Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving and Its Ordinary Weirdness

    Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and much as I love it, I would like to spend a moment dwelling on some of its peculiarities.  It is, perhaps, the most completely American holiday, in the true sense of the word.  In its oddly ecumenical way, it is truly a “holy day” with prescribed rituals, a sacral meal with defined parts, and myth of foundation.*  Yet all of these are grounded in an American mythos, in American history (not quite the same thing) and respond to both American beliefs and American anxieties.  The only other holiday which even comes close is July 4.
Where to begin?  Let’s start (and maybe end) with the Turkey.  Turkey almost certainly wasn’t the main attraction on the menu in 1621 (or in 1607, if you belong to the Jamestown school of Thanksgiving mythology).  Any poultry on those early menus was simply part of a hecatomb of game, in which red meat was probably the star attraction.
   And lets face it, Turkey is a weird bird.  We are not known, globally, as a nation of great cooks, and yet our national feast requires a main dish that is incredibly difficult to cook well. We insist on making that difficult job even harder through a set of traditions that mandate cooking the largest possible bird (which leads to  toughness and dryness) and stuffing it (which makes for tasty stuffing, but an even drier bird).  Turkey's flavor takes a little getting used to: I still vividly remember the shock, as a child, of how it looked like a gigantic chicken, but mysteriously failed to taste like one.  My favorite part of a chicken, the drumstick, was an almost inedible bundle of desiccated dark meat and mysterious splinters of bone.
     The whole Turkey train wreck serves to remind me of how out of touch, as Americans, we really are with good food.  Much has been made of how the French, in particular, don’t “get” Thanksgiving.  I can see how this would be true at every level (I can’t think of a nation less likely to fetishize thankfulness than the French), but I suspect it’s the gastronomic side of the equation that really kicks it for them.  “You have a holiday whose entire celebration is built around the food,” says my inner Frenchman (I don’t know if everyone has one of these, but I certainly do), “and the food is so… ordinary. Yams?  Stale bread? What is wrong with you people?”  There is so much fuss made over the preparation of Thanksgiving food, that we tend to forget how economical the whole thing is.  Pound for pound, turkey is a very good buy, as are yams, potatoes, squash stuffing, and all the other traditional components of a Thanksgiving meal.  Indeed, perhaps that is where and why the holiday begins to make some sense for us.  We are not thankful for what we have on Thanksgiving itself, but for what we have everyday.  The ordinariness of the meal may be a problem, gastronomically speaking, but ritually it makes perfect sense.  What a blessing it is to be allowed to consider our own plentiful lives "ordinary."

*Speaking of ecumenism, nothing irritates me more than being told to have a nice "holiday" when the holiday is Thanksgiving.  Who the f*** has a problem with Thanksgiving?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Father's Day

Let us now praise famous men, 
the ancestors in their generations. 
2 The Lord apportioned to them great glory, 
his majesty from the beginning. 
3 There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, 
and made a name for themselves by their valor; 
those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; 
those who spoke in prophetic oracles; 
4 those who led the people by their counsels 
and by their knowledge of the people's lore; 
they were wise in their words of instruction; 
5 those who composed musical tunes, 
or put verses in writing; 
6 rich men endowed with resources, 
living peacefully in their homes- 
7 all these were honored in their generations, 
and were the pride of their times. 
8 Some of them have left behind a name, 
so that others declare their praise. 
9 But of others there is no memory; 
they have perished as though they had never existed; 
they have become as though they had never been born, 
they and their children after them. 
10 But these also were godly men, 
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; 
11 their wealth will remain with their descendants, 
and their inheritance with their children's children. 
12 Their descendants stand by the covenants; 
their children also, for their sake. 
13 Their offspring will continue forever, 
and their glory will never be blotted out. 
14 Their bodies are buried in peace, 
but their name lives on generation after generation. 
15 The assembly declares their wisdom, 
and the congregation proclaims their praise.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Double Down:

This was a food review that I wrote on a whim for our school paper.  The readership seems to like it, so I thought I would post it here as well.  I'd like to thank Jacob Karlins for bringing this culinary wonder to my attention.

The new KFC Double Down seems like an exciting concept: what if you took a fast food sandwich’s least interesting component—the lousy processed bread—and replaced it with its most appealing—more meat?  These kinds of questions are how new menu items are born.
The anticipation for the sandwich was something like apocalyptic (in fact one source actually described it as a “harbinger of a breadless apocalypse” [])Words like “abomination,” “baffling,” “ominous,” “freak-show,” “deadly,” “angina,” and so on.
KFC tacitly acknowledges that the public might be skeptical.  The promotional paragraph on the KFC website begins by asserting “The new KFC Double Down sandwich is real!” which is surely the most existential statement ever made by a fast food restaurant on behalf of its product.
I too can vouch for its reality, up to a point.  On 12 April, overcome by childhood sentiment for the days when Kentucky Fried Chicken (note the lack of abbreviation) was the nearest fast-food chain to our house, I sought out my nearest KFC (which turns out to be in Danvers, where rte 35 meets 128) and ordered one.  When I arrived, I was a little nervous, since there was no sign of the major marketing blitz that I had been told of.  There were no Double Down signs, nor was it on the menu.  No “Today’s the DD Day,” hoopla.  I had to ask if they actually had the sandwich for sale, and was told, with a definite lack of enthusiasm, that they did. I bought it, and not long afterwards, I ate it, hot.
Here is where the Double Down’s touted reality begins to need qualification.  One of the great truths of fast food is that the camera always lies.  The pictures of menu items always seem to be brimming with freshness, neatly and lovingly assembled, moist where they should be moist, crispy where they should be crispy, and so forth.  Of course the sandwich that arrives is usually of a much lesser star, smushed, soggy and so forth.  With that in mind, we note that in pictures, the Double Down looks like a sandwich.  It lies flat, with its ingredients of bacon, cheese and sauce neatly arranged, and with a handy paper envelope to keep it all in place and keep hands from becoming overwhelmingly greasy.  (one commentator suggested, entertainingly, that the sandwich might be healthier if you ate the wrapper).The moment I opened my bag, it was clear that the whole “sandwich” notion was a cheerful fiction.  The handy envelope was nowhere to be found, and the chicken breasts (being pleasantly real and therefore not entirely flat) did not behave like remotely like bread, but rolled around loose in the bag.  A lonely looking strip of bacon and an ersatz-looking piece of cheddar jack seemed barely affiliated with the other ingredients.  If there was sauce, I didn’t notice it as such.
I managed to cajole the whole thing into an awkward and extremely greasy “sandwich,” however, and began to eat.  And here is the kicker: it may not be a sandwich, but it was really pretty good.  The chicken was hot and moist and juicy, and the batter it had been fried in was crispy and flavorful.  The bacon and cheese didn’t contribute much, but they didn’t detract either.  Other critics have claimed it was very salty, but no more so than any other two pieces of fried chicken. 
Of course, the Double Down is bad for your health.  Particularly if you eat a lot of processed foods or have trouble with your blood pressure, you shouldn’t go near it (and don’t think you will be any safer with the grilled version: it has even more salt and almost as much fat).  But although, calorie-wise, the Double Down is no better than a Big Mac, it isn’t any worse either.  And although I was thirsty afterwards (presumably from all that salt) I was satisfied, and had none of the queasiness that I usually experience after a fast food burger.
One still must ask the question “why?” Why have this goofy sandwich-thing? Why sell it?  But I think I have the answer.  Because it has been there all along. The Double Down could be rolled out with absolutely no changes in inventory or preparation procedures.  All the ingredients (the breasts, the cheese, the bacon, the sauce) are things that KFC already keeps on hand for other menu items.  Only the little envelope is new (and apparently optional).  Even nutritionally, the fuss seems overstated; how is this actually worse than a two or three piece chicken meal with greasy sides?  KFC has been selling that (and worse) since before this writer was born.  KFC gets to roll out an attention-grabbing new product and the only cost is promotion.  And since KFC is always running ads anyway, that isn’t really any change to its bottom line; you have got to advertise something.  So even if the whole  Double Down is a dumb idea, and disappears as quickly (and with less fanfare) than it arrived, it is still kind of smart.  Will I order another Double Down?  Probably not.  But I walked into a KFC for the first time in 20 years to try one.  Isn’t that probably what they were after?
The Double Down in its Platonic form, as represented on the KFC website, with handy wrapper, neat assembly, and a plate.  A plate?  Mine came in a bag.

The Double Down as it exists in the material world.  Note its difficulty hanging together as a “sandwich.”

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Views I Left Behind Me...

This entry is more than twice as long as it ought to be.  I try to keep my blog pieces under 500 words, and this is more than double that.  I have been carrying it around in my head since Saturday, through the frenzy of Easter and an ensuing all-family gastric flu of epic intensity.  So please bear with me on its length.  Or read half now and come back to it later.  Or, you know, don't read it at all.  That's ok too.

I just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s gripping Under the Banner of Heaven. It isn’t a new book, of course.  I think for a long time I thought it was about Al Quaeda; only in the last year or so did I realize it was actually about polygamist mormon factions.  Naturally, when I found that out, I became interested in reading it at once.
Really, I don’t think the confusion is accidental.  Joseph Smith Jr is compared more than once in the book to Mohammed, and the violence and fanaticism described among the most militant persons in the book is compared to that of jihadis.  And, despite the objections of the mainline Mormon church (who are not really the subject of the book at all), I think the comparisons are apt.  The real subject of the book, according to Krakauer, is “violent faith.”
Krakauer says early on that his main concern and interest is with religion’s capacity to fuel and justify horrifying acts.  In the prologue, after detailing the gruesome double murder which acts as the centerpiece of the overall narrative, he writes: “There is a dark side to religious devotion which is too often ignored or denied.  As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane—as a means to inciting evil…—there may be no more potent force than religion.”  Later on, as one of the many many epigraphs that appear before and between the book’s various chapters and parts there is a long passage from Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian” which is a pretty vicious attack on religion, blaming organized religion for opposing “every moral progress that has been in the world.”  Krakauer’s tone is normally more moderate than this (in a strained sort of way), and I find it hard to understand his inclusion of this passage, except that on some level, he must agree with it, and wanted to let Russell say what he felt he could not.
I used to agree with this passage too—and let me note how odd it is to stumble across the sort of thing that one used to believe and no longer does.  I would have proudly brandished the name of Bertrand Russell as proof of both my own smartness and the incontrovertabality of my point. When I was fifteen, sixteen years old, it really did seem as if many of the most dreadful deeds ever done—perhaps all of them—had been done in the name of God.  There were a few things I didn’t know of course.  I didn’t know that Hitler was an atheist, along with the rest of his inner circle.  I didn’t know about Pol Pot.  I was just learning about Robespierre and Danton and Stalin.  All these guys probably would have thought Bertrand Russell was right on the money, and Bertrand Russell would have been horrified.
So that’s problem number one with Russell’s assertion (and the strongly implied assumption of Krakauer’s book): you don’t need to be religious, in Russell’s or Krakauer’s sense of the word, to be an instrument of unimaginable violence and fanaticism.  Yes, there are plenty of examples of religious fanaticism gone off the deep end; but, arguably, history’s most spectacular crimes have been committed by atheists in the name of various non-religious idols: race theory, communism, nationalism, fascism.
The flip side of this is a failure to credit religion with any positive achievements at all.  Russell was writing in 1927, so the world had not yet witnessed the American Civil Rights movement, a movement which only began to gain serious traction when led from the pulpit.  Russell explicitly credits Christian churches with aiding and abetting the institution of slavery (which is fair), but neglects to mention the equally crucial role of the church in creating and sustaining abolitionism.  Although Americans across the political spectrum have become accustomed, over the last thirty years, to seeing religion as a pretty narrowly conservative force, traditionally the role of religion in all areas of American moral and political life has been much more complex and nuanced.  By contrast, the places where science has been co-opted to create new moral philosophies have resulted in neither good morality nor good science (social Darwinism anyone?).  The more you think about it (the more I think about it, anyway), it isn’t so much that the worst thing about humanity is religion (or government, or nationalism, or ideology, or any one thing).  The problem with humanity is that we are human.   And most of those other things (government, nationalism, religion) have developed as attempts to deal with that fundamental problem of trying to make us better than we are.  Who really thinks it would be a good idea if we stopped trying?
As an author, Krakauer is drawn to both extremism and extreme situations.  Even a glancing acquaintance with his other works makes it clear that his reputation is built on that.  And the combination of religion and extremism is powerful stuff, frightening even when it does no harm.  The New England colonies owed their existence and survival to it, and bemoaned the loss of that early fervor for two generations, before slipping quietly into Unitarianism.  Krakauer rightly describes extremist zeal as a kind of high.  And one of the things Krakauer astutely notes about extremism and the exaltation it brings, is a marked diminishment of empathy on the part of extremists.
Krakauer is not a Richard Dawkins or a Christopher Hitchens, pouring scorn on the benighted believers in religions of all stripes.  Although he admits that he has not found a religious creed that fits him, and although it is clear that some elements of faith baffle and even horrify him, he has too much empathy himself to be a kind of anti-religious zealot.  And empathy, and the compassion that goes with empathy—I have not yet seen or heard of a religion that doesn’t hold that as a central tenet.  In Christianity it is a key component of the Golden Rule.  “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”  What is that but a call to empathy?  “Love one another as I have loved you.” What is that but a call to compassion?  It is religion that provides us with a meaningful moral compass with which to condemn the very religious excesses that Krakauer describes, even if that moral code has been more or less desacralized. So in the face of the horrors that Krakauer chronicles, committed in the name of faith, I am disappointed a little at his unwillingness to discriminate, to note that faith (or a perversion of it) leads some to do terrible things; but not to embrace a little more warmly than he does, that faith (as the Greeks used to say of Eros) is also a builder of cities.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Playing Mad Libs in the Car, On the Way to Manhattan

CATHY: So Oliver, we need a verb.  That is a "doing word."

OLIVER: I know what a verb is mom.  I have mastered that already.

ME: What did you say?

OLIVER: I have mastered verbs already.  You don't need to tell me what they are any more.

CATHY: Oh OK.  So. give me a verb.

OLIVER: [Pause]  Volcano.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Updates From the Anglican Wars

An editorial in today's NY Times draws attention to the movement afoot in Uganda to impose the death penalty for homosexual behavior. The Times suggests that this move is less than enlightened, and I would expect even my more conservative readers (do I have any conservative readers?) to agree that this is, shall we say, an extreme position.

Uganda rang some other bells for me though. Oh yes—the Anglican Church of Uganda has been aiding dissident American Episcopalians. Almost a third of Ugandans are Anglican, and it is a big thriving growing church, like a lot of the African churches. They are biblical and energetic and exciting, three words not normally applied to the American Episcopal Church.  And it must be empowering for Ugandans to offer assistance to a bunch of really affluent Americans, rather than the other way around.

So I have these friends and acquaintances who belong to various breakaway Episcopal/Anglican congregations. And they often have told me that the rift isn't really about Gene Robinson or about Homosexuality (sometimes they look uncomfortable and say "it's complicated"). They claim their disaffection is about God, and scripture, and really believing in something, and really standing for something. Not being wishy-washy and "do whatever you feel." I can respect a certain amount of that. But when you choose to affiliate yourself with people who believe that homosexuality is a crime punishable by death, then I think it is time to ask who the real heretics are here. No doubt people will cite the book of Leviticus or the story of Sodom and Gomorrah or an epistle where Paul is "down on homosexuality." But Anglicans are supposed to be against the death penalty, period. And Jesus is supposed to have brought us a New Covenant. The New Covenant allows us to eat pork, and be uncircumcised, and get haircuts, and all sorts of other nice things. Wouldn't it allow people to, you know, be gay without being executed for it? It seems to me that it would.

So I am thinking these schismatics, to whom I have been (or tried to be) sympathetic in my disagreement, maybe don't deserve as much sympathy as I thought. Maybe they really are just so many rabid homophobe heretics. And maybe the rest of the Episcopal church is better off without them.