A Record of Sticking Places
In September, Lauren Berlant wrote the following description of writing on her blog, Supervalent Thought:
Most of the writing we do is actually a performance of stuckness. It is a record of where we got stuck on a question for long enough to do some research and write out the whole knot until the original passion and curiosity that made us want to try to say something about something got so detailed, buried, encrypted, and diluted that the energetic and risk-taking impulse became sealed and delivered in the form of a defense against thinking any more about it. Along the way, something might have happened to the scene the question stood for: or not.
At first, I thought of that as something that applied only to “serious” writing—to articles or book chapters that unfold over months or years. But in retrospect, I think it’s actually one of the reasons I started this blog: to have a place to delve (even if only shallowly) into the kinds of questions that were distracting me from writing my dissertation and then seal them up so they’d stop cluttering my thought process. At some point in the process of writing most of the longer, essayish posts, I get sick of the topic and just want to be done with it. So I finish it, and even if I haven’t entirely resolved the question I started with, I feel released from thinking about it at least for a while.
However, the blog hasn’t quite had the intended effect of freeing me up to write the dissertation because, unsurprisingly, getting mentally “free” takes up a lot of the time and energy I ought to be spending on that other, more important “performance of stuckness.” And the whole idea of having a mentally “clean slate” before I deal with my dissertation was probably always a hopeless ambition.
So this part of the retrospective on the year is also a sort of penitent offering to anyone who’s come to appreciate or even maybe expect this kind of content. In the next six months, I need to finish and defend and submit my dissertation. Also, I’m getting married. Between the two, I’m probably not going to have the time to do a lot of longer posts on culture/history/politics. I’m toying with the idea of taking excerpts from the dissertation and editing them into blog-friendly essays on the weekends. But in case I don’t end up having the time to post much of anything substantial for at least the first half of 2011 and that makes you sad, maybe there will be something here that you missed or might be interested in revisiting.
Hipsters on Food Stamps—A three-part look at the bogus “trend” piece published last March in Salon about college-educated people using food stamps to buy organic, ethnic, and otherwise non-subsistence-diet foods and what it says about food & social class in America:
Part I: The New Generation of Welfare Queens—A critique of the article that places it in the longer history of concern about how the poor eat
Part II: Who Deserves Public Assistance?—An analysis of the comments and some of the myths about social class and poverty in America they reflect
Part III: Damned If You Do-ritos and Damned If You Don’t—An attempt to explain the contradictory trends of patronizing vs. romanticizing the poor and how they eat and what kinds of contemporary anxieties the bogus trend of hipsters on food stamps might be a response to
Responses to Food, Inc.—Posts related to the film (and the broader agendas it gave voice to) and how they distort the picture of the American food system and confused their audience.
Part I: No Bones in the Supermarket—An interrogation of the film’s premise that “looking” at the food system will lead everyone to the same conclusion
Part II: Is the Food More Dangerous?—The film suggests that industrial animal agriculture is responsible for the deadly strain of e coli that killed at least one innocent child, but it turns out that’s not true. Grass-fed cattle have less generic, harmless e coli but the same prevalence of 0157:H7.
Price, Sacrifice, and the Food Movement’s “Virtue” Problem—Why a food “movement” predicated on spending more or making sacrifices is necessarily limited to the privileged few.
The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig—Why not every farm animal can or should be “grass fed,” and the ecological argument for vegetarianism.
The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig, Part II: Cornphobia—On the epidemic of irrational fears about corn inspired by Michael Pollan’s books and the documentaries he has appeared in.
Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-Aid—Why agave nectar isn’t “natural,” healthy, or (probably) more delicious than other sweeteners.
Part I: Natural, My Foot—Agave nectar isn’t an “ancient sweetener” used by Native Americans, it was invented in the 1990s and involves a process almost identical to the one used to make High Fructose Corn Syrup.
Part II: What’s Wrong With Any High-Fructose Sweetener—Why agave nectar, with up to 90% fructose, isn’t a healthier substitute for sugar.
Part III: The Mint Julep Taste Test and Calorie Comparison—The results of a comparison between agave and simple syrup-sweetened mint juleps and some number crunching that shows you could theoretically cut a small number of calories by substituting agave for sugar, but not if you use the recommended amount, which is calorically identical.
Why Posting Calorie Counts Won’t Work—Calorie counts are already appearing on menus across the country, and will soon be required for most chains. This series explores why they won’t make Americans thinner or healthier.
Introduction—A brief run-down of the reasons I don’t think the policy will work as intended.
Part I: The Number Posted is Often Wrong—What you see on the label is not always what you get, and the difference isn’t entirely random.
Part II: Most People Don’t Know How Many Calories They Burn—The problem of calorie ignorance isn’t one that can be fixed with an educational campaign—people don’t know how many calories they burn because they can’t know, because it changes, especially if they change their diets.
Part III: Calorie-restriction Dieting Doesn’t Work Long Term—A meta-literature review of three decades of research on calorie-restriction weight loss that shows again and again that by far the most common result of dieting is weight loss followed by regain. And an explanation of why the National Weight Loss Control Registry isn’t a representative sample.
When What I Want Isn’t What I Want: Temptation and Disordered Thinking/Eating—Not about nutrition, but about mental health and how easy it is to fall into into negative thought patterns about food and body image, even if you think you’re “beyond” all that
Salt Headlines That Make the Vein in My Forehead Throb—Irresponsible news media reporting about public health research, and especially comparisons between the relative merits of cutting salt and quitting smoking, may be hazardous to my health
Stop Serving Assemblyman Felix Ortiz Salt in Any Form—A plea to the restaurateurs of New York to teach Mr. Ortiz a lesson handed down from fairytales about what it would be like to eat food without salt.
Things that Won’t Kill You Volume IV: Saturated Fat, Part II: Cholesterol Myths—No one, not even Ancel Keys, ever thought you should avoid dietary cholesterol. Volumes I: High Fructose Corn Syrup, II: Fruit Juice, III: MSG, and IV: Saturated Fat Part I went up in 2009.
Things That Might Kill You Volume I : Trans-fats—Why you might want to avoid trans fats, including things with “0 grams of trans fats per serving,” which still contain potentially non-trivial amounts.
HFCS Follow-up: What the Rats at Princeton Can and Can’t Tell US—A review of the study claiming rats consuming HFCS gained more weight than rats consuming table sugar
Food Policy & Politics
You’re All Good Eggs: New research shows that specialty eggs aren’t any better for the environment or more delicious—A review of the evidence for and against specialty eggs, concluding that they might be marginally more humane but come at an environmental cost.
Good Egg Update: Someone’s Keeping Score—Explaining the Cornucopia Institute’s guide to specialty eggs
A Food Policy & Politics Christmas Wish List—Seven things that might improve the U.S. food system
Who Says Robots Can’t Taste? On Cooking Robots and Electronic Noses—A survey of cooking robots and anxieties about electronic incursions on the acts of cooking and eating
The first three listed below were stand-alone posts without recipes. The others were also collected in the 2010 recipe retrospective, but I thought they might merit inclusion here, too, because they involved some research beyond just looking at a few recipes and cooking something.
The Sweet Science of Artichokes—Why they make things taste sweet after you eat them
Morel Time in Michigan—How to identify morels and tell them apart from vague look-a-likes.
Meet the Paw-Paw, aka the Michigan Banana—A tropical fruit for the American midwest, with its very own Johnny Appleseed.
Two on the Tomato: The Official Verdict in the Fruit v. Vegetable Debate and The Case For Tomatoes as Dessert—On the Supreme Court case that ruled tomatoes a “vegetable,” and why there’s still a debate about them even though there are lots of other “vegetables” that are botanically fruits. And how to use them to substitute for sweeter fruits in dessert recipes.
Cheddar-Garlic Biscuits: In Defense of Garlic Powder—Why garlic powder is so maligned, and a culinary defense.
Jonathan Franzen and Joël Robuchon-inpspired Rutabaga Purée—On the root vegetable’s biggest fans (some of whom use it as a curling rock), its many detractors, and its supporting role in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections.
Now in Season: Sour Cherry Pie—What makes sour cherries different from normal pie cherries, and the science of flaky pie crusts.
Deviled Eggs with Saffron Aioli—On the history of deviled eggs and why saffron is so expensive.
Pork Chops with Cider Reduction and Greens—A review of several theories on why pork is so often prepared or paired with apples.
Recipes with History
These were all in the recipe round-up, but again, they have something to offer aside from cooking instruction. New annotations to explain what else you might learn there.
Benedictines and Pimento Cheese Sandwiches for Derby Day—On Miss Jennie Carter Benedict of Louisville, Kentucky and the shaping of an “American” cuisine for the emerging middle class
Jook (Chicken and Rice Porridge)—On the cross-cultural phenomenon of prescribing bone broths and particularly chicken broth-based soups as a healing or restorative food.
Lemon and Herb Chicken Drumsticks—On the history of Labor Day and the relationship between food and holidays
Sourdough-risen Whole Wheat Bagels and the Sweetness of the Old World—On the fetishization of a humble roll with a hole, its origins in the Jewish diaspora and why you don’t have to use “malt extract” to make it authentic (but why some people think you do).
Introducing Ezekiel and How and Why to Make a Sourdough Starter—A brief history of sourdough starters and why so many of them are named “Herman.”
Buckeyes, Shmuckeyes, or if you prefer, Peanut Butter Bon-Bons—How buckeyes became Ohioan and Ohioans became buckeyes, starring General Ebenzer Sproat and President William Henry Harrison.
Sourdough English Muffins: Of nooks and crannies and double-entendres—Muffin nationalism explained, and also how muffin became a slang term for women and various parts of their anatomy.
American Pumpernickel—Devil’s Fart Bread! The history of Old World and New World rye breads.
Baguettes, regular or whole wheat—On the history and Frenchification of long, skinny, crusty loaves of bread.
A Sourdough-risen Challah Trinity: Braid, Loaf, Knot—The history of challah from tithing to the temple to European decorative braided breads.
Homemade Peeps and Chocolate-covered Marshmallow Eggs—On this history of the candy, from the therapeutic uses of the mallow flower to the contemporary, mallow-less confection.