Archive for the ‘Food/Drink’ Category

America is of course a land of bounteous variety, and for a long time after we first moved here I was dazzled and gratified by the wealth of choice everywhere. I remember going to the supermarket for the first time and being genuinely impressed to find that it stocked no fewer than eighteen varieties of incontinence diaper. Two or three I could understand. Half a dozen would seem to cover every possible incontinence contingency. But eighteen–gosh! This was a land of plenty. And what a range of choice they offered. Some were scented, some were dimpled for extra comfort, and they came in a variety of strengths from, as it were, “Oops, bit of a dribble” to “Whoa! Dambusters!” Those weren’t the labels they actually used, of course, but that was the gist of it. They even came in a choice of colors.

For nearly every other type of product–frozen pizzas, dog food, ice creams, cereals, cookies, potato chips–the choices were often literally in the hundreds. Every new flavor seemed to have pupped another flavor. When I was a boy shredded wheat was shredded wheat and that was it. Now you could have it coated in sugar or cinnamon, in bite-size morsels, with slices of genuine bananalike material, and goodness knows what else.

And this applies to everything. You can now choose, apparently, among thirty-five varieties of Crest toothpaste. According to The Economist, “The average supermarket in America devotes 20 feet of shelving to medicines for coughs and colds.” (And never mind that of the 25,500 “new” consumer products launched in the United States last year, 93 percent were merely modified versions of existing products.)

After twenty years in England this copious abundance was, as you might imagine, almost intoxicating. Lately, however, I have come to suspect that perhaps you can get too much choice. I found myself edging around to this view recently when I was at the airport in Portland, Oregon, standing in a line of about fifteen people at a coffee stand. It was 5:45 A.M., not my best time of day, and I had just twenty minutes till my flight was to be called, but I really, really needed to get some caffeine into my system. You know how it is.

It used to be if you wanted a cup of coffee that’s what you asked for and that’s what you got. But this place, being a 1990s sort of coffee stand, offered at least twenty choices–plain latte, caramel latte, breve, macchiato, mocha, espresso, espresso mocha, black forest mocha, americano, and so on-in a range of sizes. There was also a galaxy of muffins, croissants, bagels, and pastries. All of these could be had in any number of variations, so that every order went something like this:

“I’ll have a caramel latte combo with decaf mocha and a cinnamon twist, and a low-fat cream cheese sourdough bagel, but I’d like the pimento grated and on the side. Are your poppyseeds roasted in polyunsaturated vegetable oil?”

“No, we use double-extra-lite canola extract.”

“Oh, that’s no good for me. In that case, I’ll have a New York three-cheese pumpernickel fudge croissant. What kind of emulsifiers do you use in that?”

In my mind’s eye, I saw myself taking each customer by the ears, shaking his or her head slowly eighteen or twenty times, and saying: “You’re just trying to get a cup of coffee and a bread product before your flight. Now ask for something simple and scram.”

Fortunately for all these people, until I have had my first cup of coffee in the morning (and this is particularly true during hours in single digits) all I can do is rise, dress myself (a bit), and ask for a cup of coffee. Anything else is beyond me. So I just stood and waited stoically while fifteen people placed complex, time-consuming, preposterously individualized orders.

When at last my turn came, I stepped up and said: “I’d like a large cup of coffee.”

“What kind?”

“Hot and in a cup and very large.”

“Yeah, but what kind–mocha, macchiato, what?”

“I want whichever one is a normal cup of coffee.”

“You want americano?”

“If that means a normal cup of coffee, then yes.”

“Well, they’re all coffees.”

“I want a normal cup of coffee like millions of people drink every day.”

“So you want an americano?”


“Do you want regular whipped cream or low-cal with that?”

“I don’t want whipped cream.”

“But it comes with whipped cream.”

“Look,” I said in a low voice, “it is 6:10 A.M. I have been standing for twenty-five minutes behind fifteen seriously selective people, and my flight is being called. If I don’t get some coffee right now–and by right now I mean right now–I am going to have to murder someone, and I think you should know that you are on the short list.” (I am not, as you will gather, a morning person.)

“So does that mean you want low-cal whipped cream or regular?”

And so it went.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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My mother was not a great cook, you see.

Now please don’t misunderstand me. My mother is a wonderful person–kindly, saintly, ever cheerful–and when she dies she will go straight to heaven. But believe me, no one is ever going to say, “Oh, thank goodness you’re here, Mrs. Bryson. Can you fix us a little something to eat?”

To be perfectly fair to her, my mother had several strikes against her in the kitchen department. To begin with, she couldn’t have been a great cook even if she had wanted to. She had a career, you see-she worked for the local newspaper, which meant that she was always flying in the door two minutes before it was time to put dinner on the table.

On top of this, she was a trifle absentminded. Her particular specialty was to cook things while they were still in the packaging. I was almost full-grown before I realized that Saran Wrap wasn’t a sort of chewy glaze. A combination of haste, forgetfulness, and a charming incompetence where household appliances were concerned meant that most of her cooking experiences were punctuated with billows of smoke and occasional small explosions. In our house, as a rule of thumb, you knew it was time to eat when the firemen departed.

Strangely, all this suited my father, who had what might charitably be called rudimentary tastes in food. His palate really only responded to three flavors–salt, ketchup, and burnt. His idea of a truly outstanding meal was a plate that contained something brown and unidentifiable, something green and unidentifiable, and something charred. I am quite sure that if you slow-baked, say, an oven glove and covered it sufficiently with ketchup, he would have declared, after a ruminative moment’s chewing, “Hey, this is very tasty.” Good food, in short, was something that was wasted on him, and my mother labored diligently for years to see that he was never disappointed.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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Both ideals [of “meaningful work” and “self-reliance”] are tied to a struggle for individual agency, which I find to be at the very center of modern life. When we view our lives through the lens of this struggle, it brings certain experiences into sharper focus. Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces. We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.

Some people respond by learning to grow their own vegetables. There are even reports of people raising chickens on the rooftops of apartment buildings in New York City. These new agrarians say they get a deep satisfaction from recovering a more direct relationship to the food they eat. Others take up knitting, and find pride in wearing clothes they have made themselves. The home economics of our grandmothers is suddenly cutting-edge chic–why should this be? In hard economic times, we want to be frugal. Frugality requires some measure of self-reliance–the ability to take care of your own stuff. But the new interest in self-reliance seems to have arisen before the specter of hard times. Frugality may be only a thin economic rationalization for a movement that really answers to a deeper need: we want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home. Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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[T]he dinner party is a true proclamation of the abundance of being—a rebuke to the thrifty little idolatries by which we lose sight of the lavish hand that made us. It is precisely because no one needs soup, fish, meat, salad, cheese, and dessert at one meal that we so badly need to sit down to them from time to time. It was largesse that made us all; we were not created to fast forever. The unnecessary is the taproot of our being and the last key to the door of delight. Enter here, therefore, as a sovereign remedy for the narrowness of our minds and the stinginess of our souls, the formal dinner for six, eight or ten chosen guests, the true convivium—the long Session that brings us nearly home.

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection

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Joint attention is an actual experience that we have. By contrast, the attentional commons is best understood as a purely negative principle, by analogy with the “precautionary principle” invoked by environmentalists. The point of being aware of the attentional commons is not to make it happen but to refrain from damaging it; to be aware of the valuable absence that creates space for private reverie, and indeed for the possibility of those episodes of joint attention that arise spontaneously and make cities feel full of promise for real human contact.

What this boils down to: Please don’t install speakers in every single corner of a shopping mall, even its outdoor spaces. Please don’t fill up every moment between innings in a lazy college baseball game with thundering excitement. Please give me a way to turn off the monitor in the backseat of a taxi. Please let there be one corner of the bar where the flickering delivery system for Bud Lite commercials is deemed unnecessary, because I am already at the bar. The attentional commons is an idea that I hope will catch on among those who are in a position to make such sanctuaries happen: building managers, commercial real estate developers, and interior designers. Here is a modest proposal: Could the Muzak be made opt-in rather than opt-out? Once every twenty minutes, somebody in the room would have to deliberately hit a button to restart it, and thereby actively affirm “Yes! We want some emo in here!”

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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Cheese is at once a testament to the Creator’s ingenuity in providing enzymes and bacteria that will do fearful and wonderful things for milk and to man’s audacity in the face of some pretty forbidding stuff. The blander varieties, of course, are hardly more alarming than milk itself; but the farther reaches of the subject put even brave men to the test. There are cow’s-milk cheeses which will convince you that someone has dragged a whole barnyard indoors, and goat’s milk cheeses which taste as if the goat sat in them. There is something grandly faithful to the real being of creation about strong cheese. Good Limburger (with onions and rye bread, by all means), noble Liederkranz (America’s greatest cheese), French Münster, ripe Reblochon, vile Livarot, and all the deceptively pretty, shockingly flavorsome goat cheeses recall man to the humbleness of his grandeur and the greatness of his low estate. The first man is of the earth, earthy. If I had only a single temporal blessing to wish you, I would not hesitate a moment: May you be spared long enough to know at least one long evening of old friends, dark bread, good wine, and strong cheese. If even exile be so full, what must not our fullness be?

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection

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We are being flooded with matter about which nobody gives a damn. But the really frightening part is that the attitude begins to rub off. No home can be built without that love of detail which is the hallmark of care, yet we seem to be getting less and less able to bother. People cannot be fed without detail, children cannot be taught manners without detail, wives cannot be kept happy without detail. But in our superspirituality, we expect that a handful of good intentions and a headful of bright ideas are quite enough to make a home. The truth is, though, that matter will break us unless we love it for itself and start paying some very careful attention to its demands. We are not angels; there are no disembodied intelligences in my household, we are all things here, from the raisins in the cake to the father at his table. For the likes of us there is no middle ground between care and catastrophe.

— Robert Farrar Capon, Bed and Board

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