Thursday, July 8, 2010


The metaphor is usually one of speed: fast food has ruined our culture, slow food will save it (and is the rallying manifesto for the movement of the same name, based in Bra, in northern Italy.) You see the metaphor’s appeal. But it obscures a fundamental problem, which has little to do with speed and everything to do with size. Fast food did not ruin our culture. The problem was already in place, systemic in fact, and began the moment food was treated like an inanimate object – like any other commodity – that could be manufactured in increasing numbers to satisfy a market. In effect, the two essential players in the food chain (those who make the food and those who buy it) swapped roles. One moment the producer (the guy who knew his cows or the woman who prepared culatello only in January of the old young man who picks his olives in September) determined what was available and how it was made. The next moment it was the consumer. The Maestro blames the supermarkets, but the supermarkets are just a symptom. (Or, to invoke a familiar piece of retail philosophy: the world changed when the food business agreed that the customer was right, when, as we all know, the customer is actually – well, not always right.) What happened in the food business has occurred in every aspect of modern life, and the change has produced many benefits. I like island holidays and flat-screen televisions and have no argument with global market economics, except in this respect – in what it has done to food.

When I started, I hadn’t wanted a restaurant. What I wanted was the know-how of people who ran restaurants. I didn’t want to be a chef: just a cook. And my experiences in Italy taught my why. For millennia, people have known how to make their food. They have understood animals and what to do with them, have cooked with the seasons and had a farmer’s knowledge of the way the planet works. They have preserved traditions of preparing food, handed down through generations, and have come to know them as expressions of their families. People don’t have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth, and, it’s true, those who do have it tend to be professionals – like chefs. But I don’t want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human.

From Heat (An amateur’s adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany) by Bill Buford.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Seafood...for Lent!

I was exhausted, yet lured to a Hornets basketball game by my sister with the promise of a shrimp basket: about 15 small lightly fried shrimp served over a generous handful of warm, salty French fries. (We lost to the Denver Nuggets in the last four minutes, ugh.) I hadn’t prepared anything for dinner, so I knew AV would be left to his own devices with some pasta and canned tuna. Turns out, he went over to the nearby market and picked up some fried catfish, bypassing the huge containers of boiled shrimp and crawfish for sale that a lot of people pick up on their way home from work. That is, if they don’t go out to eat at one of the hundreds of seafood restaurants around.

And thus, we perform our Lenten sacrifice of abstaining from meat.

I grew up in New Orleans, and as long as I can remember, Fridays during Lent were always days that we’d go out for dinner to a nearby seafood restaurant and have po-boys. I think it’s safe to say many New Orleanians eat better on Fridays during Lent than they do any other time of the year. Sure, great seafood is available year-round here, but there’s just something about the exhortation to avoid meat on Fridays that inspires even the most devout to interpret it as a command to chow down on a $20 seafood platter, including soft-shell crab.

Deanie’s Restaurant in Bucktown, not far from where we live, is usually not wait-for-a-table crowded on a Friday night until about 6:30. But Fridays in Lent roll around, and it’s jam-packed at 5:30. Usually, you can have a pleasant lunch at New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company on Fridays. Not during Lent. The whole parking lot is completely packed, with people parallel parking on the side streets. Obviously, people have been watching their commercials, and know that this restaurant claims to be “Your Seafood Authority…For Lent!”

Then there are the church Friday Fish Frys. Our church has added a drive through service, so that you never have to leave your car to get that fried shrimp or catfish platter. My parents’ church is offering an even greater spread: an assortment of menu choices. According to my sister, you can choose from: boiled shrimp Caesar salad, grilled shrimp Caesar salad, shrimp basket, fish basket, and the seafood platter. You also have a choice of sides: macaroni and cheese, potato salad, cole slaw, green beans, sweet potato. All the choices come with hush puppies. And that’s just if your go through their “drive-through.” If you get out of your car and walk into the Church hall, you also get a drink and your choice of dessert for free. As my mom says, “there’s a lot of competition around here between the churches for Friday fish frys!” I had a suggestion: “First 50 people to Stations of the Cross get $1 off their seafood platter!” I think lots of people would like that promotion.

There’s no lecture here. I like that people go a bit seafood-insane on Fridays during Lent in N.O. (Cue a line: “N.O. will look for any excuse to party, even the Lord’s 40 days of fasting in the desert.”) I have always remembered Jesus’ sacrifice while I’m chewing on a shrimp tail on a Lenten Friday evening. It’s a tradition, and a reminder of our humanity. We could make ourselves look glum like the Pharisees, or we could enjoy a nicely seasoned, lightly breaded soft-shell crab. I’ll choose the latter every time.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Who is Andy Warhol?

From the review What is an Andy Warhol in the NY Review of Books.

...Warhol realized that you don't need to make art for an audience brought up on film and television in the way Kenneth Clark defined art. [Marilyn Monroe] and [Warhol] grasped that in the modern world, presentation counts for more than substance. The less you do, the greater may be the impact....

A silk-screened image is flat, and without depth or volume. This perfectly suited Warhol because in painting Marilyn Monroe he wasn't painting a woman of flesh, blood, and psychological complexity but a publicity photograph of a commodity created in a Hollywood studio. As Colin Clark's anecdote suggests, you can't look at Warhol's Marilyn in the same way that you look at a painting by Rembrandt or Titian because Warhol isn't interested in any of the things those artists were—the representation of material reality, the exploration of character, or the creation of pictorial illusion.

Warhol asked different questions about art. How does it differ from any other commodity? What value do we place on originality, invention, rarity, and the uniqueness of the art object? To do this he revisited long-neglected artistic genres such as history painting in his disaster series, still life in his soup cans and Brillo boxes, and the society portrait in Ethel Scull Thirty-Six Times. Though Warhol isn't always seen as a conceptual artist, his most perceptive critic, Arthur C. Danto, calls him "the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced."

[In the Red Self Portraits (1965)] Warhol presents himself as insolent and impassive, in the take-it-or-leave-it stance of the hustler or gangster. Out of register, like a color TV on the blink, the person in the portrait is a new kind of human being, one trapped in some fathomless, unreal televisual space, without physical mass or emotional depth. The dead, unseeing eyes in the self-portrait suggest that he was perfectly serious when he said, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How dangerous is pot?

Much to the dismay of my "everyone has done drugs!" former boss, I have never done illegal drugs. I have never even smoked pot, unless you count secondhand smoke. So I don't have a "pot is so great!" take on marijuana, other than to say that there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that it is a gateway drug (biologically).

The scientific literature on the dangers of marijuana is a bit thin. The first report on possible harmful effects of cannabis use is the oft-cited Swedish Army study, where conscripts who reported a heavy use of cannabis in adolescence were six times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia in adulthood than non-users (1). There have been a few other studies suggesting that adolescent cannabis use is a risk factor for psychosis (e.g. 2). The most damning evidence is a longitudinal study by Dutch researchers that found a dose-response relationship between reported cannabis use and psychotic symptoms over a three-year period (3). And now a group has asked that cannabis use be included as a risk factor for psychotic illness in the Global Burden of Disease. (The article is in PLoS, so available for free. Isn't PLoS the greatest thing ever?)

From the article:

Some commentators may well argue that it is premature to conclude that the relationships between cannabis use and psychosis are causal, which raises the question of what the standard of proof should be causal inference. Some may argue for “proof beyond reasonable doubt,” the standard implicitly used in the last iteration of the GBD. It is rare, however, to meet this standard of proof for noncommunicable diseases other than smoking-related diseases. What has changed since the last iteration of the GBD? The broad approach to all risk factors has been to set the standard of proof at “more likely than not,” rather than “beyond reasonable doubt.” If the latter was the standard of proof, then no adverse health consequences of cannabis would be considered apart from dependence.

If we had treatments that resulted in complete, immediate, and sustained remission for all individuals who develop psychosis, then the role of cannabis as an aetiological agent may attract less attention. But schizophrenia remains a poorly understood group of disorders. Even our best treatments are suboptimal. In the absence of better treatments, the most effective way to reduce the disability associated with schizophrenia is to prevent its occurrence when we can. Thus, when considering potential risk factors for schizophrenia, we argue that candidates that offer the opportunity for public health interventions should be accorded more attention (e.g., education about the potential risks of cannabis use). Even exposures that may account for a small attributable fraction of those with the disorder warrant scrutiny.

As the quoted section above alludes to, there is no firm evidence that cannabis use causes psychosis. Could adolescents who are at risk for schizophrenia be self-medicating through use of marijuana? I do not think any of the studies have examined whether those heavy users who showed some type of psychosis later in life also had family histories of psychoses. Are those who experience psychotic symptoms self-medicating with marijuana (use of the drug is more common with those who report psychoses), similar to the abuse of nicotine among schizophrenics? Or is the marijuana use really causing psychosis or compounding its effects in a small population?

Either way, consider yourself forewarned the next time someone says marijuana use is "safe" and passes you a joint. And don't do drugs.

1. Andreasson S, Allebeck P, Engström A, et al. Cannabis and schizophrenia: a longitudinal study of Swedish conscripts. Lancet 1987;11:1483-5.

2. Arseneault L, Cannon M, Poulton R, et al. Cannabis use in adolescence and risk for adult psychosis: longitudinal prospective study. BMJ 2002;325:1212-3.

3. van Os J, Bak M, Hanssen M, et al. (2002) Cannabis use and psychosis: a longitudinal population-based study. Am J Epidemiol 156:319–27

Look what monarch butterflies do with their antennae

I have a little personal history with monarch butterflies: my grandmother used to catch them with my sister and me with a huge butterfly net, then kill them with Raid and put them in flower arrangements. So I rather like the little creatures, and am disappointed that their Mexican fir grove wintering grounds are being destroyed by stupid Mexican workers who only care about money, though what else can you expect with those people.

Anyway, scientists have wondered for years how monarch butterflies are able to find their way back to those forests. Even if you take a migrating monarch and move it to a completely different part of the country, they will still figure out the correct direction to travel. Now we have a big piece of the puzzle.

In a new article in Science, researchers have found that the monarchs contain some type of circadian "clock" in their antennae (independent of their brain) that they use to track the sun's movement, and then determine the correct direction based off of that information.

From a summary article here:

The researchers next covered the antennae in black paint, effectively blocking light sensing by the antennal clocks. Those butterflies homed in on an incorrectly fixed direction: the insect's brain could sense light but couldn't adjust the timing of the sun's movement across the sky in order to steer towards the proper destination. However, when the team used clear paint—which did not alter antennal light input—the butterflies accurately established the southerly flight orientation, indicating that the antenna's reading of light is key to navigation.

Cool, huh? I wish I had antennae. And wings.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Duo Concertant

(Reviewing a performance with original cast, Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins) Watching them listen is a theatrical experience in itself. Their faces share a multitude of unknown thoughts, but the intensity and sweet concentration with which they listen suggest that the notes are running through their bodies. Finally, they are moved to dance. At first they stick closely to the music’s beat, almost ‘conducting’ it with arms and legs; torsos are still. Becoming more free, the dance turns into a melting duet, each phrase winding down on slightly bent knees, as in a whisper. They dance with seeming spontaneity. Even when Balanchine arranges an unusual means of partnering – as when he scoops her from the floor holding only the underside of her thigh – the movement spins off them with utter simplicity and naturalness. In other sections, they occasionally stop dancing to listen. At those times, Martins firmly takes hold of her hand or slips his arm around her waist. She is shy, but the music pleases her and so does he. She does not move away. They listen in repose, arm in arm.

In the last part dancers and musicians go their separate ways. The stage darkens. A spotlight falls on the pianist and violinist. Another one lights a small area in which the dancers will play out their final drama. Mazzo paces her arm in the light, so that it seems to exist independently of her body. Martins hastens to the arm and links his with it. He then embraces her, sinks to his knees, and feels her face with his hands. She steps out of the light; then he does. She comes back and again extends her arm into the light. He rushes back, kisses the back of her hand with hushed passion, and sinks to the floor like a supplicant before a goddess. The jump from youthful hand-clasping to ceremonial hand-kissing is brazen for its staginess and unexpectedness. But out of that staginess come certain truths; in fact, the ending is an exquisite confession of them. It intimates that music transports Balanchine into a fantasy experience. It declares that to Balanchine, the female dancer is an image of love, a Muse-ballerina who inspires but is unreachable. The worshiper is the male, whose fate it to be indelibly inspired, possessed but not possessing. It is the story of Balanchine’s art. 10 July 1972, Nancy Goldner, The Nation

Chicago, Oct 19th, 2006 Matinee, NYCB

This performance was very confusing. Yvonne Borree was fine for the most part, very clear in her gestures and dancing, but with the sort of clarity that indicates that the performance has been memorized to every detail and is getting replayed. In other words, not much spontaneity in interpretation or musical response. Then again, I am unsure about how she should have responded to Nikolai Hubbe. A tall handsome Dane, for me Hubbe was totally off in this role. Not only was it unclear what his interpretation of the role was (he goes from putting her arm around her as if he's prom king and she's his high school sweetheart, complete with head nod and smile, to overly aggressive jock, to ardent, tortured, and finally, despairing lover), but his technique was off. In spins, it seemed that he was leaning far forward with his upper body and making a strange twisting motion with his shoulders, with the rest of his body following along. It was clumsy-looking and completely inelegant.

Oct 20th, Evening

On second viewing, I realized that Hubbe seemed to be leading with his upper torso in turns, creating a twisting motion that accounted for the "bull in a china shop" affect. Borree's positions were lovely and clear, but I missed the sense of a "welling-up of movement." This lack of dancing, combined with Hubbe's strange approach, made the ending startlingly strange, as one never had the sense of the relationship between the two dancers, and the relationship to the piano and violin was also dulled. Someone also needs to tell Hubbe not to lean over the piano after his variation - it makes him look extremely tired.

I reviewed the State Ballet of Georgia's performance of Duo Concertant in February 2008 here.

(First picture is Yvonne Borree and Peter Boal; second is Borree and Jared Angle)

Balanchine and a few of His Women

From Jewels (1967), the ballerinas for the three sections: Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds. Clockwise from Balanchine are Patricia McBride, Violette Verdy, Mimi Paul, and Suzanne Farrell. The second ballerina in Rubies, originally danced by Patricia Neary, is not pictured here. Farrell is the only ballerina in Diamonds; read more here.