Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Guilty pleasures

Common sense said that I needed a serious recovery evening of absolute brain-relaxation (I met a massive and significant deadline on Monday, but now I'm faced with all the chaotic muddle of the million other deadlines I put off because of that one, plus obligations to all the absolutely fed-up friends I've been shortchanging for months now!) and so although various other more useful enterprises probably could and should have been profitably pursued (of the swimming-practicing, dissertation-chapter-reading, paper-grading, finish-last-part-of-academic-book-manuscript sort) I instead plunged into & consumed with great enjoyment (and also a sense of relief at life getting back to normal) the most recent issues of Bookforum and the New York Review of Books.

It was a good dose of salts for the brain--I have been having an intense feeling of literary deprivation the last month or so as I lost all shreds of time for reading for pleasure (I am slightly laughing at myself even as I write this, I do realize that my normal life decadently has far more literature in it than anyone has a right to, I've been teaching my particular favorite Restoration comedies & early Jane Austen and really it is not as though I've been desert-island-style deprived of reading matter, I've been to lots of interesting talks etc. etc. and read quite a few books one way or another yet the free play of intellectual stimulation just can't quite happen when I don't get a lot of hours for wayward reading...).

Bookforum is just a delight! It gives me that chocolate-box feeling of good & unexpected things in every corner, just what I most like.

Here's a great piece by Eric Banks on two books about the history of vegetarianism and the future of food, check out this bit (do you not totally want to try that sour-cherry Tang? I wonder if it is possibly obtainable through channels of some kind--and of course any essay that combines discussion of sour-cherry Tang and the Godwin-Malthus-Condorcet axis which is my recent obsession is just priceless):

Belasco argues that the various flavors of food futurism have given rise to three future tenses: classical, modernist, and recombinant. He plumbs in particular world's-fair extravaganzas to find the visual expression of these three—well-trodden ground, to be sure, but fascinating still. The classical version of the future offers a model best found in the agricultural displays of superabundance and horticultural imperialism that marked the world's fairs in Chicago (1893) and Saint Louis (1904). The former boasted awe-inspiring exhibits—an eleven-ton wedge of cheese from Ontario, a map of the US made of pickles, a fifteen-hundred-pound chocolate Venus de Milo from the Great State of New York, and, not to be outdone, a thirty-eight-foot-high temple made of thirty thousand pounds of chocolate and cocoa butter housing a ten-foot-tall statue of solid chocolate from France. Cream of Wheat and Aunt Jemima pancake mix made their all-American debuts at the Chicago fair, and foreign foodstuffs, from Ceylon tea to Jamaican rum, underscored the pedagogical theme linking a bountiful future and American corporate vision.


It's way too easy to make fun of the hubristic extremes of food modernism and its brave-new-world projections, but Belasco does a good job of tracing the rise and fall of the model without shooting Jetsons in a goldfish bowl. His discussion of the space program's evolving culinary ideologies—from the "edible biomass" in a tube that John Glenn consumed in orbit in 1962 to the "brown revolution" (think Thai noodles, spring rolls, basil pesto, and tortilla wraps) that current NASA research embraces in its plans for future explorers—demonstrates how the modernist future can evolve in fact into a recombinant vision of "futures [that] come à la carte in the choice-maximizing menu of late consumer capitalism." Whether this represents, from a food standpoint, a new version of the future or simply the exhaustion with futurism per se is a question Belasco never quite addresses.

As compelling as Belasco's cultural history is, there are blind spots. Consider Tang, a rare instance where his own prejudices come into play. No single consumer item was more associated with space-age breakthroughs than "the drink of astronauts," and few could match its marketing punch: Not only was Tang a replacement for fresh orange juice, it was promised that it was even better than OJ, with more vitamins A and C than the natural stuff. And no other consumer product seems more quaintly a sign of the demise of that high-futurist moment than the powdered juice in a jar: "By the 1990s," Belasco writes, "it was clear that astronauts did not want Tang either." But while Tang has indeed lost much of its market share in the US and become fodder for period jokes, its success in the global marketplace is nothing short of phenomenal. The convenience and affordability of Tang have made it a leading consumer item throughout Latin America, and Kraft, which owns the label, shills Tang for microniched national tastes, producing a sour-cherry version for the Turkish market, mango for Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, and so forth. In this sense, Tang is no less "recombinant" than the Whole Foods customer voting with a trolley.

If I were an astronaut I would want Tang, drinking what's essentially glorified sugar-water would seem wholly justifiable under the circumstances (when I was little I had a friend who had Tang at her house, it was the height of culinary excitement as far as I can remember, did we not when we were children in the 1970s actually want to eat Tang from the jar with a spoon?).

The other things that especially caught my eye (mostly not online, and in any case it's more the impressionistic sense of cornucopia that I want to convey): Rebecca West making dismissive comments on the New Yorker editors (Interviewer: "They have a tremendous reputation"; West: "I don't know why") and on what is obviously Ian McEwan's novel The Cement Garden ("I do think modern novels are boring on the whole. Somebody told me I ought to read a wonderful thing about how a family of children buried Mum in a cellar under concrete and she began to smell. But that's the whole point of the story. Mum just smells. That's all that happens. It is not enough"); the fact that Beatrix Potter "edited out of her most famous book a picture of the pie Peter's father ended up in, not because it might upset tots to see their hero's father en croute, but because she couldn't get the cook's face right" (that's Claire Harman reviewing Linda Lear's biography, also very appealingly & intelligently reviewed at greater length by John Lanchester in the NYRB--oh, I did love those Beatrix Potter books when I was little, and I have had occasion several times recently to ponder the line about lettuce being soporific [curiously it's used by Gary Krist in one of his thrillers as a code, I was taken aback in a good way when I found that, how unexpected...]); and a book of photographs that I must get, Martha Camarillo's Fletcher Street, on the horseback-riding North Philadelphians I once blogged about here.

Perhaps most thought-provoking, though, is a wise and rather sorrowful essay by Gerald Howard about Philip Rieff. It left me with the feeling that I must read Rieff sooner rather than later (and I have also been pondering the fact that I've never read Elias Canetti, that must be remedied). Sontag and Rieff and also Hannah Arendt are looming large over both of these two issues, interestingly: I do not suppose there exactly will be such a clear consensus group of must-read intellectuals in this next generation, eh?

The NYRB isn't as playful of course and yet it also has many good literary things this week (the issue isn't up online yet): Jeremy Waldron's piece on Arendt is kind of a must-read, Mary Beard's got a delightful little essay on Robert Harris's Imperium (hmmm, reminds me I've got that lying around here, when am I going to have time for a real light reading binge?!?); and best of all Joyce Carol Oates reflects on Joan Acocella's criticism in an essay that gives me that excellent yearning feeling to do some thinking and essay-writing of my own.

Good stuff, and now I must try and get some sleep, working too hard is one of the great destroyers of sleep I find...

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