Saturday, December 31, 2005

What exactly is a new year, anyway?

In just over fifteen minutes, and in fact less by the time I'll have completed this entry, it'll be "the new year," 2006. I suppose we need these arbitrary measures of the passage of time, and as far as that goes, calling a year by any particular number would be as good as any other, as long as enough of us use the same number to make it a convenient common measure. But really, how is January 1st in any way a rational time, seasonally speaking, or in any other way, to declare it the new year? It's not the beginning of Winter, nor the end of Winter. It's not the beginning of any season. It's not the beginning of anything, except the so-called new year. Call me contrarian, but I frankly just don't get it.

Lauren's folks call New Year's Eve "Amateur Night," which I think needs no explanation. I had a phone call from my friend Annie around 10 (she's back East, so for her it was already 2006 and 1/8,760th). During our hour-long conversation, I saw three cars careen through the parking lot here in Speedbumpville, one of them turning sharply and too quickly into a parking spot and not stopping until it hit the curb. I'm glad we opted for an evening of game-playing, music, George Carlin, and of course the traditional New Year's Eve chicken tacos.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Slowly, the food paper progresses

Today I finished reading Carlo Petrini's Slow Food, which gives a history and account of the principles of the Slow Food movement. It has an unearned reputation of being conservative, in part because it emphasizes restoring cultural traditions. But the originators of the movement were far-lefties, and their program might best be described as anarcho-hedonic consumer protection. It's an odd mix, but tied extremely well to the centrality of taste and of the pleasures of the table.

Here's Petrini's account of the supermarket:
Whether it is the season for them or not, there you will find strawberries in winter, pears in the springtime, apples at midsummer, and currants in the autumn. Somewhere in the world, less than twenty-four hours away by air, it is always the right season. Along with these eternal first fruits, we find cheeses and cured meats that seem to come from every corner of the earth (whether they really do or not) on the shelves of small stores and supermarkets. (p. 55)

Our eating habits are both reflected and shaped by grocery stores. What they present to us is an "El Dorado" (Petrini again) of what seems like the greatest possible variety of foods, of consistent quality, healthfulness, color, etc. Shopping in a grocery store trains us to think of food as nothing but a commodity, and its place of origin as nowhere other than the store. A reasonable and expected answer to a question like "where did you get these apples?" is something like "Safeway." Not Washington, or Oregon, or Alberta, or New Zealand, or Timbuktu. The availability of these commodities safely hides their place of origin (which, I suppose in response to some legal requirement, grocery chains now do print on labels in the produce aisle, often in tiny print). We're given little chance, and no reason, to question their origin. Nor their actual quality, healthfulness, nutritive value, or anything else. And we also accept, through the implicit acquiescence of our purchases, the bald-faced lies told to us in the grocery store - for instance, that the wax coating every goddamn piece of fruit or vegetable is to "protect freshness."

We frequent farmer's markets and fruit stands, but we also live in the Central Valley. There's simply no way to compare the fruits and veggies from the stands to what comes from the grocery store, even the "organic" stuff.

In my mind, there's a clear political and moral issue here. We're a society that feeds ourselves crap, to the great benefit of large and multinational corporations. We've become tricked somehow into accepting this as normal, and many of us are stuck with no other options. When I realize I have to consider myself lucky to be able to get good produce, locally grown, in season (at all, let alone for seven months of the year), and when I realize how few Americans eat fresh fruit and vegetables in the first place, I'm disgusted by what Big Food has done to us, and I'm saddened that the lovely tastes I routinely enjoy are out of reach for so many, especially when that's by choice or habit.

Somebody (maybe John Rawls?) once said that a good way to measure the justice of a society is to look at how it treats its poorest and most wanting members. Perhaps a better way is to look at how it feeds itself.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"Your car is from the future!"

I bought a Jetta!

It's silver, which is one of the colors I had forsworn. However, I got it around $1500 under the asking price. I got the car I wanted, for the price I wanted, just in a color I didn't want (I wanted the "blue graphite"). I'm financing it through VW at 4.5%, which seems decent.

I've never owned a new car before. I've also never owed this much on a car before. The first of these facts thrills me; the second disconcerts.

So after I take the car to a few live music shows, everything should be fine.

(Oh dear, I seem to have caused grievous injury to my loveliest Lauren with that last pun. However, the quotation that serves as this entry's title was her joke, seeing as the Jetta is a 2006. See, it's December 27, 2005? It's not 2006 yet? So the car, a 2006 Jetta, is a car whose official date is not this year but the next year, being the one proximately following this? To wit: 2006, being not 2005, but in point of fact a year further ahead than 2005, is in fact, from the point of view of those living in 2005, a date in the future, being that time which has not yet transpired. Hence, the 2006 Jetta, dated 2006, not 2005, is not a 2005. It is, if you follow, thus a car whose model year is 2006, not 2005, ergo a date in the future.)

(I could clarify this further upon request. But I should warn that there's all kinds of astronomical facts and theories involved. It's really quite complicated. A background in Einstein's General and Special Theories of Relativity would be advisable.)

What she said, to be technical, was "Your car is a 2006. But it's not 2006 yet...! Your car is from the future!" (She said it in italics.)

More later, possibly the beast's name, if that occurs to me, and maybe including pictures, although you've seen a silver Jetta before if you're not living under a rock. And if you're living under a rock, what the hell are you doing with Internet access?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Report from Mickey D's

I survived, but only barely. I did in fact become ill after consuming a Quarter Pounder Meal (TM). I've written up some of our observations, to begin the phenomenological account of taste. A couple characteristics really struck us.

First, the Quarter Pounder, and indeed the fries, dissolved more than needed to be chewed. As Lauren put it, the füd can't be masticated. Plus, it dissolves into little fine particles, of more or less identical size and shape, which, while not dry, aren't exactly textured the way whole food or cooked meat is. When you really pay attention to that, it's rather disconcerting.

Second, every bite, and every element of every bite, has the same, even, uniform flavor. It's as though every part of the sandwich, including the bun and the chopped onion, has taken on the overall flavor of the whole thing. Of course, you learn, as a cook, to "marry" flavors, for instance in beouf bourguignonne, where the mushrooms, the beef, the little onions, all take on the flavors of one another and of the wine and stock. But this is something different - the burger doesn't taste like a burger, onions, pickle, etc., married together, but like a McDonald's burger, which is a taste all its own, and not one clearly related to the constituent part of which the thing is supposedly made. (It doesn't taste like beef, for example. Nor does it smell like beef.)

These experiences probably hit me harder than they would most observers, because I so rarely eat any pre-made food of any kind, other than bread. Some would say it makes me a snob, but I don't really see it that way. I don't like pre-made food, and regard it as in general less healthy (and the 1440 mg of salt in the Quarter Pounder meal, to say nothing of the cholesterol and trans fats, back me up on that). But it truly is a matter of my sense of a good life and good health. I feel healthier when I eat food cooked at home; I like to cook my own food; I think it's cheaper, even when I get fine ingredients; I don't use much salt; I produce food that I like, to my own tastes.

After reading most of another chapter of Henri Lefevbre's Everyday Life in the Modern World, it's tempting to go into the notions of "satisfaction" and "pleasure," and perhaps in the paper I'll do that, to discuss Slow Food. I don't know to what extent I'd accept any of this as grounds of serious claims of superior enjoyableness for one kind of food or another. I'm not meaning to say anyone who enjoys a Quarter Pounder is a barbarian and incapable of gastronomic judgment. After all, my pal Imj ("The Most Optimistic Man in a McDonald's, Ever") Williams does Mickey D's, with gusto, and is also, among my friends and acquaintances, the one whose capacities for taste pleasure, discernment, distinction, and all the other arts of gourmandism most closely rivals mine. (See, now that's a snobbish thing to say.)

I realize that in part it's a matter of what you put into the experience. But that's the real point I think I want to get at: not that McDonald's füd is bad, or that my food is necessarily better (according to my tastes, it is, I'll cop to that), but that McDonald's füd attenuates experience. Don't call it bad or good, call it standarized. That has fairly important implications for developing aesthetic and gastronomic judgments, or for being able to take pleasure in food.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

We're going to McDonald's today - ugh.

A couple years ago I committed to putting together an anthology on food and philosophy with my Finnish pal Matti Itkonen. That time has arrived. Unfortunately, my plan for a paper involves a comparative phenomenological account of two meals - one fast food, another slow food. I'll get to the slow food stuff another day. As for today, the plan is to go to a McDonald's, maybe around 2, and order and eat some manner of food (or, as we call such fare, "food with an umlaut," or "füd"). The things I do for art.

Maybe, instead, we'll go to a VW dealer so I can test drive a Jetta, the car I've just recently become obsessed with buying. I can't actually buy anything at the moment, but the 1999 Neon which doesn't make that high-pitched whining sound (dealers and repair shops have steadfastly sworn to this) now consists of nothing but high-pitched whining sounds. Now, I'm as weird as the next guy, but even I have a limit of tolerance. Plus, frankly, I suspect that high-pitched whining sounds have rotten side-impact collision ratings.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Dinner report

It turned out to be six courses. I didn't take any pictures, but I'll describe a coupla things.

The first courses were two hors-d'oeuvres: a grilled tomato with mozzarella browned on top of it, and little tartlets with fennel, raddichio, feta, green onions, and a savory custard. There then followed the soup course, a light consomme made with lamb and beef stock (the beef stock, I confess, was store-bought; when I make beef stock, it's with the intention of making demi-glace, so it doesn't stay beef stock for long).

Then the entree - sauteed shrimp with beurre blanc. The beurre blanc came out wonderfully, and the shrimp loved it. Lauren had had the idea, and didn't quite insist on it at the grocery store. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do otherwise, so we bought 9 big shrimp and I went for the beurre blanc. (Beurre blanc is what happens when you take shallots, simmer them in vinegar and wine until there's just a couple tablespoons of liquid left, then whisk in about a stick of butter. That probably sounds like a heart attack in convenient sauce form to lots of people, but if you only spoon out a dram of it onto shrimp, the cardiac effects aren't that great a consideration compared to what you get to eat. Life is always full of compromises like this. Get used to it.) I had also tossed a little saffron onto the shrimp, but I'm not sure what impact that had other than to be cute red threads.

Then the salad course, a simple one: romaine and arugula, a little more raddichio, and pine nuts, dressed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. When you're eating six courses, simple salads and soups seem like a great idea. I mean, I'm not trying to kill anybody.

Finally, the main course, roast leg of lamb, mashed blue potatoes (they come out periwinkle colored, very amusing), and roasted vegetables. The lamb was overdone, by which I mean it was cooked through, which we tend not to like around here.

Lauren ground some decaf coffee with a bunch of spices, which is delicious even to someone like me who prefers coffee black and spoon-dissolving. We drank that, I played a couple songs fairly badly, we talked of the traumas of the semester past and our hopes for semesters yet to come (or, in Lauren's case, possibly not to come, at least, not at Cow State Santa Claus).

I think the shrimp was the best thing.

Now, we're going to Lopez Imports. I'm not sure how you can make money importing Lopezes, but I don't have much of a head for business anyway.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

That strange feeling

I'm not enitrely sure I'm well. You know the feeling - I don't exactly fit together properly, I'm drifting through the day, etc. Personally, I blame grading.

And yes, I'm grading. I'm grading like there's no tomorrow. But there is a tomorrow, and tomorrow is the absolute end of it. We're leaving when Lauren's final is over, to acquire foodstuffs to cook up a whiz-bang supper for Valerie, with all of the potential food-porn ramifications that entails. Gonna try to do something frou-frou.

That's about as in-depth as my consciousness can get at the moment. Just a few more tonight, please, brain?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

My new laptop

I got a new laptop. I'll give a brief account of it in convenient, E-Z-2-read Q&A format:

Q: What kind of laptop did you get?
A: I gots me a G4 iBook.

Q: What?? A friggin' Mac?
A: Yep. Call me weird, -

Q: You're weird!
A: Stop that. I say, call me weird, but my three-year-old laptop running Windows XP and freezing up every hour, especially when I'm trying to do something especially taxing to it, like print a document, was getting pretty damn boring.

Q: Why not one of them super-cool titanium PowerBooks?
A: Because they're $600 more, and the extra power is probably not something I need.

Q: Oh, you think so?
A: Yes, I do. Isn't that obvious?

Q: Who's asking the questions here?
A: That wasn't a question, it was more of a rhetorical threat.

Q: Oh yeah?
A: Look, I've had it with you. I have papers to grade.

Q: Are you going to continue using the E-Z-2-Read Q&A format in your blog?
A: Heck no. You've cured me of that particular impulse. Jerk.

Q: Neener-neener-neener!
A: Grow up, man.


Q: Hey! Come back here!

Q: Wuss! Come on and fight me, if you don't like it!


Q: Huh. He really left. Oh well. Dum-de-dum-de-dum-dum... Crap, no more orange juice! He left the empty carton in the fridge!

Friday, December 09, 2005

United States of Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart is objecting to a campaign, apparently funded by unions, which raises the theological question of whether Jesus would approve of Wal-Mart's policies.

I do enjoy the effort of some to suggest that profiteering isn't exactly Christian, but I think it never goes far enough. I know I heard and read dozens of times that a rich person has as much chance of reaching heaven as a camel has of passing through the eye of a needle. Whatever it means in terms of commerce as a fundamental means of organizing production and consumption, it's a fascinating notion for thinking about the nature of happiness and salvation (even for someone like me who doesn't believe in salvation).

So, while I chuckle whenever anyone makes fun of Wal-Mart, it seems to me the real message is to ask the reflective question of my own complicity. I didn't spend Thursday picketing in front of retail outlets; I spent Thursday roaming around inside them, buying goodies for Christmas. I'm involved.

Still, in all, hee-hee.

A brief note on December 7

I realize this is a couple days late, but I didn't get around to posting it on December 7th.

That afternoon I spent some time in my office, hitting the "next blog" button on the top of Blogger pages, to get an unscientific survey of what's out there. I kept coming across references to Pearl Harbor, since, of course, it was December 7th, the anniversary of the attack in 1941. But I didn't come across any references to December 7, 1975, which is the date of the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia, and the start of a campaign that killed, conservatively, over a hundred thousand East Timorese. The invasion is subject of media criticism controversy, since the story was barely covered in US news media, while the Khmer Rouge killings in Cambodia were covered extensively. The key difference in the two stories, according to many media critics, was that Indonesia was a client nation of the US, and incidentally a major trading partner, and Cambodia was a communist bloc nation.

Anyway, here's a piece from Democracy Now about December 7.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Mainly relief

Yesterday I got divorced. It was messy; it was ugly; it was all a divorce should be, I suppose. So I'm relieved it's over, and I can get on with my life. There's plenty to say about how this is going to be perceived, who will say what about it or about me. The fact of the matter is that I walked away with a chunk less share of community property than was my legal right.

And what did I go and do, the very next morning, completely unable to restrain myself? I went and bought a new car! And here it is:

I've been wanting to make a joke like that for a looooong time.