Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What Do We Use to Taste Our Food

I'm sure it will come as a shock to many of you that Riss and I started brewing our own beer about a year ago. (Well, Riss started brewing and I started occasionally helping her brew and occasionally being greeted when I got home from work on a Sunday with a statement like, “You like, kolsch, right?”) It has been a ton of fun and the beer has been fantastic. The most powerful taste experience I've had happened fairly early on when I drank one of our saisons. It was towards when I usually go to bed, I was a little peckish and decided to have a beer instead of a bowl of cereal. Beyond how great it tasted, drinking that saison felt physically good, as if it were biologically, bodily beneficial; as if the usually very abstract sense of health and nutrition materialized as an actual sensation of flavor. And, being me, rather than just enjoying it, I thought about it.

Beyond, perhaps an extra level of vitamin-B from the yeast, can we prove that home brew is, in fact, better than commercial beer? Could we chemically analyze the ingredients to determine if a certain kind of hops or malts or grains or yeasts produces different tastes when processed at different scales? Of course, as is natural, thinking about beer got me thinking about everything else. There is evidence that today's vegetables, for a whole host of reasons, have less nutritional content than vegetables from a generation or two ago, so does that explain why my farm share vegetables taste so good that store bought vegetables now taste like styrofoam that's punching me in the eye? Perhaps we simply underestimate the value of “freshness” with vegetables and the actual determining taste factor is the extra day between being picked and being eaten that all store bought veggies have. Maybe all those pesticides, no matter how thoroughly washed off, affect flavor.

The questions of taste and quality are, of course, compromised by all the various “brown bag” tests, that tend to show that, without the suggestion of the label, it is very difficult for most people to taste the difference between great wine and good wine, meaning the actual chemical difference, the actual physical interaction between the wine and your taste buds, what we actually taste is not meaningfully different; meaning that the bulk of what we taste, at least when we're tasting wine, is the idea of what the wine should taste like. If this is true for wine, is it true for organic farm share vegetables and home brewed beer?

Of course, advertisers have known for ages that the suggestion of a food experience is almost as important as the actual food in how the food is experienced. A McDonald's hamburger isn't really flavored with a cliff's worth of sodium and the mysterious greasy remains its brethren leave on the flat top; it's flavored by a gagillion dollar relentless advertising campaign abusing the cultural consciousness of the world into believing its food. The same goes for any food that is advertised, in any way. Food producers have discovered that it is more profitable to suggest their food tastes good, than to go through the trouble of trying to make sure their food is actually good.

One current in the interpretation of this phenomenon is to argue that there really isn't actual “quality” in terms of taste. For the most part, if you believe your are in a super classy restaurant that makes fantastic food, the majority of the classy fantastic-ness of your meal will come from you believing it will be classily fantastic and not from the food having any actual, provable class or fantasy. Of course, there is more to food than just taste, and too often this idea is used to apologize for destructive and unhealthy food practices. If we can't definitively, scientifically, empirically prove that say, a burger a Craigie on Main is better than a burger at McDonald's, than McDonald's is free to continue doing whatever it is they call “making a hamburger.”

Yes, it is important for food to taste good, but it is also important for food to not give us Type-2 diabetes, for our food system not to kill all the bees and help destroy the world, and for the way we prepare and eat our food to help us feel like actual fucking human beings and not just cogs in a vast capitalist system that need occasional refueling.

We taste with our brains. Our entire brains. We all know that food is flavored by our ideas of it and our memories of it—which is why there is such a thing as “comfort food”--but we can also taste with our politics, taste with our ethics, taste with our identities. If the vegetables I get from Steve also come with the knowledge they are not contributing to the destruction of civilization as we know it by pumping vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and thus changing the climate, while representing a scalable business model for a more just, more healthy, more community-based food system, why shouldn't they taste better to me than the vegetables that are part of a massive agri-business complex thriving through destructive and totally unsustainable monoculture? Even if chemically, even if the actual substances that hit my actual taste buds are not actually different, they are politically, economically, and socially different, so why shouldn't my primary sensory experience of them be radically different.

Though I doubt it, I suppose there is a chance that I cannot prove the beer that started this whole though is physically much different from a Bud Light (I mean, except for the whole one being a saison and the other being a pilsner, but I don't think there are any mainstream commercial saisons and that's not really the point anyway) but that beer and a Bud Light have different meaning in my life, so, of course I would experience them differently. In the end, we don't taste with our tongues, we taste with our lives.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review of Seiobo There Below

Seiobo There Below does not use expected grammar. Those look like sentences, but they are not. Those blocks of texts look like paragraphs but, with a few exceptions, they are not. Yes, there is every indication that this book is organized in chapters, but I do not believe those are chapters. We have to borrow from other modes of expression to describe the grammar of Seiobo. It could be organized into stanzas and lines. Or perhaps lines, scenes, and acts. Those are better, but still not quite accurate. Seiobo There Below is a symphony; it is written in instrument sections, movements, solos, fugues...and the impossibility of Seiobo is that it is designed to be experienced as you would listen to a symphony; hearing all of the different parts come together. Or maybe its a painting, with the “sentences,” “paragraphs,” and “chapters,” as canvas, color and brushstroke, and again, we are somehow supposed to “see” the totality even though we can only read it in its separate parts.

Seibo There Below opens with an image of a Kamo-hunter, a crane or heron like bird standing in the river, and the entire opening chapter, entitled “The Kamo-hunter,” is just that bird standing in that river while time exists within and around it. I believe this passage acts like the first 70 or so pages in In Search of Lost Time, setting up all of the ideas and themes of the symphony, both in its content (fair warning, there is a lot of nothing happening) and in its style. You'll know pretty quickly whether Seiobo is a book for you. For me I was enraptured immediately by the prose; “Everything around it moves, as if just this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here though some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles, because the water moves, it flows, it arrives, and cascades;...” The rhythm. The precision. The obsessive doubling and tripling and quadrupling back over scenes and images to put every detail in its perfect place; or at least, put details in places where they draw the eye of the reader so as to create an opportunity for mystery; an Acropolis whose hill you can climb but whose place you can never reach and then you get hit by a car.

The obsessiveness of Laszlo's prose naturally finds itself drawn to express obsessive actions, which, also pretty naturally, sets much of the action in Japan where precision is an end in itself. We see the restoration of a sacred Buddha statue, the carving of a Noh mask (I highly recommend Kissing the Mask by William Vollman, a critical study on Noh theater and femininity which could almost be read as a companion piece to Seiobo), and the cyclical rebuilding of a Shinto shrine and the ritual of cutting down the trees used to build it. But we also see the preparation of a panel for an altar in Renaissance Europe (which is insane), the construction of a Renaissance dowry box, and the copying of a legendary Andrei Rublev icon, all with such an intensity of precision that you are left feeling as though you have learned everything you could ever learn about the topic, while understanding nothing about it. (Oh, and a homeless guy buys a sharp knife in Barcelona, because reasons.)

This tension between knowledge and understanding, between erudition and meaning, between precision and communication reinforces the tension between the temporal experience of physically reading the book and unified experience it strives for. The movement about rebuilding the shrine climaxes when a native of Kyoto who had been acting as a guide for a Western journalist friend, hikes the friend to the top of a small mountain with a panoramic view of Kyoto at night. The Western journalist concludes the exact opposite of what his Japanese guide intended. Another way to describe Seiobo There Below is a symphony in words in opposition to the opposition to that moment of opposition. (Yeah, I'm going to go with that.) Or perhaps it just is and is about the impossibility of perfection. Or something else perfectly unified and perfectly divided.

Like Everything Matters! which is one of the most sincerely optimistic books I've ever read that also happens to be about the apocalypse, Seiobo There Below is one of the most sincerely cynical books I've ever read that also happens to be about beauty. It is a beautifully written obsession with beauty that finds at the end of its obsession...something that is not beauty. An empty box. The mask for a monster. A painting never completed. A very sharp knife purchased by a man who cannot afford it. The one time you don't look both ways before crossing the street. The relentless hollowness of ever lasting life. A long-legged raptor in a river.

Seiobo There Below is one of those absolutely brilliant, absolutely beautiful, absolutely stunning books, I have a difficult time recommending at the bookstore. For reasons I can totally understand, a lot of people simply will not or don't want to deal with sentences this long or feel they require an actual story arc to get into a book, or have a details limit after which something better fucking happen or they are totally tapping out. It's not a book you can put in a stranger's hands. But it is a beautiful book. And, in some ways, it is the most thorough and most direct study of beauty I've ever read. And if you have wondered about the process and statement of beauty, Seiobo There Below is a hill you should climb whether the “Acropolis” on top is the “Acropolis” in your mind or not.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

On Prizes

Are you sure, she's never written about Gordie Howe?
My partner asked me what I thought about Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. I believe my thoughts were, in this order; “OK,” and “At least it wasn't Philip Roth.” It's not that I have anything against Alice Munro. She is, arguably, the finest practitioner of the contemporary mainstream literary short story around, but, readers of my blog will know at least one of those adjectives doesn't particularly interest me. I actually really like Alice Munro. The stories of hers that I've read are truly powerful. She has a way of finding the negligible moments in life that actually encapsulate wide swaths of human experience. And she has been doing it for decades, producing an admirable and, yes, Nobel caliber body of work. But how important will her work be in the short story form of the future? How influential is she to those exploring the potential of the short story? Assuming the world keeps getting weirder, will her stories provide more than just brilliantly executed nostalgia? I have my doubts about all of these, so, though I'm not disappointed with her selection, I can't say I'm excited about it either. (And she's got nothin' on Flannery, but that's a different essay.)

But the question got me thinking about literature prizes in general, especially with the changes, considered and executed, to the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize that generated so much controversy this fall. What should prizes do? What is the role of literature prizes in societ
I get it! It's a metaphor for curling!
y? Does extending the eligibility of the Man Book Prize really affect British Culture? After the Pulitzer Prize flap a couple of years ago, do literature prizes have any responsibility to the publishing and bookselling industry?

In general, I think it is more important for prizes to have clearly delineated goals, than for them to have any one goal in particular. I like the idea that there are prizes for particular kinds of books, written by authors with particular identities. I like that some prizes focus on individual works in a year and some prizes focus on the body of work over the course of a writing career. And I also like that there is a diversity in the selection process. I like that there is an Impact award that is open and there is a Nobel which is very closed. Which is not to say that prizes are perfect. Just like, well, everything, from time to time those responsible for administering them should reassess, should re-ask the big questions, should examine the process, and should make changes.

But even with my fairly flexible attitude towards prizes, I think there is one factor a prize should never, ever consider when determining its winner: popularity. There has been an increasing amount of chatter, especially about the National Book Award suggesting that, in order to more faithfully reflect the will of the reading public and to stay relevant to that reading public, prizes should consider a book's popularity when deciding on their award. That chatter is wrong. Overusing “literally” and “awesome” level wrong. Here are three reasons why.

Popularity has never, ever been an indicator of quality. Ultimately, prizes are about quality. Yes, quality is subjective and yes, determination of quality is influenced by the power structure of the times, and yes, personal biases, prejudices, and grudges can compromise selection, and yes, critics and judges can be completely out of touch with the culture over which they strive to preside, but quality still exists and, even though it lacks an absolute foundation, it is important for us to pursue it. A lot of different factors go in to determining whether a book is good or not, but perhaps the only factor we can definitively say does not indicate quality, one way or the other, is popularity. Many extremely popular books are also great works of literature. Many extremely popular books are an embarrassment to the alphabet. (Which does not mean I think people shouldn't buy and read them for entertainment. Also, this is not screed against popular books.) Many extremely popular books fall somewhere in between. The point is not that there is something wrong with popularity, but that it is not relevant in deciding which book in a particular category of books is the best. And this goes for rejecting a book because of its popularity; for assuming that simply because a lot of people bought it, it must be lowest-common-denominator product.

Canadian jokes make me sad. Tout comme la vie.
Second, popular books have already won a prize. That prize is SELLING A SHITTON OF BOOKS AND BEING READ AND ENJOYED BY THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS OF READERS. (And yes, this prize does come with a cash award, generally a fucking helluva lot larger than is given out by any of the juried awards.) Why, exactly, do popular books deserve extra awards because of their popularity. It's like giving the 100 meter dash gold medalist an automatic spot in the 200 meter final. This is one of things that completely baffles me about Jennifer Weiner's insistence on coverage of popular books in The New York Times Book Review. They're already popular. They don't need more exposure. Forget about all the gender and intellectual implications of the debate for a moment; why should the NYTBR spend limited space on books everybody already knows about and are already buying by the pallet load? To me, the same logic applies to prizes.

Finally, prizes are one of the great book discovery engines. They take authors known only to the literati and make them known to the public. They catch books that have slipped through the media cracks. They create a public discussion of a book that had not had a public discussion before. In some ways, this only really half a point, because it does argue that popularity can act as a disqualifier, but I have a slightly different take on it. As I mentioned above, one of the arguments for preferring popular books in an awards process is that it makes the book more relevant to the reading culture, but what is more relevant in culture; the leader or the follower? The coolest kid in high school is the one that starts the trend, not follows it. If prizes want to be “relevant” they need to be actors, not reactors, influencing new taste, rather than responding to existing taste. For example, Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer introduced the reading public to one of the most important American authors currently writing, and made a bestseller out of an innovative work at the edge of what might be next in fiction.

Judging quality in anything is a fraught and flawed process and too often, considerations outside quality determine the winner. But just because -isms can between between the award and the quality does not mean quality should no longer be the target. Sometimes the best book in whatever the prize looks to award is already extremely popular, sometimes it's not. Sometimes a prize will turn a book into a bestseller and sometimes it won't. Sometimes a prize will be the first step in the canonization of a work or an author and sometimes it will be a product of its time and reflect a fad or trend that will baffle future generations. Prizes have their problems, but they also have their purposes. And rewarding popularity shouldn't be one of them.