SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Food and Memory at The New Yorker

Jan. 10, 2010

Between watching Bourdain and reading about recipes, I've learned the best food is often found in the most surprising places -- not necessarily a restaurant, but a warm, intimate hearth, where people comfortably gather to drink, eat and laugh. So too, the best recipes are not necessarily found in the hands of the pros, but of ordinary people -- Aunt June's legumes, Uncle Frost's turkey, neighbor Betsy's apple pie. Cookbooks comprised of such recipes may rank among the best. M.F.K. Fisher writes about this in her wonderful, The Secret Ingredient.

Having a penchant these days for books that surpass 500 pages, I'm now into Secret Ingredients, The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick. Let me tell you, launching on a read like this feels a bit like hiking up the Himalayas -- You really want to get to the finish, but can't imagine how you are going to get there!

I like Remnick for a couple of very good reasons, aside from the fact that he is the current editor of The New Yorker. He had the good grace to apologize for the way his magazine went along with other media, initially failing to challenge the Bush II regime for its decision to invade Iraq. Remnick was eloquent and humble, addressing a full house on this subject at Fairleigh Dickinson University a few years ago, when I met him.

Remnick is also just a B.A., like I am. He got his at Princeton. I got mine at Wesleyan (the one in Middletown). I am fully prepared to list him as a model, if, during any of my work searches for the position of magazine editor, someone challenges my level of education -- "If it's good enough for David, it's good enough for me," I will tell them.

He's also the only writer I've ever asked for an autograph. I'm not quite sure why, as I don't do that sort of thing. I guess I was just overwhelmed with a sense of awe and respect for the man at the time.

The whole autograph thing seems silly -- even though I know people make money off it -- Ann Margret for example, and her husband Roger, who, despite outward appearances, does still live. They collect money from poor schmucks who have a lot less than they do every year at venues like Chiller Theater in New Jersey, where people who will never have their 15-minutes of fame come to almost claim it, rubbing shoulders with those that have been there. There's a whole list of celebrities who show up for this. Once in a while, they'll claim to be passing along your meager fortunes to some cause, but I find the whole thing rather cheap and disgusting -- and I don't use those words easily, or lightly.

But on to more urbane and sophisticated subjects, such as The New Yorker and its writers and reads. In Secret Ingredients, I'm venturing into the one department I never spent a minute on, all the years I faithfully scanned The New Yorker, "cover to cover."

Reading TNY usually meant for me, glancing at all the cartoons, reading the fiction -- which has remained exceptional through a slew of diverse editors, including Remnick -- and the delightfully detailed portraits of people and places that are the magazine's trademark.

In his intro to Secret Ingredients, Remnick notes that Harold Ross, TNY's founding editor (who had a very bad stomach) had the idea to put together "a recipe compendium for the gastrointestinally challenged" called "Good Food for Bad Stomachs." William Shawn (who had a very good stomach and long life, and succeeded Ross as editor) wasn't as interested in food. When gathering to dine with the famous writers of the Algonquin Hotel, he would order an insipid bowl of cereal and leave it virtually untouched, favoring to dialogue instead with the likes of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Wolcott and a few brilliant others.

One can understand.

What I love and have always loved about TNY is that you can't get through an issue without reading an essay so chock full of detail, you really feel you've ingested a fine meal or book at the end. Even after Tina Brown's modern tweaking of TNY, all I have to do is glance at a cover to recall Paris of the 20s or The Algonquin Round Table or any of the grand drunks that happened to be great writers who were a part of those scenes and became constants at the magazine.

I often wish I'd lived in Paris of the 20s or New York's East Village in the 30s, or 50s, when so much that was vibrant and real in the way of art was happening -- all the best conversations, best ideas and great works. I'm always looking for a thread to these times in TNY criticisms and commentaries. And I like that TNY treats and has always treated both the past and memory, at least upper class past and memory, as national treasures.

Once a TNY writer always a TNY writer. The list is endless, and urbane. Hemingway, Updike, Ann Beattie and Frederick Barthelme in the fiction department.

The aspiration to write at TNY until you drop runs true for the food writers too. A.J. Liebling began his food writing tenure at TNY in 1935 and continued until his death in 1963. Calvin Trillin took over in 1963 and still writes for TNY.

In one piece, Liebling had one of his characters observe to Adam and Eve: "First parents of the human race... you lost all for an apple, what would you not have done for a truffled turkey?"

Sounds like the one-liner of a TNY cartoon.

As Remnick wryly observed, TNY's editors "understood ...that a magazine travels not only with its mind, but also... on its stomach. Food is a subject of subsistence, manners, pleasure, and diversion."

Remember the discovery scientists made a few years back that humans possess a second brain in the stomach? Was it really a surprise? All things are interrelated -- the stomach to the mind, the meal to the read.

Now back to my long winter's feast.

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