General Posts Archives
Heaven knows why you’ve stumbled upon this site. For reasons enumerated here, I seldom update it. Nevertheless, I’m glad you’ve sought this place out, and welcome.
Just to keep the gears properly greased, this post serves to bring to attention some stuff I’ve done recently, big, small, and otherwise.
I served as Martin Short’s collaborator on his New York Times best-selling memoir, I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend, which was published in November. I toot no one’s horn but his (metaphorically, and certainly not anatomically, you filthy-minded person!) in saying that Marty is as lovely and entertaining in private life as he appears in public, and the book reflects that. Do pick it up if you’re interested in a brisk, funny, and surprisingly moving read.
I guerilla-eulogized a fallen tree in Greewnwich Village.
I continue to write regularly for Vanity Fair, stuff like this, with much more to come.
Further doings are being undertaken sneakily. And I am trying my best to be a Twitter person, handle’d as @MrKamp. Thank you for visiting.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was a cub editorial assistant at Spy magazine, I was obsessed with the Metropolitan Diary feature that ran every Wednesday in the New York Times. (It now runs in the Times on Mondays.) Obsessed in a love-hate way. Metropolitan Diary was, and is, an assemblage of reader-submitted vignettes about life in the big city, and I liked its fundamentally upbeat tenor—a welcome respite from the grimmer stuff in the hard-news sections of the paper. It helped, too, that in those days, the Times sent a bottle of Champagne to every reader whose submission was printed; a charming touch.
Yet I was also driven mad by Metropolitan Diary’s sameyness: how, the more you read the section, the more you realized that the contents of one Diary were nearly identical to that of all the others, with only minor details changing from week to week. I eventually concluded that all printed Metropolitan Diary submissions fell into one of six categories:
1. Codgerly reminiscences of New York City as it was
2. The awful poetry of the bourgeoisie
3. Stories in which New Yorkers are nicer than expected
4. Stories involving a “well-dressed woman” or a “woman of a certain age”
5. The awkward and/or misspelled signage of immigrant shopkeepers
6. Out of the mouths of precocious New York babes (amusing kid stories)
Metropolitan Diary was so formulaic that I thought it would be funny if I wrote a total of 36 Metropolitan Diary submissions—six in each category—and had other members of the Spy staff rewrite these submissions in their own hand, and then mail them to the Times over a three-day period, thereby flooding the submission pool. My goal: for the Times to run a Metropolitan Diary written entirely by me, though the paper would be none the wiser.
My bosses, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, signed off on the idea, and I executed it as described above. I remember that I had Martin Kihn, a young fact-checker at the magazine and now a successful writer whose book House of Lies is the basis for the Showtime TV series of the same title, submit under his name a story about how he, a putatively old man, was one of the few New Yorkers who could remember when figgy pudding was a readily available foodstuff, and not just a line in the song “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I remember that I had my friend Henry Alford submit an “awful” poem because he and I were mutually fascinated by a poem that had run in Metropolitan Diary by an older gent who became melancholy drinking coffee from a ceramic mug that had been made in grade school by one of his now-grown children. The poet referred to the vessel as his “morning mug of memories.”
I further remember that I had a sunny colleague named Gina Duclayan submit a story in which she, a newcomer to the city, was riding on the subway when her train screeched to a halt between stations. The wait in the dark seemed interminable until Gina and the friend she was with (in my story) started singing, tentatively at first, their own rendition of Bobby McFerrin’s then-current song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Slowly, the hardened faces of exasperated commuters softened, until, by the time the song neared its end, just about everyone in Gina’s subway car was singing along boisterously. But then! The train suddenly lurched forward and resumed its trip—at which point all the commuters resumed poker faces, as if nothing had happened.
I was naïve in thinking that my rig-the-Diary scheme would work. The Times, it turns out, receives hundreds and sometimes even thousands of submissions to Metropolitan Diary each week; my 36 submissions were a mere drop in the bucket.
I managed to get precisely one of my submissions printed, on December 13, 1989, as sent in by my colleague Monica Mahoney, now a clothing designer. It was one of those awkward-signage bits:
“Hand-printed sign, spotted by Monica Mahoney in the window of a deli on upper Broadway: WE HAVE CROISSANTS, PASTA SALAD, BRAN MUFFINS, EVERY KIND OF YUPPIE FOOD—YOU NAME IT!”
In the years since, I have become an occasional contributor to the Times, legitimately rather than under mischievous pretenses, and Henry has become a regular contributor to the paper’s Styles section. It’s a better way to get published, if less subversive.
One last thing: My failed scheme’s finest moment, in my opinion, did not involve my words’ being published. A few days after she submitted her story about singing in the subway car, Gina received a lovely personal note from Ron Alexander, the gentlemanly fellow at the Times who edited Metropolitan Diary. He welcomed Gina to New York and told her he was enchanted by her story—but that it couldn’t run, alas, on the grounds that it was too similar to Diary pieces that had already been published.
February 17 will herald the return of NBC’s Tonight Show to New York, a scenario I’ve harbored fantasies about since I was a Carson-loving kid. It always smarted that I came of age in a wounded era when New York City had lost both Johnny and the Dodgers to what my great uncle called the Golden West. I was delighted to be asked by Vanity Fair to profile the gifted gentleman who’s bringing Tonight home, Jimmy Fallon, for the cover story of the new issue. A teaser for the story can be found here.
This Fallon piece is the third I’ve done in a relatively short time about a funny person I admire. I’ve also been fortunate to immerse myself in the peculiar worlds of Steve Coogan and Martin Short, should you need further light reading in these dark, wintry weeks.
How to do an article pegged to the first anniversary of the Newtown shootings that is respectful yet not dreary, that reminds us not to become inured to 12/14’s horrors yet is not grisly or strident? I’m still not sure if I have the answer, but I wrote an article for Vanity Fair’s December 2013 issue (out now) that approaches Newtown in a different way—by focusing on the lives of some of its residents as they were lived in the 24-hour period before the tragedy occurred.
I’ll let the editor of the magazine preview the piece rather than blather on further. But I do hope you’ll give the story a look.
UPDATE: The story is now live here on Vanity Fair’s Web site.
In the early aughts, I came up with the idea for a Vanity Fair feature called “The Rock Snob’s Dictionary,” a sort of deadpan reference guide to such people and things as Nick Drake, the Stooges, Rickenbacker guitars, and the Ibanez Tube Screamer FX pedal—stuff that Rock Snobs hold dear. So dear, in fact, that they are affronted if you profess to be more knowledgeable about this stuff than they are. For help, I enlisted two friends, Steven Daly, a writer and former rock musician, and Bob Mack, an old Spy magazine compadre who later fell into the Beastie Boys’ orbit. Steven and Bob were precisely the sorts of ornery human beings with whom I would engage in argumentative, showoffy discussions about the holy scripture of rock.
Well, that “Rock Snob’s Dictionary” feature became a book (co-written with Steven), and that book begat a series of “Snob’s Dictionary” humor books and a Web site that hasn’t been updated in years but remains rich with fun, inconsequential material. And now, all these years later, the new entertainment wing of Vanity Fair’s parent company, Condé Nast, has worked with me to build a “Snob’s Dictionary” series of Web videos based on the rock-, film-, and food-related dictionaries I’ve co-authored. I asked if we could get the actor and comedian Judah Friedlander, best known as Frank from 30 Rock, to be our narrator, because Judah can do just the sort of strident, grad-studentish tone—arrogant but self-aware and maybe just the slightest bit kindhearted in his bid to educate—that I heard in my head. Thankfully, Judah was game.
Two videos are up so far: this one, about American International Pictures (for Film Snobs), and this one, about the aforementioned Nick Drake (for Rock Snobs). Eight more Snob’s Dictionary videos are en route in the next couple of months, with further batches likely to follow.
A note on Nick Drake, by the way: I love his music; Steven doesn’t. I tended to write my dictionary entries from a perspective of self-mockery, making fun of my own precious tastes, while Steven wrote from a place of roiling Glaswegian anger. (And, in the early days, Bob Mack was the angriest of all; it was he who coined the phrase “trustafarian pretty-boy” to describe Gram Parsons, and who once graffito’d a Village Voice ad I’d clipped for a Richard Thompson concert with the words NO! BAN THE ROCK-CRIT ESTABLISHMENT!) The books’ sense of conversation is why the whole thing works, and why I always bring in collaborators on Snob projects. In the spirit of cultural snobbery, I invite you to suggest further topics for Snob video shorts. Try to be less strident than us.
For Vanity Fair’s June issue, I did this plot-dense piece about why Rebecca, The Musical, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel for the stage, has not yet made it to Broadway. The article defies tidy explanation, so my best advice is to just set aside some time and read it. Maybe I’ll do some Web updates if and when its various storylines resolve.
(The man of the hour)
So we’ve just witnessed Charles Ramsey’s transformation from, in short order, anonymous dishwasher to TV-news hero to Auto-Tuned internet meme. It’s been both fun and discomfiting. Fun because the guy’s a natural raconteur (even to the 911 operator: “Hey, check this out. I just came from McDonald’s, right? So I’m on my porch eatin’ my little food, right?”) and discomfiting because A) his fame has come via the revelation of a horrific scene of captivity; and B) because the attention he’s commanded has run the gamut from admiration to ridicule.
Like Sweet Brown (“Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That”), Antoine Dodson (“Bed Intruder”), and Michelle Clark (“Kabooya”), Ramsey is a lower-income African-American whose camera time came as a result of tragedy. (Brown’s apartment complex caught on fire, Dodson’s sister survived a rape attempt, and Clark’s community was ravaged by a violent hailstorm.) If the people who leave comments on YouTube are anything to go by, a lot of viewers regard these individuals purely as figures of fun: found objects repurposed in the service of a new digital minstrelsy. And that’s reprehensible.
But YouTube commenters don’t necessarily represent the greater part of YouTube viewers—a lot of the former are ignorant kids and unevolved doofuses—and I think there’s a more charitable and uplifting way to look at the fascination with Ramsey et al. These endlessly replayed local-news clips are, in a way, like the field recordings made by the father-and-son folklorists and ethnomusicologists John Lomax and Alan Lomax in neglected pockets of America during the Depression years and beyond. These mini-monologues appeal because they capture authentic, idiomatic, unmediated American voices that are more alive to us than the glib, slick patter that usually comes through the speakers of our TVs and laptops.
In his book Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus coined the term “the old, weird America” to describe the Delta and backwoods milieux where the Lomaxes’ finds sang their songs, and where the archivist Harry Smith’s favorite balladeers and bluesmen came from. The inference was that America is no longer weird—that its old variety of strange ethnic, regional, and racial subcultures was snuffed out by suburbanization, prosperity, and cultural homogeneity.
But Charles Ramsey reminds us that the weirdness is still with us. It’s just been updated and accelerated. Whereas, in the old days, sixty-two years would pass between when John Lomax recorded Vera Hall of Alabama singing “Trouble So Hard” a cappella and when Moby sampled Hall for his song “Natural Blues” (from the album Play, the soundtrack to many a bourgeois dinner party in the early Aughts), now all it takes is a day for some clever white twerps to transmute a field recording into a thumpin’ hit.
Yes, there’s an uncomfortable sense of patronization that goes with all this—the celebration and embrace of heretofore marginalized black individuals for their “realness.” But in Charles Ramsey’s case, at least, the net result is positive. When we as a nation are able to find a silver lining to that otherwise unspeakable crime story in Cleveland, that’s a dead giveaway that we’re responding, first and foremost, to Ramsey’s humanity, not to how funny he is.
Heaven help me, I’m giving Twitter another try. About four years ago I set up an account and teenyposted steadily for a while, but I simply never mastered the form—basically because I was putting too much thought into it, doing misguidedly ambitious things like writing young-adult vampire novels as a series of tweets. Also, Twitter, to this day, upsets my acute, Des Esseintes-like aesthetic sensitivity. I find its feeds visually noisy, what with all the hashtags and ampersets and bit.ly and pic.twitter cmprssns of wrds.
But, in the interests of “branding,” “professionalism,” and “not sliding out of view and thereby spending my remaining days penniless in a rented room where a bare, solitary bulb hangs listlessly from the ceiling,” I am re-embracing the medium! Follow me or give me a howdy at @MrKamp.
Last month’s Vanity Fair, the one with Taylor Swift on the cover, included a long article I wrote revisiting the mania surrounding the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition that toured the U.S. in the late 1970s, as well as the political and cultural forces that conspired to make the tour happen. I had fun doing the article and put a lot of work into it, but, based on the crickets-chirping non-response it elicited, hardly anyone read it. (Perhaps you will, now that it’s online?) Ah, well. This is much less of a crisis than the one Egypt’s tourism industry is currently suffering because of post-Arab Spring political instability in the Morsi era.
My Egyptophile sources tell me that, if you can summon the bravery and funds to get over to Egypt right now, it’s a great time to visit the pyramids, Luxor, and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, because hardly anyone else is visiting and the lines of years past are nonexistent. The Egyptian Museum is where the King Tut relics from the ’70s tour are currently housed, and all indications are that, tales of looting aside, the Tut stuff is intact and okay. (It’s my understanding that the Egyptians will never again let Tut’s famous gold mask travel, so Cairo is now the only place you can get to see it.)
Lots of eccentric plotlines and sub-plotlines of my V.F. story wound up on the cutting-room floor, among them the fact that singer Pearl Bailey, an ardent Richard Nixon supporter, muscled her way onto Nixon’s June ’74 tour of Egypt and the Mideast—his final overseas trip before he resigned—as the president’s so-called “Ambassador of Love,” performing for the president and his Egyptian counterpart, Anwar Sadat. A year later, when Sadat paid his first state visit to the U.S., hosted by Gerald Ford, Bailey subbed for an ill Johnny Cash—one of Sadat’s faves—as the entertainment, pulling Sadat out of his chair for a dance (he blushed), mugging in reading glasses borrowed from Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and in general acting genially bonkers.
The most poignant bit cut from the V.F. story is how Tut-mania represented a sort of high-water mark for U.S.-Egypt relations—or at least the hope for sustained, stable, mutually beneficial U.S.-Egypt relations. The Tut show was the first gesture of diplomatic goodwill that Sadat granted the U.S. after switching allegiances from the Soviet Union to America, and it’s not overstating things to say that the positive feelings this gesture engendered played a part in the lead-up to the historic Camp David Accords signed by Sadat and Israel’s Menachim Begin in 1978, on Jimmy Carter’s watch. (Personal note: It was at this point in my schoolboy life that everyone began addressing me as “Kamp David.”)
Sadat is to Egyptians a little bit like Mikhail Gorbachev is to Russians—an overseas rock star who doesn’t get much love at home. (A much bigger cult of nostalgia surrounds his nationalist predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser.) Yet he was was precisely the kind of strong, West-friendly leader that the U.S. State Department can only dream of Egypt’s having now. His assassination in 1981 was a violent bookend to the period of genuine U.S.-Egypt love that began with Nixon’s 1974 trip and crested with Camp David and Steve Martin.
(Shadow Morton, before the Ba-CAH-di took its toll.)
“Little nose and big hair. Very strong hair. I think he’s very talented, and very bizarre.” That’s how Jeff Barry, the great Brill Building songwriter behind such hits as “Be My Baby” and “Da Doo Ron Ron,” described Shadow Morton to me. Morton, like Barry a songwriter but otherwise utterly unlike Barry or any other songwriter, died of cancer on Valentine’s Day at the age of 71. The New York Times obit of him quotes extensively from the oral history of the Brill Building that I wrote in 2001 for Vanity Fair.
Morton was a degenerate punk with just enough front and talent to make an indelible stamp upon pop music. He was from Long Island and was the driving creative force behind the tough-chick Queens girl group the Shangri-Las, writing or co-writing such amazing songs as “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “The Leader of the Pack,” and “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” You can get a fuller sense of what he was like in the V.F. piece, but, briefly: In 1964, Morton hustled his way into the office of Barry and Barry’s then wife and songwriting partner, Ellie Greenwich. Then he hustled himself into believing he could write a song, “Remember.” Then, when that song became a hit, he hustled Barry and Greenwich’s bosses, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, into making them believe he had a follow-up at the ready... about, you know, some guy with a motorcycle who falls in love with a girl. Leiber wasn’t impressed. Morton, extemporizing, told Leiber, “It gets better.” Leiber asked “How does it get better?” Morton, now really sweating it out, said, “He... dies.” The song that Morton subsequently wrote to fulfill this wholly B.S.’d scenario was “The Leader of the Pack.” Polished by Barry and Greenwich, it became the Shangri-Las’ signature tune, Morton’s biggest annuity, and a cultural touchstone. (Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” took its title from the song’s spoken opening line.)
Thirty-odd years after Morton’s heyday, I met him for an interview at Joe Allen, a New York theater-district hangout where he was a regular. (I think he lived on the block, possibly above the restaurant.) He had the hunched shoulders and tinted shades of a horse-playing hoodlum—an aged version of Boogie, Mickey Rourke’s character in Diner. But he still had the little nose and big hair—was still handsome in a dessicated way. The removal of his shades revealed one eyelid to have a droop. From a fight? A neurological condition? I don’t know. He was a sobered-up alcoholic, and, like many in such circumstances, he was ashamed of his past behavior under the influence yet eager to talk about it. He kept talking about “the Ba-CAH-di” that did him in: “It wasn’t me mouthin’ off to Leiber, it was the Ba-CAH-di”; “I got too caught up in the Ba-CAH-di to care when the next hit was gonna come.” Shadow (his real name was George; Barry assigned him the nickname to describe his penchant for unreliability and abrupt disappearances) seemed especially remorseful about his behavior towards Mary Weiss, the striking lead singer of the Shangri-Las; he said the Ba-CAH-di had made him do some things to her so terrible that he didn’t want to go into them.
Still, Morton retained the mischievous air of a hustler. He brought an attractive young woman along for company, their connection ambiguous besides her evident obligation to giggle at his wisecracks and absorb his occasional nudges. I asked him if the the dreamboat tough guy that Weiss sings about in “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (“Big wavy hair, a little too long”) was, in fact, him.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling like Jack Nicholson, “you picked up on that, good for you!” One of the wonderful things about Morton’s songs is their structural irregularity—since he was musically untrained (and, for that matter, behaviorally untrained), his Shangri-Las hits include all sorts of strange atmospheric shifts and spoken-word passages that “proper” songwriters would have never essayed. “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” has a dialogue exchange in which the other girls say, “Yeah, well I hear he’s bad!,” to which Weiss thoughtfully replies, “Mmm, he’s good-bad, but he’s not evil.”
“Good-bad,” Morton said. “That was me. That’s how I saw myself.”
(Michael Hainey, king of the investigative memoir.)
More than twenty years ago, as we were ratifying a new friendship over drinks, my pal Michael Hainey, then a fellow member of Spy magazine’s junior varsity and a recent arrival from Chicago, told me about his father. Bob Hainey died abruptly in 1970, when Michael was only six years old. The elder Hainey was a newspaper man, an editor at the Sun-Times. “It’s never added up to me,” Mike said. “He worked on the South Side, but his body was found on the North Side. What was he doing there? I’d love to, like, do a real investigation of it some day.”
This desire never strayed from Michael’s thoughts, and now, years in the making, comes his wondrous new book, After Visiting Friends (Scribner, out officially on Feb. 19). Let me be clear: My recommendation of this book is not forced gush on behalf of a friend. Mike’s quest for the truth about his father, and his telling of it, makes for one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in ages. In fact, a part of me wishes I didn’t know Michael because then I could have approached the story the best way one can as a reader: having no idea what lies in store.
Briefly: It’s a detective story, a hard-times story, a Chicago story, a family-sticking-together story, a glimpse of an old-time milieu of whiskey-splotched newsprint journos with an iffy code of ethics, a boom-chicka-boom evocation of the Nebraska railroad heartland of Bob’s youth, a memory exercise refracted through a poetic sensibility (Mike writes poetry, too), and, most movingly, just... a plunge into the past colored by the melancholic realization that the past is ultimately irretrievable.
Here’s a lovely little bit that’s characteristic but doesn’t give the plot away:
Life in the shadow of O’Hare. ORD—what this land was before the airport was: Orchards. Men took it for the airport’s original name: Orchard Field. The origin of ORD. Acres and acres of apple trees. As a boy, I rode my bike to O’Hare, circumnavigated its fenced-in perimeter. That’s how I found the forgotten orchards. A patch of the past. In the fall, their apples rot unwanted. All that remains.
I urge you to read on. It’s worth it.
I thought Ed Koch was going to die in 1990. I thought he would be like Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach, or my old boss at GQ magazine, Art Cooper, both of whose identities were so caught up in what they did for a living that neither man lasted more than a few weeks beyond retirement. When David Dinkins was inaugurated on New Year’s Day in ’90, I assumed that Ed Koch, without the NYC mayoralty, would cease to be.
I was wrong, to Koch’s credit. Simply being a New Yorker, as opposed to the king of New York, was more than enough to sustain him. He was a neighbor and I saw a lot of him, both in person, eating the salty food he wasn’t supposed to eat (at Minetta Tavern, or in line at Balducci’s before it became Citarella) and in The Villager, the homely neighborhood weekly of Greenwich Village, where he reviewed movies. (He hated Avatar, which was “hyped beyond the point of forgiveness,” and remarked of Walk the Line, “I sing better in the shower than Joaquin Phoenix.”) And he was always popping up on NY1, the endearingly shabby, spiritually pre-Bloombergian local-news channel that comes with your cable box in the big city.
There was plenty not to love about Koch, such as his callousness towards his black constituents and his not-good-for-the-Jews stridency in purporting to represent what all Jews think about Israel, Jesse Jackson, and, well, everything. But I retained affection for the guy and am stricken by his passing. That it occured just a day short of the fifth anniversary of my father’s death is resonant, too. As charismatic old Jews go, my dad was an altogether warmer, gentler force than Koch, but he grew up in the same Ashkenazic milieu of bagels, salt-cured fish, Depression-era penury, unquestioned duty to country, astounding work ethic, and recreational kvetching. With Koch down, I feel like we’ve lost another of Dad’s cohort, and not just in the ethno-gastric sense. Like my father, Koch was a product of a time that celebrated the “common man,” when leading a middle-class life was a good thing, a desired path rather than a sad consolation prize for the un-entrepreneurial and unbeautiful. New York City used to be a place where you could be this nice sort of middle-class. But it isn’t anymore. Ed Koch, over these last 23 years, was a vestige of that place, as much so as Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop and Kossar’s Bialys.
Was privileged to actually know:
For Vanity Fair’s new comedy issue, I wrote a profile of perhaps my favo(u)rite of all the funny Canadians, Martin Short. The piece is now online here, and, as it happens, Short is hosting this weekend’s Christmas episode of Saturday Night Live.
One note: In my kicker, I mention, in talk-show plugeroo style, that Marty will be appearing at a theater in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 14. That appearance has actually been cancelled because of S.N.L. preparations. But the Yellowhammer state’s loss is the nation’s gain.
Since the Rolling Stones are in town for their abbreviated 50th-anniversary tour, I thought I’d share a memory of my one extended encounter with a Stone. It was with Charlie Watts. This was 1996. I was assigned to do a one-page thingy on him for Vanity Fair, on the occasion of a new album he was putting out with his swing band. I’ve always been enervated by those who say “Charlie Watts looks so old!” or “Charlie Watts is a corpse!,” because Watts is about as perfect-looking as a man can look. He is white-haired, slim, and 71—and becomingly all of those things. He was only in his mid-fifties when I met him, but he has not changed much since. I took the assignment to look at him as much as to talk with him. I can’t find the article but I remember that I led with, “Are there others out there for whom Charlie Watts is the focal point of the Rolling Stones?”
We met at the Mark Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he was staying. He had an elaborately furnished suite whose skyline beauty he did not take for granted. “I mean, look around here,” he said, motioning his arm panoramically. “It’s like bloody Cary Grant, innit?”
I recently heard it said somewhere—perhaps by Keith Richards himself—that whereas most bands are anchored by the drummer, with the bass and guitar following, the Stones are anchored by Richards, the senior guitarist, with Watts, the drummer, hanging a half-beat behind him: one of the secrets to the Stones’s sound, their distinctive controlled sloppiness. This would have been useful knowledge for me the day I met Watts. It took about ten minutes for me to figure out, but he was hanging behind the beat even in conversation. It sounds cute, like exaggeration for the good of a story, but it’s true: Every time I asked a question, he answered the question before last. We fell into a sort of conversational fugue, wherein his answers overlaid my questions, which I adjusted on the fly to be belated follow-ups to his belated answers. Strangely, it worked: What was meant to be a perfunctory, transactional half-hour appointment became a two-hour talk, and Watts, to my delight, was in no hurry to be rid of me.
But I should add that what made this episode stranger, and perhaps contributed to the peculiarly laggy rhythm of the talk, was that this was my first time out of the house since the birth of my first child. My daughter had been born only three days earlier, and my wife and I were still consumed by the joy and terror of not quite knowing how to live in this state: with a baby. Severely sleep-deprived, I’d shaved for the first time in days and put on my nicest clothes, knowing that Charlie was himself quite the clotheshorse. Near the end of the interview, after I’d become perhaps too comfortable in Watts’s presence, my fuzzy-headedness got the best of me. I unleashed upon him a question that I’d always wanted to ask a Stone or ex-Beatle: What is it like to live a life where you’ve nothing left to prove, nothing necessarily to motivate you artistically, but still plenty of life ahead of you?
Except I asked this question in the most sloppy, logorrheic way possible, with some mortifying addendum along the lines of, “I always imagine that for someone like you, life must be something like a perpetual Sunday brunch, where you’re always sitting on the veranda with people bringing you mimosas and café au lait, with a wedge of cantaloupe and a tray of croissants in front of you, and no set plan for the day.”
The fugue stopped. There was silence. Watts stared at me stonily for what felt like half an hour but was probably thirty seconds.
Then, finally, he looked down, looked up, and said to me, “Cantaloupe melon? Bloody ’ell, I’ve never ’eard that one before.”
This site was launched in 2006, in what we can retrospectively call the autumn of blogging: when it was still exhilarating that individuals were able take their words, whimsies, and ventings of spleen directly to the reading audience with no middleman, but also when blogger glut and blogger fatigue were already setting in. In other words, my site came along at a time when a writer like me could still be excited to have, you know, this unfiltered outlet, man, yet this excitement was quickly snuffed out by A) the realization that I was joining the party too late to attract an audience just because I was a professional writer with a site; B) the realization that blogging is just not my métier, though I admire those for whom it is; C) the advent of Facebook and Twitter, which is where people would increasingly choose to spend their internet time, rendering the already-theoretical audience for an author site even more theoretical; and D) my tendency to bring the spontaneity of any blog post to a halt with a tedious, alphabetized list.
All of this is a long way of explaining why, if you’re still reading, I post so infrequently on this site. That said, I felt bad for the ol’ gal that is davidkamp.com (and, yes, I’ve anthopomorphized this site into a wizened lady who was Bryn Mawr class of ’33, a Carole Lombard-like beauty in her day who now bides her time at the assisted-living facility, living for her grandchildren’s infrequent visits, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door). So I thought I’d at least post some links to some Vanity Fair stuff I’ve written, since V.F.’s site has been good about posting my work.
Here is a story I wrote for the December issue about Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, whose return is nearly upon us.
Here is a big piece I wrote for the October issue about the birth of the James Bond movie franchise, now riding high again with Skyfall.
Here and here are the first in what I hope to be many installments of a revival of an old V.F. feature from the 1920s, the Impossible Interview—in which two people unlikely to meet in this life on this earth are thrown together for a dialogue captured in a bright, grabby illo by a gifted artist. (In the old days, the Impossible Interviews were illustrated by none other than the great Miguel Covarrubias. Now the illustrations are done by the magnificent Mr. André Carrilho of Portugal.)
Finally, just because V.F. has started putting up more archival stuff on the Web, here is a piece I resented getting assigned to me 15 years ago: a cover story on a young actor of whom, in 1997, no one outside of Hollywood had ever heard—Matt Damon. He and this pal of his, Ben Affleck, were getting heavily hyped for this movie they had co-written and were now about to star in, Good Will Hunting, and it fell to me to hold up V.F.’s end of the hypeage deal. My aggrievedness is evident in the story’s lede, though I’m not proud of the tone that my younger self took; that kid (me, not Damon) should have been damn well pleased to be writing for a national magazine, period. Anyway, I spent a night watching Monday Night Football with Damon and Affleck in Matt’s hotel room in the Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan. The boys were still unused to such settings, psyched that Harvey Weinstein was putting them up in a five-star hotel with unlimited domain over the room-service menu and the minibar. They turned out to be welcoming, funny, and thoughtful guys—Damon, a product of a liberal Cambridge, Mass., household, ambivalent about his pending stardom and wealth, Affleck trying to make sense of the fact that his next movie was a zillion-budget Michael Bay epic called Armageddon. (He kept bellowing the title aloud, jokingly, like an irony-attuned WWE announcer.) I also admired the candor with which Damon’s mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, expressed to me her concerns about the whole exercise we were undertaking. “What happens in a consumer society is that people become objects of attention in a way that doesn’t seem healthy to society,” she said. “I’m happy that Matt is happy in his work, but I’m not convinced he has to be on the cover of a magazine about it. It’s a little hard for me to accept. It’s all so out of the ordinary that I worry he might not grow as I want him to.”
The good thing is, Matt and Ben turned out all right.
Last year’s NFL lockout prevented me from enjoying one of my favorite August rituals: visiting the New York Giants’ training camp in Albany, New York. But this year, the Giants returned to Albany, and thus, I did, too, with my son and my friend Peter Richmond in tow. Peter and I, who co-host a “miserabilist” Giants-fan radio show that now has its own Facebook page, are always on the lookout for a training-camp character to become enamored of. Three years ago we found one in a personable fringe prospect with the awesome name Leger Douzable. (Douzable, a defensive tackle, has since bounced around the NFL, getting a few starts with the Jacksonville Jaguars; he is currently a Tennessee Titan.)
This year “our guy” turned out to be a non-fringe guy: Martellus Bennett, who may very well begin this season as the Giants’ starting tight end. Bennett was signed as a free agent after playing four years in the shadow of the Dallas Cowboys’ star tight end, Jason Witten. In Dallas, where he was a second-round pick, he is considered something of a bust, more of a talker than a producer. But Bennett, who has exhibited his art and is married to a fashion-blogging Sarah Lawrence grad, is already worth his roster spot as a fine run-blocker, and, more importantly for our purposes, as a Darryl Dawkins-style quote machine. Early in camp, he talked up his physical condition by saying, “I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, I’m faster than I’ve ever been. I could run all day. I’m kind of like a black unicorn out there. It’s amazing to watch.”
The “black unicorn” comment has inspired fan art and gotten a lot of play in the press. It also prompted me to seek out Bennett at camp. On the practice field, he did indeed stand out: at a rangy, powerful-looking 6' 6”, he looked, if not like a mythical hornëd creature, then at least like the sort of big, power-forward-style tight end that the New Orleans Saints have in Jimmy Graham. Off the field, he was the only Giant to proceed past us in non-athletic gear, in his stylin’ t-shirt (a leopard-print bomb?) and straw hat. Bennett happily posed for a photo with my half-his-size son (see photo above). I asked him, “Did you really call yourself a ‘black unicorn’?”
“Yeah!” he said. “That’s pretty good, don’t you think?”
My son posed the above question to me recently, wondering why the most African-American-identified sport in the U.S. doesn’t have one single transformative historical figure the way baseball has Robinson. By a stroke of good fortune, GQ has just re-posted in its archives an article I wrote in 2001 addressing this very question.
The first men, plural, to break the color barrier in the NBA were a low-key group, in part because the NBA was still a low-key league, barely on its feet, when integration happened in 1950. Also, the integration of the NBA was less momentous than baseball’s because blacks and whites had already played basketball with and against one another at the college level. I’ll never forget how Earl Lloyd, the first black man to log minutes in an NBA game, framed this for me: “Most of the people who played baseball at that time were from below the Mason-Dixon Line, and most of ’em never seen a college. I mean, you got some guys from down south—hell, their first pair of shoes were baseball shoes! But my teammates were very intelligent, man.”
Nevertheless, for the NBA’s black pioneers, there was still struggle, tension, and the constant potential for slights and humiliations. Not always the stuff of happy reading, but I’m at least happy that, for once, I can answer one of my son’s questions with more than the usual distracted “Uh, we’ll look it up.”
A Tour with Photographs by the Docent, Mr. Kamp’s Younger Brother, David
In 1981, Ted Kamp left central New Jersey for the wider world, unaware at the time that he was a curator. He was simply a young man beginning the journey into adulthood, which would take him first to the campus of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY—its non-coeducational past still sufficiently recent for his father’s more paleolithic friends to remark with lewd grins, “Isn’t that a girlie school?”—and then to Chicago, and then to the greater Los Angeles area, where he resides today.
What Ted Kamp did not yet know was that his mother was possessed of a sufficiently strong sentimental streak that she would leave his oblong attic bedroom more or less unchanged in terms of décor as the years, and then the decades, flew by. Some furniture would be shuffled and rearranged, some closet contents would be hauled off, but the walls—ah, those goldenrod walls would remain exactly as they were left in 1981, which is to say, as they had remained for the better part of the 1970s, since Ted Kamp seldom edited, “redid,” or subtracted from his wall décor; rather, ke kept making incremental additions to his thumbtacked collage of American sports and cultural ephemera. By dint of this cumulative approach to decorating, and his mother’s subsequent willful resistance to making over his room, even after he no longer occupied it, Ted Kamp created an Inadvertent Museum of the Seventies. Come have a look.
The oldest piece in the collection is most likely the NEW YORK KNICKS WORLD CHAMPIONS poster (Fig. 1). It gives every indication of dating from 1970, the first of the Knicks’ two championship years in the seventies, featuring as it does not only the stalwarts Willis Reed (No. 19), Walt Frazier (No. 10), Bill Bradley (No. 24), Dave DeBusschere (No. 22), and Dick Barnett (No. 12), but also Cazzie Russell (No. 33), who was swapped for Jerry Lucas of the San Francisco Warriors at the end of the ’70-’71 season, and Mike Riordan (No. 6) and Dave Stallworth (No. 9), who, together, were sent later that same year to the Baltimore Bullets in return for the great (and conspicuously absent from this poster) Earl Monroe, a cornerstone of the Knicks’ 1973 championship team.
Your docent’s efforts to date this poster were initially thrown off by the presence of Phil Jackson (No. 18, the “1” on his uniform obscured in the photo). Jackson, though a Knick since being drafted out of the University of North Dakota in 1967, missed the entire 1969-70 season as he recuperated from spinal-fusion surgery. Yet he is shown in game action, reaching for a rebound. This is what crossed up your docent, who vividly remembers Jackson playing a crucial if graceless and hirsute reserve role on the ’73 championship squad.*
The suspicions of ’73 provenance were compounded by the fact that Ted Kamp did not ascend to his attic lair until some point in the mid-seventies. It is the hoariest of exercises to trot out a Brady Bunch reference when discussing things seventies-related, but it is nevertheless apt to note that it was on March 23, 1973—mere weeks before the Knicks clinched their second title—that ABC aired “A Room at the Top,” the Brady Bunch episode in which Greg Brady claimed the attic as his own baroquely decorated, single-occupancy bedroom. Precisely when Ted Kamp moved to his new custom-modified attic bedroom is lost to the ages, but it was certainly some time after “A Room at the Top” had aired, and it is not a stretch to imagine that Ted Kamp and his parents were at least partly inspired by the episode to imagine that their modest three-bedroom home’s large attic, if tidied up and retrofitted with electric baseboard heaters and nautically-themed curtains, would be a better place for Ted Kamp to spend his time than the small second-floor room he had shared with his older sister, by then pubescent and very irritable, since 1966.
One can only conclude that the makers of the NEW YORK KNICKS WORLD CHAMPIONS poster generously chose to include Jackson despite his inactive status during the ’69-’70 season, and that the poster sat idly, rolled up somewhere, until Ted Kamp’s attic room and future Inadvertent Museum of the Seventies came to be.
* It’s hard to articulate, given his silken Zenmaster demeanor now, how awkward, shaggy, and perspiratory Jackson’s style of play was: all elbows and flashes of armpit hair, every move to screen his man maximally effortful, every joule of energy expended.
Read More »
The WNEW on-air staff circa 1977, with Pete Fornatale second from left.
For a disc jockey, Pete Fornatale had a nerdy voice. But it was soothingly nerdy—imagine the friendly, reedy bleat of Ned Flanders of The Simpsons, only tamped down by Jackson Browne instead of hopped-up on Gospel.
Fornatale, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 66, was the beau idéal of the FM D.J., and I was lucky, in my youth, to happen upon him in his 1970s heyday at the New York station WNEW. In 1977, I was a pre-teen growing wary of the Top 40 AM station that I listened to regularly, WABC: the rote playlists, the noisy commercials, and the unctuous baritones that all their D.J.’s seemed to have, the aural equivalent of pompadours and bad dye jobs. What broke my faith in WABC for good was a family car ride on August 16 of that year, when we heard the station jock on duty announce, in the same brassy, hustling tones with which he’d earlier introduced Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” “Elvis Presley diiiiiiiied today!” Good god, did these men not have souls?
My older siblings were already listening to WNEW, where Fornatale had worked since 1969, and I followed them there. WNEW had what would prove, in retrospect, to be an all-star stable of free-form FM pioneers, among them Scott Muni, Vin Scelsa, Alison Steele, and Dennis Elsas, but Fornatale was the one who spoke to me, literally and spiritually. That voice, which to my AM-trained juvenile ears sounded so wrong for radio, made him seem like an underdog, a dork among the cool kids, which suited my own self-perception. And the eclecticism of his shows was liberating. It wasn’t hip to like the Beach Boys at that time, but I loved them and Pete played them, and he was unafraid to intermarble the strange, twitchy new music of the nascent New Wave (e.g., the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” and Talking Heads’ “Pulled Up”) with the denimy, singer-songwriterly sounds of Browne, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell.
My brother was on WNEW’s mailing list and late in ’77 received a giant wall poster (above) featuring all of the station’s D.J.’s peering through the windows of an old train car, its exterior graffitied (suitably for the period) with the slogan BUILT ON SOLID ROCK. It was gratifying to discover that Fornatale looked exactly as I expected him to: skinny, bespectacled, and bearded—your kindly adjunct professor of rock studies.
In the 1980s, I fell out of love with radio, and so, it seems, did Fornatale, who felt increasingly marginalized by formatting strictures and the rise of shock-talk. But the streaming-and-podcast era brought me back into the fold, with one station in particular, WFUV-FM, which broadcasts from the campus of Fordham University in the Bronx, enchanting me with its remarkably vintage-WNEW-like spirit. How apt, then, that this station turned out to be not only the very place where Fornatale got his start as a college sophomore in 1964, but also the place where he finally found a proper home again in his later years. (Scelsa and Elsas have also found safe haven at FUV.) Fornatale hosted a Saturday program called “Mixed Bag,” each week devoted to a specific theme; as recently as two weeks ago he was on the air, commemorating the centennial of the Titanic’s sinking with a characteristically all-over-the-place playlist.
The big WNEW poster still hangs upon a wall of my brother’s old bedroom, which my septuagenarian mother has never bothered to redecorate, rendering it an unwitting shrine to the FM era. Pete and his colleagues smile out at a poster on the opposite wall of the Willis Reed-era Knicks, and a few feet away from a tacked-up still of James and Carly from the No Nukes concert film, and near a novelty bumper sticker that reads JESUS SAVES—BUT MOSES INVESTS! It’s precisely the kind of mixed bag that would have made for a great Pete Fornatale show.
Listen here for an amazing 1977 in-studio appearance by an uncommonly chipper Brian Wilson on Pete Fornatale’s WNEW show.
The Super Bowl is two weeks behind us in the rear-view mirror, and “Tangled Up in Blue,” my New York Giants-miserabilist radio program with Peter Richmond on NPR station WHDD, is on hiatus until August. But I couldn’t help yammering on a bit more about my team, my childhood, my adulthood, my father, my son, and the way all of the aforementioned vortically whirl around in my head every time I watch the Giants play a football game. This essay, from The New York Times Magazine, is as concise an explanation of what I’m talking about as I can manage.
Since last August, I have been doing a radio program on the tiny NPR affiliate WHDD with my fellow writer Peter Richmond. It is about our tortured New York Giants fandom, and it is called “Tangled Up in Blue.” Now that the New York Times has given it some attention, I’ve heard from a number of people who say, “How can you complain about a team that has won three Super Bowls and is playing in its second Super Bowl in four years?”
My answer: Easily. With the caveat that our Giants “miserabilism” is ridiculous. It was Peter’s idea to call the program “Tangled Up in Blue,” and mine to subtitle it “Radio’s New Home for New York Football Giants Miserabilism.” The word “miserabilism” is an evocation of my memories of kids my age who loved the Smiths and the Cure in the 1980s—kids who took a perverse pleasure in how mopey/sad the music of Morrissey and Robert Smith made them feel. Watching the Giants is an emotionally excruciating experience, but it’s also one of the experiences that Peter and I hold most dear.
Herewith, some ways in which Giants miserabilism is ridiculous and some ways in which it is sensible.
Giants miserabilism is ridiculous because the team has not had a losing season since 2004.
Giants miserabilism is sensible because it was only last season that, with the team leading the Philadelphia Eagles by 21 points at home with less than eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Giants surrendered four unanswered touchdowns and lost the game 38-31, effectively losing a division title and a sure playoff spot in the process. (Lesson: NEVER relax and assume a lead is safe.)
Giants miserabilism is ridiculous because the team has been in the thick of the playoff hunt until late in the season in nine of twelve seasons since the year 2000.
Giants miserabilism is sensible because even defensive captain Justin Tuck is prone to lie awake in his bed on Sunday nights, at a complete and utter loss to explain his team’s sometimes inconsistent play. He says things like “I mean, it doesn’t make any sense to me. Do I need to see a shrink?”
Giants miserabilism is ridiculous because it’s just a spectator sport, you can’t win ’em all, and we should count our blessings that each season offers the promise of renewal and pleasant surprises like Victor Cruz.
Giants miserabilism is sensible because even the team’s reigning patriarch, owner John Mara, totally “gets” the miserabilism thing, agonizing through every game, saying the team’s 8-8 finish in 2009 “felt a lot more like 2-14 to me,” and wistfully observing, just as Peter and I are wont to do after a close victory, “It would be nice to have an easy one, but I don’t think that’s in our DNA.”
In the February issue of Vanity Fair, I have a profile of an artist I’ve long admired but had never examined in depth until the magazine offered me the privilege of doing so: Lucian Freud. You can read the piece online here, or, if you prefer a richer photovisual experience, you can buy an actual hard copy of V.F. on the newsstand or get the pixel-rich iPad app version. (This will sound like graceless product-hustling, but the resolution on the iPad app is amazing, allowing you to see the brushwork of Freud’s paintings in a way that even print doesn’t permit.)
As a putative professional, I am seldom stirred with fanboy goofiness when interviewing or meeting a subject for a story, but I must confess that I was inordinately excited to meet... a dog. Namely, Eli, the unassuming whippet who appears in several of Freud’s later paintings. Here is a snap I took in London of Eli with his master, David Dawson, Freud’s devoted assistant and a frequent sitter for the artist himself:
A lot of buzz in the soul-patch-o-sphere about Elvis Costello’s recent appearance with Elmo on Sesame Street. I must confess to ambivalence. I’m a devoted fan of both cultural institutions (meaning E.C. and Sesame; Elmo hasn’t earned the designation), and I’ve enjoyed some of the celebrity star turns on PBS’s flagship kids’ show. My problem isn’t with the cognitive dissonance of New Wave’s Angry Young Man doing children’s television, for anyone paying attention since Costello’s marvelously hokey “Spinning Songbook” tour of 1986 knows that E.C. forsook that persona a Zuckerberg’s-lifetime ago and has since embraced mainstream showmanship with humor and élan. (I loved him on Stephen Colbert’s Christmas special.)
It’s the song choice and Muppet choice, I think. That they reached back to the Angry Young phase, and specifically to one of the very first blasts of it—rejiggering the almost-debut 1977 single “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and its statement-of-purpose opening line, “Oh, I used to be disgusted/ And now I try to be amused” as “A Monster Went and Ate My Red 2” and “Oh, I want to count to ten now/ But it’s something I can’t do”—well, must every act of cultural transgression eventually be defanged and cutesified? (And with Elmo in E.C. drag, no less?) Personally, I would have much preferred a remake of the 1982 song “Tears Before Bedtime,” both because it lends itself to kiddie interpretation and because, with its weird multi-tracked backing vocals, it already sounds like it’s a duet between Elvis Costello and a bunch of Muppets.
A larger point: It feels like every famous person traipses down the Street nowadays. I rather miss the innate Sesame-ness of the celebrity appearances of my childhood, when it seems that the visitors were always righteous and beautiful black people like Lena Horne and Richard Pryor, dropping by while in the neighborhood to uplift the race. Somehow, the latter-day cameos by the likes of Seth Rogen and Michelle Monaghan just don’t have the same oomph. (Though there is something compelling about the wrongness of Robert De Niro’s legendary master class with Elmo, which upset adult viewers while leaving small children puzzled.)
As much as I understand the universal love for Sesame Street and every decent famous person’s innate desire to appear on it, I’d rather some public figures in the arts remain indisputably of the adult world, never deflating their own mystique by counting to ten or reciting the alphabet in the presence of talking felt. Herewith, a list of well-known people who should never appear on Sesame Street:
Tom Verlaine of the band Television
It is the way of things that everyone has a kind of proprietary feeling towards a famous person after that famous person dies—“He spoke to me more than anyone!”—so let me preface what follows by humbly stating that I am just one of millions whose life was significantly impacted by the late Steve Jobs.
But it is fascinating to consider this impact in biographical terms, to realize how personal Jobs made personal computing. By dint of having a good childhood friend whose dad was a professor of engineering at Rutgers University, I was one of those kids who had early access to an Apple II computer, which the professor’s family kept in the basement. We were given free rein to use and abuse this machine, and we flipped avidly through computer magazines to follow the doings of the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, as well as the people who were designing Apple II games. Our hero was a Persian-American programmer named Nasir Gebelli, who, working first for Sirius Software and then his own Gebelli Software company, came up with design-forward games that looked better and hummed along more elegantly than the noisy dreck that most other software companies were producing back then. We spent hours playing such games “By Nasir” (as he tagged them) as Phantoms Five, Space Eggs, and Gebelli’s then-audacious 1981 leap into 3D vector graphics, Horizon V. (I still conflate these games with the Who song “You Better You Bet” playing on the radio.)
Much in the same way that the 12-year-old Jobs had the gumption to call up Bill Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard on the telephone, my friend, the engineering professor’s son, decided one day in seventh grade that he should simply call up Nasir Gebelli in California to discuss his ideas for new games. Gebelli, far from being affronted, offered my friend a job—an opportunity that, given child labor laws, my friend had to pass on. (My friend did end up working at Apple years later, though.)
In the winter of 1984, our junior year of high school, we saw Jobs’s famous “insanely great” introduction of the Macintosh computer. My friend’s uncle on the other side of his family was by this time running a software company that took an early shipment of Macintoshes. (You called them Macintoshes back then; even Jobs wasn’t yet hip to the power of abbreviated branding.) Through that company, I was able to receive a corporate discount on my first personal computer, a Macintosh 512k (a ton of memory back then) that I took with me to college as a freshman in 1985. That school year was a tipping point. At its beginning, I was the only person in my residence hall to have a Macintosh, which proved to be a good ice-breaker socially; most of my colleagues (I kid you not, youngsters) had arrived on campus toting typewriters. But by the school year’s end, about half the kids in the hall owned Macs, and the university had set up a computer lab equipped with Macs for public use.
I still have the 512k Mac in storage, its veal-colored casing (to use Tom Wolfe’s perjorative phrase for the plastic housing of early personal computers) yellowed by time. It was the first of approximately 21 Apple devices I have owned, up to and including the iPad 2 that I’ll use next week, when I’m abroad, to Skype in my part of the Thursday-night Giants radio show that I co-host on the nation’s smallest NPR affiliate. (It’s called “Tangled Up in Blue,” if you care to listen to loony, undisciplined ranting about football.)
I’m not an ardent-enough techie to call myself a fanboy, and maybe that’s a good thing—and the reason I actually met a girl and married her—but I was, and am, a fan of Steve Jobs.
This month I have a post up at Vanity Fair’s site about the extraordinary and improbably inspiring story of how George Harrison mentally and spiritually endured the horrific attack upon his person in 1999, its details courtesy of his engaging widow, Olivia. It is a companion piece to the brief spotlight I wrote in V.F.’s October issue about the new Martin Scorsese-directed HBO documentary about Harrison.
I can’t bring myself to engage in the “favorite Beatle” game—the whole thing wouldn’t have come off without all four of them—but I must confess to an abiding interest in George, who seemed the most intellectually curious and the best prepared for a life outside of Beatledom. Eleven years ago, as Vanity Fair prepared its first music issue, I was given carte blanche to pursue my dream of writing a profile of George. After months of petitioning, going through (glass?) onion-like layers of intermediaries, I received a call one August morning in 2000 from a publicist who’d been deputized to handle me, and he was delivering happy news: “George is quite keen to do it.” I was instructed to sit tight the following day, when I would receive a second call laying out the logistics and details of how I was going to meet Mr. Harrison at his estate, Friar Park.
The call never came. I waited one day by the telephone, then half of another, before an apologetic call came from the same publicist, informing me that Harrison was compelled to give a deposition or attend to some other kind of business regarding the legal case against the intruder who had invaded his and Olivia’s home. I was told that the matter of my Vanity Fair profile of George would be revisited in due time. But, sadly, that time never came. Shortly thereafter, George fell ill again with cancer, too ill to do a lengthy interview. He died in November of 2001.
While I’m Beatle-linking, here is a link to one of the few pieces of writing I’ve ever done that I am unequivocally pleased with, a thingy that ran on V.F.’s Web site last year called “Lennon at 70!” Reaction to it was sharply divided, but it was written, if I can go all Yoko on you, with love.
Like a lot of mere civilians, I cannot get enough of the Beatles’ story. To me, it was the best narrative of the twentieth century, in fiction or nonfiction. The four of them were at once a blank screen upon which all the fads and morés of their era were projected—teenybopper-ism, Indian mysticism, psychedelia, anti-war activism, postwar materialism, etc.—and four very strong, fully formed, sui generis personalities. No writerly embellishment can better the stories that they gave us.
I used to work with a man named Walter Monheit™. He was an extraordinary fellow, like a character out of an old Preston Sturges movie come to life in the downtown Jonathan Demme-monde of the 1980s. Walter died last week. Over at Vanity Fair’s site, I’ve paid him tribute.
In 1976, my brother, three and a half years older than me, purchased a Jethro Tull greatest-hits collection with the curious title M.U. — The Best of Jethro Tull. (I’ve since learned that “M.U.” is Brit-speak for “Musicians’ Union,” but it still doesn’t make sense as a title.) Back then, albums often came with bonus mini-poster inserts, and my brother covered the walls of his room with them: the oblique Egyptian-pyramid images that accompanied Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the Eagles’ hairy-gothic band portrait from Hotel California, the collage poster from the Beatles’ White Album...
But the Tull album, the one the least consequential musically to our family, offered the poster that remains lodged in my brain: a “Last Supper”-style image of the band’s second and third lineups reunited over drinks and coffee at a banquet table:
As is the way of childhood, when the days seem to stretch out forever, I spent hours, ages, contemplating the strange creatures in this photograph: their ostentatious finery*, their prodigious facial hair, their palpable merriment; they were my own Sendak Wild Things. (Ian Anderson, in the center, seems to be roaring more than laughing.) They were also magnificently named: one was called Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, another Barriemore Barlow. For some reason, I was most obsessed with bassist Glenn Cornick, the bespectacled fellow second from right in the crocheted hat, glasses, and floral-print shirt.
I puzzled over these creatures, wondering if, should they ever have come upon me, they would have beaten me up or welcomed me into their band; it could have gone either way. Now, when I regard this image, I love the weighted-down heaviness of it—the dark brick, the dark fabrics, the straw-covered chianti bottles, the gauche flower arrangements. There’s something wondrous in all the baroque ugliness, and I can see how a child, any child with this image tacked to a familiar wall in his home, could get lost in it. I should add that this Tull poster remains intact, on the very closet door where my brother put it up in ’76; my mother still hasn’t taken it down. And I am still taken in by it.
* When I was still a regular contributor to GQ, I suggested to its editor, Jim Nelson, that the magazine restage this photograph as a fashion shoot, using models in clothing that evoked the clothing that the Tull members wear here. I figure that Paul Smith alone must have the duds to match these pretty closely. But Jim didn’t go for it.
Because I am working on a book about the 1970s in America, and because I was a child in the 1970s in America, my research occasionally takes a turn for the emotional-primordial. Stumbling upon a certain informational tidbit doesn’t merely jog the memory but all five senses, too—as if a pump-mist of retro atmosphere has suddenly been pump-misted into the room.
I had hazy memories of a prepubescent pop duo, boys, who made the rounds of TV one summer with their chipper songs, one of which was a paean to Amy Carter, the First Daughter. My research on Jimmy Carter’s presidency led me to discover this pop duo’s long-forgotten name, the Keane Brothers. Upon learning this, I naturally did the Google/YouTube thing and found this particularly beguiling TV ad for the Keanes (courtesy of the Museum of Classic Chicago Television). The sultry female voice-over seems at odds with the teenybop product being pitched but is very much in keeping with the humid languor that fell over 1977. Also interesting to note that tween fashion has cycled ’round completely—this is exactly how my son and his friends look and dress today.
It turns out that 13-year-old Tom (piano) and 12-year-old John (drums) Keane had their own short-lived CBS variety program that year, a summer fill-in show. That, and their corresponding promotional appearances, must be what I remember. The YouTube clips of the Keane Brothers evoke a side of the 1970s that historians who were adults in that period never capture: the summery poptimism, goofy as it appeared. The seventies were not all darkness and malaise and Nixonian villainy. For me, these clips bring back that patina of sweat everyone had at all times back then—not a desperate salesman’s flop-sweat but the lightly worn consequence of activity, man-made fibers, and the matted, moppy hairstyles we all had. I feel the phantom patina on me now. I think J.J. Abrams was feeling it when he made Super 8.
Here is a clip of the Keane Brothers from their CBS program that, at around 2:26, shows them performing the Amy Carter song, “Amy (Show the World You’re There).” (You must first endure a tedious intrusion by a frizz-haired grown-up impressionist, though it does offer an intriguing glimpse of the vestigial vaudevillian ethos that still held sway in variety TV back then.)
Tonight (May 23), at 9 p.m. on VH1, comes a TV show I co-produced, 50 Cent: The Origin of Me. It’s where genealogy meets gangsta rap meets antebellum craziness meets pottery. Really.
And, going forward, the show will be viewable in full on VH1’s Web site.
More details here.
I’ll admit that I am a latecomer to the phenomenon that is 13-year-old Rebecca Black and her viral anti-hit single, “Friday.” But I finally heard and watched it after seeing the Colbert-Fallon cover, which was enjoyable even without the original point of reference. And I’m so glad I did. “Friday” is wonderful and goofy and upliftingly wrong. As a video-song combo (with over 103 million YouTube views as of this writing), it is outsider art on a mega scale: what would have happened to the Shaggs had the Shaggs come into existence now rather than in the late 1960s.
The Shaggs were three sisters from New Hampshire whose father willed them into becoming a pop band in 1968 and underwrote the recording of their sole studio album, Philosophy of the World. The sisters, Dot, Helen, and Betty Wiggin, were not terribly keen on being musicians, but they were obeisant daughters and they produced something breathtakingly strange: unintentionally microtonal and polyrhythmic music that defies writerly description. (Have a listen to “My Pal Foot Foot,” their ode to their cat—and a disturbing snapshot of eastern New England inertia and vowel sounds in that period.)
Rebecca Black, too, had her recording underwritten by her parents, and “Friday” is equally strange and incompetent, if glossier than the material on “Philosophy of the World.” A Southern California girl whose mom and dad are both veterinarians, Black grew up plugged into the world, unlike the culturally and geographically isolated Wiggin sisters. So her video features the requisite memes of professionally made teeny-bop and hip-hop music videos: cruising with friends in a convertible, having a house party, wearing one’s hair flattened, ceding a few bars of the song to a rent-a-rapper. If Austin Wiggin, the domineering dad of the Shaggs, had had the tools at his disposal that Dr. and Dr. Black have now, he no doubt would have produced something like this.
Yet no amount of autotune or Final Cut Pro sheen can counter the fact that there’s still something very Shaggs-y—i.e., wrong—about Rebecca. Her flat affect and noncommittal vocals suggest she’s not totally up for a performing career, not a natural dynamo like the turbo-driven young guys and gals on American Idol. Perhaps, like Dot, Helen, and Betty, she was goaded into this whole undertaking.
Still, I have to admit that both the Shaggs and Black make me do something that contemporary pop singles seldom do: smile. Partly, it’s a laughing-at-them thing, which I feel a little guilty about. But it’s also a pleasure taken in the real-girl naïveté on display, the lack (for once) of precocity, god-given pipes, and golden looks. And that enunciation in Rebecca’s chorus (“It’s FRY-yee-day, FRY-yee-day”) is amazing—the unsought bridge between Liam Gallagher and Valley Girl-speak.
A couple of years ago, a young writer and comic I know named Eliot Glazer came up with a brilliant, simple idea. He created a Tumblr account called My Parents Were Awesome and invited his readers—mostly young adults, people in their twenties and early thirties—to contribute photographs of their parents before they were parents. The premise, as explained in the homepage mission statement, was simple: “Before the fanny packs and Andrea Bocelli concerts, your parents (and grandparents) were once free-wheeling, fashion-forward, and super-awesome.”
That might overstate things (many current parents have been dorks since their teens), but Eliot’s invitation brought in hundreds of wonderful Instamatic-style portraits of now-middle- and senior-aged people in the suede-fringed and granny-squared splendor of their own young adulthoods, circa the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Now this uncommonly warm and welcoming blog has become a book, also called My Parents Were Awesome, that expands upon the site by inviting contributors not only to turn in photographs, but to write testimonials to these parents and the lives they lived beyond their Mom and Dad roles.
I’m a bit old for Eliot’s contributor demographic, but he flattered me by asking if I could adapt my GQ essay on my late car-salesman father for the book, and so I did. The book, published on April 5 by Villard Trade Paperbacks, is fun, moving, and inspirational without being the scary kind of “Inspirational”: a celebration of family that doesn’t moralize to death. It might be a little heavy on Hebraic contributors—I’m one of two writers who delivers a testimonial to a dad named Seymour, and there are three contributors named Rachel—but there’s a sweet universality to the way everyone, with perspective, grows to recognize that one’s parents have led fascinating lives outside of the house, away from the dinner table, free of the minivan.
“People think I’m some obscene perfectionist,” the Chicago chef Charlie Trotter told me. “But I have coined a term for myself. I think I’m more of an ‘excellence-ist.’ And there is a difference. I’m interested in monitoring every little detail.”
I did a profile of Trotter for the New York Times. As a magazine-trained person, I still haven’t mastered the quick in-and-out of newspaper writing; the article looks long in print and online, but it contains about a tenth of the thoughts (and, okay, the self-indulgent bits of writerly nuance) that I wanted to include. I won’t yammer on too much here, but I will say that Chef Trotter has long intrigued me, in that he’s not the vision of the “celebrity chef” that we have come to know in the last two decades: the smiling, eager-to-please, camera-ready showman.
Trotter is an intense man who calls himself not only an “excellence-ist” but “a devout Ayn Randian.” With his wire-rim eyeglasses and scrubbed appearance, he looks like a nineteenth-century burgher. All of this puts him at odds with the liberal-humanist bent (and facial-hair-friendliness) of today’s food world—but that’s part of what I find refreshing about him. He’s true to who he is, even if that doesn’t make him fashionable or lovable—and he still runs one of America’s best kitchens.
The Times article focuses on the extent to which Trotter, whether through stubbornness or the simple passing of time, has been eclipsed by younger, more marketing-savvy chefs. But one conclusion I came to, which didn’t make the article, is that perhaps he is his generation’s version of André Soltner, who ran New York’s Lutèce and couldn’t be bothered with being anything more than the chef-owner of one great restaurant.
Trotter didn’t totally agree with this characterization, in that he can be bothered with dreams of expansion and off-site restaurants. But he did recognize in himself a bit of Soltner and a bit of his idol, the Swiss chef Frédy Girardet, also a one-restaurant guy until the day he retired. “I can relate—the only time Girardet ever missed a service was the day that the city of Lausanne gave him a key to the city,” Trotter said.
“So is that, ultimately, who you are?” I asked.
“Perhaps it is,” Trotter said. “Perhaps it is.”
At this point, I think it’s well worth revisiting my totally ignored speculation from a year ago on what it would have been like had Simon Cowell’s Idol replacement been the celebrity with the name most similar to his: English character actor and Orson Welles biographer Simon Callow. I maintain that Callow would have made for better TV than J-Lo.
It was thirty-three years ago this week that I awoke one morning to the usual sounds of older siblings rustling and Dad shaving at the sink, this benign familial din differentiated from that of any other day’s only by my mother asking my brother, “Did you hear about the guy from Chicago who died?” This I found puzzling—I thought she was referring to some resident of the city of Chicago who had expired. Only after I’d come downstairs to the breakfast table, where I listened to the news on the rock station WNEW-FM, did it become clear that she meant Terry Kath, the guitarist in the band Chicago, the guy who sang lead on “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World.” He had accidentally shot himself in the head, fatally, while playing with his handgun in an inebriated state.
Maybe it’s because this week has been so brutally cold, or maybe it’s because I’m writing a book about the seventies, but this buried memory flashed into my consciousness today. We were a Chicago-loving household back then. If you know the band only from the eighties era of plinked-synth ballads and multi-tracked Peter Cetera vocals, reconsider. They were a damned good band in the early to mid 1970s, one that realized with tight horns, tight songs, and a good rhythm section the vision that prog rock got wretchedly wrong: complex, full-sounding, big rock music that wasn’t gloppy and overegged. I say without shame that side two of their 1970 double album Chicago II, the bulk of which is taken up by “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,” a seven-part song suite written by the trombonist James Pankow and sung mostly by Kath, is one of most emotionally evocative pieces of music I can listen to: the soundtrack to long family car rides, summer nights humid with hamburger fumes, and other irretrievable moments of a patchwork-denim early youth. Those shaggy, paint-splattered young men on the cover of 1975’s Chicago IX, their first greatest-hits collection, seemed like gentle hippie freaks rather than menacing rockers, akin to the outgoing, not-flagrantly-druggy backpackers we met atop the mountains we were constantly hiking in the seventies:
Everyone in a cold climate falls victim at this time of year to seasonal affective disorder, the winter doldrums. I wonder now how much mine are informed by the death of Terry Kath. It was a brutal and coldly final tragedy, especially in freezing January, and especially as it fell between the November ’77 death of one grandfather and the February ’78 death of the other. And it introduced to me the sacred Rock Snob tenet of the Sanctity of the Original Lineup: No band can ever again be considered whole and truly good without all the members who were in the band at the time of its initial success. I knew, even in my tadpole phase of Rock Snobbery, that Chicago, the real Chicago, was done for. It’s entirely possible that the spiky, exhilarating Talking Heads and Clash records my brother was already playing would have smothered my Chicago-love anyway. But this was a cruel, forced curtain-drop.
The record business moved faster then, and it wasn’t but eight or nine months before Chicago reemerged with a new album and a new guitarist, an alarmingly poodle-haired, visually acontextual fellow named Donnie Dacus. I remember watching this broadcast in October 1978 of Chicago performing its comeback single, “Alive Again,” and recognizing the song as a credible facsimile of the old Chicago, but, alas, not quite the real thing. (Though I was unfair to Dacus, who, despite his ridiculous hair, was a perfectly fine musician and vocalist on his own terms.) It would be egregiously hacky to say that this was the end of my childhood innocence, but it was certainly an end—a punctuation point to a chapter of my childhood.
“Nothing less than a world championship is acceptable to our team.” This is a declaration constantly trotted out by sports organizations, whether in training camp or on the eve of a championship game, and it’s utter bollocks.
I’m thinking about the “Nothing less than” trope because today, in the wake of the New York Jets’ playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I’ve been hearing a lot of an equally dubious trope: “Same old Jets.” Same old? This team, with a youngish coach and a core of young players, has made it to two consecutive conference championship games! They’ll probably be a good team for several years to come. And that is, for a fan, a pretty great set of circumstances.
I’m not even a Jets fan; my football team is the Giants, who finished 10-6 and didn’t make the playoffs. If I may make an unfashionable admission, I enjoyed the Giants’ past season (in that masochistic, pain-as-joy way endemic to diehard sports fandom) because the Giants had a winning record and were in the playoff hunt until the end. That’s really what is acceptable to me. If I had a chance to rewrite the “Nothing less than” aphorism, I would rewrite it as “Nothing less than a team that is solid year in and year out, and is in the playoff hunt until late in the regular season, is acceptable.” What’s more, I have endured Giants teams that have had terrible seasons of double-digit losses, yet still I’ve returned to my seats in the Meadowlands when the next season rolled around. So if I’m being truthful, I must make the still-more-unfashionable admission that even a losing team, while dreary and soul-crushing and self-worth-abnegating, is kind of acceptable.
It’s understandable why coaches like the Jets’ Rex Ryan and owners like the Yankees’ Steinbrenners deploy the “Nothing less than” formulation, since it stokes the fans’ hopes and the players’ self-belief. But if you’re a true sports fan, you have to disengage from this all-or-nothing approach, which, in most years, will lead to bitter disappointment. (And, in the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago, to nihilistic despair.) The most apt summation of true fan bliss I ever heard came from John Madden, back when he was still calling NFL games on Sunday afternoons for Fox. I can’t recall which game it was or even which season it was, but it was around Thanksgiving time, and it was a close game between two NFC conference rivals. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” Madden said in that unforced merry way of his. “Late November, it’s gettin’ cold, playoff spots on the line.”
My own favorite part of any NFL season is this “Madden period,” late November to early December, when enough of the season has unfolded to shake out the awful teams, but still, there remain many teams in the hunt and many games that matter. Maybe it’s because my early years of Giants fandom were defined by truly bad teams—from age 7 to age 14, they were a losing team, with double-digit losses in all but two of those eight seasons—but for my team to still be standing in that late-autumnal Madden period is, really, all I ever hope for. Playoff berths, playoff wins, Super Bowl championships: the rest is gravy.
...is me. Let me tell you about a story-idea memo I sent to the editor of Vanity Fair in October 2008, when it looked increasingly likely that the Obama-Biden ticket would prevail over the McCain-Palin one. Here’s what I wrote:
“I think it would be a great story, if the polls prove correct and the Obama-Biden ticket wins, to do a Sarah Palin profile a few months after the inauguration, after she has returned to being governor every day, the national parade has moved on, and the national G.O.P. isn’t policing her every press appointment and utterance.
“The idea would be for me to go to Juneau and interview her in March or April, for a story to run in May or June. And it would be a ‘What I’ve Learned’ piece—what, with a little perspective, she has learned about the country, the national campaign process, and herself.
“Whatever you think of her, she’s endured the most whirlwind three-month period that probably any national candidate for office has—from little-known and reasonably well-regarded governor to heavily scrutinized, heavily polarizing, heavily mocked figure on the national stage. (Just watched her on SNL, where all these things were in play, as well as the sheer culture shock of her hanging out backstage with Lorne.) And factor in the fact that she gave birth just a little over four months before McCain chose her as running mate, and that some time between that birth and her being tapped by the G.O.P., she learned her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant.
“Whether she’s prone to self-examination or not, I think she won’t be able to help but look back on the year 2008 and think ‘Good God! That was everything life could possiblty throw at me! How did I get through it?’ And I’d genuinely love to hear the answer to this question once she had some distance from it all.”
I know, I know—what a rube! I actually admired the way Palin had taken on the entrenched, patronage-driven political culture of Alaska. And I thought that she had taken an inordinate amount of sexist crap on the campaign trail (as had Hillary Clinton) just because she was a woman. Though I in no way believed Palin to be qualified to be vice president of the United States, I thought there was a good chance she would grow, admirably, from her 2008 experience.
I never remotely imagined that she would resign from office eight months later.
And that—as we now know, two books, a couple of reality shows, and thousands of tweets later—was just the beginning. Even recently, after the Gabby Giffords shooting, I somehow had this goofy, naïve expectation that Palin would rise to the occasion, as nearly every political figure on the national stage has. Instead, she spoke bizarrely of “blood libel” (which I know from long-ago Hebrew-school vocab tests to mean something other than what she perceives it to be) and made the moment about herself.
So what would have happened had I actually sat down with Palin in early 2009? Probably, I’d have fared as well as the bow-tie guy on The Hot Box with Avery Jessup.
Mimi Sheraton, who was the New York Times’s restaurant critic in the formative years of my newspaper-reading life, the late seventies to early eighties, has caused a bit of a foodosphere kerfuffle by giving a characteristically cranky interview to a newish online New York publication called Capital. The main thing she grumps about is her former paper, which, she says, “has been exaggerated in its Brooklyn coverage [of restaurants] because most of them live there.” The “them” to which she refers are the Times’s dining editor, Pete Wells, and its featured writers, among them the man who holds her old job, Sam Sifton, and Times Magazine contributor Amanda Hesser. Sheraton’s comments have elicited some witty parries via Twitter from the Times’s current crop of professional eaters.
I went through a similar thing with ol’ Mimi a few years back when I was reporting my book The United States of Arugula. Since I grew up reading her work, I was eager to interview her, and I sent her an appropriately fulsome note explaining how much I would value her perspective as I undertook my project, a chronicle of the remarkable evolution of American foodways and food savvy over the last 50 years. Mimi turned me down flat, saying that the very premise of my book was based on “false hype.” She suggested I not even bother with the book. So, Brooklyners, take heart: It’s not just your borough but ALL OF AMERICA that has fallen under a spell of phony gastro-euphoria.
Still, I somehow managed to get Mimi on the phone, to establish the teensiest of rapports with her (mainly because we live within blocks of each other in Greenwich Village), and to pry a few reluctant quotes out of her. I actually found the experience kind of fun, because Mimi turned out to be an authentic Olde New York curmudgeon, with plenty of opinions and no desire to be liked. Calvin Trillin is often sold to us as a curmudgeon, but he’s a false curmudgeon, a man who looks the part and sometimes plays the part but is actually polite and lovable. Not Mimi.
And then I had the experience of interviewing a woman who out-curmudgeoned Mimi, the food historian Karen Hess. Hess had recently been widowed; her husband, John Hess, had been an investigative reporter for the Times and was briefly, before Sheraton, in the early seventies, the paper’s restaurant critic. Together, the Hesses had decried the delusional, hypey food press in the very culinary heyday that Sheraton now pines for. Their 1977 jeremiad The Taste of America is one of the nastiest books I’ve ever read, a scorched-earth critique of Sheraton, Craig Claiborne, Julia Child, and their ilk that makes Anthony Bourdain sound like a host on the OWN network.
Karen Hess was no nicer towards these people when I met her in person. She called Child a “dithering idiot,” Claiborne a man of “disgusting” taste, and Mimi “stupid.” This was not a bitter byproduct of her widowhood; Hess had always been this way. As if to demonstrate this fact, she delightedly led me to a hallway outside of her kitchen, where, mounted on a wall, was a laminated copy of an old Sheraton review that she had put up, with highlighting and angry handwritten comments in the margins, because she considered it the worst piece of food writing she had ever seen. (I wish I could remember which restaurant Mimi was reviewing in the offending review, and what Hess’s specific beefs were, but I can’t; I only remember a lot of appalled exclamation points.)
I don’t know that we’ll experience this breed of curmudgeon again. With the advent of blogging and tweeting, professional writers need no longer conceal their cranky sides. They now preempt their future curmudgeon-geezer phases by venting in ways that they can’t when writing for a genteel print publication. (Just look at Buzz Bissinger’s Twitter feed.) So, youngsters, enjoy Mimi’s difficultness while you can.
I recently purchased the Elton John-Leon Russell album The Union, which is not only an agreeable collection of retro blues-pop choogling (I especially like the song “Hey Ahab”), but a means through which I’ve conquered one of my greatest childhood fears: the face of Leon Russell.
The best record shop around when I was a kid was not strictly a record shop but the basement music section of Korvette’s, a chain discount department store in the greater New York City area. I guess it was a precursor to places like Target and Costco, because my mother somehow needed to shop there nearly every weekend, and we kids were left to roam the record department until checkout time. This was the early to mid 1970s, when rock musicians were at their most hirsute and sinister-looking. For me, the sensation of flipping through those record shelves was akin to the perverse pleasure people take in watching horror movies: they know they’re going to be scared, yet they dig it.
I never liked horror movies, but I couldn’t help but look, repeatedly, visit after visit, at the scary faces of scary musicians on scary-looking album covers. I was mesmerized/traumatized by Edgar and Johnny Winter, the albino brothers from Texas who were then in their heyday as blues guitarists:
Edgar’s combination of albinism, nudity, and glam pancake on the cover of They Only Come Out at Night was particularly haunting. The glammy thing then going on was as frightening to a small child as the long hair and Mephistophelean beards people had. I was equally spooked by the covers of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and the glam-meets-Dresden chaos relished by the members of Kiss (those preening goons! those exploding flash pots!) on the (to me) apocalyptic cover of Alive!:
But nothing compared to the abject terror inspired by Leon Russell album covers. In the years since, I’ve come to learn that Russell, a pianist, was a core member of Phil Spector’s band of sixties session men and a universally liked and respected member of the rock fraternity, employed by the Rolling Stones, George Harrison, and the Byrds. Back when I was a kid, though, he was, for a pocket of time in the seventies, a credible top-forty solo artist and the meanest, scariest-looking man in rock. This was partly through forces over which he had no control (he was prematurely graying and had sunken, ringed eyes), and partly because the guy worked it—with greasepaint makeup, albums with titles like Carney, and scowly cover expressions even on the albums he recorded with his then-wife Mary:
You cannot understand how unsettling it was to flip through this man’s body of work circa 1970-75, encountering various iterations of this nasty visage in the darkened, windowless space of the Korvette’s record department. It’s ironic that Elton John should be the one to rescue Russell from semi-obscurity with their Union album, for Elton’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was the first LP I ever bought in Korvette’s with my own spending money. (Theretofore I had only ever purchased singles; I had an older sister and brother to buy new albums and bestow musical taste upon me.)
Leon is still pretty scary in appearance to me, but if Elton is comfortable with him, then so am I.
Caught up with John Lennon over the summer. Interesting.
A couple of weeks ago, my review of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest ran in the New York Times Book Review. In it, I mentioned the “pathological coffee drinking” of Larsson’s characters in the book and its two prequels, especially by the character who serves as Larsson’s swingier alter ego, Mikael Blomkvist. I also floated my semiserious hypothesis that Larsson, who died of a heart attack at age 50, might have done himself in by drinking so much coffee, having “overcaffeinated himself to death.” (I also mentioned that Larsson’s intimates say he smoked a lot and ate mostly junk food, which couldn’t have served his body well.)
Well, my goofy little theory has triggered quite the animated online discussion—what a hackier writer might call a brew-haha—of Scandinavian coffee-drinking habits, my apparent ignorance of them, and Larsson’s untimely expiry. Both the Times’s Paper Cuts blog and the Web site of blogger extraordinaire Matthew Yglesias have offered feedback from readers who note that in both Scandinavian countries and U.S. areas with large Scandinavian-American populations, such as Minnesota, coffee is brewed, served, and sipped at all hours, nothing “pathological” about it. As one reader puts it, “It is clear that Kamp has never spent any time in Sweden or any other Scandinavian country. The coffee drinking in Scandinavian society is a normal social behavior, not the ‘overcaffeinated’ condition Kamp describes.”
First of all, guilty as charged: I have never been to Scandinavia, perhaps the result of an early trauma involving being forced to watch Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage at a too-tender age when it was broadcast on New York’s Channel Thirteen. But I do have awareness of the Scandinavian coffee culture, if not a thorough fluency in it; I first picked up on it years ago when eating at an Ann Sather, the Chicago mini-chain of Swedish diners where coffee is considered a normal beverage to drink with any meal at any hour. (I have a soft spot for Ann Sather, but I’m kind of grossed out by the idea of drinking coffee with a hearty lunch of meatballs and duck with lingonberry glaze.)
All that said, I maintain that Larsson’s coffee fetish transcended even the Scandinavian norm. Blomkvist’s coffee drinking is not the mere social sipping ascribed to all Swedes, but a 24-7 habit with not infrequent dips into the hard stuff: double espresso. There’s also a rather revealing moment in the second book of the Millenium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, when Blomkvist sneaks into the vacant apartment of his comrade in justice, Lisbeth Salander, and finds himself voyeuristically “admir[ing] with awe the espresso machine on its own separate table. She had a Jura Impressa X7 with an attached milk cooler... Blomkvist knew that a Jura was the espresso equivalent of a Rolls Royce—a professional machine for domestic use that cost in the neighborhood of 70,000 kronor. He had an espresso machine that he had bought at John Wall, which had cost around 3,500 kronor—one of the few extravagances he had allowed himself for his own household, and a fraction of the grandeur of Salander’s machine.” Heavens, the psychosexual suggestions of the phrase “attached milk cooler” alone have me fanning myself as I type.
Okay, onto the deleterious effects of Blomkvist’s/Larsson’s coffee drinking. Throughout the three Larsson books, Blomkvist drinks two kinds of beverages: coffee-based ones and alcoholic ones. Caffeine is a diuretic. So is alcohol. In moderate amounts, neither will compromise a person’s health, but, consumed in large amounts, especially in combination, they will cause serious dehydration. And Larsson’s is not a world in which people hydrate themselves.
Indeed, the only real water drinker in his large cast of characters is Blomkvist’s straight-arrow sister, Annika Giannini, a lawyer who represents Salander in Hornet’s Nest. There’s a moment in that book when, inevitably, the sexually omnivorous Salander, lubricated with beer, makes a pass at Giannini when they have a meeting in a bar. The upright attorney politely spurns her client and steers the conversation back towards business, “drinking mostly mineral water.” (The prude!)
As for Blomkvist, his one moment of fluidic correctness comes during his first postcoital moment with Monica Figuerola, his superfit new policewoman love interest. They wrap themselves in sheets and repair to her kitchen for “cold pasta salad with tuna and bacon.” Here, Larsson takes pains to note, “They drank water with their dinner.” This is the Stieg/Mikael version of doing something uncharacteristically romantic in the early stages of a new relationship, the way a newly besotted young lad will gladly endure a Katherine Heigl rom-com to impress his gal.
Well, that sums up my highly dubious literary autopsy of Larsson, whose death I sincerely mourn despite the silliness above.
I was on the Space Mountain ride, on my one and only trip to Disney World, when my brother left the message on my cell phone. It was December 28, 2004. It took me a few minutes to find my legs, adjust to the bright light outside, and notice that I had a voicemail. I dialed in. The news was grim. “I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you this,” my brother said, “but Jerry Orbach is dead.”
Today, I feel the same gut punch. My octogenarian-style television viewing habits shall forever be altered. Yes, there are reruns ’round the clock, but the cancellation somehow puts a damper on the viewing experience; “Law & Order” is no longer an infinite resource.
And so, with apologies to Auden...
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message L&O Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the wizened neck of Adam Schiff,
Let the hairspray melt from Briscoe’s quiff.
It was my North, my South, my East and West,
My DVR mainstay and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that L&O would last forever: I was wrong.
Waterston is not wanted now: let him do summer stock;
Tear down the shooting permits on ev’ry block;
Dismantle the squad room and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Turner Classic Movies, better known as TCM or “L’Histoire du Cinéma avec Robert Osborne,” is putting on its first-ever festival right plumb in the middle of Hollywood. The TCM Classic Film Festival will take place from April 22-26, and its lineup of screenings and guest appearances is so magnificent that I shall simply link to it rather than describe it in full. But I will mention that I am introducing two films in conjunction with the festival programming based on the book Vanity Fair’s Hollywood, and, specifically, the articles of mine reprinted therein.
On Saturday, April 24, at 9:30 a.m. at Mann’s Chinese 6 theater, I will kick off a screening of Orson Welles’s second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, by discussing its making and unmaking, and its lingering effects on Welles’s life and reputation, with Welles’s dear friend and confidant, the director Peter Bogdanovich. (I reported the story long enough ago to have interviewed the movie’s editor, Robert Wise, later a famous director in his own right. Wise died in 2005, and there’s no longer anyone associated with the actual making of Ambersons still alive. But Bogdanovich has amazing stories to tell.)
On Sunday, April 25, at 9 a.m. at the Egyptian Theatre, I will kick off a screening of Joseph Mankiewicz’s epic Cleopatra (yes, the one with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) by discussing its long and tortured making with Martin Landau, who played Marc Antony’s deputy, Rufio. (Landau is pulling quadruple duty at the TCM Festival, also appearing at screenings of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [with the film’s director’s daughter, Anjelica Huston], North by Northwest [with Eva Marie Saint], and Crimes and Misdemeanors [again with Anjelica Huston, who by this time was his co-star].) Joe Mankiewicz’s engaging son, Tom, who interned on Cleopatra as a college kid, might join us. I have never seen Cleopatra on a proper theater-sized screen, so I’m as excited as any audience member will be.
The lineup of movies and people is, I reiterate, mind-boggling. The TCM Classic Film Festival is, as hyperbolic as this may sound, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see films from past golden ages of Hollywood on full-sized movie screens and see in the flesh some of the very people who were instrumental in these films’ production. My V.F. colleague Sam Kashner will introduce the mighty Sweet Smell of Success by chatting with Sidney Falco himself, Tony Curtis. Another colleague, Peter Biskind, will open a screening of Midnight Cowboy with a chitchat with Joe Buck himself, Jon Voight. And then there’s a screening of Singin’ in the Rain introduced by Stanley Donen himself?!? I’ll be there, pinching myself and thereby getting strange looks from others.
The year was 1986. Performance art was still considered scary and threatening to noninitiates, part of the conspiracy of superiority that David Byrne was in on but you weren’t. That summer I saw a movie called Legal Eagles. I remember virtually nothing about it except that it was a waste of A-list talent (its stars were Robert Redford and Debra Winger, its director Ivan Reitman) and that it featured a preposterous sequence in which Daryl Hannah, playing a forbiddingly nonemotive performance artist, previewed her latest conceptual piece for Redford’s character.
Even though I was young and relatively unschooled in the ways of the avant garde, I remember Hannah’s “piece” as an abomination, a Beverly Hills person’s idea of what conceptual artists were doing in subterranean performance spaces in Manhattan’s East Village: way too literalistic, not nearly open-ended enough, and just... astonishingly wrong. I’ve never been able to get it out of my head. And now, thanks to the YouTube Memory Retrieval Machine, I’ve been able to watch it again. It hasn’t grown any less ridiculous. In fact, Robert Redford’s wide-eyed expressions of gobsmacked disbelief and fear are even sillier than I remembered, like Stymie’s reaction shots in old Our Gang shorts. Watch for yourself:
I was startled upon opening the April issue of Vanity Fair to see a spotlight on Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, and The Winds of War, among other books. Startled because I’d presumed he’d been, oh, dead for at least two decades. It turns out he’ll be 95 in May, and he has a new book out called The Language That God Talks. (Maybe when you’re in your nineties, you start hearing it.)
Now that I’m armed with this new knowledge that Wouk is alive, I’m wondering if I should resolve an agitating episode from my freshman English class in high school. We were taking a test on The Caine Mutiny. The big essay question was, “Who is the real villain in The Caine Mutiny?” I knew a tricky question when I saw one, and figured that the teacher wanted us to weigh who was most culpable for the messy situation aboard the World War II minesweeper the USS Caine: Was it the tyrannical, corrupt, warped Captain Queeg; the cynical, jaded protagonist, midshipman Willie Keith; or the aloof, manipulative communications officer Tom Keefer?
I went with the obvious choice, Captain Queeg, saying the other two have their flaws but are not purely evil, as Queeg is. I wrote what I thought was an eloquent essayette to this end. And then I got a bad grade because my teacher said I was wrong! The “correct” answer, she said, is that the real villain of The Caine Mutiny is the U.S. Navy, which created a climate in which a monster like Queeg could rise up through the ranks, and in which people like Keith and Keefer would have their worst tendencies brought out.
I was outraged and crushed. (And, admittedly, a totally grade-conscious little priss back then.) First of all, how could there be an objectively right answer to the question “Who is the real villain of The Caine Mutiny?” And second of all, who expects a bunch of 15-year-olds to intuit that the “correct” answer is some abstruse anti-military meta-concept?
I vented to my mother about this (albeit not in those words) and told her that I’d love to know how Herman Wouk himself would answer the question. She mentioned that her Uncle Dan actually knew Herman Wouk, or had known Herman Wouk, and maybe they were still friends. Uncle Dan was a writer of some repute named Daniel Fuchs, a man who wrote a trilogy of novels about the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the 1930s and later became a successful screenwriter out west. Such was my animated rage that I spent 45 minutes staring down Uncle Dan’s California phone number in our address book, trying to summon the nerve to call this relative I barely knew so that I could ask him to put me in touch with his putative friend Herman Wouk so I could ask Wouk what he thought of my English teacher’s smug little thesis and the stupid question that set it up.
But I never called Uncle Dan or pestered Wouk. And then the whole episode receded in my mind as the years went by and other grievances and perceived slights took its place. Yet now, knowing Wouk is still out there, I’m tempted to get his phone number and ask him who he thinks the real enemy in The Caine Mutiny is. Uncle Dan is long dead. But I bet, with my V.F. connections, I can get Wouk’s number.
—from the forthcoming “A Catalogue of Perceived Slights: A Memoir”
Personally, I would love to be a recluse, withdrawn from society and enshrouded in mystique, with only a bagel shop and a P.O. box as my daily destinations. But for some reason, “recluse” is regarded as a pejorative word, as I discovered when I profiled Sly Stone for Vanity Fair—his family vehemently denied that his secretive, shadowy life qualified as reclusive—and again when I worked on my just-published V.F. piece about the late filmmaker John Hughes. Hughes’s sons, like Sly’s relatives, were adamant that their father, contrary to popular belief, was utterly engaged in the world.
I have to agree with them: Hughes was disengaged from Hollywood, which made him a recluse in the film industry’s eyes, but he otherwised lived a normal, out-and-about life in his later years, going to restaurants and hockey games in the Chicago area, opening his home to his and his kids’ friends, and inveterately schmoozing waitresses, garage attendants, and cab drivers when he traveled to New York and London. His was the quiet life of a successful man uninterested in fame, not the misanthropic world of a crank like J.D. Salinger—or the perpetual twilight of the drug- and paranoia-addled Sly.
I’m especially pleased that, as a sidebar to the main piece, we (V.F. and me) are able to present for the first time some short, light fiction that Hughes wrote for fun in his later years, under the pseudonym JL Hudson. One story, “The Things That Bother Jeanne Marie on Friday, January 16, 2006, 4:04 p.m.,” seems to directly acknowledge (and mock) the idea of withdrawn, self-involved crankiness.
The prevailing mainstream-media widsom is that this decade we’re winding down just might be the worst ever—or at least the worst in recent memory.
I’m not ready to offer such a sweeping assessment myself, but, back at the decade’s midpoint, in late 2005, I stopped to contemplate the half-decade that had just passed and thought: This has been an ugly stretch. So ugly, in fact, that there was no way that VH1 and its stable of “fundits” could pull off one of those “I Love the Eighties”-type shows where they could rat-a-tat glib quips about all the horror that had unfolded.
Or could they?
(Courtesy of the archive of my semi-defunct site Snobsite.)
Hey: If you have one of those e-readers made by Amazon, or the corresponding iPhone app, you can now wirelessly download my seriocomic survey of American foodism, The United States of Arugula, and make it part of your portable library.
I was initially wary of the Kindle, because I like real books and independent bookstores. But now that I have one, I find it complements rather than replaces my actual-book-reading. The Kindle is great for loading up on ripping yarns in the crime and thriller genres, which are a godsend during flight delays and long waits at the DMV. Actual books are great for the visual and tactile stuff that the Kindle can’t deliver on. I think Arugula makes for a good Kindle read—it’s not a visual book, and it fits the bill for anyone who needs a fun, absorbing read to get lost in during winter vacation (hint, hint). Besides, I’m eager to reach a new audience of readers in a new way. And the telepathy thing wasn’t working.
My pals at Greenwich Letterpress have just relaunched their Web site, making it easier than ever to order the Food Snob place cards they devised with me. Sisters Beth and Amy Salvini are third-generation printers, and we are working on further Snob products that will adhere to our high standards of heavy paper stock and graphic drollery.
Beth and Amy were recently featured on LXTV 1st Look NY, which supplies content for those little TVs in New York taxicabs. In case you haven’t been cabbing, here’s the clip:
Some months back, I was goaded into experimenting with a microposting utility you might have heard of called Twitter. I’ve since lost interest in Twitter, but, given the hotness of vampire stories and the imminent release of The Twilight Saga: New Moon, I thought I’d reissue, in its entirety, a 24-tweet “teen novelette” that I composed one spring day. It is called “Bruce Weber and the Photogenic Vampires of the Adirondacks,” or BWATPVOTA for short. (I have never read a Twilight book, but I have interviewed Weber and know from experience that this is pretty much exactly how things go ’round his place.)
I now hereby present “Bruce Weber and the Photogenic Vampires of the Adirondacks, A Young-Adult Novel in 24 Tweets”:
BWATPVOTA, Pt 1: Kendra was discovered while rowing at the Schuylkill Navy Regatta. Her ponytail was like a sheaf of golden Champlain wheat.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 2: Porter was discovered while splitting rails on his grandpa’s ranch in Moab, UT. He had cheekbones you could gut trout with.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 3: Kendra and Porter met on a shoot at Splintery Posts, an old camp Bruce Weber owned in the Adirondacks.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 4: Fourteen youths had been booked for the shoot, all with abdomens as tight as drumheads. Only two, however, were vampires.
BWATPVOTA, Pt. 5: Porter first spotted Kendra draped across an old Packard coupe that had been converted into a planter. Weber snapped away.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 6: She wore a madras bandeau and a sarong made from the flag of Burma. Porter caught her eye—the most cerulean eye ever.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 7: The pheromones sizzled off their skin like summer raindrops on an overheated vintage Buick.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 8: They knew then that they desired one another. They did not yet know that they shared a desire to eat the photographer.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 9: The models’ hospitality tent was loaded with carnage: blood-rare steaks, huge haunches of lamb, joints of local elk.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 10: Weber was vividly aware that the teen metabolism knew no limits.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 11: Yet Porter ignored the buffet; he “dined” only when night fell. “Dude,” said a towhead named Andy, “aren’t you hungry?”
BWATPVOTA, Pt 12: “Andy, it’s just that I’m a v—” Porter caught himself. “...a, er, VEGAN.” Kendra had overheard it all. And now she KNEW.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 13: Weber was not ignorant of the fact that the young and beautiful were often shape-shifting beasts.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 14: Two of his favorite subjects from the early 1980s, Darren and Michael, had been werewolf lovers. They’d been all over GQ.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 15: Weber approached Kendra and Porter as they nuzzled. “This afternoon,” he said, “it’s just you two for me.”
BWATPVOTA, Pt 16: “We shall hike up to Crystalline Pond,” Weber said. “The light there is especially gorgeous... at dusk.”
BWATPVOTA, Pt 17: Dusk fell at the pond. Weber arranged things just so. Porter wore nothing but an ounce of Lycra. Kendra, only a canoe.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 18: A rivulet of sweat trickled down Porter’s sternum. Kendra moved quickly to swab it with a finger. “Wonderful!” Weber said.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 19: But as it got darker, they grew hungrier. A little past six, Porter really did gut a trout with his cheekbones.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 20: Porter used the slurry of fish blood and innards to write on Kendra’s thigh, BATS 4 U. Weber got it all on film.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 21: The light grew ever fainter, the areolae more puckered, but Weber loved the strange energy his subjects were giving him.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 22: It was when Weber turned his back to reload his Pentax that the sun disappeared, and Kendra shot Porter a knowing look.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 23: The following morning, the police dogs finally picked up Weber’s scent at the mouth of a cave near Crystalline Pond.
BWATPVOTA, Pt 24: But all the police ever found was a do-rag, a Pentax 67, and the most softly worn chambray shirt that had ever existed.
In an audaciously small-time attempt at brand extension, I have collaborated with the talented young artisans at New York City’s Greenwich Letterpress on a series of place cards based on The Food Snob’s Dictionary. I must say that they turned out fantastically, and that they are, at $14 a packet, a perfect hostess gift (or hostile gesture) for the upcoming holidays. The cards come eight to a packet (two samples are shown above) and are printed on heavy stock. You may purchase them at Greenwich Letterpress’s lovely, endlessly browsable shop at 39 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, NYC, or order them online here.
I judged a Piglet.
I wrote about Dad Lit.
I learned that Rockwell actually rocked well.
I delighted in discovering that my lighter work is ideal for convalescents.
Because they’ve given him the voice of a lightly buzzed yuppie having a heart-to-heart with his “bro” shortly before leaving the bar and committing vehicular manslaughter.
Having attended more Yankee games this season than in any year past, I’ve become fascinated by the now de rigeur “entrance music” that each batter chooses to be played as he steps up to the plate. Mark Teixeira uses “I Wanna Rock” by Twisted Sister; Derek Jeter uses 50 Cent’s “Get Up”; Nick Swisher uses “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” by the hat act Big & Rich. Fun stuff, and telling in its way, but pretty much what you’d expect from a bunch of jocks.
But late in the regular season, after the Yankees had clinched the division, I attended a game where they were starting a bunch of backups (who still demolished the hapless Kansas City Royals), among them the 30-year-old Shelley Duncan, whose impressive slugging in Triple A never quite seems to translate to the big leagues. But what an entrance-music choice! He strode to the plate to the White Stripes’s “Icky Thump.” Heavens, could there be a bona fide Rock Snob in the Yankees organization?
This naturally got me thinking what song I would choose if I were a Yankee position player. My first impulse was to make a joke of it and choose the gayest, most antithetical-to-jockdom song I could think of, something like Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” or Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy.” (I am, after all, from a small town.) But I soon realized that nothing could top the cognitive dissonance of the Yankee Stadium grounds crew’s ritual fifth-inning pantomiming of “YMCA,” a song conceived by Village People svengali Jacques Morali as an homage to cruising.
I then thought that something vaguely alt-rocky and Shelley Duncan-ish would be good, but what? Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” is one of the best pop singles ever recorded, and it has the right energy for a stadium, but the title phrase has become too cliché, not to mention redolent of steroid abuse. Big Audio Dynamite’s “C’mon Every Beatbox” is inspiring and dynamic but too English for the Bronx. The Beastie Boys’ “Sure Shot” has sports-appropriate lyrics and the right geographical pedigree, but it could almost qualify as jock rock.
So for the moment I’ve settled upon Lou Reed’s “Vicious,” because A) Reed is so New York; B) it’s a good, rollicking song to step up to the plate to; and C) there’s something subversive and enigmatic, especially in a baseball stadium, about the lyric “I hit you with a flower.”
About a year ago I was a part of a group of authors that participated in a charity fundraiser in Sacramento, California. The star attraction was John Grogan, the guy who wrote Marley & Me. Grogan turned out to be a personable, unpretentious man, easy to talk to, and I ruefully confessed to him that, while I have a dog, I hadn’t worked out an angle for lucratively exploiting my dog’s inherently endearing dogginess.
But now, the drumbeat begins. My dog, a shiba inu named Trixie, has made two recent appearances in “the media”: first, as part of my photo portfolio in Time Out New York...
...and now, as the faithful companion animal and seeming collaborator in Ross MacDonald’s new contributor’s illustration of me in Vanity Fair:
The occasion for this new round of Trix-sploitation is my article about Norman Rockwell in the November issue of Vanity Fair. Rockwell was keen on including dogs in his portraits of work and family life, so having Trixie pose with me seemed apposite. (Though it borders on heresy to have a purebred in the picture; Rockwell’s dogs were invariably mutts.)
If you’re looking for a more immediate experience than my longish article on Rockwell, Ross and I did a slide show with audio voice-over for Vanity Fair’s Web site.
My dog, incidentally, is repped by Suzanne Gluck and Jennifer Walsh at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment.
No sooner had I finished Nick Hornby’s highly entertaining new novel, Juliet, Naked, did I learn that its narrative was inspired, believe it or not, by my 2007 Vanity Fair piece on Sly Stone. Hornby says so in an interview with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross that you can read excerpts of and/or listen to here.
Let the record show that Hornby’s protagonist is a loser male Rock Snob obsessed with a reclusive musician named Tucker Crowe. But the person who actually gets to meet Crowe in Juliet, Naked—the way I actually got to meet Sly Stone—is the male loser’s pretty and more sensible girlfriend. Can we say that I fall somewhere in between the two characters?
Like a lot of people, I was whomped by this year’s succession of big-name summertime deaths: Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Walter Cronkite, John Hughes, Ellie Greenwich, Teddy Kennedy, etc.
So I set out to explain—first to myself and then to Vanity Fair readers—why this particular round of deaths seemed to hit us with more force than others have. The result is an essay you can read on V.F.’s Web site called “Twentieth-Century Nostalgia, or the ‘Summer of Death’ Explained.”
My post on the unsung but appealingly named NFL defensive tackle Leger Douzable prompted an e-mail from, of all people, Douzable’s mother, Felichia Henry of Tampa, Florida. Ms. Henry writes, “Thought you’d want to know that he was activated today to the Rams roster. Hopefully he has found a home for a very long time.”
Though Leger is no longer a Giant, I wish him well with the Rams, and we in the Leger Douzable Fan Club share his mom’s hope that he indeed enjoys longevity and prosperity in the NFL.
Now I have to get serious about those fan-club t-shirts...
This week I grew a beard out of necessity; I cut my chin and cannot shave until the skin there heals. I’ve never been a beardy person, but it so happens that beards are very “now” in the five boroughs. Since acquiring the beard, this is what’s happened:
I don’t feel like a “David,” more like a “Ben” or a “Sam.”
I am overtaken by an urge to festoon my home with taxidermy.
I’ve been lost in reveries of reclaimed wood from old maritime chantries in rough parishes.
I’m keen to relocate to Sullivan County.
Lots of drainpipe trousers all of a sudden.
Lots of waistcoats, too. In tattersall and plaid.
No more Tanqueray or Maker’s Mark; now my cocktails are concocted with things like sloe gin and jenever.
I am compelled to make my own artisanal chocolate.
With the NFL season kicking off this weekend, I hereby announce the founding of the Leger Douzable Fan Club. You are all invited to join me; I’m hoping to print up membership cards and t-shirts.
Douzable is an unsung, fringe-prospect, modestly compensated defensive lineman on a team stacked with famous, talented, and highly paid defensive linemen—my team, the New York Giants. I met him in August, when he was the longest of long shots to make the team, an undrafted 23-year-old free agent who’d already been released by another team, the Minnesota Vikings. He was, for all intents and purposes, just another body to have in camp, a big guy to throw out there on the field for practices and drills. He did have one feather in his cap, though—on the final play of the Giants’ first preseason game, he forced a fumble by the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback, and this fumble was picked up by another long-shot D-lineman, Tommie Hill, and returned for the winning touchdown.
On August 19, a couple of days after that game, I attended the Giants’ training camp on the SUNY-Albany campus with my 10-year-old son and my writer pal Peter Richmond. After watching a morning practice, we stationed ourselves in a spot where my son could request autographs from the players. The veterans were friendly enough, but it was Douzable (pictured above, with child’s face awkwardly cropped out) who charmed us, and who seemed as appreciative to have inquisitive fans as we were to talk to a (for the moment) professional football player.
First of all, that name: it is pronounced, he told us, Le-ZHERE DOOZ-able, and is easily one of the best Giant football names since Ali Haji-Sheikh, who was a placekicker for the team in the ’80s. Freshly showered, Douzable emerged from the practice facility wearing a t-shirt bearing the words BE THE CHANGE—the slogan, he explained, of the African-American Student Union at the University of Central Florida. (A Tampa native, he graduated from UCF last year and was an officer in the student union.) He sweetly accepted our congratulations on the forced fumble, kindly cradled my son for a photo-op, and, in a manner we deemed wildly optimistic bordering on delusional, talked hopefully about his chances of making the team.
Peter Richmond was so taken with our new pal Leger that he wrote a rhapsodic audio essay about him for an upstate-Connecticut radio station, WHDD, which you can listen to here or read the text of here.
But even after this whole Douzable love fest, we were resigned to the fact that our Leger would soon be cut, perhaps never again to be picked up by an NFL team. Which is why it was such a delight to learn, last week, that, against all odds, Douzable had made the final 53-man roster; not the eight-man practice squad where teams stash their raw prospects and emergency fill-ins, but the actual roster.
There’s still every chance that Douzable might get released in the course of the season—even as soon as next week, when the suspended linebacker Michael Boley is elgible for reinstatement.* But we in the Leger Douzable Fan Club look forward to seeing our guy trundle onto the field to spell the big-name defensive tackles Fred Robbins, Barry Cofield, Chris Canty, and Rocky Bernard. And we hope that, when he records his first sack or stuffs his first run, the scoreboard operators at Giants Stadium take us up on our suggestion to put up the words, WUZN’T THAT A DOUZ-Y!!!
* UPDATE: Sadly, on Tuesday, September 15, this exact scenario played out—our buddy Leger was waived to make room for the returning Boley and a new running back, Gartrell Johnson, who was signed to fill in for the injured Danny Ware. Still, the Leger Douzable Fan Club will remain active, and we will track his movements and career wherever it takes him.**
** UPDATE OF UPDATE: Leger was quickly picked up by the St. Louis Rams, whose new coach, Steve Spagnuolo, is the Giants’ former defensive coordinator. The saga of Douzy continues...
I was one of 83 New Yorkers tapped to participate in Time Out New York’s “NYC in Pictures” issue. The way it works is, each participant was sent a 27-exposure disposable camera (actually, they are now euphemistically called “single-use cameras” to obfuscate their un-greenness), and we were told to mail in our used-up cameras by a certain date in August.
Compared to the outré, willfully provocative pix by some of the other New Yorkers selected, my little portfolio is rather mundane. But it’s fairly true to life, in that it features Jerry Orbach, my dad’s old Dunelt bicycle, the dog, the smugavore tomatoes, Jack’s Stir-Brew Coffee, and lovable neighborhood crank Ted Heller.
I am trying to coin a new word for the type of person whose food is so locally and immaculately sourced that he is beyond proud or virtuous; he is smug. He is a smugavore.
Last year, I tried to popularize this word in honor of the sugar snap peas that I’d grown on the little terrace off of my NYC office, which is roughly the size of a lounge chair. But this attempt failed. This year, in honor of my terrace-grown organic, pesticide-free heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil (pictured, smugly, below), I’m having another go. Sample usage: David Kamp is so self-righteous about the teeny carbon footprint of his tomato-basil salad that he’s turned into a tiresome smugavore.
I wrote up this little appreciation of John Hughes for Vanity Fair’s Web site.
Keep a wide berth from me; I am a death hex. I was preparing to write a piece about Hughes when he died. In 2002, while researching my VF piece on the British Invasion, I spent many hours in the delightful company of Gordon Waller, of the Invasion duo Peter & Gordon, who passed away on July 17. Back in 1999, I spent a bit of time with sax-man Sam Butera for my VF story on Butera’s boss, Louis Prima. Butera died on June 3. And in the 1990s, I spent many hours in the company of the great screenwriter Budd Schulberg, whose memoir of the making of On the Waterfront I was editing for GQ. He died on August 5. (He was 95, though.) The funny thing about editing Schulberg is that I went to his house in Westhampton Beach, New York, and we worked on the story outside—sitting, literally, on the waterfront.
This morning, I was upset to walk past our neighborhood greasy spoon, beloved Greenwich Village institution Joe Jr.’s, and see a handwritten “LOST OUR LEASE” sign in its window, with a declaration that the place will close this Sunday, July 5. A smattering of smaller signs asks patrons to sign a petition to save the restaurant.
Look, I know that change and turnover are an inexorable part of New York City, but my sadness about Joe Jr.’s isn’t just based on sentimentality. This place serves good diner food—homemade soups, terrific omelettes with corned-beef hash, fountain lemonade, and burgers that realize beautifully that specific diner-burger idiom—AND it is thriving, not a tired old joint wanting for customers and vitality.
So I sent out an APB to bloggers I knew would care—Josh Ozersky of The Feedbag, Ed Levine of Serious Eats, and Jeremiah Moss of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York—and they all posted my sad entreaty to help save the place. (Josh mischievously identified me as “Bob Cratchit.”) Also picking up my words were Eater and New York magazine’s Grub Street blog, though the latter curiously quoted someone named “David Camp.” Thanks, blogging community! I really do appreciate it.
Alas, per further reporting from Grub Street, it looks like the place is finished. The Hondros family, which owns Joe Jr.’s, sounds resigned to their fate, and the petition movement was started by crestfallen customers, not the Hondroses. I beseech all the landlords with empty storefronts in the Village to be sympathetic, and I beseech some young would-be restaurateur to start a new institution that will serve our neighborhood as well, and as unpretentiously, as Joe Jr.’s has.*
* BONUS: Please see this touching appreciation from The Villager’s Ed Gold of Louie, né Elias Vassilakis, the beloved Joe Jr.’s counterman who died abruptly in 2004. Louie’s was the first death I had to explain to my kids in that life-lesson, death-of-Mr. Hooper-on-Sesame Street sort of way.
UPDATE: The New York Times has filed a report that carries a faint whiff of hope for a stay of execution.
UPDATE OF UPDATE: Alas, an eleventh-hour save was not to happen. Joe Jr.’s is no more.
Well, Gay Pride Week has come and gone from my neighborhood—only the municipally applied lavender stripe down lower Fifth Avenue remains—but it’s always an opportune time to enjoy Matt Lucas’s “Lesbians” song on YouTube. I first saw this—years ago, before Little Britain, before Lucas earned his crown as the funniest alopecia-afflicted writer-performer since Mike Nichols—while in London on assignment for Vanity Fair. I was nearly asleep, half-watching a show called Shooting Stars (in which Lucas played an adult-sized baby named George Dawes) when this bizarre moment shook me awake.
Evidently, Lucas is playing both Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Tim Burton’s movie of Alice in Wonderland. Not a stretch.
...when I want to find out, without obfuscation or unnecessary rhetoric, what’s going on in Iran, I turn straight to the New York Times. But when I wanted to find out, without obfuscation or unnecessary rhetoric, whether or not Michael Jackson was really dead, I turned straight to the New York Post and the Daily Mail.
Some talented British comics have done what amounts to a remix of all the contentious Palin-Cleese sketches: “Dead Parrot” plus “Cheese Shop” plus “Argument Clinic.” They’ve even recreated the beiges and browns of the early-’70s BBC. It’s brilliant.
No doubt the skinny young moptop was trying to be friendly when, as I left the supermarket, he congratulated me for “rockin’ the reusable”—meaning my non-disposable grocery bag. He was flagging down passersby on behalf of some green group, asking them “Do you have a moment for the environment?” But I was nevertheless... rankled. At this time of year, after college has let out, this particular block near my home becomes a stalking-ground for undergraduates doing advocacy work and soliciting signatures for petitions. I find it a nettlesome business, daily dodging nice kids asking me if I have time for the environment, gay rights, affordable housing, and so on—the implication being that if I don’t stop to yak with them, I don’t have time for these issues.
Yet I feel for these callow twerps, for I was once one of them, only worse. In the summer of 1985, I worked as a canvasser for the New Jersey branch of PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), a consumer and environmental lobby founded by Ralph Nader. Not only did I actively knock on doors in the suburbs rather than just pester urban pedestrians; I asked people for money. And what’s stranger still is, a fair number of them wrote out checks to NJ-PIRG on the spot.
I still can’t believe I did this. It’s not only against my inherent nature even to leave the house (let alone appear on the doorstep of a stranger’s); I also have doubts about the very effectiveness of this sort of street-level twerp deployment, even if I believe in the causes themselves.
Yet when I look at what’s happening in Iran, where two thirds of the population is under the age of 35, I’m reminded that youthful activism can be a powerful, wondrous thing. (As opposed to, say, this.) With lives on the line and freedom at stake, young Iran has no time to indulge in twerpitude.
This Friday evening, I will be among those drinking bourbon and talking out his arse at the Southern Foodways Alliance’s celebration of the favorite son of Indianola, Mississippi: Craig Claiborne (1920-2000), the great writer, reviewer, and food editor of The New York Times in the formative years of higher food consciousness. I grew up reading Claiborne and cooking from the cookbooks and columns he compiled with Pierre Franey.
This event is already sold out, so I don’t even know why I’m posting about it, except that I’m just tickled to serve on the same panel as my favorite living food person, chef/author/instructor/TV host/loverman Jacques Pépin. Me and Pépin—it’s like an air-guitar enthusiast sharing a stage with Jimi Hendrix.
My old school chum Sam Hoffman has just returned with a second season of Old Jews Telling Jokes, the most briliant idea in its conceptual simplicity since the Post-It Note. Whereas Season 1 was devoted to the Old Jews of our Central New Jersey upbringing, Season 2 is dedicated to Old Jews of New York City. I attended part of the filming and was astonished to see the roster of talent that Sam had rounded up—everyone from civic leaders to sociopaths. As Kurt Loder would say, do check it out....
While I understand the strategies and realities that compel The New York Times to be groovier and winkier than it once was—the flotilla of hip-hop-savvy critics it now employs, the David Pogue tech videos that are really comedy videos—I kind of miss the old days when the Times was the voice of God, and a fusty, granddad-like God at that, particularly averse to slang, nicknames, and any hint of informality.
So I was delighted to see that this week, the Times felt compelled to describe Duff McKagan, the former bassman of Guns N’ Roses and current bassist of Velvet Revolver, as “musician and songwriter Michael McKagan, known as Duff.” You seldom see the Times go to such dorky lengths anymore. Back in 1987, for example, the Times was dutiful in describing U2’s lead vocalist as “Paul Hewson, who goes by the name Bono Vox,” referring to the singer later in the same article as “Mr. Vox.” Today, Bono is a regular contributor to the Times’s Op-Ed page, under the byline... Bono.
Perhaps this week’s retro-Times nose-holding approach to McKagan’s nickname is attributable to the fact that he was the subject of an article in the Business section—namely, the weekly “Frequent Flier” column, in which regular business travelers share their tales of airport zen and woe. McKagan is a businessman of sorts, so it must be pointed out that “Duff” is just a handle, a tool of his trade.
Regardless, no one, in print or otherwise, ever refers to Duff McKagan as Michael McKagan. In over twenty years in the public eye, he has been Duff. Writing him up as Michael McKagan is tantamount to describing Jay Leno as “the comedian and television host James Douglas Muir Leno, known as Jay.” It’s absurd, and endearingly Times-ian.
This little clip brought a peaceful end to a trying day. I recommend it.
We all know that public appearances by writers are by and large a burden upon society; I am still traumatized, some fifteen years after the fact, by an exceedingly soporific fiction reading I attended in which the author, never once looking up from her text, numbly and mirthlessly read aloud the sentence “‘Have you seen the egret?,’ she said.” I eyed the exits for a stealthy way out; sadly, there was none.
And yet... I have some “authorly” events coming up that involve not only free wine and free food, but lively co-presenters who will engage you and keep things moving clippety-clop.
The first, on Thursday, May 21, at 7 p.m., is a talk at Brooklyn’s Powerhouse Arena about wine, wine fetishism, and wine snobbery, the occasion being the publication of the paperpack edition of Benjamin Wallace’s fine nonfiction oeno-caper The Billionaire’s Vinegar. The bookchatters will be Mr. Wallace, Slate’s gonzo wine columnist Mike Steinberger, my Wine Snob’s Dictionary co-author David Lynch, and me.
The second event is a real corker: On Friday, June 12, at 8 p.m., at New York City’s Astor Center, the Southern Foodways Alliance, overseen by the affable and mischievous Mississippian foodthropologist John T. Edge, will sponsor a discussion of the life and legacy of Craig Claiborne, the Mississippi-born cookbook author and former food editor of the New York Times, and, in my opinion, the most underappreciated of America’s 20th-century food figures. (He’s a major character in my book The United States of Arugula.) Pete Wells, current editor of the Times’s Dining section, will moderate, and the yammerers will be the great Jacques Pépin (who knew Claiborne well) and me. M. Pépin is a kind man, my favorite TV chef, and the possessor of the most suspiciously undiluted French accent I’ve ever heard, considering he’s lived in this country for 50 years.
John T. Edge is flying up some chefs from Mississippi to “represent” with Southern snacks at the Astor Center. This event is free but requires a reservation and will get booked up quickly. More info is here, or you can simply RSVP by June 5 to email@example.com
...I have entered the brave new world of teenyposting. In two ways, no less. This past week, over at Vanity Fair, we launched a tiny feature on the Web site called Fairbook, an experiment in borscht-belt microposting, featuring rim-shot zingers from Nell Scovell (former Spy colleague, creator of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch), Tim Long (former Spy colleague, now with The Simpsons), Michael Hogan (editor of VF.com), and me.
If you’ve found me via the microposts, you might like the Snob’s Dictionary books.
With my friend and occasional collaborator Lawrence Levi, I have launched a new recession blog called The Breadline. Well, strike that; “recession blog” sounds unbearably grim. The idea is to provide an online space for people to tell their stories and share their gallows humor (and other survival mechanisms) as they struggle through unemployment and reduced circumstances. As I’ve told colleagues, the idea is not dissimilar to what Studs Terkel did in his book Working, had that book been called Not Working.
Anyone in America who is unemployed and inclined to share a little of his or her story is welcome to fill out our simple Breadline Questionnaire. Even in this early phase, we’ve had respondents from Hawaii, Oregon, Georgia, and Minnesota–not just from our home base in solipsistic NYC.
We also intend to put up original artwork, photography, and music that’s reflective of the times. We want the Breadline to function as a sort of online quasi-WPA project, if that ain’t putting it too cute.
Tom Leonard of the U.K.’s Spectator is the latest journalist to have journeyed up to Cornish, New Hampshire, in hopes of getting that pot-o’-gold scoop: an interview with J.D. Salinger. As Leonard recounts, he had no more luck than previous doorsteppers, though he did catch a glimpse through a window of the 90-year-old author “in a blue tanktop.”
I’ll admit to being fascinated by famous recluses–most of whom, I believe, are sincere in their desire to withdraw from public life rather than pranksterishly self-conscious about cultivating a mystique. In 2002, the writer Tim Willis doorstepped Syd Barrett in Cambridge, England. He found the former Pink Floyd leader standing before him in nothing but “a small, tight pair of bright blue Y-fronts” (scant blue undergarments being, evidently, a recluse hallmark) and unwilling to talk, yet settled into a simple life of painting and gardening. It’s my suspicion that the mentally fragile Barrett wouldn’t have made it to 60 (he died three years ago) had he remained an active rock musician; reclusiveness extended his life.
Still, for all my pursuit of interviews with reclusive figures, I could never bring myself to doorstep one; it just seems too violative. (This is one of the reasons I don’t consider myself a real journalist but merely a “writer.”) The one time I’ve actually landed an interview with a serious recluse–he being Sly Stone–it took an agonizing ten-year process to get face-to-face with the man. And, it must be said, my zeal derived more from my adoration of Stone’s music than from the scoopy thrill of bagging big game. (I’ve never had any desire to interview Salinger because his work doesn’t interest me.)
Though, hey, I’ll cop to getting a kick out of the fact that this photo exists.
My old Jedi master Kurt Andersen, whose assistant I was at Spy magazine, has written the cover story for this week’s Time, a thoughtful piece called “The End of Excess” that serves as a lovely complement to my Vanity Fair essay “Rethinking the American Dream.” Well, Kurt didn’t write his piece as a complement to mine but as its own entity; in fact, I’m told by a mutual friend that Kurt consciously chose not to read my essay, to tune it out, because he didn’t want it to infect his own thought processes. A good thing, too. Kurt’s essay is zippier and more forward-looking than mine–though, inevitably, since I learned so much sitting at his knee (almost literally; the original Spy offices were really small), there are some conspicuous similarities.
A reflective coda to this post: It’s funny, I grew up thinking that such institutions as Time and The New York Times were walled cities, impenetrable to suburban nowheresvillers like me. Yet now, it’s not uncommon for me to know the person behind the byline at either publication–and, in the case of the Times, to land an occasional byline there myself.
When I was a clueless neophyte of 22, I always wondered how on earth my elders in the office knew everyone: How were they all so connected?* Twenty years later, I get college kids asking me this very question. And the simple answer is: You age. As you get older, your orbit of known byline-holders naturally expands simply by virtue of your hanging around. Your original gang of callow-twerp contemporaries eventually disperses to new jobs, as do your original bosses, as do you. You keep in touch with some of these people, get to know their colleagues in their new places, and lo, before you know it, you are “of” the New York media. That’s all there is to it. There’s no secret-society induction ritual or special FastPass allotted to select East Coast Jews. (Or, if there is, I wasn’t privy to it; the Foer brothers might tell you otherwise.)
* I remember being especially awed by how all the older Spy editors referred to the esteemed journalist (and future Time editor) Richard Stengel, a person I had not yet met, as “Rick.”
Since my days at Spy magazine back in the 1840s, I have known a strawberry-blond eccentric named Matt Tyrnauer. He is a dear friend and a fellow Vanity Fair writer. A few years ago, Matt decided to take the kind of bold leap to which I am congenitally averse: He wanted to expand the magazine profile he’d written about the couturier Valentino into a full-fledged documentary that he would direct himself. With cameras and everything.
Several arduous years later, Matt is on a glorious victory lap with the finished film, Valentino: The Last Emperor, which, as of this week, is the highest-grossing documentary of 2009. Even if I was not Matt’s friend, I would tell you this is a fantastic movie; you needn’t be a fashion person, a perma-tanned Italian, a woman, a pug owner, or a homosexual to fall for it. It’s just a fun, fizzy plunge into a great milieu, plus it has unforeseen heart.
Valentino: The Last Emperor is playing in limited release in a bunch of theaters nationally, with Matt himself introducing the film and taking questions in New York, Chicago, L.A., and quite possibly other cities over the next few weeks. Visit the movie’s Web site to get the details.
I stepped outside my comfort zone to write this essay for the new issue of Vanity Fair. It’s what used to be called a “think piece,” but I hope you find it less ponderous and chin-stroking than that phrase suggests.
And on the lighter side, there’s always Little Graydon.
I’ve noted before my fondness for good-guy rancher Bill Niman and his wife, Nicolette Hahn Niman. Now it is my duty to note that Nicolette has a new book out, the endearingly titled Righteous Porkchop. (Why couldn’t I have come up with something like that, rather than the much-maligned title The United States of Arugula?)
Nicolette’s book is that rarest of things: a readable, non-finger-wagging public-policy book. In large part, this is because she has framed the book as a memoir, recounting the road she took from single-gal East Coast environmental-advocacy lawyer and vegetarian to married California cattle rancher. (Niman Ranch’s hogs, and therefore its actual righteous porkchops, are raised elsewhere.) Along the way, we learn that Nicolette was reluctant to let herself fall for Bill Niman because he has a mustache. It must be said, though, that Bill is one of those rare contemporary men who can carry off a mustache without looking like a desk sergeant or an adult-film actor.
Anyway, if you care about where your animal protein comes from and enjoy facial-hair drama, you should pick up Nicolette’s book.
This is a good week to pick up Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood, a modestly priced Penguin paperback anthology of VF’s exhaustive film reportage over the years. There are two pieces by me in it, and further articles from more credible professionals like James Wolcott and Peter Biskind. And look, Richard Schickel raved over the book in the L.A. Times!
My two articles are pieces I spent a good deal of the late 1990s reporting, one on the making of Cleopatra–still the most expensive movie ever produced, in dollars adjusted for inflation–and another on the making, and tragic unmaking, of Orson Welles’s second film, The Magnificent Ambersons. I’m delighted that Mr. Graydon Carter chose to anthologize these two articles, because I have received lots of e-mails asking where these articles can be found, and I’ve been appallingly delinquent in archiving my own back catalogue on this Web site. The Ambersons article isn’t up, and the Cleopatra one, I’ve noticed to my consternation, is missing its ending paragraphs on this site.
So pick up Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood to get the proper reading experience. I enjoyed doing those pieces, interviewing a lot of people who have since passed on (Hume Cronyn, Carroll O’Connor, Robert Wise, to name a few) and familiarizing myself with the perilous, hairpin-turn roads of the Hollywood Hills, where midlevel midcentury film people apparently went to die.
Last fall I taped an interview with Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the delightfully dulcet host of the syndicated radio program The Splendid Table, that somehow didn’t end up airing until Valentine’s Day. You can listen to a podcast of it here. (Mine is the last segment.) I was on with Lynne to promote my humor book The Wine Snob’s Dictionary, but I unwittingly provided some consumer service when she asked me about affordable wines and I sang the praises of cheap red Spanish wines from the Jumilla region. (Pronounced who-ME-ah, though some Wine Snobs actually say jew-MILL-a.) In particular, I mentioned a $12 bottle that drinks like a $40 bottle.
I’ve since gotten lots of queries on what wine in particular I was talking about, so here’s the deal. It was an Olivares 2006 Jumilla Altos De La Hoya (Olivares being the producer, Monastrell being the grape varietal). And it indeed cost $12. My local wine merchant, Rob Allen of New York Vintners, goes so far as to say it’s the best wine under $20 he has ever tasted. Rob doesn’t have the 2006 vintage in stock anymore, but he has the equally good 2007, which sells for a little more, $14 a bottle. And it’s still a bargain. Wine, in my opinion, is not one of those things you should give up in these hard times. Order a case of affordable stuff like this and give up your premium cable channels, or declare a one-month iTunes moratorium. I swear it’s a worthwhile trade-off.
Read all about it here.
I grew up with a scrappy little kid named Sammy Hoffman who is now a tall director/videographer named Sam Hoffman. He has just started up one of the most brilliant yet simple Web sites I’ve seen in a while, called Old Jews Telling Jokes.
It is exactly what it sounds like: a series of short clips of Jewish-Americans of a certain age telling slightly off-color jokes in the Borscht Belt tradition, each joketeller set against a white backdrop as spare and elegant as an Apple tutorial video’s.
There are only a few entries up so far, but they’re all a pleasure to watch, and it’s inexplicably gratifying to see Sam’s own mother, Diane Hoffman, a pillar of Central New Jersey Jewry, using salty language. I only wish my father had lived long enough to participate; he had tons of material.
In March of 2007, my wife, two children, and I traveled to Coral Gables, Florida, to attend a family wedding. There was a palpable air of anticipation and hubbub in our hotel as we checked in, but not, alas, because the Kamps had arrived. No, it was because Barack Obama was holding a fundraiser there the same night as our wedding (which was taking place at a church down the road).
The wedding, like Obama’s fundraiser, was on a Saturday night, but since our kids’ school was on its spring break, and since we were in sunny southern Florida, we stayed on at the hotel for a few more days. So, it turned out, did the Obama family; they were in the same situation, with Malia and Sasha on vacation from school.
Bear in mind that this was still early 2007, almost ten months before the Iowa caucuses; Barack Obama was still just one of several quasi-declared candidates, and his family was not yet cocooned 24-7 by security and handlers. Every day, I’d go down to the pool to set up chairs with my kids, and I’d look across the water to see Michelle Obama doing the same with her kids. Barack would make a brief appearance in mid-morning, in a suit but with the jacket slung over his shoulder, bidding his wife and girls a tender (and, it seemed, slightly bummed) goodbye before spending his day stumping. Thereafter, the two girls would spend their day splashing in the pool and distracting their mother from the magazines she was reading. My two kids would also spend their day splashing in the pool and distracting their mother from the magazines she was reading. In the late afternoon, a wrung-out Barack would reappear and warmly greet his wife and girls after a long day’s orating and handshaking. Me, I’d been reading back issues of Mojo and enjoying blender drinks.
I suppose that if I were a proper reporter or journalist–two terms I shy away from; I think of myself merely as a “writer”–I would have walked right up to the Obamas and schmoozed them. (Our kids are of similar ages and might actually have enjoyed playing together.) But I was reluctant to violate their space, especially since they were on vacation, and especially because I had a sense that they would not get to enjoy such quiet, unmolested poolside chill time again.
In retrospect, I regret not at least saying hello, because it would have caused no harm, and because, for heaven’s sake, they were right there in front of me. Five weeks later, Obama was assigned a Secret Service detail–the earliest in a campaign cycle that the agency had ever taken responsibility for a candidate not already under its protection (like a vice president or a former First Lady)–and Malia and Sasha’s life-in-a-bubble began in earnest.
As the Obamas prepare to move into the White House, I think back to that time–probably their last-ever “normal” vacation as a family–and wonder what Malia and Sasha will make of it when they’re grown up. They are about to embark on an extraordinary life experience that comes prepackaged with excitement and privilege, but they will also find themselves constantly scrutinized, guarded, escorted, judged, mocked, blogged about, photographed, and upheld as symbols of something-or-other by David Brooks. I hope Spring Break ’07 stays with them as a nice memory, and not as their “Rosebud” moment.
I’ve heard it said a lot these days: Why, in times of economic crisis and war, do news organizations still devote space to human-interest fluff? Because, sometimes, it’s as utterly enchanting as this.
I wrote an article for The New York Times about a celebrated glutton who was, perhaps, not as gluttonous as we thought. You can read it here.
Just as echinacea is said to stave off colds before they take hold, so does the writing of Henry Alford stave off nihilistic post-holiday funks. Thank heavens, then, that the day after New Year’s (that would be January 2, 2009), Henry’s new reportorial humor book, How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People, will be published. The title explains the premise, though it doesn’t convey how funny a writer Henry is, or how this book is also a quasi-memoir that stars Henry’s mother, one of the more compelling senior citizens I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.
Henry is an old pal from my days at Spy magazine, and he’s not only launched this book but a blog of “Elderisms,” or bits of collected wisdom from well-known old geezers. I’m really impressed by Henry’s dedication to blogging almost daily. Most of us Spy alums have been pretty undedicated to blogging (I plead guilty on behalf of myself and Kurt Andersen), though Daniel Radosh is a notable exception.
Anyway, Henry and his new Web site are delightful company, so give him a howdy!
One of my all-’round favorite food people I met in the course of researching The United States of Arugula is Bill Niman, the schoolteacher turned rancher. You might have heard or read that Niman no longer runs the beef-and-pork company that bears his name. But he continues to live and work at the original ranch in Bolinas, California. And he’s not just raising goats, as has been reported, but turkeys, too. This photo was taken by Niman’s wife, Nicolette. None of the turkeys here, to my knowledge, received politically opportunistic pardons.
This is just Niman’s first year raising turkeys, so they don’t have wide distribution, but keep an eye out for them for future Thanksgivings, under the BN Ranch name.
I’m no political blogger, but man, did I get a lot of flak, even from favorable reviewers, for calling my book The United States of Arugula. So let the election results stand as a repudiation of the title haters and the arugula haters out there.
As Jim Stingl of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel notes, “It’s safe to eat arugula again without being branded an elitist.”
We’re on the eve of a seismically consequential election, it’s Halloween weekend, and I ought to be shilling for my new humor book. But what I really want you to do is visit Vanity Fair’s Web site and read a nice story I wrote about an old man who got a second chance at life.
My fourth humor book in the Snob’s Dictionary series, The Wine Snob’s Dictionary, is just out. As such, I’m hitting the hustings to hustle it. My co-author David Lynch will join me at some events but not all of them, since he is laboring mightily to help April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, of Spotted Pig fame, open their new restaurant, The John Dory. Lynchie recently gave me a tour of the restaurant-in-progress, and it looks fantastic, with lots of piscine-themed tilework. (You can see some of this in Friedman’s new resto-blog.)
It’s interesting that two years ago, when my book The United States of Arugula was originally published, my publisher and I had a hard time getting anyone to pay attention to the book until after the 2006 midterm elections, since, evidently, the political climate was too charged for anyone to think of something as frivolous as food. But this time ’round, with a more consequential election at hand and a financial meltdown in progress, we’re finding that people are only too happy, pre-election, to host events and post articles devoted to the silly subject of Wine Snobbery. Call it escapism, or the Beverly Hills Chihuahua effect.
Anyway, here’s a calendar of Wine Snob events for this autumn, all at wonderful independent bookstores or wine stores, and nearly all including wine tastings and instruction on how to be insufferably Snobbish when tasting said wine.
On October 30, at 7 p.m., I will be appearing at RJ Julia, a great bookstore in Madison, CT (Jacques Pépin’s home turf), run by the dynamic bookseller Roxanne Coady. Wine will be supplied by the Madison Wine Shop.
On November 10, at 6 p.m., David Lynch and I will be interrogated and castigated for our Wine Snobbery by food-world gadabout Clark Wolf at Book Passage in San Francisco’s gorgeous Ferry Building. Admission, which is $20, gets you a signed copy of the book, our company, assorted nibbles, and wine from Pete Mondavi’s Charles Krug Winery. A portion of the admission fee also goes to the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), which helps operate the glorious Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
On November 11, at 6:30 p.m., I will be signing books and again weathering Clark Wolf’s abuse at the Healdsburg, CA location (that’s Sonoma County) of Copperfield’s Books, followed by a Wine Snob dinner at the acutely Food Snobbish restaurant Bovolo.
On November 29, from 2 to 5 p.m., I’ll be signing books while they pour the wine at Little Gates, a terrific wine merchant in Millerton, NY. This is the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, an ideal day to stock up on stocking stuffers. (Hint, hint.)
On December 6, from 12 noon to 2 p.m., David Lynch and I will preside over a “Talk Like a Wine Snob” tasting event at the New York Wine Company, an innovative shop in downtown Manhattan run by our pal Rob Allen. This is a really good deal. For an admission fee of $55, you get a signed copy of the book, our delightful company, a chance to drink six different really good wines (as we explain why they’re Snobworthy), and, when we’re all done yapping and slurping, the opportunity to buy any wine in the shop at a 10% discount.
If ever there was a cook who didn’t need yet another writer in his corner, it’s Kenny Shopsin. By dint of being contrarian, profane, articulate, funny, anti-press, and in charge of an eccentric, culinarily ecelctic restaurant in the heart of Manhattan’s Self-Employed Writer District–the West Village–the guy had scribblers practically lining up and taking tickets to profile him. And in his indefatigably Kenny Shopsin-ish way–which is a sort of a Harvey Pekar-ish agitational dyspepsia complemented by a mop of hair worthy of the Heat Miser–he rebuffed them all. All, that is, except Calvin Trillin, who finally got Shopsin to consent to being profiled in the New Yorker in 2002, when his restaurant, Shopsin’s General Store, was being rousted from its original Bedford Street location by the usual suspect, a greedy landlord. (Shopsin’s currently exists as a stall in the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side.)
I was a regular at the old Shopsin’s on Bedford back when I lived right nearby it (next door to Trillin, as it happens). Like hundreds of Villagers before and after me, I was first drawn in by the ramshackle storefront that simply read “GROCERIES” and then enchanted by the home cooking and the encylopedic menu, which offered things as mundane as BLTs and as outré as Senegalese chicken soup and lime ricotta pancakes.
But, witnessing Kenny’s abrasiveness firsthand, I never attempted to profile him, and, indeed, I have never even introduced myself to him. My wife loved Kenny’s cooking but was so frazzled by his energy that we seldom ate there as a couple. I usually went to Shopsin’s solo or with my then-young daughter, who enjoyed the theater and jumble of the place, as well as the attention of Kenny’s wife, Eve, a gentle soul who did the serving and order-taking. (Eve, sadly, died in 2003, when she was only 57. Not long before her death, she proudly showed me a portrait that another regular, Sean Lennon, had painted of her.)
As you can tell, I’ve finally relented and become yet another writer writing about municipal treasure Kenny Shopsin–because, if I do say so, his new cookbook, Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, is just f***ing brilliant, as Kenny himself might say, minus the prophylactic asterisks. (Besides, Kenny has become downright media-friendly with the launch of this book, even making an appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in which he seemed oddly sedate and compliant, like he’d been commanded not to be himself.)
Eat Me is satisfying in two ways: as a useful, practical cookbook from which you can pinch recipes and add them to your weekly repertoire, and as an excellent night-table read, a joy for its prose alone. I started the book in the middle, randomly opening it up to a recipe called Patsy’s Cashew Chicken. The writeup begins like this:
Patsy was a cook at Shopsin’s, a babysitter to all my kids, and a dear friend for many years until we had a disastrous argument. I said something that offended her, and she didn’t talk to me for three years. During that period I tried very hard numerous times to apologize and make amends, but nothing would cool her. Later she came back and made some attempt at repairing things, but by then I wasn’t interested. I don’t mind having fights with people I love, but don’t cut me off.... I loved Patsy. We were really, really close. She rejected my love. When she finally did come back, I didn’t love her anymore. I couldn’t be in a love relationship in which the love is used as a weapon.
Well, naturally, how could I not want to try the recipe, which is basically a corruption of Chinese restaurant-style chicken with cashews? So off to the kitchen I went to make this remnant of a friendship sundered, following it closely from the very first instruction (“Cut the chicken into strips the size of a baby’s index finger”) onward. And damned if it didn’t turn out just as Kenny promised, with the flour-coated chicken acquiring “a velvety texture when cooked,” with an appealing “sticky brown-black glaze.”
All four members of my family ate this dish enthusiastically, which is saying something. And the recipe, like the others I’ve tried from Eat Me, was easy to follow and execute successfully–an uncommon trait in a 2008 cookbook. Michael Ruhlman recently wrote an excellent post entitled “The Fallacy of the Quick-and-Easy Cookbook” in which he inveighed against a patently disingenuous press release, for a cookbook called Ducasse Made Simple, that promises that “home cooks will be able to effortlessly recreate the world-class cuisine of renowned Chef Alain Ducasse in their own kitchens.” Kenny Shopsin’s recipes aren’t effortless or necessarily quick, but they really are pretty easy.
Beyond its admirably high cookability rate, Eat Me has much to recommend it as a read. Shopsin’s, the restaurant, began its life as a general store in the 1970s, and Kenny has filled the book with vignettes of a heartbreakingly irretrievable time, when the Village had dozens of corner groceries and an authentic middle class. A disquisition on how Shopsin roasts turkeys morphs into a story of the local butchers he used to buy birds from:
Their names were Morris and Sidney; they were from Genoa. Sidney only had fingers on one hand because the fingers on his other hand were chopped off when someone accidentally turned on the meat grinder. Despite all my idiosyncrasies, I like to think that thanks to a combination of psychotherapy and drugs, I am pretty together. Pretty sane. Morris, on the other hand, was out of his fucking brains...
The epilogue of Eat Me, “The Art of Staying Small,” reveals a depth and humanity to Kenny Shopsin that belies the fat-crank caricature. “I know it goes against our capitalist system,” he writes, “but I have never been interested in the normal symptoms of success, such as higher profit margins and expansion of income. I never had a goal to make more money so that I could retire or so that I could hire a low-wage employee to do the cooking for me... Running a restaurant for me is about running a restaurant. It is not a means to get someplace else. I wake up every morning, and I work for a living like a farmer. Running a restaurant is a condition of life for me. And I like everything about this life.”
I like everything about this book.
On October 14, the latest installment of my Snob’s Dictionary series of humor books, The Wine Snob’s Dictionary, comes out. It was written with David Lynch, the wine guy from the Batali-Bastianich restaurant empire, not the fright-haired director of Blue Velvet. I’ll be updating Snobsite shortly with some selections from the book, so you can sample before you buy–just like at a wine store, except without the low-grade buzz. Should you wish to buy the book and drink wine simultaneously, Lynchie and I will be doing some synergistic readings/tastings at independent bookstores on the East and West coasts this October and November. I’ll have those dates up soon.
On the evening of October 6, I will be participating in a reading at the Half King (Sebastian Junger’s Chelsea saloon) to celebrate the publication of Da Capo Books’ annual Best American Music Writing anthology. This year’s guest editor, Nelson George, was kind enough to include my Vanity Fair excavation of Sly Stone in the book, so I’ll be reading from that and talking music along with Nelson and some music writers of authentic repute, such as Gary Giddins and Sam Kashner. This is a recession-friendly event; admission is free.
In the hours and days after the WTC and Pentagon attacks in 2001, we all became acclimated to the “zippers” scrolling right to left at the bottom of TV screens with news alerts, and to “Breaking...” and “Developing...” banners across the top of Web sites. And with all the revelations and disturbing stories that tumbled forth in the attacks’ aftermath–the identity of the hijackers, the arrest of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, the anthrax scares, the deployment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan, etc.–the urgency was warranted.
But it strikes me as hyperbolic and silly that news organizations have since settled into a permanent zipper/breaking/developing mode. Nothing brings this into focus more than this “Developing” headline I saw atop CNN’s home page this morning, as 9/11 commemorations were going on:
Under no rational circumstances can this be determined a “developing” news story. It’s a human-interest story, a tender moment that just happened to be observed by some cameras and reporters. In what sense could it further “develop”? Citing the story this way just cheapens the firefighter’s grief and tears.
UPDATE: As if to underscore the meaninglessness of the breaking/developing rubric, CNN updated its homepage an hour later–on the seventh anniversary of 9/11–with this terribly urgent banner:
In 2005, I fell in love with a no-budget Web series called Yacht Rock, which debuted on the Channel 101 site and purported to tell the stories of such smooth-pop titans of the late ’70s and early ’80s as Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, and Hall & Oates.
In no time, Yacht Rock became, in short order, an underground phenomenon, an overground phenomenon, a New York Times-approved neologism, and a Web meme with its own Wikipedia entry. McDonald and Steely Dan, good sports, even paid tribute to the Web series by doing an encore to a show wearing captain’s hats.
I’ve become e-mail-friendly with Yacht Rock’s creative force, JD Ryznar, who alerts me that he is road-showing Yacht Rock and will be screening its webisodes this Sunday evening, September 14, at an East Village saloon called Professor Thom’s. I plan on being there and finally meeting JD in person.
I might add that Ryznar, a droll Polish-American from Muskegon, Michigan, has a wonderful verité series running on YouTube now called Visits with JD Ryznar, in which fellow Channel 101 “stars” join him at his wood-paneled pad in greater L.A. and more or less eat, drink, talk, and vegetate. Probably 75 percent of the pleasure I take in this show is predicated on already knowing these guys from Channel 101, but, aside from that, Visits is actually a sweet, authentic, and occasionally touching (seriously!) glimpse into the lives and friendships of creative but physically inactive white guys in their late twenties and thirties.
I thought it was silly to Swift Boat the innocent salad green at this point and at this point, but here we are, with just three months left before the national election, and arugula has become still more menacing to its detractors. It’s now Willie Horton, Gennifer Flowers, and Thomas Eagleton’s electroshock therapy all rolled up in one. Per this release from Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, we learn that “Only celebrities like Barack Obama... worry about the price of arugula.”
I had a wonderful great aunt named Fay Leshner who was born in 1908 and died in 1987. She was my maternal grandmother’s older sister. She lived in the Elmhurst section of Queens and was stout and wacky–I once described her to an apprehensive college roommate, who was from Montana and about to meet her for the first time, as “a female Dom DeLuise,” though that description did her a disservice. (She was heavy, but not unattractive.)
Aunt Fay, though she worked in a dress shop, belonged in vaudeville: She played accordion and harmonica, talked like Bert Lahr, and loved crude jokes. One of her favorites: Pretending to command an imagined orchestra, she’d say “Give me an A,” hum the note, then say “Give me a C,” hum the note, and then say “Give me an S”–after which she’d make a loud farting noise: the sound that an “S,” that is, “ass,” makes. Get it?
Here is a characteristic glimpse of her in action, playing accordion (center), while her husband, Sam (left), plays violin, and my grandmother, Tessie (right), joins in on autoharp. (These are grabs from 8-mm home-movie footage shot by my grandfather, Eli Fuchs, and digitized by my brother, Ted.)
Aunt Fay died a few days after Thanksgiving in 1987. Five days after that, her lone son, my cousin Barry, and his wife, Lisa, had a baby daughter. The girl was named Fay in her grandmother’s memory. Some amount of time later, the extended family gathered in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, one of Aunt Fay’s favorite places, to dedicate a park bench along the garden’s lovely Cherry Walk in her honor. Its plaque reads: “In Memory of Fay Leshner–May All Who Sit on This Bench Bask in the Warmth of Her Love.”
Here’s where our Urban Googler’s Tale begins. The baby Fay, my second cousin, has since grown up to be a 20-year-old fashion student, part-time model, and occasional babysitter for my kids. She never met her grandmother but has much the same sense of humor. And she has a distinct, some-would-say-kooky fashion sense that is all her own, though it also evokes the collaborations of Peggy Moffitt, Rudi Gernreich, and William Claxton. (I like to think of young Fay’s style as “Peggy Moppet.”) In her way, Cousin Fay has cut quite the swath, capturing the fancy of Scott Schuman, the fashion photo-blogger known as The Sartorialist, and appearing on billboards as an iPod silhouette.
Recently, Cousin Fay went on a work-study trip to London. We heard that she had been featured in the U.K. newspaper the Guardian, so I went online to look up the article. Since I couldn’t find Fay in the Guardian’s search engine, I turned instead to Google.
Typing the words “Fay Leshner” into Google, however, I stumbled across a raggedy-looking blog called Let’s Do This, evidently published by a bunch of young Brooklyn hipsters, that included a springtime post that bore a picture of the Fay Leshner Memorial Park Bench and the words “Cherry blossoms are poppin’ out all over the brooklyn botanical gardens. and no cherry poppin’ is complete without a visit to fay leshner and the sex bench...”
Is nothing sacred? I thought. Are scruffy Brooklyn hipsters in shrunken American Apparel t-shirts defiling the memory of my great aunt by trysting on her bench? And then blogging about it?
But then, I thought, Aunt Fay herself would have been amused by this post. She was an irreverent person, as this mugging montage demonstrates:
I decided to get in touch with the Let’s Do This people. The author of the “sex bench” post turned out to be a freelance illustrator named Nick Manske. Via his Web site, I sent him a note telling him a little about Aunt Fay and then cutting to the chase: “Is the Fay Leshner bench a widely known trysting spot?” I asked. “Has ‘Fay Leshner’ become some sort of nasty, lascivious shorthand slang?”
Manske, a sweet kid from Texas who is indeed a Brooklyn hipster–he lives with his brother, Nathan, in Williamsburg–was happy to explain himself. Let’s Do This, he said, is a blog in which a group of friends, mostly transplanted Texans living in New York, “keep each other up to date on culture, humor, entertainment, music/concerts, and just silly random things that we fancy and want to share. Most of the members of LDT are artists of some sort. There are writers, illustrators, directors, editors, designers, architects, musicians, and the like.”
Okay, but what about the Fay Leshner “sex bench”? “No one has actually had sex on the ‘sex bench,’” Manske said. (Phew!) He then unfurled this rather Judd Apatovian tale for me:
“In June ’04, one of my brothers was visiting from Texas (I have three brothers, two in Texas, and Nathan, who I live with). We went to the botanical gardens, and towards the end of the visit, we sat for a moment on a bench. We were just talking as brothers do, and we started talking about relationships, girls, boys, and sex in general. We were talking deeply and openly about things that we really had never talked about before, and in retrospect, it was really a bonding moment. At one point, as we were discussing some graphic sexual details or conquests, Nate asked, ‘I wonder if this is what... [turning around to look at plaque]... Fay Leshner’s family had in mind when they named this bench after her.’
“We all laughed, continued chatting, and discussing whatever it was that we were discussing. [The bench] forever will live on in infamy as the ‘sex bench’ among my friends and I. We go back to the botanical gardens every year when the weather starts to get warm, and no trip to the BG is complete without a visit to Miss Leshner’s ‘sex bench.’ Even if Nate and I aren’t with our friends, [the friends] are sure to snap a shot with their digital camera phone or whatever, and send it to us, usually accompanied with a ‘Fay says hi!’’’
So there you have it all in one heart-warming, if slightly filthy, tale of the circle of life, and of life in the ever-mutating city of New York. Below is a photograph that Nick Manske sent me of him (left) and his brother Nate on the Fay Leshner bench. Give them an S!
Barack Obama has taken something of a beating from the satirical community (a crucial voting bloc) for his camp’s ninnyish overreaction to last week’s New Yorker cover. But he’s actually more of a comedy aficionado than he lets on.
I’m still surprised that no one–apart from those lefties at Mother Jones–has picked up on this, but his infamous June speech about black dads and personal responsibility, the one that so rankled Jesse Jackson , owed a huge rhetorical debt to one of Chris Rock’s most incendiary and brilliant routines, “Niggas vs. Black People.”
I profiled Rock for Vanity Fair in 1998, back when his middling career had finally taken off, largely on the strength of that one routine. Rock told me then that he had actually retired the bit in 1996, delivering it for the last time on the night it was recorded for his Bring the Pain HBO special at the Takoma Theatre in Washington, D.C. But the routine took a while to filter out to the masses in the non-HBO-subscribing world, and it took on new life when it was included in his 1997 album Roll with the New.
The use of the word “nigga” caused much hand-wringing among black Americans, and the late Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes, who profiled Rock a few months before I did, all but asked the comic to apologize for his language. But younger African-Americans, like Rock’s friends Nelson George and Mario Joyner–and, evidently, Obama–seemed to get that Rock wasn’t using the word lightly, but, if I can quote from my article, as a tag for “African-Americans with a romanticized notion of black degeneracy, who think that the only genuine black experience is the gangsta, impoverished, poorly educated, federally dependent, on-the-pipe one.”
Anyway, I sensed a whiff of “Niggas vs. Black People” in Obama’s June speech when he asserted that “Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father.” But I recognized the speech’s Rockian DNA for sure when he said:
Don’t just sit in the house and watch Sports Center all weekend long... Don’t get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation. You’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade!
Here’s how Rock made the same point in “Niggas vs. Black People”:
You know what the worst thing about niggas is? Niggas always want some credit for some shit they supposed to do... A nigga will brag about some shit a normal man just... does. A nigga will say some shit like “I take care of my kids!” You’re supposed to, you dumb muthafucka!... What kind of ignorant shit is that? “I ain’t never been to jail.” What do you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-havin’ muthafucka!
Needless to say, I can see why Obama chose to paraphrase rather than quote verbatim.
...and this is an all-too-realistic depiction of what a meeting with him is like.
You know we’ve reached some kind of tipping point with regard to both eco-awareness and high grocery prices when even a historically inept gardener like me starts growing his own food. Behold, above, a typical daily haul from my modest little trellis-ful of snap-pea plants. I grew them, from seeds (purchased here), on the tiny terrace that abuts my office in New York City. Within minutes of picking, the peas were flash-blanched Thomas Keller-style and served in a mint butter made with spearmint leaves (also grown on the terrace) and Ronnybrook butter purchased at the nearby farmer’s market.
A cheap, local, delicious, minimially footprintish component of our early-summer dinners. I’m not only inordinately proud of this modest achievement; I’m smug about it. Isn’t it time you became a Smugavore?
The success of WALL•E, with its Hello, Dolly! leitmotif, has given my Spy and Vanity Fair colleague Nell Scovell a pretext to tell a real Hollywood Babylon-type story she recently heard about one of the forgotten stars of that blowsy 1969 movie musical. Read Nell’s tale from the gutter here.
Look high, look low, look anywhere on the Web where user commenting is enabled, and you’ll find vitriol, hate speech, and an appalling ignorance of the difference between “Your” and “You’re.” The “empowering” of reg’lar folk with the ability to comment on Web sites has generally led to a lot of unpleasantness and just a thimble-ful of thoughtful discourse.
I recently read a fine summary of the case against comments on the blog Luminous, written by a Web developer named Michael Barrish. Barrish says:
I stopped reading blog comments long ago, recognizing, in confirmation of Sturgeon’s Law, that 90% of all comments are crap. There are many varieties of crap—off-topic, self-serving, ass-kissing, uninformed, superficial, showboating, belligerent, and of course, just plain dull—but the result is the same. Of course, 90% is not 100%, which is say that some comments are not crap at all, and that some—one percent?—are truly thought-provoking. Unfortunately the better comments don’t come with little flags indicating their higher quality, so the entire endeavor remains too much of a crap shoot (pun intended) to tempt me.
Yet there are certain sites where the comments are actually worth reading, and where the commenters themselves have formed a happy, civil community. On Serious Eats, the food site run by Ed Levine, the tenor of the comments is jolly and small-townish, with none of the nihilism, know-it-all one-upmanship, or loony vein-bulging you get on sites like Eater and Chowhound. See this old post by Ed about doughnuts, for example, in which Ed laments the state of the doughnut trade in New York, and take note of how the commenters chime in with their own thoughts and suggestions; Serious Eats is the most uncynical, undepressing food site out there.
Part of this is to do with Ed himself. The shop proprietor is a sunny, middle-aged enthusiast, the antithesis of the callow, attention-mad Webutante hater. Furthermore, as Ed has explained to me, Serious Eats commenters must register with the site to comment. Required registration doesn’t always weed out the cranks, but it does act as a deterrent to anonymous drive-by hate-comments of the “F U faggit” and “Your so retarded” variety. Plus, it fosters a sense of community and cooperation.
Another site with comments worth reading is Scott Schuman’s wonderful three-year-old blog The Sartorialist, which basically adapted Bill Cunningham’s shot-on-the-street fashion photography to the Web age. Anonymous commenting is allowed on The Sartorialist, but it’s seldom cruel or bitchy–which, on a fashion site, is really saying something. Again, this is a case where the proprietor’s enthusiasm is infectious. The commenters, whether chiming in on a man’s ensemble or a woman’s, come out in large numbers and offer a very readable mix of gush, constructive criticism, and fill-in-the-gaps ID’ing of specifc elements and accessories. They are indispensable to the reading experience of this particular blog, and that’s as great a scenario for user comments as one could hope for.
P.S. The eccentrically dressed young woman whose Sartorialist photo I link to above is my college-age cousin Fay! I was utterly astonished to find her included among Schuman’s roster of hardcore fashionistas in Milan, Paris, and London. She’s from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, for gosh’s sake.
A young fogey named Jeremiah Moss writes an interesting blog that I’ve visited from time to time called Vanishing New York. Its subtitle–“A Book of Lamentations: A Bitterly Nostalgic Look at a City in the Process of Going Extinct”–gives you a good idea of its tenor. Moss is at once an eloquent appreciator of NYC’s vestigial middle- and working-class haunts and an authentically bitter crank. I bet he’s as upset as I am that Tony Scott is remaking The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a scuzz-perfect evocation of early-1970s New York that no one has any business remaking.
Anyway, I must have been behind in my blog-reading, for it’s taken me until now to discover Moss’s March post on a word I coined in 2005 and promptly forgot about, “Vongerichtified.” I used the word to describe what was happening to the West Village in a New York Times piece about the closing of my favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant, the Beatrice Inn: “In a neighborhood that grows ever more fabulous, expensive and Vongerichtified,” I wrote, “the Beatrice is one of the last vestiges of the nudgy, agitational, oppositional Village of yore.”
Moss, unfamiliar with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the chef whose design-forward restaurants often represent the tipping point in a neighborhood’s stampede towards hypergentrification (e.g. Spice Market in the Meatpacking District, 66 in Tribeca [now shuttered], and Perry St in the Far West Village), consulted with a Hunter College professor of philosophy (!) named Frank Kirkland on what my word meant. Kirkland, after consulting with his colleagues, came up with this marvelous mini-treatise:
“A neighborhood that is ‘Vongerichtified’ would be one whose restaurants have shifted their cuisine, their ambience, and their prices in [a] high-end direction. Sociologically this is quite interesting, characterizing a neighborhood in terms of its restaurants. Usually, a neighborhood restaurant carries a kind of ‘gemeinschaftlich’ (communal) sense. A restaurant in a ‘Vongerichtified’ neighborhood does not appear to carry such a sense.”
Amen to that, professor! With the exception of his very first New York restaurant, JoJo, none of Vongerichten’s restaurants have successfully integrated themselves into the fabric of a neighborhood. A Vongerichten restaurant is like a plasma TV that’s been wired into the wall of a Victorian townhouse: a flashy add-on that’s cool in its way but messes with the overall vibe. And is obsolete within five years.
Still, I’m more accepting than Moss of the city’s perpetual state of upheaval–yesterday’s workingman’s club is today’s baby-tee boutique is tomorrow’s haute fro-yo outlet. So it goes. Losing the old Beatrice Inn, though: That, I admit, was a body blow. I continue to feel a visceral yearning for the subterranean red-sauce joint on a weekly basis, nearly three years after the fact–a circumstance not abetted by the fact that the space, its name and facade unchanged, now houses a club where Lindsay Lohan, assorted Ronsons, and both Olsens congregate, and where bouncers enforce a door policy. Truth be told, there was no villainy in the switchover from the old Beatrice Inn to the new: the old place’s owner-proprietors, siblings Vivian Cardia and Aldo Cardia Jr., simply wanted to sell out and relax after their mother died. (I’ve since come across Aldo bicycling in the neighborhood, his waiter’s starched whites and bowtie replaced by a polo shirt; he looks ten years younger than he used to, with probably the first tan of his life.)
But my wife and I had planned on growing old at the Beatrice Inn. In the Times article on the old place, I wrote that it attracted “an older crowd, a lot of gray heads, uncertain gaits and the occasional customer who comes in accessorized with an oxygen tank.” (Actually, I wrote “...with an oxygen tank and a nasal cannula,” but the Times editors deemed the mention of the breathing tube too grisly.)
Uncertain of gait Lindsay Lohan may very well be, but does she have any sense of the gemeinschaftlich?
Last August, I wrote a post entitled “Barack’s Little Arugula Problem” in which I forecast that “Arugula will be for Obama what the Swift Boat Vets were for Kerry.” Thing is, I was just goofing around and didn’t think that Obama’s summertime “gaffe” (he mentioned arugula and Whole Foods in front of some unwealthy Iowan farmers!) would matter once the actual primaries started and people would presumably care about, you know, important issues.
But lo, here were are in the first week of May, and this was Newsweek’s cover last week...
....and, as Ben Kaplan notes in Toronto’s National Post, the arugula issue won’t die.
And we’re now in this dumb predicament, yet again, of choosing a president based on who we’d most like to have a beer with. (As opposed to sharing an arugula salad with, which is Mark Penn-Karl Rove code for committing sodomy.) It brings me down, down, down to watch our presidential candidates play-acting at being extras in John Cougar’s “Hurts So Good” video, trying to prove their white, denimy, working-class, tavern-dwelling bona fides and arguing over who was less privileged growing up. I’m including Obama, too, who’s been baited into going on a de facto national pub crawl just because Hillary Clinton has somehow convinced a bunch of voters that she’s more a brewski-chugging Scrantonian than what she really is, an abstemious Washingtonian. (I know whereof I speak; I married into a family of brewski-chugging Scrantonians.)
This riles me on two counts. First, why has it become political doctrine that a candidate must prove that he or she is just like the voter? I keep waiting for a candidate to have the guts to say, “Look, I’m not just like you. I won’t pretend that I share your drinking habits, your economic situation, your ethnic background, or your salad-green preferences, if any. But you can be damned sure that I have your best interests at heart, and that I am here to listen to you and represent you. If I were not sincere in this, I wouldn’t be here today asking for your vote.” I think that voters would appreciate this sort of actual straight talk more than the usual, patently phony “common touch” claims of NASCAR fandom and pork-rind addiction.
The second thing that troubles me is that a candidate can so easily be put on the defensive for coming off as “elitist” and therefore “out of touch.” Let’s not delude ourselves: All three candidates–Obama, Clinton, and John McCain–are, by definition, elitists. They are members of one of the most elite institutions on the planet, the United States Senate, and they have adjudged themselves smarter and more qualified than other Americans to lead the country. And that’s fine. I have my issues with each of them and my preference for one over the other two, but I’d rather our pool of candidates come from an experienced, motivated political elite than from an open casting call for a plainspoken “everyman” unsullied by any connection to politics. (Those dream scenarios always turn out badly, anyway; think of Ross Perot, or Homer’s campaign in 2004.)
“Elitist” and “out of touch” don’t necessarily go together. They can–as when Barbara Bush alleged in 2005 that living in a temporary encampment in the Astrodome was “working very well” for Katrina refugees, most of whom “were underprivileged, anyway.”
But I don’t believe that any of the three elitists currently running for president are fundamentally “out of touch” with the American people, as each accuses the other two of being. They’re all wealthy, but none of them exude the who-gives-a-damn Marie Antoinette twittishness of Barbara Bush, or the “So?” insouciance and arrogance of Dick Cheney.
Finally, as much as I think Obama has nothing to apologize for, having willed himself through sheer smarts and drive to overcome his messed-up itinerant upbringing by an unendingly questing single mom–if he wants to live the yuppie dream, let him!–I would like to offer him what I think is a masterful bit of pandering strategy. In the tradition of Grace Bedell, the little girl who encouraged Abe Lincoln to grow his beard, I am encouraging Barack Obama to grow a mustache.
The mustache, though associated in earlier times with urbanity and/or refinement (think William Powell or Clark Gable) has in recent decades come to be an identifier of the disenfranchised white, working-class voter that our current candidates so covet. You ever notice that whenever a newspaper or TV show checks in with “blue-collar voters” at a bar during an election season, they always focus their cameras on a guy like the dude below at the right?
Yet no presidential candidate dares to throw his lot in with the common man by growing some lip fur; we haven’t had a mustachioed president since William Howard Taft left office in 1913. So I urge Obama to be bold, be American, and be a mustache man. It’s one area where Hillary can’t outdo you.
This week in New York City, the Mitzvah Tanks are out in full force. They’re RVs tricked out by the Chabad-Lubabitch Hasidim to function as mobile synagogues and places where lapsed Jewish-Americans can reconnect with traditional, felt-hatted Judaism. As a child, I remember being traumatized when, walking down the main street of my small town in New Jersey, I was ambushed by two Hasids in the full regalia, who said “Hey! Hey! Sonny! Does your mother kindle the Sabbath lights on Friday nights?” It sounded like a lewd come-on.
But now, I have to say I appreciate the comedy of the Mitzvah Tank hustle. Yesterday I was walking past a convoy of Tanks parked along 42nd Steet, wearing the most English thing I own–a pinstriped suit made by Anderson & Sheppard of Savile Row–when a Hasid started walking in lockstep with me, saying “’Scuse me? ’Scuse me? You Jewish? You gotta be Jewish! You look too Jewish!”
Writer and acclaimed food-person Michael Ruhlman has for the last five months featured an elegantly composed homepage photo on his Web site that hits many of the marks of Food Snobbery as portrayed in the humor book I wrote with Marion Rosenfeld, The Food Snob’s Dictionary. We have definitions in the book for some of the things pictured–the chinois strainer, the Le Creuset pot, the All-Clad pot–and we only wish that the copper pots in Ruhlman’s kitchen had been picked up by him during a trip to E. Dehillerin, the renowned Paris kitchenware shop, because we have a definition for that, too. (The copper pots, alas, came from someone’s house in Florida.)
Anyway, for New York magazine’s Grub Street blog, I thought it would be fun to do an annotated version of Ruhlman’s kitchen (and hair-care secrets) that readers could scroll over for his comments. Michael, a genial fellow, was happy to oblige.
I only wish that some of his blog’s fervent commenters, unfamiliar with the Snob’s Dictionary series of books (and, evidently, with humor itself), were as easygoing and chill as Michael. They’ve taken offense at the term “Food Snob,” as if some sort of grave accusation were being leveled, and assured Ruhlman that, really, he is not a snob. (One reader even reassures Michael, earnestly, that he is “a man of the people.”)
Michael, I’m sorry that our bit of fun turned into a serious referendum on your snobbiness-versus-populism. You snob.
Huzzahs to the New York Times–an American institution I adore despite the widespread Murdochian bloodlust for its demise–for breaking, first, the news of Eliot Spitzer’s link to the Emperor’s Club, and, second, the identity of “Kristen.” BUT: Was it really necessary to denigrate young Ashley Youmans’s sample song on her MySpace page as “an amateurish, hip-hop-inflected rhythm-and-blues tune” that uses “dated slang, calling someone her ‘boo’”? Such unwarranted Rock Snobbery! This is a news story, not an arts-section critique! (Evidently, someone at the Times must feel similarly: the latest version of the Ashley story has had the word “amateurish” excised from it.)
First, a word in defense of “dated slang”: It can be an effective lyrical tool, both evocative and funny. Witness Bruce Johnston’s use of the phrase “She’s really swell” in the sublime 1971 Beach Boys song “Disney Girls (1957),” or Beck’s couplet “Word up to the man thing/ She’s always cold-lamping” in the song “Mixed Bizness,” which came out in 1999–a solid decade after the phrases “Word up” and “cold-lamping” were in vogue.
Second, given the Times’s rough treatment of young Ashley, I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the Farrelly Brothers’s Me, Myself & Irene in which Jim Carrey’s character, in full schizo mode, unleashes a cruel monologue of what he presumes to be the Renee Zellweger character’s life arc: “Let me guess: Everybody in town told you you were easy on the eyes, so you decided to become a supermodel. When you got to the Big Apple, they treated you like the worm. So you packed on a few pounds and started calling yourself an actress... Unfortunately, you can’t get far without talent, and after a while the only bright lights you saw were the ones that hit you in the face when you opened the fridge. That’s when you got a boob job, started hanging around on the Upper East Side, looking for a rich old man with a bum ticker... and waved a white flag in the face of your own self-loathing.”
Godspeed, young Ashley: You’re only 22, and dated slang is not such a bad thing.
Sometimes the YouTube time-machine experience disappoints; the retrieved televisual artifact of one’s childhood isn’t as pleasing or outré as memory promised. But in the case of the infamous New York Rangers “Ooh, la la, Sasson” commercial of 1979 (featuring Phil Esposito, left, and the fabulous Ron Duguay), the experience is even better than what memory promised.
The YouTuber comments that appear below the video are the usual homophobic, subliterate vitriol, but I can only applaud Messrs. Esposito, Duguay, Hedberg, and Maloney for being so brazenly “up” for a swish, Fosse-on-ice number that finds them singing and jazz-handing in designer jeans. That’s precisely what was charming about New York City in the late ’70s, and about the late ’70s in general: that worlds collided under the disco ball, that cultural life wasn’t stifled by the imperatives of corporate caution, that brilliant mistakes like this one could be made.
So here’s to you, Phil Esposito, whose 1972 memoir, Hockey Is My Life, I read in the fourth grade. (Its scandalous [to me then] opening sentence: “I’m a high school drop-out.”) You were even braver off the ice, sir, than on.
This past football season was the first in which my father, hobbled by rheumatoid arthritis and assorted other ailments, did not feel up to accompanying me to Giants Stadium to watch our team. I’d long been reluctant to bring my son, now eight years old, to Giants games, worrying that he was too young to endure the five-hours-plus ritual (counting the commute) and the sight of middle-aged men screaming themselves raw, which I myself had found terrifying at age ten, sitting by my dad’s side at the stadium in 1976, the year it opened. (It didn’t help that the Giants went 3-11 that year.)
But I had the tickets, and so, it was decided that Father and Son Mark II would try out a 2007 home game: the October 21 matchup with the San Francisco 49ers. In anticipation, I went to a sporting-goods store to pick out a size-small Giants jersey for my boy. In the racks, it looked like this: SHOCKEY, SHOCKEY, MANNING, SHOCKEY, STRAHAN, TOOMER, SHOCKEY, BURRESS, MANNING, UMENYIORA, SHOCKEY, SHOCKEY, SHOCKEY.
I chose the lone BURRESS jersey. Part of the reason was that Plaxico Burress, the team’s big-threat wide receiver, is my favorite Giant to watch when he’s on the field and healthy: those long, spidery limbs, those suction-cup grabs he makes, his ferocious downfield blocking, the fearless stiff-arms he delivers when running after the catch.
I also find endearing what lots of other people have cited as evidence of Burress’s (now fading) reputation as a head case: his refusal to participate in May minicamps if they overlap with Mother’s Day. Burress lost his mother, Vicki, a diabetic, in 2002, when she was only 49 years old. His May no-shows aren’t a con; they’re an unabashed display of tenderness that you don’t see every day in the NFL.
But the other reason I chose Plax’s jersey is because it has long nagged at me that the jersey most commonly worn by fans at Giants games is tight end Jeremy Shockey’s. This isn’t a knock on Shockey, who’s also lots of fun to watch when he’s healthy. What bugs me is that Shockey’s name is disproportionately represented on the backs of Giants fans because he’s… white. Let’s face it, the majority of the fans in the stadium are white, and they more readily identify with the volatile, charismatic white guy with the American flag and bald eagle tattooed on his bicep.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Before Shockey, in the late 1990s, it was Jason Sehorn, the Giants’ model-handsome white cornerback, who most captured the fancy of in-stadium jersey-wearers; this, with defensive end Michael Strahan and linebacker Jessie Armstead in their primes. But why can’t a white kid identify with, or at least proudly wear the number of, a black player?
You can call me out as politically correct for getting my son the BURRESS jersey. But I see it more as socially corrective. My dad, a gregarious car salesman born in 1930, the son of an immigrant from a shtetl, had friends and devoted customers of all races. He wasn’t remotely a hippie-ish dude or a committed social activist, but he instilled in me the idea that you respect everyone equally—and, wherever possible, you schmooze your fellow man until you find common ground with him.
The Giants beat the 49ers in a walkover in that game last October, winning 33-15. It was at that point that the pathology that has afflicted my family for three generations—Giants fandom—infected a fourth generation, and that my son became as obsessed as my father, brother, and me.
My dad died on Saturday evening. My son cried from the very soles of his feet when he heard the news—as had I, along with my mother, sister, and brother, as we’d surrounded my father as he breathed his last.
Sunday night, with the funeral pending the following morning, I simply wasn’t in a football mood. But, needing something to distract us, my son and I turned on the game. When Burress, of all people, caught the winning touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining, my son let out an exultant scream that was as unfilteredly emotional as the despairing sobs I’d heard from him almost exactly 24 hours earlier. It was by no means curative, but hey–it helped.
Five days earlier, my father, ever the comforter, must have sensed how stricken I was when I walked into his hospital room and saw how bad he looked, how labored his breathing was. Right away, he pulled off his oxygen mask and, in a voice hoarsened by the pneumonia that would kill him, said “The Giants are gonna win!”
Now, personally, I think it’s wrong, bordering on sacrilegious, to think that God has any bearing on the outcome of football games. But I was nevertheless amused and gratified to receive an e-mail from a friend late Sunday night that read, “Your dad must have some incredible pull.”
NOTE: Since some people have asked... donations in memory of my father, the great Seymour Kamp, may be made to the Poile Zedek Cemetery Restoration Fund; the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Foundation; and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
It’s always about them, even when it’s putatively about “helping others”:
“It was just so touching when this woman said, ‘Well, what about you?’ I just don’t think about that, I think about what I can do for other people. I have spent a lifetime trying to help others; I’m very other-directed. That’s maybe why people don’t get me in the political world.”
I recently attended a pre-Christmas choral concert in which some of the poetry of Robert Southwell, a sixteenth-century Jesuit priest, was set to music. I’d never before heard of Southwell, but I couldn’t help but be fascinated–well, amused, too–by the bizarre conceit of the verses in question. They all posited the infant Christ as a Satan-trouncing little Rambo. To quote from just part of one poem, “New Heaven, New War”:
This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak, unarmed wise,
The gates of hell he will surprise.
With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield...
Southwell goes on and on in this fashion, in this poem (The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes/ Of shepherds he his muster makes...) and in others. I couldn’t get these odd verses out of my head, so I looked up Southwell on Wikipedia and learned why his devotional poetry was so ferocious: He defied Queen Elizabeth I’s ban on Roman Catholic priests, administered the rites of his church to English Catholics, was tortured and imprisoned in the Tower of London for doing so, and was ultimately hung, drawn, and quartered.
Not a funny fate at all. But Southwell’s poetry still sounds like it could have been written by Michael Palin circa Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
We young fogies of Kurt Cobain vintage–that’s the former “Generation X” to you, pal–are quite possibly the least titillating, least Caligulan people in American history. Which has its positive and negative ramifications. Or so I argue in the new issue of Marie-Claire.
When Sly Stone played his first “official” show in ages at the Flamingo in Las Vegas on March 31, there was a warm, familial air to the affair. He was accompanied by the touring band of his sister, Vet, and his daughters, Phunn and Novena, joined him onstage. Tentative at first, Sly grew increasingly comfortable, and delivered moving versions of “Stand,” “Family Affair,” and “If You Want Me to Stay.”
Tuesday night’s early show at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill had a rougher feel to it. Gone was Vet and her amiable co-vocalist Skyler Jett. Gone were Sly’s daughters. And the promised quasi-Family Stone reunion featuring Sly’s guitarist brother Freddie and his vocalist sister Rose didn’t pan out. This show’s band was a ragtag assemblage of original Family Stone members (horn section Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson), members of Vet’s band, sundry supplementary musicians from who knows where, and some skinny toastmaster/sycophant dude (“Does everybody here think that Sly Stone is ownin’ it?!”) who looked like Chris Rock with Ice-T’s hair.
The show started off promisingly: Rather than tease the audience by not showing up until his band had already performed half their set, Sly bounded onto the small stage all by himself, a jovial figure in ersatz Flavor Flav gear and a pasted-on black Mohawk. “You know all those times peope said I was late?” he asked. “I was busy!” He continued onward with his slightly naughty banter, clearly reacclimated to public performance, if not disciplined music-making. It took forever for him to summon the band in full–there was an especially curious interlude in which he ordered a roadie to “interview,” him, quizzing him about past arrests–and by the time the band was actually onstage playing an actual song, “Dance to the Music,” Sly had wandered back off the stage, crouching in the wings just beyond where Martini stood.
Sly returned, though, and he and the band sounded good on “If You Want Me to Stay,” “Family Affair,” and “Sing a Simple Song.” He dispelled any notions that he’s too frail or withdrawn to perform by bopping around with abandon and tossing his shades into the audience, actually letting a large group of people see his eyes. Still, it was a shambolic show, and not the big step forward from Vegas that I’d hoped for.
And yet I hear that the second show of the night, at 10:30 p.m., was fantastic. He was joined this time by Paul Shaffer of Letterman fame, which evidently brought out the best in him. Perhaps, in time–maybe even on December 7–we’ll be able to tell Sly that he is indeed ownin’ it.
In case you missed it, I reviewed Eric Lax’s Conversations with Woody Allen in the November 18 edition of the New York Times Book Review, as well as two collections of Woody’s prose. The Book Review also Q&A’d me for its Up Front section, and included a curious caricature of me in which I look 55 and have acquired Hanna-Barbera-style facial stubble.
There’s a young(-ish) comic writer, performer, and director I like who sometimes draws comparisons to Woody. His name is David Wain, and comedy cultists know him from his stints in the troupes The State and Stella. (He also directed the movie Wet Hot American Summer, a sendup of Meatballs-style teen-hormone comedies, and has another feature coming up, Little Big Men.) But he’s truly found his metier with the Webisode format, having launched a delightful running series of five-minute episodes this fall called Wainy Days. I can see why people detect some Woody influence in Wain–he’s Jewish, wears glasses, likes to portray himself as romantically hapless, and offers up an explicit Hannah and Her Sisters homage in Episode 10 of Wainy Days–but Wain is ultimately more surrealist and outre than Allen, more Monty Python-ish. Since his days with The State, Wain has combined a sweet upper-middle-class amiability with a depraved-sicko fearlessness that often entails multiple self-humiliations and, er, rubber phalluses. All of these elements are on wondrous display in Wainy Days.
Those upcoming engagements at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill grow ever more intriguing for Sly and the Family Stone fans. For starters, the shows in question, at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on December 7, sold out within a couple of hours, so two new shows have been added, on November 20.
Then there’s the matter of band personnel. When Sly Stone returned to performing this year, as chronicled in my story in the August issue of Vanity Fair, he did so with a band organized by his youngest sister, Vet Stone, with only one original member of the Family Stone, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, behind him. This time, original members Freddie Stone (guitar), Rose Stone (vocals and keyboards), and Jerry Martini (saxophone) are also on board, and it’s entirely possible that original drummer Greg Errico will also join in. (I contacted Errico about this, and he said nothing’s been arranged at this point, but “I really would like to get out and do some playing!”)
That leaves only original bassist Larry Graham out of the picture. (Yes, this all sounds obsessive, but I like to think of this as an example of benign Rock Snobbery.) Graham, of all the original members, had the most fraught relationship with Sly, and also the most success on his own, as the frontman of the delightfully named funk band Graham Central Station. Graham is now a devout, cheerful Jehovah’s Witness who lives on Prince’s Paisley Park compound in Minnesota, and when I spoke to him earlier this year, he went out of his way to speak magnanimously of Sly and argue that tales of their enmity were overblown. That said, when I brought up the idea of his returning to the Family Stone fold, Graham seemed unenthusiastic, telling me, “I’ve been leading my own band for 35 years now, and it might be hard to enter a situation where someone else is the leader.”
Still, it’s shocking enough that Sly has emerged from seclusion, survived a difficult European summer tour, and scheduled two rounds of dates in New York, so anything’s possible...
The re-entry of my old motorcycling pal Sly Stone into public life continues. Over the summer, he played some festivals in Europe. Now, he’s booked his first New York City dates since the 1970s, two shows (at 8 and 10:30 p.m.) on December 7 at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill.
As uneven as his European shows were said to be (most of them at outdoor, multiple-act festivals), I have a good feeling about the engagements at B.B. King’s. It’s a smallish indoor venue, and when I saw Sly play at the similarly cozy theater at the Flamingo in Las Vegas last spring, he seemed to be in his element, in good voice and in good form. The “revue” format will continue, with Sly appearing for just part of the Family Stone’s show. But the promise is that he’ll put in 30 minutes per set, and the hope is that he’ll get comfortable enough onstage to stick around for longer.
It bothers me that a lot of people are rooting for him to be a train wreck, to live up to his infamy as one of music’s most erratic figures. This is a guy who, for whatever reasons, has decided to give it a go again when most people expected that the next time they’d be reading about him was in his obituary. He’s certainly not blameless for making a mess of his life over the last 30-odd years, but his return–like Brian Wilson’s, Roky Erickson’s or any other drug-addicted or mentally tormented musician’s–was bound to be a bumpy road. I sincerely hope things start to smooth out for Sly.
You might have seen obituaries for Peg Bracken, author of The I Hate to Cook Book. Peg would have made a good blogger: She was contrary and dyspeptic before it was widely fashionable, and there are passages in the aforementioned book that sound more like Gawker than 1960. Chapter 9 is entitled “Desserts, or People Are Too Fat Anyway,” while a passage about children’s birthday parties advises, “You are giving this party for the children, not for their mamas. That’s why you needn’t clean the house before they come, merely afterward. It also means you mustn’t let a mother in when she brings her little charge up to the door.”
Astonishingly, Birds Eye frozen foods took up Bracken as an official spokescrank. My vintage copy of The I Hate to Cook Book actually has the Birds Eye logo on it and this quote from Bracken on the back flap: “I may hate to cook, but thank goodness, Birds Eye likes to.” Would any food company today embrace a cookbook with the word “hate” in its title?
The I Hate to Cook Book succeeded ultimately as a well-timed stunt, a novelty book in the vein of Lisa Birnbach’s Official Preppy Handbook or Bruce Feirstein’s Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, and it deserves to be appreciated as such. But hey, Margalit Fox of The New York Times, what’s with that subtle dig at the end of your Bracken obit?
Somewhat by mistake, I’ve ended up launching two food-related paperbacks in the space of four months. The paperback version of The United States of Arugula came out in July. Now comes the release of the latest in my Snob series of humor books, The Food Snob’s Dictionary. It will be in stores as of October 9. Here are some upcoming events related to this wretched circumstance:
October 10, New York Public Library, NYC, 7 p.m.
I will be on a panel called “Julia Child in America” with three smart, articulate people: Child biographer Laura Shapiro, longtime New York Times foodperson Molly O’Neill, and Blue Hill chef-activist Dan Barber.
October 13, Strand Bookstore, NYC, 3-4 p.m.
I am signing copies of The United States of Arugula as part of the Strand Literary & Arts Festival, which marks the ornery 12th Street bookseller’s 80th birthday. It’s an all-day event featuring lots of authors. This is just my one-hour slot. I’ll be sharing my signing table with Gina DePalma, the fearsomely gifted pastry chef at Babbo, whose cookbook Dolce Italiano is just out. By the way, be careful when Googling Gina–there is also, it turns out, an adult-entertainment star by the same name.
October 18, Gourmet Garage, NYC, 6-8 p.m.
My co-author Marion Rosenfeld and I will sign copies of The Food Snob’s Dictionary at the Greenwich Village location (117 Seventh Avenue South) of this lovely mini-chain of comestible emporiums. Andy Arons, Gourmet Garage’s owner, is a kind man and has cornered the market on food-humor parties–his last one at this location was for Amy Sedaris’s I Like You.
November 10, Miami Book Fair International, Miami, FL, 1:30 pm.
At this mega-bookchat event, I will be on yet another food-talk panel with Laura Shapiro and Molly O’Neill–my apologies to these two ladies–but this time the panel will be moderated by Marcel Escoffier, the actual great-grand-nephew of Auguste Escoffier (click on link and scroll down).
From 1992 to 1995 I worked as an editor at GQ magazine. Public perception to the contrary, most of the people on GQ’s editorial staff are not professional fashion people and have little if anything to do with the magazine’s fashion coverage. (That’s mostly handled by fashion director Jim Moore and his staff. Before Jim, the job belonged to Nonnie Moore [no relation], a delightful woman who once complimented me on a striped-tie and checked-shirt combo by saying approvingly, “You don’t want to be too matchie-matchie.”)
I was one of GQ’s non-fashion people–an articles editor, essentially–but I created a humorous little monthly feature called “GQ Regrets” in which I selected and wrote up some of the magazine’s “occasional lapses in judgment,” fashion-wise: the trends that dated poorly, the ill-considered photo shoots, the truly absurd garments that never stood a chance of catching on (like the “Jumpajama” pajama-jumpsuit hybrid promoted in a 1958 issue). The feature continued onward well after I left, and GQ, as part of its 50th Anniversary festivities, has posted an online slideshow of its “Regrets,” which you can access here.
But as easy as it was to make fun of stuff in old GQ’s, especially the issues from the anything-goes 1970s, I couldn’t help but admire some of the more progressive fashion photography from the latter half of that decade: stuff that jumped out for its clarity, sharpness, and forwardness. I soon realized that I was admiring the early work of Bruce Weber. And as I studied the masthead from those early-Weber years, to see who he was working with then, I realized that I’d never heard of most of these guys; they weren’t in the magazine game anymore. I soon found out why: These guys, the ones at the top of GQ’s late-’70s masthead, were early casualties of AIDS.
For October’s gala 50th Anniversary issue of GQ, I’ve written an article (not available online) that tells the story of these GQ-ers who are no longer around to speak for themselves. Bruce Weber was generous with his reminiscences, as were the surviving members of that staff, including Jim Moore, who was but a young intern when he started out there in 1980. The article, “It All Started Here,” is kind of the flip side of “GQ Regrets”–a belated recognition that the ’70s had much greatness to offer, and didn’t always warrant the snotty, facile treatment I gave them in my younger years.
Who says we don’t offer service journalism over at Vanity Fair?
I am privileged to know very slightly a tall gentleman from Liverpool named Peter Serafinowicz. (His last name rhymes with terrapin-o-wich, which was a popular snack in the time of Edith Wharton.) Peter is a fantastically talented comic writer and actor who, while well known in Britain, is at this point only a cult figure in America. You might know him from his viral video in which he played all the Beatles save George whilst proving conclusively that John Lennon invented the iPod. He was also the star and prime architect of Look Around You, a BBC2 comedy program whose narrowly defined concept–it was a sendup of science-oriented educational television circa 1981–didn’t prevent it from being one of the most brilliantly written, conceived, and performed pieces of sketch-style television since the heydays of Monty Python and SCTV. (I am still convulsed by a sketch from the show’s 2005 season, the “Music 2000” competition, in which three finalists performed their renditions of what they thought pop music would sound like in the year 2000. Finalist “Tony Rudd” is my favorite.)
Anyway, Peter has a new show premiering this week in the U.K. called, rather succinctly, The Peter Serafinowicz Show. Based on this trailer, it looks like he’s thrown his all into it. He’s hoping to get America interested in the show, and, frankly, so am I. At the very least, he deserves Little Britain-style exposure on BBC America, or the Flight of the Conchords treatment on HBO. Start pestering your local executive-vice-president-in-charge-of-entertainment-programming now.
Glenn O’Brien has for several years been GQ magazine’s resident Style Guy. He’s also a fascinating human specimen: a former Warhol acolyte, a trenchant wit, a dad, and one of the only straight men I know who wears foundation and eyeliner. I barely know him, but I worked with Glenn a little in my GQ days, and we put together a few features in which I’d have the photo researchers assemble pictures of a group of men–political candidates in one instance, NFL coaches in another–and Glenn would offer fashion analysis that doubled as incisive and funny social analysis.
Glenn’s still at it on his GQ blog, evaluating the slate of GOP candidates. And, as ever, he manages to be more astute, even while writing on putatively superficial matters, than a thousand David Broders. Here he is on Rudy Giuliani’s hair: “I miss the comb-over, which seemed to so neatly symbolize his biography (his illusory heroism during the attack on America having combed over a history of blundering management in service to special interests).”
Some years ago, I discovered that there was a New York-based landscape architect with the same name as me: David Kamp-with-a-K. It was an accidental discovery; I kept getting phone calls intended for him. But, my curiosity piqued, I decided to find out more about this other David Kamp. He turns out not to be just any landscape architect, but a highly regarded and forward-thinking one. His company, Dirtworks, PC, specializes in creating therapeutic environments for places like hospitals, senior homes, and autism centers–using groves, arbors, hedgerows, and the like to foster mental and physical well-being.
I’ve never met the other David Kamp, but I’ve been thinking of him this week because of his involvement in the Living Memorials Project, an old-school Rooseveltian public program, sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, to create permanent green spaces devoted to the memory of those who died on 9/11. (Above is a detail from Dirtworks’s plan for the Flight 93 commemorative site in western Pennsylvania.) Dirtworks is in the process of creating a September 11 Memorial Grove along the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.
It’s a lovely, bracing idea, the “living memorial.” Having spent my childhood D.C. trips shuttling from classical edifice to classical edifice, I never would have thought that a memorial could be constructed from living things. I guess that’s what you need other David Kamps for.
One of my stock lines in describing The United States of Arugula is that it’s the story of “how we went from Velveeta and Wonder Bread to chevre and artisanal loaves.”
You wouldn’t be wrong to detect an inherent anti-Wonder Bread stance in this statement; I’ve always found the stuff pretty nasty. But now I’ve discovered that Wonder Bread serves a noble purpose that would delight even the most processed-food-abhorring aesthete: It helps preserve great artworks.
Recently, I became acquainted with a director at one of the major art auction houses in New York, and she let me in on a trade secret: Wonder Bread is often used in the art world to clean oil paintings. You wad up a slice into a ball, she says, and you remove the grime and grit from the painting with a blotting, rather than wiping, motion. Repeat over the canvas with several slices of bread, section by section. And just like that, your dusky Mark Rothko will blaze and glimmer anew. Makes the bread taste great, too!
You know that we’re already deep into election season when a candidate gets smeared for being conversant in an allegedly highfalutin foodstuff. Last autumn, on the eve of the midterm elections, I did an audio essay for NPR’s All Things Considered about the tired trope that right-wing operatives trot out about “latte-sipping, sushi-eating” liberals–as if having cultivated food and beverage preferences is an egregious act of sedition, or an exclusively left-wing trait.
Now, the scorched-earth Clinton campaign is taking it to Barack Obama for making a tin-eared reference to arugula before an audience of Iowa farmers. Newsweek reports that Hillary’s war room seized upon the opportunity to demonstrate that she is the candidate of the working man, while Obama, presumably, is the candidate of deviant mixed-greens fetishists who will rend the very fabric of America. My favorite sentence in the article is, “In a 10-minute interview with Newsweek, Clinton strategist Mark Penn mentioned arugula three times.”
It’s all over now; Hillary’s won. Arugula will be for Obama what the Swift Boat Vets were for Kerry. I guess you’d have to be an outright pinko to name your book The United States of Arugula.
For what it’s worth, the powerful Iowa Beef Industry Council lists a recipe for “Beef, Arugula and Spinach Lasagna” among the manifold uses of honest, home-grown Iowa beef.
A list inspired by the recent passings of Merv, Mrs. Astor, and the Scooter, none of whom I had the pleasure of meeting. Most of these figures were at the peak of their cultural relevance in the mid-20th century. The further we get away from that time, the more remarkable I find it that I ever got to talk to them.
If you’ve tried of late to get in touch with me via the david at davidkamp dot com address, your mail has bounced back to you with some rude, automatically generated message. I have fixed this problem and apologize. I do try to answer every query that comes my way via this site, except for the ones from that curious man who goes on about something called Cialis.
For those of you in need of a beach read, look no further than the paperback edition of The United States of Arugula, which has just been published with a new cover and better subtitle. Summer is when I most enjoy a good food-related read, and, if you haven’t picked up my book, I swear, it’s the “fun” kind of food book, not the kind that leaves you thinking about tainted spinach and doomed fat children.
I get this question a lot: “Did anyone turn you down for an interview?” Generally, the leading figures in the food world are wonderfully accessible, much more so than their analogs in business, sports, or Hollywood. What’s more, most of these folks were downright thrilled to participate in the book, to get into what makes them tick, to dig a bit deeper than newspaper and magazine food journalism allows.
But there was one, and only one, food person who turned me down for an interview: John Mackey of Whole Foods. I guess he was too busy complimenting his own haircut to participate.
Because I have to start using this site as a promotional platform for the pending publication of the paperback edition of The United States of Arugula, I am offloading the fun tidbits related to my Vanity Fair profile of Sly Stone to my other site, Snobsite. And I’ve just posted something especially fun there: the fax (or, rather, phax) that I received from Sly shortly before the article’s publication.
In other Sly news, on July 10, I appeared on John Schaefer’s WNYC radio program Soundcheck to talk about the VF article. You can listen to our chat here.
...in the new, August issue of Vanity Fair, or, if your eyes can stand reading a long article on a screen, here.
There’s also a nifty slide show of Sly through the years. A lot of people have already asked me, based on the new Mark Seliger portrait of Sly, if he’s put on some weight. The answer: not really. He’s still slim, but when he’s not performing, he favors baggy, Straight Outta Compton-style G-wear; he seems to have fallen in love with Eazy-E’s wardrobe.
On the day Mark was taking pictures of Sly at his compound in Napa Valley, we waited expectantly for Sly to emerge from the house, and he did in the most wonderful way: whizzing out of the garage on a tiny motor scooter with a huge grin on his face, like Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup.
ON MR. KAMP: overcoat by Prada; jeans by Levi Strauss; shoes by Ralph Lauren. ON MR. STONE: cap by San Francisco Giants; plush worksuit and tricolor-trim sneakers, model’s own.
Some people are born funky, while others are simply fortunate to pose on a chopper motorcycle with the funky. I had ardently pursued an interview with Sly Stone, one of my favorite musicians, for years. But Sly remained elusive and reclusive–until this spring, when he decided to make a return to public life that is still in its fragile beginning stages. My story on Sly appears in the August issue of Vanity Fair, which will be out on July 3 in New York and Los Angeles, and a week later in the rest of the U.S.A. Even though the VF story is a lengthy feature, there’s much more to tell about Sly’s return and my own experiences with him, so I’ll fill you in with more info and anecdotage in future posts, once the article’s out. And by the way, the chopper above is not Sly’s chopper, which is a much more flamboyant contraption. You’ll see the SlyMobile in all its three-wheeled glory in the magazine, in a brilliant photograph taken by Mark Seliger.
You might have noticed that the book-cover image on the upper right has been changed to reflect the new paperback edition of The United States of Arugula. The paperback comes out on July 17–a smaller, cheaper, more portable version that makes an ideal beach read, mountaineering companion, hostess gift, airplane time-passer, or languorous cocktail-hour page-turner. (In no way am I trying to drum up sales or anything.)
You’ll also notice that my publisher smartly appropriated the excellent artwork by Ed Lam that ran with A.O. Scott’s review of the book in the New York Times Book Review, and that the book has a new subtitle: “The Sun-Dried, Cold-Pressed, Dark-Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution.” This subtitle is more in keeping with the one I originally had in mind for the book, because it conveys the sense of fun and discovery in the story I’m trying to relate, and positions the book as what I always wanted it to be, first and foremost: an entertainment, not a “food issues” tract. The hardcover carried the subtitle “How We Became a Gourmet Nation,” and while I understand my publisher’s need for a catchy, concise, explanatory tag, I never really make the argument in the book that we have become, all of us in these United States, a gourmet nation. (What’s more, the old subtitle opened me up to critiques from officious wankers who wanted to whinge about obesity and impugn the character of Vanity Fair, for which I do most of my magazine work.)
There will be events and readings related to the paperback launch that I’ll mention in future posts.
I have a brother named Ted who works in TV production out in L.A. but leads a Walter Mitty-ish fantasy life as a singing, nay, rocking, architecture critic. One day, thanks to such Apple programs as GarageBand and iMovie, he realized that this peculiar avocation didn’t have to be mere fantasy, and he made a brilliant rock video about the life and work of Mies Van Der Rohe that has become a minor viral phenomenon. (A still of which sits above this text.) Even better, the video led to his being interviewed by Lee Bey, one of the foremost architecture critics in this country’s greatest city for architecture, Chicago. Bey has an impressive CV–though not trained in architecture, he was for years the architecture critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, and, after that, he was the deputy chief of staff for planning and design for Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, and, after that, he worked as a media-affairs guy for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. He now has a blog that’s among the better and more accessible ones devoted to architecture.
Ted is preparing another architect song-video, but he won’t tell me which architect is his next subject. I suggested Walter Gropius, but what rhymes with that?
The Shake Shack, Danny Meyer’s haute fast food joint in Madison Square Park, has already evolved into a New York institution. Studio 54 never saw such long lines; but then, Halston and Andy Warhol never stopped by the Shake Shack with Liza and Bianca. Anyway, on Thursday night, June 21, at 6:30 p.m., there will be still more incentive to brave the queues*: Danny and I will keep you busy with readings from our respective food-related books, Setting the Table (his), and The United States of Arugula (mine). This is part of a new series called Mad Sq Reads, and it takes place right in the middle of the park, at the foot of the Farragut Monument. There will also be books for sale, and Danny and I will be signing them, even if you stain them with Shack Burgers and caramel shakes.
* Egad, it turns out the Shake Shack will be closed for a private function on Thursday eve. So Danny and I will have to hold our own as an attraction. There will be snacks, though.
My dilettantish excursion into the fretful-parent genre has generated more response than anything I’ve ever written. It was the New York Times’s most e-mailed story for May 30 and much of May 31, and it elicited 300-something comments on the paper’s site. The article also inspired a segment on NBC’s Today that featured my homegirl Marion Nestle, whose What to Eat is just out in paperback, and whose own Web site/blog has just launched. To Food Snobs, the idea of a Nestle blog is the most exciting development since the advent of Harold McGee’s blog.
Of all the blog hoo-hah over my chicken-fingers article, my favorite lines came from Ed Levine, who boasted of his own son’s wide-ranging tastes but added that the boy “wasn’t one of those weird, obnoxious foodie ‘trophy’ kids who ordered sardines, anchovies, and foie gras with impunity,” and from the Gurgling Cod, who wrote of modern kids’ menus, “This is the road that leads to a species that slurps Soylent Green out of bendy straws running between cupholder and orifice.”
But despite my adamant insistences to this effect, I’ve had two food-related articles published in The New York Times this week. Last Sunday, I reviewed The Devil in the Kitchen, the memoir of Marco Pierre White, the histrionic but talented London chef, for the paper’s Book Review. The British press hated White’s book*, but I attribute this to their inability to judge it on its own merits; White is a celebrity there, and a polarizing one at that, so the Brit food writers, already known for their stunt vitriol, were ready to tee off on Marco’s shaggy head. Me, I thought the book was pretty good.
In the Times’s Dining In/Dining Out section, I have an article borne of my frustration with, er, chicken fingers. It’s better explained here.
* Since I originally posted this entry, Mr. James Steen, who was White’s co-writer on The Devil in the Kitchen, has written to me to note that there were some British reviewers and arbiters who liked the book. “Before publication,” Steen says, “there was a bidding war for serialisation rights and all the big players-the Telegraph, the Mail, the Sunday Times-were keen to snap it up, which suggests that they liked it. In the end, it was serialised by the Telegraph. There were some lovely reviews. And yes, there were a couple of bad reviews. Actually, bad is an understatement. They were vicious beyond belief.”
The very first person I interviewed for The United States of Arugula was Giorgio DeLuca, the more florid and Italian half of the Dean & DeLuca founding duo. (Which was really more of a trio, given the role that Joel Dean’s partner, Jack Ceglic, played in the store’s conception and look.) One reason Giorgio was my first interview was that he’s local: I can walk to his penthouse apartment from my non-penthouse apartment. But the other reason was that he loomed large in my culinary awakening. Visiting the original Dean & DeLuca on Prince Street in 1977, its first year, when I was eleven years old, was an epiphanic moment for me. The array of stinky cheeses and olive oils and whole-bean coffees and (then-novel) prepared foods made me realize that there was a lot more out there to eat than what my supermarket in central New Jersey offered. Alas, I was not one of the customers that Giorgio belligerently and profanely sales-pitched into trying fresh chèvre back then. (See page 202 of the book for specifics on this.)
I’m pleased to say that, at Giorgio’s request, I’ll be the guest speaker/reader at a dinner he’s giving at his restaurant Giorgione on Saturday, May 19, in conjunction with the New York Toasts Italy festival being put on that weekend by Bene, an elegant American magazine devoted to all things Italian. There will be other events featuring other fine people at other fine restaurants–Mario Batali’s hosting a dinner at Otto, his pizza place; Cesare Casella and Bill Buford are doing their Brokeback Toscana Style routine at Maremma; and Silvano Marchetto and his wife, Cancer Vixen author Marisa Acocella Marchetto, are pairing up for a presentation at Da Silvano. But your entertainment dollar will go furthest at Giorgione. For one thing, Mr. DeLuca is an adorable, charismatic old-school New York neurotic. Then there’s the fact that I actually “do” a Giorgio voice when I read his quotes from my book, and it comes out disconcertingly like a bad Christopher Walken imitation. (Both men grew up in Queens, so it’s not totally off-base.) Order tickets today by calling Mary Beth Hubbard at 212-717-6380, ext 117, or by visiting Bene’s site.
I’ve not generally been a fan of the ombudsman/public editor phenomenon that took hold in the wake of the Jayson Blair controversy of 2003. Though its ostensible purpose is to hold media organizations accountable for their mistakes and missteps, the effect is more one of dorky killjoyism–some gray-haired eminence of mild temperament is brought aboard to uphold Eisenhower-era standards of rectitude and emit the occasional harrumph.
But I have to admit that I loved the April 12 post by ESPN’s new ombudswoman, Le Anne Schreiber. On paper, she seems like yet another of the species, almost an ombuds-caricature: 61 years old, formerly employed as an editor at The New York Times and its Book Review, sensibly coiffed and wardrobed, self-described in her introductory post as someone who has “a reputation among friends as a fair-minded person of sound judgment. For that reason, I am often asked to weigh in on their decisions about everything from choice of mate to choice of career, coast or coffee maker.”
Yet Schreiber goes about her ombuds-business with a welcome drollery, not hiding how enervated she is by all the fratboy shouting that goes on during SportsCenter and the network’s various sports-yak shows: “The yelling, especially during rapid-fire basketball highlights, felt like the aural equivalent of a tall guy jumping up out of his seat and blocking my view of the action at a crucial moment,” she recalls of her inaugural ESPN-watching binge in January. Of the network’s pregame analysis on NFL Sundays, she writes, “[I] remembered a favorite saying of the day that had once been posted on the farm stand where I buy tomatoes: ‘Certainty is the place you stop when you are tired of thinking.’”
I doubt that Hootie, the Blowfish, or any of the brothers at Kappa Sig will ever read Schreiber’s column–or will ever read, period–but for those of us who love sports but dislike being shouted at, Le Anne’s worth checking in on.
“The strange thing about the comics page, given its youth-associatedness, is that it has long been anchored by men of the World War II generation,” I wrote in the April 2000 issue of GQ, shortly after Charles Schulz died. “The Family Circus’s Bil Keane is 77, the same age Schulz was at his death; Mort Walker, of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois fame, is 75; Dennis the Menace’s Hank Ketcham is 80; Tiger’s Bud Blake is 82; and B.C.’s Johnny Hart is 69. These old-timers have displayed a remarkable stick-to-itiveness over the years—no wussy Garry Trudeau sabbaticals for them!—but frankly, they don’t have that many working years left.”
Thus began the cranky-old-man phase of my writing career, in which, at the age of 33, I found myself writing almost exclusively in lament form, relishing the past and forlornly shaking my head at latter-day cultural developments. In light of Johnny Hart’s recent passing, I’ve posted that old GQ column. Since it was written, Blake and Ketcham, too, have gone to that Great Cartoonist’s Syndicate in the sky.
But lo, the ovoid-headed Family Circus gang continues to hang on, as does its creator, Bil Keane, who will turn 85 this year. A confession: I used to find The Family Circus unbearably corny, and took pleasure in ridiculing it. (As did Chris Elliott, who, on David Letterman’s old NBC show, did deadpan segments in which he paged through albums of his “favorite” Bil Keane cartoons.) But all that changed in 1992, when, as a young editor at GQ, I got the idea to do a Family Circus parody in our election-themed issue. On Sundays, when The Family Circus is in color, Keane often does large, single-panel strips depicting young Billy’s meandering path (over a fence, across a puddle, aboard a found tricycle, through a hollowed-out log, etc.) from school to home.
I thought it would be funny, in light of all the tribulations that Bill Clinton had faced en route to the Democratic nomination, to do a Family Circus-style cartoon that traced “Little Billy Clinton’s” winding path to the top of the Dem ticket. Unfortunately, the legal people quashed the idea of hiring an illustrator to do a Keane parody, on the grounds that Keane could sue. But Robert Priest, then GQ’s art director, said, “Well, why don’t we just ask Bil Keane if he’ll do it himself?”
To our surprise, Keane was thrilled to do it, and promptly delivered a wonderful two-page cartoon based on my script. (I’d show it here, but Keane owns the rights.) Little Billy Clinton looked just like any other ovoid-headed Circus-er, except he wore a blazer and had a head of bushy, graying hair. I consider it one of my greatest accomplishments that I got Bil Keane to draw Sister Souljah, the militant rapper-activist who achieved a measure of minor ’92 fame when Clinton repudiated her inflammatory racial remarks. (Souljah actually looked kind of adorable with an ovoid Keane head.) Keane also drew a nude Gennifer Flowers making goo-goo eyes at Billy from behind a bush, and Arsenio Hall applauding Billy as he played sax. I never knew Keane had this side to him, and I also gained a new appreciation of his clean, uncluttered draftsmanship, which rivals Charles Schulz’s. From then on, I’ve been a fan.
And when I wrote the column to which I’ve linked above, Keane did the illustration: The Family Circus’s Billy opening up the April 2000 issue of GQ and exclaiming to his sister, “Look, Dolly! There’s somethin’ about us in here!”
It’s not coming out ’til October, but The Food Snob’s Dictionary is already splashed out across Broadway Books’s fall catalog with a brief Snob Aptitude quiz. Because you are not, in all likelihood, a bookseller who gets catalogs from publishers, I thought I’d share the quiz with you–and test your Food Snob knowledge.
I love bad taste and transgressive humor as much as anyone, whether it’s a crucified Eric Idle singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian or the Acceptable TV gang on VH1 parodying reality-TV shamelessness with the willfully excruciating “My Black Friend.”
But I’ve always winced at anyone who bills himself (or has his representatives bill him) as an “equal-opportunity offender”–which is the tack that the defenders of Don Imus have taken. Any true aficionado of comedy and comedians knows that “equal-opportunity offender” is apologist code for “hack entertainer trading in dated ethnographic material.” Jackie Mason comes to mind (he actually has a DVD out called Equal Opportunity Offender), as does Carlos Mencia. A corollary to this, which I learned from my old Spy boss Kurt Andersen, is that anyone who uses a construction along the lines of “I treat people all the same; I don’t care if they’re black, white, purple, or green”–who uses colors that no human being can actually be–is inherently a racist bastard.*
Growing up in the orbit of the New York metro radio stations, I was subjected to Imus-mania from about the late ’70s onward, and I must say, I never found him funny; even 25 years ago, his shtick was tired and bigoted, and leaned heavily on fish-in-a-barrel targets. His most famous running character–oh, the originality!–was a vain, buffoonish, corrupt evangelist named Billy Sol Hargis. (In retrospect, I realize that Hargis was basically Imus’s unfiltered id.) I tuned Imus out in my teens, and was shocked to learn, in the early 1990s, that his show had become a popular stop for senators and prominent mediafolk. Evidently, going mano-a-mano with the Ime-ster was an aging Boomer’s idea of being frisky, a rite of midlife crisis.
I’m glad, in a sense, that Imus has now screwed up so badly that he can’t “equal-opportunity” himself out of this one. Unlike Michael Richards, who shocked himself with the ugly thoughts he had roiling inside him, and who was aptly described by Malcolm Gladwell as “the prototypical Hollywood liberal... clearly devastated by the notion that he might be considered a racist,” Imus has a long, unambiguous history of being a flagrant hater. His comeuppance is overdue.
What I’m not glad about is that this is now what the 2006-’07 Rutgers women’s basketball team will be forever remembered for. Up until a few days ago, the Rutgers team was one of this year’s great sports stories, a team supposedly in a rebuilding year, heavy on freshmen, that jelled into a late-season powerhouse that almost gave coach C. Vivian Stringer her first NCAA championship. As a child I lived within bicycling distance of the Rutgers Athletic Center and frequently attended Rutgers games, men’s and women’s. (My dad sold cars to Stringer’s immediate predecessor, Theresa Grentz.) So I was especially happy for the Lady Knights and took a keen interest in their tournament run. I appreciate that fellow Imus-slur survivor Gwen Ifill has nobly sought to put the spotlight back on the team’s accomplishments in her New York Times Op-Ed piece. But it’s still maddening that Imus will remain the bigger story.
* Well, I guess every rule has its exception. In her first press conference since Imus made his remarks, Stringer, the Rutgers coach, used the “black, white, purple, or green” construction, with the adjectives in that order.
Last week I attended a dinner hosted by Steven Rinella, the most unpretentious man ever to have written a food book. Steve and I met last autumn when he was promoting said food book, A Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, at the Texas Book Festival, and he and I were on a panel with Jay McInerney, whose collection of wine writings, A Hedonist in the Cellar, had just come out. The three of us somehow coalesced into a breezy vaudeville team that made the gathered audience laugh rather than just sit there catatonically, as bookchat usually warrants.
So we vowed to reconnect in New York, and finally did last Thursday. Steve hunted, caught, and trapped most of the ingredients for a multicourse game feast, including Brooklyn squirrels* and sparrows. Jay brought wine. I did nothing. And the New York Times’s Chip McGrath was on hand to write about the meal. You can read his report here.
* Further pursuant to the subject of eating squirrels, you must check out this semi-famous YouTube clip about “squirrel melts” if you haven’t already.
My friends and I often wonder why Christopher Guest hasn’t sicced his brilliant ensemble of comic actors on the food world, the way he has on the similarly eccentric milieus of dog shows, folk festivals, and community theater. (Can’t you just see Catherine O’Hara as a Ruth Reichl type, affecting a new daffy persona with every wig she tries on?) Maybe it’s because the food world is preemptively amusing, offering such wonderful verité tidbits as Serious Eats’s mini-miniseries on Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten (pictured above). In the first set of episodes, Steingarten hires the wunderkind English chef Paul Liebrandt to be his personal cook for two weeks. Steingarten, known to the wider masses as an Iron Chef judge, is a natural on camera, roosting imperially in his apartment (which looks disconcertingly like Fred Sanford’s house) while Liebrandt sweats it out with grace. Sorry, ladies, Jeffrey’s robe never falls open.
Wolfgang Puck’s recent announcement that he will, from here on out, source all his meat, seafood, and dairy products from organic or “natural” suppliers who practice humane animal husbandry has been greeted with praise in some quarters and with skepticism in others. On Michael “Forcemeat” Ruhlman’s site, a guest blogger, a chef named Bob del Grosso, suspects that this is primarily a PR ploy on Puck’s part, and is also annoyed that Puck, like Charlie Trotter, is renouncing the use of foie gras. (An acutely unthreatening white man, Forcemeat seems to be getting a vicarious thrill these days from periodically turning over his blog to short-fused tough guys.)
Now, I’m not thrilled about yet another chef’s turning his back on foie gras, especially in this climate where some local legislatures are trying to pass laws against its manufacture, sale, and consumption. I don’t like the government legislating what chefs can and cannot use in their kitchens, and on these grounds I oppose even the trans-fat bans that are catching on around the country. My position, as I stated in my Beard House chat, is that, apart from human flesh and endangered species, nothing should be off-limits to a chef.
But I think all the doubters should lay off Puck vis-à-vis his embrace of natural and humanely raised meat and dairy products. Here’s an industry leader trying to do the right thing, and people are taking shots at him for it. I must confess that, prior to interviewing Puck for The United States of Arugula, I, too, was inclined to write him off as a cold, calculating publicity hound of dubious fashion sense. To my surprise and delight, I found him to be a thoughtful, gracious man who spoke with disarming candor and wasn’t hesitant to critique himself and his far-flung enterprises. (When we last spoke, two years ago, he was particularly agitated over the quality of the frozen pizzas sold under his name by ConAgra, the food-processing giant. “They fucked it up, so we have to start all over again,” he said.)
Meanwhile, as Puck gets raked over the coals for actually taking a stand, few in the food world have bothered to critique, or even pay attention to, the ridiculous proclamations of Irene Rosenfeld, the newish CEO of Kraft. It’s an index of how much consumer tastes have changed that Kraft, dark empire of processed cheeses and scary lunchmeats, has been struggling of late, its profit margin nipped into by smaller companies offering products more recognizable as food.
Yet Rosenfeld, in a February interview with the Wall Street Journal (I’d link to it, but it’s subscription-only), seemed to give little thought to fixing the company’s problems by offering healthier and better foods. Instead, she remarked that today’s consumers “think about assembly as opposed to necessarily cooking.” She was excited about “this new product we just launched in January called Deli Creations. These are hot sandwiches that are made with our high-quality ingredients like Oscar Mayer meats, Kraft cheese and A1 and Grey Poupon sauces. But what’s so cool about them is, you stick them in the microwave, it takes 60 seconds, and it tastes freshly baked.” No comment necessary.
She also described what she perceived as the inefficiency of supermarket layouts: “Today, if you want to make a salad, you have to go to the produce to get your lettuce, you have to go to the meat and cheese sections–which are in two different places–to get your meat and cheese, and then you have to go to a third section to get your salad dressing.” Leaving aside the fact that many people derive pleasure from the act of walking section to section–it’s the closest approximation many Americans have of the old, small-town rite of “going marketing,” as James Beard put it–how lazy and lard-arsed do you have to be to complain of visiting four different sections of a store with a pushcart in front of you?
Rosenfeld oversees an operation far larger than Puck’s, yet few in the food world are giving her any stick for her barmy pronouncements and tin-eared business strategy. I’m not opposed to Kraft itself–a proper Philly cheesesteak demands Cheez Whiz, after all–but it’s the mega-companies, more than anyone else, who have to start getting with the times (as Burger King suddenly seems to recognize) and changing the way they go about their business. Wolf, I’m with you–and it looks like I’ve just given you more publicity.
In The Rock Snob*s Dictionary, Steven Daly and I included a definition of the sulky genre known as emo, noting that, “given the hypersensitivity of the genre’s practitioners, most emo artists recoil at being called ‘emo,’ claim their music is unique and uncategorizable, and insist that you don’t even know what the term means anyway.” Now, the foremost practitioners of molecular gastronomy are taking a similar position. In a recent blog post, Michael “Forcemeat” Ruhlman* recounted how, in an onstage conversation he had with Alinea chef Grant Achatz at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, Achatz, whose name is synonymous with molecular gastronomy in America, argued that the term doesn’t apply to him. Forcemeat further cites a “Statement on the ‘new cookery’,” originally printed in the U.K.’s Guardian, in which molecular-gastronomy gods Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, along with Thomas Keller and Harold McGee, protest that “the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ does not describe our cooking, or indeed any style of cooking,” on the grounds that the phrase was coined in 1992 “to name a particular academic workshop for scientists and chefs on the basic food chemistry of traditional dishes. That workshop did not influence our approach.”
Adrià, Blumenthal et al. undoubtedly mean what they say, but at this point, they’re being pedantic. Language gets bent and morphed by popular usage, and the term “molecular gastronomy” is a good example. Whatever its obscure origins, the term has been repurposed to denote the kind of audacious, wildly inventive, rigorously lab-tested, visually striking cuisine that Adria and Achatz, especially, practice. “Molecular gastronomy” is, simply, a useful term to describe what they do. And complaining about labels is so emo!
* So nicknamed because of his borderline obsessive use of the word in his book The Soul of a Chef. Sure, it’s a legitimate culinary term, but Ruhlman just loves to type it: F-O-R-C-E-M-E-A-T. There are probably Freudian implications to this.
...a preview entry from The Food Snob’s Dictionary, to be published this fall by Broadway Books.
Newtown Pippin. Homely, tart, green-skinned HEIRLOOM apple variety native to the Long Island section of New York State. An ideal apple for baking and cider-making, the Newtown Pippin is also upheld by righteous SLOW FOOD people as one of the historical gems that was nearly rendered extinct by the evil, Frankenfruit-favoring hybridizers of agribusiness. If you care about good fruit–if you’re a feeling, compassionate human being–you’ll join us in our efforts to help reestablish the Newtown Pippin.
(The CAPPED words indicate a cross reference to another term in the dictionary. More such preview entries to come.)
The Chinese New Year’s Menu at Chinatown Brasserie, the non-Chinese-owned restaurant that nevertheless has the best dim sum in Manhattan, offers a dish called Prosperity Branzino. Isn’t that the name of that ingenue Jersey girl on American Idol?
In today’s (2/21/07) New York Times are two compellingly disparate uses of that expensive, attention-grabbing PR stratagem: the epistolary full-page ad in a national newspaper. In the “A” section, JetBlue CEO David Neeleman flagellates himself for the air carrier’s operational meltdown and grovels for forgiveness; in the Dining section, a restaurateur named Jeffrey Chodorow all but asks for the firing of the paper’s restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, on the grounds that A) Bruni gave Chodorow’s latest venture, Kobe Club, a bad review; and B) Bruni is “not really [a] food critic,” given that he previously worked as a political reporter and has no culinary background.
In the annals of full-page epistolary Times ads–I’m a collector–Chodorow’s is not as spectacularly ill-considered as the one that Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford took out in 1994 to affirm their heterosexuality. Nor is it as cluttered with nutjob typography (like a Dr. Bronner’s Soap label) as this guy’s, or as the ones that Steve Allen took out in the 1990s to lament the hell-in-a-handbasket trajectory of American pop culture. But Chodorow’s ad still has the effect of engendering precisely the opposite response that its writer/purchaser desires. Rather than making me feel for the guy (whose restaurants I’ve never visited, so I have no opinion of them), the ad makes me want to stay far, far away from Kobe Club and all other points in the Chodorow empire; its author comes off as a bitter, vengeful megalomaniac. Which, call me crazy, isn’t the best personality profile for someone in the hospitality business.
Neeleman’s letter-ad (a version of which appears here) is something else altogether, an extraordinary document. We’ve all seen corporate apologia after a product recall or an E. coli scare, but I can’t remember another instance of a CEO being so authentically wracked with remorse. The despairing tropes pile up, one after another: “We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry... Words cannot express how truly sorry we are... We know we failed to deliver... You deserved better–a lot better–from us last week and we let you down.” No misguided upbeat chirp-speak, no legalese qualifiers, no buck-passing to underlings. Neeleman is the anti-Cheney.
So I accept his apology. Yes, readers, I am a survivor of last week’s JetBlue Terminal Six Apocalypse. I shall take Neeleman at his word and fly JetBlue again. But not with any takeout from Kobe Club.
The image above comes from the video for the song “Kingdom of Doom,” off The Good, the Bad and the Queen, the lovely collaboration between Damon Albarn of Blur, and, among others, Paul Simonon, the former bassist of the Clash. I’ve long held Simonon in high esteem as a musician, a painter, and one of the most stylish men on the planet. Now, thanks to this video, in which the band prepares a typical English fry-up, I know he has solid knife technique as well.
New York magazine’s newish but already very accomplished food blog, Grub Street, invited me to contribute a list of five great reads about food and dining in New York City. I obliged them, and in so doing continued what the young people would call the “viral campaign” for my book.
You might have heard about John Amaechi, the former NBA center who just became the first pro basketball player, active or retired, to identify himself as gay. The situation is very evocative–alas–of Dave Kopay’s. Kopay was the first pro football player to come out, way back in 1975. I profiled him for GQ in 1998. Like Amaechi, he was a journeyman, not a star, and his career was already over when he disclosed his sexuality. Even so, it was a big deal for Kopay to come out, a much bigger moment than any he’d ever experienced in his playing days.
I admire Amaechi and Kopay for their steel spines and fortitude, but it’s troubling that even in our putatively more gay-friendly era, Amaechi is still eliciting the kinds of responses from his former league-mates that Kopay got in the mid-’70s. LeBron James’s comments are especially disappointing. I’m inclined to like James, whose precocity, grown-up appearance, and game belie his 22 years. But in this instance, he sounds more like a callow, unenlightened high-school jock. Reacting to the news that Amaechi spent his career in the closet, James said, “With teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you’re gay and you’re not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy... It’s a trust factor, honestly. A big trust factor.”
Were LeBron to read about what Dave Kopay went through (I’ve just posted the article), he’d see that a gay athlete has many reasons to fear that he can’t trust his teammates.
...it’s probably because there have been some technical problems with this site over the last couple of weeks. Pretty much anything sent to me at the david (at) davidkamp dot com address since mid-January was obliterated and not seen by me. So, my apologies, and if you’re one of those former Chez Panisse employees from the ’70s writing to tell me that, man, my book didn’t get the half of it (I get, like, two of those a week), the system is up and running again. Feel free to re-send.
For those of you in the New York area who have an hour to spare at midday on Wednesday, February 7, I’m discussing The United States of Arugula at James Beard House, as part of their Beard on Books series. You can call 212-627-2308 to reserve a seat. The newsletter I received says, “Illy caffé and Acqua Panna and Perrier waters will be served. Guests are also welcome to bring a brown bag lunch.” Brown-bagging it in Beard’s own house! What would the Dean of American Gastronomy™ have had to say about that? Maybe I’ll pull a Bono and order pizza for everyone.*
* POSTSCRIPT: Actually, I decided that pizza would be too pedestrian a gesture, so instead I brought sandwiches from Murray's Cheese on Bleecker Street. And, in Beard House’s defense, they enlisted a chef, Ken Goodman of the Art Institute of New York City, to prepare a thematically appropriate and delicious snack, grilled beef tenderloin with arugula pesto on water crackers.
It’s gratifying to learn that some writers have used The United States of Arugula as a launching point for their own investigations. Last fall, both a reporter for The New York Sun and the author of a blog called Lost City (devoted to the vestigial bits of old New York that survive even in the current Carrie Bradshaw gleamopolis) were motivated to check out Le Veau d’Or, the unreconstructed ’50s-style French restaurant on East 60th Street that still serves Escoffier-style cuisine–and whose aged proprietor, Robert Tréboux, may be the last still-working restaurant professional who served under the autocratic Henri Soulé, who famously ran Le Pavillon until his death in 1966. (Both writers spell my name wrong, but hey, at least they have passion.)
More recently, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch tracked down another old-timer who plays a small but important role in my book: the neighbor of Judy Rodgers’s who traveled to France a lot on business in the 1970s, becoming friends with the Troisgros family and setting in motion the chain of events that led to Rodgers, now of Zuni Café in San Francisco (one of my favorite restaurants), becoming a chef. I never named this neighbor in my book, but he’s a retired chemical engineer for Monsanto named Frank Riordan Jr., and he’s still going at 88, baking his own baguettes. It was Riordan who facilitated Rodgers’s first trip to France as a teen, in which she stayed with the great Roanne chef-restaurateur Jean Troisgros, had her palate awakened, and thereafter plunged headlong into hardcore foodie-ism. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed a meal at Zuni owes Mr. Riordan a debt of thanks.
I am fortunate to be acquainted with the gifted photographer James Wojcik. He does lots of work for fashion magazines and their advertisers, but I’m particularly enamored of his food photography. Mr. Wojcik recently presented me with the image above–evidence, he says, of how “tasty” he finds The United States of Arugula. (I especially like the olive-oil stains.)
Be sure to get to your bookstore as early as possible–I’m told the edible editions always sell out by noon.
Image ©2007 by James Wojcik
I was on a television program called The Colbert Report on Wednesday night, and boy, do I feel hoodwinked. I was told by the producers that I was participating in a Kazakh journalist’s documentary on American life, and was pressured into signing a vaguely worded release form written in Cyrillic. Little did I know that I would be ambushed by a prankster comedian and held up to ridicule. See for yourself.
ADDENDUM: If Comedy Central’s video player only shows you the first half of the interview, here’s a link to the second half.
Actually, 2007 will see me segueing away from being Mr. Food Book and getting back into being more of a generalist writer person, considering subjects from Canadian water sports to medieval home remedies that you can try on your children. But lo, there’s still some shameless product-pitching to be done: On January 10, I will be the patsy author wheeled out to be abused by Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report. And there will be a few more United States of Arugula-related appearances, which I’ll keep you abreast of.
Meanwhile, in other news, Frank Bruni of The New York Times talked to me (and some other white people) about food trends for the final 2006 installment of his blog.
And seriously, Ed Levine’s Serious Eats web site has finally launched! I like Ed, who has come to be known as one of America’s leading authorities on cheap eats. For some reason, he reminds me of Burt Bacharach. Ed looks nothing like Bacharach, who I’ve interviewed twice, but he’s got that same omnipresent smile, slightly scratchy voice, and contagious joie de vivre. (And his musical compositions are gorgeously unorthodox in structure, veering from 6/8 in the verses to 5/4 in the bridge; wait, no, that’s Bacharach.) Ed had been intimating for a while that he was going to launch an online food network, complete with blogs, original video content, and fresh reportage, and Serious Eats, though still only in its trial phase, looks like it’ll be, like Ed, lots of fun and not exclusionary like those more psycho foodist web sites out there.
As John Lennon was fond of saying, have a Happy Chrimble and a gear New Year.
What with Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation having become a motion picture and Ruth Reichl’s Garlic & Sapphires apparently headed for the big screen, it was only a matter of time before this year’s bumper crop of food-related books started getting optioned for film, TV, and stage adaptations.
I hear that Bill Buford’s Heat is being developed into a comedy-thriller pilot for Fox in which David Koechner (The Office, Talladega Nights) will play Buford to Donal Logue’s Mario Batali. Together, “Buford” and “Batali” will not only crack wise in the kitchen but use their knife skills and highly developed palates to fight crime, vigilante-style! I can’t wait.
Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man movies) has optioned Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table with the idea of transforming it into a horror flick called Setting the Table... for Death. In Raimi’s treatment, the “Meyer” character is a charismatic yet psychotic restaurateur who systematically murders every critic who has slighted him. James Naughton is attached.
And Broadway legend Jim Dale (Barnum) will bring merry life to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Musical, which its producers, Fran and Barry Weissler, hope to bring to the Great White Way by autumn 2008. Dale will play Pollan, genially introducing–through song and dance–a series of vignettes about food sourcing and sustainability. Elizabeth Swados has been tapped to adapt and direct.
No nibbles yet re: The United States of Arugula, but I’ll be sure to keep you posted.
Legal disclaimer: This entire post is a load of bollocks.
I’m flabbergasted and grateful that The United States of Arugula has made some prestigious year-end lists, such as the New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of the Year and the School Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2006. But there has been no greater honor than being named one of Pearl’s Picks–so named for the King County (Washington State) celebrity librarian Nancy Pearl, whose action figure is the best-selling librarian action figure ever! I’d shout out my thanks to Nancy, but she’d shush me.
Had an eventful week right after Thanksgiving, with a “conversation” in a New York auditorium with Mario Batali and a “conversation” in a San Francisco book store two nights later with Clark Wolf. I use the scare quotes to denote that these were not authentically natural, intimate, free-flowing conversations, but public, occasionally shticky discussions about food and my book. (Mario and I joked that we were ex-lovers; afterwards, privately, we wondered if someone would blog about this. Sure enough, someone did.)
But this isn’t to say that these talks were canned. Mario surprised me when I asked him about his countrywide aspirations. I noted that for years, even as he expanded his restaurant portfolio, he’d never opened a place outside of New York City (and barely even outside of his own Greenwich Village), and now, all of a sudden, he’s partners with Nancy Silverton in a new L.A. restaurant called Mozza and has two restaurants on the way at the Venetian in Las Vegas. It appeared to me that Mario was heading down the Puck-Colicchio-Vongerichten path of trying to build a multi-city empire, with all that that entails: weekly jet flight; struggles to maintain quality control; wracked, pensive, solitary scenes of emotional despondency on luxury-hotel balconies, asking oneself, “What have I done?” while a wedding party obliviously makes merry twelve stories below.
Rather reassuringly, however, Mario told me he really intends to remain a New York guy, and that this is as far-flung as his empire is going to get. The L.A. place, Mario said, came about only because he holds Silverton in such high regard and liked the idea of combining their talents. He would never have otherwise invested in the city, he says, since its citizenry tends to eat early and go home early–unlike New York’s, which is sufficiently diverse in its dining habits that his restaurants can reliably pack in three seatings a night. Vegas, Mario said, is the only city outside of New York in which it makes economic sense for him to have a restaurant, because it, too, can fill three seatings; its spend-mad vacationers will dine at all hours, so it’s a good investment. I have to admit I’m relieved that Mario won’t be doing a Babbo in Singapore and an Otto in Orlando.
As for the San Francisco bookchat at the lovely Book Passage store, all I can say is, Bay Area foodies live up to their billing. Clark Wolf happened to bring up the subject of the Paris Tasting, a notorious (to wine people) 1976 blind taste test by snooty French judges that put California wines on the map. I interrupted Clark, thinking/saying “Whoa, but are people here going to understand what that is, the Paris Tasting?” The audience, as one, gestured to me that of course they know what the Paris Tasting is, who doesn’t? Wow, San Francisco foodies. I shall never again doubt you.
In emulation of Jay-Z, who just performed in seven cities in one day to launch his new album, Kingdom Come, I am embarking on a post-Thanksgiving bicoastal blitz to push The United States of Arugula for the holiday season. (And I expect to shift units in Jay-Z numbers.) On Tuesday, November 28, at 7 p.m., I will converse with the ageless and leggy Mario Batali at Makor, located in the Steinhardt Building at 35 West 67th Street. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door.
Then, just two nights later, at 7 p.m. on November 30, I will be at Book Passage in San Francisco’s gorgeous Ferry Building, foodchattin’ with the restaurant consultant, gastronomical authority, and all-around food-world yenta Clark Wolf. Admission is $35, BUT this price gets you a signed copy of my book plus refreshments, AND the proceeds benefit the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, the organization behind the Ferry Building's Farmers Market.
(Kamp photo ©2006 by Anne Day)
For those of you who like to cook to the dulcet sounds of a National Public Radio broadcaster interviewing unthreatening guests... well, Thanksgiving morning, here’s just the thing for you: At 10 a.m. EST, I’ll be appearing on NPR’s On Point with host Tom Ashbrook and fellow guests Dan Barber, the farm-to-table-rific chef at Blue Hill in NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY; and Sheryl Julian, the food editor of the Boston Globe and co-author of The Way We Cook. Truth be told, we taped this in advance so we could spend Thanksgiving with our loved ones, but we are indeed “Talking Turkey,” as the broadcast is titled. Please forgive me for mispronouncing the third syllable of “Tassajara” (as in The Tassajara Bread Book) as “jar” instead of “har.” Sheryl graciously corrects me on this.
In keeping with the brown-dirt pastoral feel of the coming Thanksgiving holiday, I will be repairing to the country for my next book signing, which will take place at 5 p.m. on Saturday, November 18, at Oblong Books in Millerton, NY. I happen to spend a lot of time in this area, and one of my favorite places to have tea or a light lunch is right down the street from Oblong, the tea shop and tasting room at Harney & Sons Tea. You can taste dozens of varieties of tea there–they’re very particular about the steeping, using chess-style clocks to measure how long the leaves have been immersed in the hot water–and you can have one of their wonderful, simple sandwiches, all served on locally made baguettes and priced in the single-digit range. I sometimes take Harney & Sons for granted as a local business (I bump into actual Harneys all the time), but in fact, John Harney and his (adult) boys are America’s foremost fine-tea merchants and blenders, and you can find their inventive blends in places like Ritz-Carlton resorts and the Williams-Sonoma catalog.
For my next two public appearances to promote The United States of Arugula, both in New York City, I have enlisted two fun, accomplished individuals to help me out and make things less soul-crushingly “book event”-like. On Monday, November 13, at 6:30 p.m., I will be interrogated by irresistible print and NPR humor essayist David Rakoff (brooding, above left) at the New School for General Studies at 66 West 12th Street, Room 510. It will be an intime event in a small space with writing students present, but it is also open to the general public for a mere $5.
And then, on Tuesday, November 28, at 7:00 p.m., I will be joined onstage at Makor (the groovy West Side adjunct to the 92nd St Y, located in the Steinhardt Building at 35 West 67th Street) by chef extraordinaire and clogs-wearing man-about-town Mario Batali (reclining on cheese, above right). Admission is $15 at the door, $12 if you buy a ticket in advance. Mario and I plan to drink a lot and then belligerently upbraid our interlocutor. Don’t miss it!
(Kamp photo ©2006 by Anne Day)
The start of the NBA season and the recent death of the Boston Celtics coach/GM/visionary Red Auerbach prompted me to remember that I’d written a story five years ago for GQ about the very first black men to play in the NBA. I’d pretty much forgotten about this story; to be honest, I was disappointed that no one seemed to read it when it came out (perhaps because it was quite long and more New Yorker-ish than GQ-ish in tenor), so I banished it to the purgatory of faintly remembered, unfulfilling experiences.
But I recently dusted off the piece and read it–you, too, can read it, here–and realized that I’d had a ball (pardon the expression) researching it. I’d long been fascinated by the fact that, while everyone knew the name of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to break into Major League baseball, no one knew the names of the first black men to break into what is now the most black-identified professional sports league in America. Auerbach played a crucial role in the NBA’s integration, being the first GM to draft a black player (Chuck Cooper, in 1950), the first to field an all-black starting lineup (in the early 1960s), and the first to hire a black head coach, his star center, Bill Russell, who took over the coaching reins from Auerbach while still a player.
Besides Chuck Cooper, the other two black men who joined the league in 1950 were Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton of the Knicks and Earl Lloyd, who broke in that year with the Washington Capitols and later flourished with the Syracuse Nationals. Lloyd was the only one of this original trio still alive when I reported this story, and I visited him at his home in Tennessee. I also tracked down the sprinkling of surviving black players who followed in the original trio’s wake in the ’50s,playing b-ball in obscurity (both personally and league-wise; pro basketball was a second-tier sport until the ’70s, and arguably even the ’80s) until Russell and Wilt Chamberlain literally and figuratively raised the profile of the black man in pro basketball at the decade’s end. These relatively unknown players will never be mentioned in the same breath as Robinson–none were superstars, and none endured the spotlight glare that Robinson endured–but they all had some kind of dignity, toughness, and turn-the-other-cheek fortitude. I hope this article finds more readers on this site.
I did a lighthearted little essayette for NPR this week about the tired “Chardonnay and brie” trope applied to liberals in election season. It aired on Thursday, October 26. You can listen to it here.
Next time I do one of these, I’ll ham it up more. Listening back, it plays well enough, but I sound rather stiff and Caucasian, like one of those dandruffy, sack-suited Washington-bureau print reporters wheeled out on the Sunday-morning wonk shows. Which is sexy in its own way, but...
What better way to spend an autumn Sunday afternoon than engaging in bookchat in the sunny capital of Texas? Well, actually, I can think of a better way: watching this week’s N.Y. Giants-Tampa Bay Buccaneers game at the stadium with Dad. But hey, I’m honored to be a part of this weekend’s Texas Book Festival in Austin, and Mom will ably fill my seat at Giants Stadium, hollering at Luke Petitgout for making yet another false start.
I am participating on a panel at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 29, with Jay McInerney, who has an entertaining collection of his wine writings just out called A Hedonist in the Cellar, and Steven Rinella, who has written an amusing book called The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, in which the author, an outdoorsman, criss-crosses the nation in pursuit of the obscure ingredients he needs to recreate a gouty feast from the menus of Escoffier. I have to say that it’ll be nice to be part of a panel that’s unabashedly about the pleasure of food and drink, and not some grim “food issues” mopefest.
We will be a-bookchatting in something called the Bon Appetit Y’All Cooking Tent. The day before our panel, the Y’All Tent will be the domain of Amy Sedaris, who will discuss her demented new hostessing book I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence with the funny, swarthy David Rakoff. It’s great that Amy has brought back the hostessing manifesto; my wife and I happen to be devoted to another one, of 1971 vintage: My Way of Life by Joan Crawford. If you haven’t read Crawford’s book, which is out of print, locate a copy and pay top dollar for it. It will change your life.
The above is a line from Monty Python’s famous cheese-shop sketch, an all-time favorite of mine (and, come to think of it, an early trigger mechanism in my developing an abiding interest in food). I think of this sketch every time I step into New York’s best cheese shop, Murray’s Cheese, which happens to be in my neighborhood, Greenwich Village. Unlike John Cleese, who plays the customer, I’ve never gone cheese-shopping after getting peckish whilst reading Rogue Herries by the English novelist Hugh Walpole (I’ve never read Walpole, period), and unlike Michael Palin, who plays the cheesemonger, the man who runs Murray’s, Rob Kaufelt, stocks just about every cheese you can dream of–including Caerphilly, which is a semisoft Welsh cow’s-milk cheese.
I’m happy to report that Rob has just come out with an excellent little guidebook, entitled simply The Murray’s Cheese Handbook. It’s a compact, Zagat’s-size paperback that fits easily on a kitchen shelf. Rob is an enthusiast but not a snob; his book gently demystifies the vast array of imported runnies and indigenous artisanals now on bountiful display in this country’s better food markets.
It’s a complete fluke, but Rob and I also happened to grow up on the same block in Highland Park, New Jersey. We never knew each other until I met him while researching The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. Rob, being a bit older, was off at college being an agitational hippie while I was toddling on the kitchen floor, banging a wooden spoon on an overturned pot as my mother cooked dinner and played the White Album. But I’m pleased to know Rob now, and to prove with him that not all guys from Central Jersey have center-parted hair and mustaches.
...but you (or some magnanimous portion of “you”) like the book, you really like the book. The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation has gone back to press for its third printing, and this past Sunday debuted at #8 on the San Francisco Chronicle’s nonfiction bestseller list.
I will be capitalizing on the Bay Area’s goodwill by returning to San Francisco on November 30, when I’ll be doing a chat/signing with bicoastal foodie yenta Clark Wolf at Book Passage, the lovely bookshop in the lovely Ferry Building, where you can’t take two steps without squishing a Frog Hollow peach or an Acme Bread herb slab.
In the course of researching The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, I found the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts and Letters, an online community for chefs and hardcore foodies, to be a useful resource. It’s a good place to learn about new restaurants and ancient cookbooks, and to observe forum conversations where anyone from a Westchester dentist to Anthony Bourdain might weigh in. And–my goodness!–I’ve just noticed that they’ve now got a discussion thread going about my book, and that most of the comments are favorable.
As much as I enjoy eGullet, I’m also amused by its insularity, the way its members refer to themselves in the forums as “our tribe” (e.g., “I was giddy, tipsy, and high on the thrill of meeting members of the hungry kinky geeky tribe,” or “I was expecting very little [of The United States of Arugula] because of the title and because he’s not a ‘member of the tribe,’ but boy, he really reported the heck out of that book”); forgive me, but sometimes I can’t help but envision these folks as gastronomically inclined members of a suburban swingers’ club.
I think that an eGullet foodie convention would make an excellent premise for the next Christopher Guest improvisational ensemble comedy. The United States of Arugula thread alone is good grist. One commenter revisits the great title debate, critiquing, “I just don’t understand the title. Are we united as a nation by arugula?” In his profile section, the title-disliker includes a link to his own blog. Its title? “A Frolic of My Own.”
The most unforeseen aspect of the publication of The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation has been the food press’s surprise that anyone would write an upbeat book about food these days. Today’s Boston Globe runs an interview that the paper’s restaurant critic, Alison Arnett, conducted with me a couple of weeks ago, and Arnett feels a need to preface the Q&A by writing that my book “stands out from a sea of issue-oriented books written in the last few years. Instead of doom and gloom, Kamp is optimistic.”
(Funny, no one’s ever made a big deal of the fundamental upbeatness of Ruth Reichl’s food writing, or Calvin Trillin’s, or Ed Levine’s, or the late Johnny Apple’s.)
But I know what Arnett is talking about. She herself sounded kind of shell-shocked as she conducted the interview, as if worn down by having to hew to the prevailing food-journalist orthodoxy, which is that America is currently a bleak landscape of obesity epidemics, E. coli scares, and sellout celebrity chefs. I don’t mean to trivialize these issues (well, okay, let’s go ahead and trivialize Rocco DiSpirito), but there have been so many positive developments in American food over the past few decades that it’s ridiculous and disingenuous to be apocalyptic about the present. Let’s not romanticize the past as some irretrievable golden era; a generation ago, there was much more mediocre-to-bad restaurant food, and the supermarkets were often downright appalling, with shabby produce, subpar meat, and nothing but processed cheese. Today we have burgeoning artisanal-cheese and pastured-meat movements that are still only in their infancy, and American chefs have more fresh, native ingredients at their disposal than ever. I could go on and on–and indeed I do in the book.
I guess I fall into the Julia Child camp: I think the most effective way to energize people about good food is to speak positively about it and the potential for every American to experience it. If the national conversation about food gets too negative–nothing but hysteria, panics, warnings, scoldings–it only exacerbates what I describe in the book as “America’s dysfunctional relationship with good food”: a tendency to lurch from one fad diet to another, or to retreat completely from new culinary experiences, or to buy into the demonization of “carbs” one day and the exaltation of some false savior like oat bran another day. My advice: Be smart but enjoy yourself, and chill.
Like a hack politician, I’ve been doing lots of radio interviews to “get out the vote” for The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. On Tuesday, October 10, I was honored to be the first-ever in-studio guest of Michael Colameco, who is just three weeks into his tenure as host/revitalizer of WOR 710 AM’s Food Talk. You can listen to my appearance on Chef Mike’s show here. I come on about halfway into the show. I had a lot of fun on this one and didn’t come off as uptight and weenie-ish as I did (alas) talking to Sam Tanenhaus for the New York Times Book Review’s podcast. I should probably take a cue from Mario Batali and Bill Buford and drink lots of wine throughout my public and media appearances.
Speaking of Mario, I had just eaten approximately my weight in cured meats (and porchetta, and meatballs) at his dad Armandino’s place in Seattle, Salumi, when I appeared last Wednesday on KUOW’s The Beat, a popular public radio program in the Pacific Northwest hosted by the brainy and witty Megan Sukys. Click here to listen to our chat in the format of your choice. Can you hear the contented torpor in my voice?
New York metro area readers and listeners, be sure to tune in for my appearance on WOR 710 AM’s legendary Food Talk program on Tuesday, October 10. Food Talk, which was for years the perch of the great schmoozer Arthur Schwartz–as authentic an article of pre-gentrification New York City as Jerry Orbach (or Ohrbach’s department store, for that matter)–has been revitalized by the recent arrival of new host Michael Colameco. The show airs from 11 a.m. to noon EST, and I’ll probably come on around 11:30.
So, as I mentioned in the previous post, New York Times critic A.O. “Tony” Scott gave my book a very favorable front-page assessment in the paper’s Sunday review section, but called the book “horrendously titled.” Now, personally, I like the title, but when an institution like the New York Times issues such a pronunciamento, it becomes the conventional wisdom. Unless I do something about it.
All along the stops of the West Coast book tour I undertook this past week, I asked my audiences what they thought of the title, and they were unanimous in their enjoyment of it. Now, granted, these are people who made a point of coming to hear me read, so getting an affirmative answer to “Do you like the title?” was probably a gimme–the same gimme a rock musician gets when he takes the stage in any given city and shouts “[NAME OF CITY], are you ready to rock?”
But I’ve been heartened to receive spirited and utterly unsolicited endorsements of the title from such esteemed figures as Nora Ephron (who says she’s gotten similar grief for the title of her latest book, I Feel Bad About My Neck), Scott’s Times colleague Frank Bruni, the food author Betty Fussell, and the Boston Globe restaurant critic Alison Arnett. The Huffington Post has even rebuked Scott about his title slap, declaring The United States of Arugula to be an “excellent title,” adding, “Don’t you be mesclun around with puns!” (That one I had nothing to do with, Tony.)
I also asked visitors to this site to sound off on the title. My favorite response came from a New Yorker named Paul Smalera, who wrote “United States of Arugula? Brilliant, I would say. I mean, how else do you capture the thesis of your book in four catchy words? In Gorgonzola We Trust? Nah, too foreign. E Pluribus Umami? Too obscure.”
It was a rather tortuous process, naming this book. The working title was the very Tom Wolfe-ian Sun-Dried, Cold-Pressed, Dark-Roasted & Extra Virgin, which is duly evocative of upscale food and evolved eating habits, but a mouthful and hard to remember. After seeing such books as Blink and Prep flourish with concise, one-syllable titles, I became convinced for a time that this was the way to go, until I realized I couldn’t come up with a workable one-syllable word that could even begin to describe my subject matter. (The best I could do was FÜD–which sounds more like a death-metal band composed of off-duty chefs). Then, for a while, I was entranced by the wonderful movie title 24 Hour Party People (the name of a 2002 film about the British indie label Factory Records), and tried, unsuccessfully, to fashion a food-world equivalent: Six-Burner Garland Range Pastry People, that sort of thing.
Finally, after several days of trying to combine the idea of America with the idea of food with the idea of status with the idea of aspiration/sophistication with the idea that I can’t pass up any opportunity to make a joke, I came up with The United States of Arugula.
My editor kind of liked it. But his boss, the man who runs the whole publishing house, hated this title. He called me from his summer home, interrupting his own vacation, to tell me that it was “frivolous” and would trivialize all the hard work I had put into the book. I wasn’t about to argue with him. So, back to the drawing board. There was talk of calling the book something like Gourmet Nation, but I thought this was too blah and derivative (though the phrase was useful in the subtitle), and I didn’t want to set up this book as some kind of “response” to Fast-Food Nation, a work I admire. (As I’ve said before, my book and Eric Schlosser’s cover two very different but equally legitimate phenomena.) I was desperate. What would I resort to? Garlic and Sapphires? (Fortunately, that was taken.) The Five People You Meet in Bouchon Bakery’s Takeout Line? Kamp’s Compleat Historye of the Consumption of Viands, Sweetmeats, Minces, Fruits, Fishes, Mollusks and Fowl of All Sizes in the Contiguous United States 1941-2006?
Then, one day, fortunately, miraculously, the head of my publishing house came around to The United States of Arugula. He is now the title’s staunchest defender.
“Hitting bookshelves right now is The United States of Arugula. What a great title.”
–Frank Bruni of The New York Times
“...David Kamp’s lively, smart, horrendously titled new book.”
–A.O. Scott of The New York Times
But wow, I’ll still take the front page of the Sunday Times Book Review, that beautiful artwork by Ed Lam, and the favorable writeup from A.O. Scott, who, as readers of one of my Snob books are aware, is known to the cognoscenti as “Tony.” Title gripes aside, thanks, Tony. More on the big title debate anon.
And the book tour continues with some more appearances by yours truly this week:
On Monday, October 2, at 7 p.m., I will be appearing at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA (Julia Child’s hometown).
On Tuesday, October 3, at 7:30 p.m., I will be appearing at Powell’s City of Books on Burnside in Portland, OR.
On Wednesday, October 4, at 7 p.m., I will be appearing at the University Book Store (the University District location) in Seattle, WA.
And on Friday, October 6, at 11:30 a.m., just hours after my return to New York, I’ll be participating in a chat with Clark Wolf, restaurant consultant and foodie-culture analyst extraordinaire, at New York University–specifically, at the Fales Collection (3rd floor of the Bobst Library on Washington Square South).
Really, I want to know. This subject will become an important one in a few days. (I’ll explain next Monday.) Sound off on what you think. Include your name and hometown if you want to get mentioned.
The Western leg of my book tour commences this Friday in foodie-rific Berkeley, California, and continues for the better part of the following week. Here are the details of where I’ll be doing readings/signings/schmoozings/etc.:
On Friday, September 29, at 7 p.m., I will be appearing at Cody’s on Fourth Street in Berkeley, CA.
On Monday, October 2, at 7 p.m., I will be appearing at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA (Julia Child’s hometown).
On Tuesday, October 3, at 7:30 p.m., I will be appearing at Powell’s City of Books on Burnside in Portland, OR.
On Wednesday, October 4, at 7 p.m., I will be appearing at the University Book Store (the University District location) in Seattle, WA.
And on Friday, October 6, at 11:30 a.m., just hours after my return to New York, I’ll be participating in a chat with Clark Wolf, restaurant consultant and foodie-culture analyst extraordinaire, at New York University–specifically, at the Fales Collection (3rd floor of the Bobst Library on Washington Square South). My homegirl Marion Nestle says she might be there, too.
Well, he doesn’t literally rap, though in these hang-loose days at the Times, anything is possible. But the Paper of Record’s restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, has kind words to say about The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation in his podcast, which was heard on National Public Radio last week. Click on the link below to hear what Mr. Bruni has to say:
Powell’s is a remarkable institution in Portland, Oregon, a bookstore run by the father-son team of Walter and Michael Powell, open 365 days a year. They’ve been at it since the 1970s and got in early on the e-commerce front, starting up their web site in 1994.
And they’re being very nice to me. The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation has been selected as one of their vaunted Staff Picks by an employee named Jill. (Thanks, Jill, I owe you a plate of Dungeness crabs and a glass of pinot noir.) And Powell’s also asks authors to fill out a Q&A that, charmingly, includes esoteric questions that have nothing to do with the book the author is hustling. You can read my Q&A here.
I will be reading at the flagship Burnside location (a.k.a. Powell’s City of Books) at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, October 3rd. More info on my upcoming West Coast tour to come.
One thing I want you to understand about The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation is that it is a book rooted in pleasure: the pleasure of cooking, the pleasure of eating, the pleasure Americans have taken over the last 50-60 years in their discovery that food can be so much more than mere sustenance. (And that it can be so much better than canned Dinty Moore beef stew.) It’s not a “food issues” book like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, though I loved those books and recommend them as complements to mine; I’m relating the good news, Schlosser the bad, and Pollan is the guy trying to sort out where we go from here.
What I especially admire about Schlosser’s and Pollan’s books is their tone. They’re telling you what’s wrong with the way Americans eat, but they’re not hectoring you or guilt-tripping you; they’re not saying “Bad fat Americans! Stupid little tools of corporate interests!” They’re sincere in their desire to enlighten, which is refreshing in a heated climate where, too often, food activists reflexively take adversarial, I’m-smart-you’re-stupid stances. (To see an example of what I mean, look at the thread of sour-spirited reader comments that followed my interview with Salon–some of which had little or nothing to do with the interview itself.)
Which brings me to another great food activist, one of my favorite people I got to meet in the course of writing and researching my book: a young woman named Nina Planck. Nina is the author of the books Real Food: What to Eat and Why and The Farmers’ Market Cookbook. She’s the daughter of Virginia farmers, and I like her not only because she’s a nice person, but because of the jolliness of her activism, her prescriptiveness and fundamental upbeatness. In her fine Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times about the E. coli spinach scare, she points out that the strain of E. coli bacteria that’s getting people sick is often a byproduct of feeding cattle grain, which stresses the digestive systems of the animals (who, as ruminants, aren’t supposed to be eating grain). “It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighborhing farms,” Nina writes. She then points out the “good news” that cattle switched to a grass-fed diet for even a few days experience a sharp downturn in the amount of this especially nasty strain of E. coli (O157:H7) in their systems.
Nina sheds light on the problem and points the way toward a solution, while acknowledging that implementing this solution will take time and effort. (And she is brave enough not to pile scorn on Earthbound Farm, the “corporate organic” outfit whose massive recalls and current troubles have prompted some bouts of schadenfreudal cackling from other food activists, even though Pollan, in his book, finds them to be the good guys among the big outfits.)
One other thing: There was a little party in New York City last week to celebrate the launch of my book. Nina brought along her mom, Susan, who was fresh from the farm in Virginny. Susan got off the night’s best line: “I bet I’m the only person in this room who actually planted arugula yesterday.”
My friend Adam Platt, who reviews restaurants for New York magazine, has just informed me that he has entered the “cyber era” (Geez, what a fogyish phrase; he must be over 30!) with a new, magazine-sanctioned blog called Gobbler.
Adam joins such other old-media blog adventurers as Chow, a print magazine that’s just been freshly reconceived as a Web-based food network (complete with a “Food Media Blog” called The Grinder), and, of course, the New York Times, whose Web site features restaurant critic Frank Bruni’s Diner’s Journal.
So here goes: Whoop-de-doo! The square old-media companies have discovered that there is something called “the World Wide Web” that features something called “blogging”! Nyah-nyah! And furthermore, nyah-nyah!
Did I do that well?
...in this case, football and food. An avid New York Giants fan, I can’t stop reading recaps of my team’s improbable comeback victory over the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday. My favorite line from all the postgame coverage came from Plaxico Burress, the tall, spindly wide receiver who caught Eli Manning’s final pass for the winning TD in overtime. Earlier in the game, Burress made a catch downfield but lost control of the ball, fumbling it forward. After it bounced off of an Eagle or two, the ball squirted into the end zone, where Burress’s fellow wideout Tim Carter fell on it for the touchdown that began the Giants’ comeback.
Burress is often derided in the sports press as a moody head case, but I pull for him because he blocks well (a task many receivers are too selfish to take on) and because he’s devoted to the memory of his mom, Vicki Burress, who raised three boys singlehandedly in Virginia Beach and died of diabetes when she was just 49. And I love what Plax said about Tim Carter, who turned his miscue into a score: “I owe him a steak, a lobster, a glass of merlot or something.”
Hey, I was interviewed by Ratha Tep of Salon.com a few weeks ago, and here is the result. WARNING: In this Q&A, I confess to liking Jif peanut butter (!!!) in addition to heirloom tomatoes and other virtuous, locally produced foods. Already, in the “Comments” section, I’ve been upbraided by some smug sustainable-ista (who nevertheless echoes the very points I make in the interview).
Though I’m currently in pitchman mode for The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, and encourage you to buy the book and check out the October issue of Vanity Fair, which contains an excerpt from Chapter 5 of the book, I also keep busy doing other bits of writing here and there, and thought I’d clue you in on this stuff.
In the September issue of GQ, which is still on some newsstands, I have a profile of Troy Polamalu, the intense safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Pro football is as much of an abiding passion of mine as food; maybe “pathology” is a better word than “passion.”)
I also have an essay in Bon Appetit’s 50th-Anniversary issue, now on the stands. (Article not available online.)
I give a thumbs-up to Mark Haddon for his new novel, A Spot of Bother, in the current New York Times Book Review.
And, as ever, you’re encouraged to check out the article archives on this Web site, reachable by clicking on the box at the top right of this page. I’m verrry slowly posting my back catalogue, and the latest addition is of one of my early pieces for GQ, about the cult British indie film Withnail & I.
...but I’m nevertheless saddened by the E. coli outbreak that’s caused all that spinach to be recalled. I guess this is a good argument for the local-foods movement; big processors like Natural Selection Foods LLC are compelled to take such drastic measures because their products are distributed all over the country, under a variety of brand names, and lord knows which batch of spinach was contaminated. Whereas, if you buy your spinach from Farmer Chard’s stand down the road, you know exactly where your food is coming from.
Still, it’s tough for most Americans to buy local all the time, especially where leafy greens are concerned. In my book, Emeril Lagasse, whose own brand of pre-packaged baby spinach is among those affected by the recall, says that he got into selling salad greens under his name not because he’s a whore to commerce, as his detractors are wont to say, but “because of my children and the crap that’s in the supermarket. Look, most people don’t live in New York City, where you can just go down the street and get whatever you want. Most people have to settle for brown lettuce that’s been up there for a couple of weeks, and it’s sad.”
...because I think these folks are serious.
With the Today show appearance* now behind me (Matt Lauer charmingly ate a handful of the display prosciutto as soon as they cut to commercial), I now invite you to come see me read from The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation at the Lincoln Center location of Barnes & Noble at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 15. Let me reiterate that it’s the Lincoln Center location, and not the big B&N on Union Square. Arianna Huffington is reading at that one; totally different vibe.
In other news, the Today show’s web site has posted the first chapter of my book, and Vanity Fair’s web site has posted the excerpt from Chapter 5 of my book (which is not the whole chapter) that appears in the October print issue, a.k.a. the Suri Cruise issue.
In still other news, the reading I was supposed to do in Washington, D.C., next Tuesday, as seen on the event schedule posted by my publisher, has been postponed. I’ll give updates on readings and appearances as I get new info.
* Click here to watch my five minutes with Matt. But keep in mind that in order for NBC’s video player to work on your computer, you have to use the Firefox 1.5 web browser and have Macromedia Flash installed.
Terrific news! I’m going to be appearing on NBC’s Today show on Thursday, September 14, to talk about The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. (I’ll be on some time between 8 and 9 a.m.; I’ll update this post with specifics if I get them.) [UPDATE: The NBC dudes say 8:45 a.m., give or take, is likely.]
But oh, dear: I’ve gone and broken my left foot. In a characteristically clumsy moment over the Labor Day weekend, I suffered an avulsion fracture of the fifth metatarsal. As injuries go, it’s not serious, and should heal completely in a month or so. Unfortunately, the healing process necessitates that I wear a protective but dorky-looking cast boot most of the time. Now, I’m sufficiently vain that I don’t want to wear the boot on Today; my orthopedist has given me permission to wear a regular shoe on the foot for the TV appearance, as long as I keep pressure off of it.
What this means is that there’s potential for me to stumble and fall on live television. Which would be humiliating, but a classic YouTube moment. I’d tune in if I were you.
That whirring sound you hear is of box after heavy box of books sliding down the roller ramps from the delivery trucks to your bookstore’s cargo bay. At last, real hardcover copies of of The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation have arrived. Sound the trumpets! Macerate the peaches!
I’ll be busy doing plugola in New York City this week. You can catch me on NBC’s Today show on Thursday, September 14 (Meredith’s second day and also the second day the show will be available in hi-def; anyone have some botox?) and, if you care to, you can hear me read from the book in person at the Lincoln Center location of Barnes & Noble at 7 p.m. this Friday, September 15.
Frank Bruni, the New York Times’s restaurant critic, offers a very positive assessment of The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation in the September 8 editon of his Times-sanctioned blog. And he admits to having not yet finished the book! I hope he enjoys the rest of it and doesn’t retract his kind words in a future post.
The new, October-dated issue of Vanity Fair hits newsstands in New York and L.A. today, and in the rest of the country next week. Excitingly, wonderfully, the issue contains a lengthy excerpt from The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation–specifically, an adapted, streamlined version of the chapter dealing with the birth of Chez Panisse, the seminal Berkeley restaurant.
Hello. My name is David Kamp. I am a writer based in New York City, and I draw my paycheck from Condé Nast Publications, which publishes my work in Vanity Fair and GQ. The occasion of this site launch is a new book I’ve written called The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. I hope you buy and read the book, but I also hope you pay regular visits to this site itself, which, in the Gladwellian spirit of these times, will not be solely a promotional device but an archive for my magazine articles and a place to read site-specific stuff by me.
The article archive is a work in progress, but already, I have posted a few pieces I’ve written over the years. Click on the links provided at the top right of this page to read these pieces and pick up on my tendency to overuse the words alas, mien, and upscale. Click on the box at the top left of this page to learn more about The United States of Arugula, a book that I think you’ll really enjoy if you’ve ever eaten food.