Sunday, September 05, 2004

Nota Bene

Maybe it's only because I finally have time to read it in its entirety, but this week's issue of the New Yorker is simply delightful, albeit in unexpected ways.

Titled "The Food Issue," there's more than just good food writing here. The first piece that really caught my attention was James Surowiecki's fine and timely essay on conventions and other megaevents: specifically, why cities like Boston, New York, and Athens, spend tremendous time, money, and other resources to attract big-name conventions when there's little in the way of dollar-for-dollar payoff. (I recently had a chance to watch Michael Moore's Roger and Me -- some of the saddest moments in Flint's history came when it unbelievably and unsuccessfully tried, after crippling GM layoffs, to reinvent itself as a tourist and convention destination.)

The food essays, however, really shine, especially as they very nearly toe the line between ordinary food writing and full-blown, abstract literary fabulism. When Jim Harrison writes of a 37 course lunch he enjoyed with fellow gourmands in the French countryside, complete with late-Renaissance recipes like delicately poached pig snouts and other various and sundry animal parts cooked in other animal's organs, the effect is less Nigella Lawson than Jorge Luis Borges -- or better yet, Poe. Calvin Trillin's terrific essay on snoek (a herring-like fish eaten by black South Africans) has a similar pulling-your-leg quality: I found that I frequently asked myself, Does this fish even exist?

Here food is less the ineradicable content of than the occasion for writing: despite (or perhaps because of) the lush details and descriptive acumen on display in the essays, the food itself is a cipher, a placeholder: it doesn't exist. Or at least it doesn't matter whether it exists or not. Madame Bovary has nothing on good food writing: its author knows that while food presents perhaps the ultimate satisfaction for desire, desire itself is better served by its object's absence than its presence. And what could we want more than the prolongation of desire itself?

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