk is that driverless cabs, like the Zipcar and CitiBike programs, will become widely available (and no longer constrained by the taxi-medallion monopoly), while Uber’s potential pool of on-demand drivers shrinks. The opportunity is that someone still needs to provide the supply of on-demand vehicles.

Both of these issues — trucks and taxis — remind us of the special case presented by Manhattan Island, unmatched by any other American city. For the time being, we’ll keep our two cents to ourselves. (The Federalist; via The Morning News)

Social Note:
The Age of Cool
16 July 2014

At The Smart Set, Morgan Meis writes about an exhibition of photographs, American Cool, at the National Gallery, and explores the contradiction at the heart of cool, which always seems to mask a determination not to be hurt again(That’s what distinguishes it from, say, the elegant unflappability of Cary Grant.) At the end, Meis speculates on the the term that will take the place of “cool” in this century.

The death of cool is, in the end, an ambivalent sign. It could be the result of a greater general social health, a purging of the fear that led to coolness in the first place. But it could just as easily be a transformation of fear. The death of cool could be the sign that we have learned new ways to hide our anxieties, ways that are not yet apparent, not yet obvious and nameable. We’ll need a Lester Young of the 21st century to invent a new word for whatever it is we do to hide our fears today. In 2014, we haven’t yet met that person. We’re still lingering on the vapors of the last few cigarettes smoked by the aging cool cats of the previous century.

But we disagree. “Friendly” is the new cool.