critical shopper

August 27, 2009

Today while I was eating lunch, I finally read Michael Pollan’s New York Times Magazine essay “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” which I think probably everybody who cares about it at all has already read and talked and forgotten about by now, but whatever, I’m behind on things lately. I will just start by saying that I am not predisposed to like Michael Pollan very much; in fact, I kind of sort of really hate him and actually just hearing his name makes me slightly tweak in reflexive annoyance, the way other people react when they hear a name like “Heidi Montag” or “Chuck Grassley” or whatever.  This is really not directly because of Michael Pollan or anything he has written or said or done; I don’t so much dislike Michael Pollan (who I’d never even really read before yesterday) as much as I dislike what he represents (to me, at least) and, especially, who he represents. What Michael Pollan represents to me is yet another blockbuster example of the most salable strain of the new American narrative nonfiction, these “big idea” books which are concerned with using clever structural and rhetorical tricks to “prove” and “explain” things about “important” topics that could “change your life” and/or “the world” (see also Gladwell, Malcolm), very often doing these things at the expense of beautiful English prose and deep examinations of the soul and spirit and general delight in the aesthetic pleasure of reading and writing and language. While I (obviously) find this sort of stuff to be offensive and bad, I could get over this aspect of my hatred pretty easily, partially since it’s just my own petty personal taste to prefer Play It As It Lays over Lay It, Play It: The New Californian Style of Choosing Your Own Adventure, but mostly since I have no idea how true any one of these vague and mean criticisms that I’ve made of Michael Pollan’s work actually are, having not, you know, read any of it.

No, mostly I kind of hate Michael Pollan because a lot of people in my cultural class and in the areas of the internet and media that I read love him and love even more to go on loudly and annoyingly about their self-important ideas about various gastronomical causes and concerns, to espouse their foodie manifesti and harangue and meringue me to the point where I become so nauseous that I have to induce vomiting.  I mean, god, if I hear one more nouveau-gourmand or culinary life hacker repeat that fucking Pollan t-shirt slogan “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” just one more time, I swear, I’m just going to fucking kill his ass and eat him right there on the spot, I’ll shoot him in the head (to avoid contaminating the bulk of the meat with bitter, acrid gunpowder) and then carefully butcher him into cookable chunks (I basically learned how to do this from reading the Tuscany section of Heat, I think) and finally roast his corpse over dry cedar chips in a large, rustic, wood-fired oven; when the skin of his belly is crispy and succulent, I will serve all his various loins and filets on a bed of arugala and radicchio and some ridiculously named hydroponic designer micro-greens that I will buy at Whole Foods; I will make a thick, dark demi-glace of his blood.

But I digress.  Um, what I’m basically trying to say is that when I started to read the Michael Pollan thing in the Times Magazine, I was not coming at it from a very nice and loving and receptive place, okay? As I read his essay about how people watch a lot of cooking shows on television and don’t ever cook themselves and instead eat unhealthy processed foods while they watch cooking shows and how this is a bad thing, mostly, I was sitting on the couch in my boxer shorts and watching the Food Network and eating my lunch, which today consisted of one and a half pop tarts (strawberry, uncooked, fiber-added), a banana (yellow, of South American origin), and a large glass of milk (organic, fat-free). My lunch was delicious and filling and eating it was making me very happy and full and satisfied, the way that food is supposed to make you feel, I think. On the giant television which hangs on our living room wall in the place where people might once have kept a painted portrait of their family, Giada di Laurentis’s breasts were making pumpkin ravioli in wide-screen HD. As I ate my strawberry pop tarts and scanned the first few paragraphs of the Pollan thing, I kept getting distracted by le visioni della bella donna out of the corner of my eye and watched her as she kneaded dough, dusted things with ephemeral coatings of flour, licked her thick, plump lips.

As I finished eating, the television now on CSPAN and muted to help me concentrate, I continued to try to read “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.”  Despite my aforementioned inherent distaste for the material, I made myself read it, the way a child who forces down some disgusting vegetable because his parents wont let him leave the table until he’s eaten it all. As I read and as time went by, a very curious thing began to happen to me; I began to feel this wonderful warm feeling throughout my whole body, in my heart and my skin and my brain, this cellular electricity, this tingling of the nerves, this strange sensation of satiety. At first, I thought this was just my blood sugar skyrocketing because of the pop tarts I had eaten and all of the partial hydrogenated high fructose corn-syrup they contained, perhaps even the effect of some new and innovative chemical additive in them that my body had not yet built up a tolerance to, but I soon realized, though, that, no, that wasn’t it that at all — what it was was that I was actually enjoying this Michael Pollan essay, that actually it was, you know, a really good and smart essay that was also really nice and fun to read. “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” though it advances various arguments and makes various points which I variously either disagree with or just don’t care about at all, and though it no doubt will add more fuel to the foodie fire that often frustrates me, is also a really thoughtful and belletristic piece of long-form nonfiction writing which, as it goes on, raises a lot of fascinating, non-polemical ideas about food and television and culture and is even garnished with some nicely rendered personal memoir for good measure.

Part of me wonders why I was so surprised by this, by how much I liked it, by how easily I forget good things that I’ve enjoyed in the past, the way you might forget a wonderful dish if you don’t eat it for a while. Though it would probably never come to mind if you asked me to name my favorite book of all time or what book I would take to a desert island with me or whatever, probably one of my favorite books I’ve ever read and one I return to again and again is The Man Who Ate Everything, a collection of Jeffrey Steingarten’s food writing for Vogue magazine, a book I’ve read probably ten or fifteen times, maybe even more. When I first read it, I found that his voice in those essays was exactly the sort of voice I wanted from a writer; funny yet serious, learned yet ever receptive to learning more, a smart and friendly and cultured person sitting across the table from you who was going to tell you some interesting things in an interesting way you would enjoy. I liked that book so much that one day when I was in college, I went to the library and spent hours tearing fruitlessly through piles of back issues of Vogue in the hopes that I could read something new of his that I hadn’t read before, some uncollected gem. When I come to think about it, I’ve actually read a decent amount of food and cooking writing over the years, though it has never been something I’ve focused on. I read Heat (mmm), I read Julie and Julia (yeah), I read the book by the guy who writes the the blog The Amateur Gourmet (eh), I read about a third of Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires (overcooked). I will take any Calvin Trillin I can get my hands on and devour it hungrily, licking my fingers afterward to get at any the excess sweetness. In the newspaper every week, I used to read Bruni and continue to read Bittman and Sifton; on the blogs, I occasionally check in with Ruhlman and Knowlton, though they aren’t really part of my regular reading. On the counter in her kitchen, behind a fruit bowl, my mom has The Art of Eating, a biblically-proportioned collection of MFK Fisher essays that I occasionally and very pleasurably dip into when I’m standing around in there waiting on something or someone, often while I’m waiting to eat.

All of this reading is despite the fact that I really could just not give a shit about food or cooking at all. Don’t get me wrong, I like eating and I like cooking and I do both fairly often, I just don’t really care about either of those things, neither of them is all that important to my life or thought or identity, the way they seem to be for a lot of people; food for me is pleasure and fuel and maybe a social binder but not much more than that, it’s tasty gasoline and crunchy coal for my internal furnace. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong at all with being interested in food on a deeper level; I’m just saying that, personally, I’m not. I cooked a lot of my own food in college, much more than anyone else I knew, but this was not out of some ideological agenda or deep moral purpose, it was just because I didn’t really have any money and because my mother had always cooked most of our meals at home when I was growing up (because we didn’t really have any money) and because of this, I knew that cooking my own food was a generally pleasurable and economical and healthy way to live and the way that I had always lived and so so I lived that way. My favorite thing to cook is roast chicken, which I like to cook because it’s easy and cheap and really fucking good when it’s hot out of the oven. There is something kind of amazing about eating the crispy, crackling skin off the steaming bird, but at the same time I don’t really see it as “a minor miracle of transubstantiation” (Pollan’s phrase), I just see it as some good fucking chicken I’m eating. Michael Pollan discusses these primal, magical memories he has of watching his mother cook and I have plenty of those, too, but they’re not really any more special than the memories I have of playing with her or going places with her or watching television together.  I mean, I’m not a chef or gourmand or even a very good cook; I have my rotation of regular dishes that I make and I make them well enough, which is good enough for me because, as I’ve established, I don’t care that much about food above a certain standard of quality and satiety. When I lived in Korea, where a great many exotic and wonderful culinary delights were available for me to avail myself with whenever I wanted, I ate basically the same thing for lunch every day for weeks at a time: tuna gimbap, curry ramyeon, a piece of fruit, a small chocolate bar. There were probably fifty different restaurants within a two block radius of my apartment, all with unique and special and home-made dishes and preparations which I couldn’t get anywhere else and I ate the same thing for lunch everyday because, well, I liked it and it tasted good and what else did I need to think about? That was all I cared about re: food, to be satisfied.

So why do I read those books, then, why do I keep reading about food if I don’t care about it that much? Why do I watch Top Chef and Chopped and Iron Chef and et cetera if I have no interest in cooking like the chefs on the shows, if I will learn nothing from them, the way women once learned (or at least tried to learn) from Julia Child? Michael Pollan advances a couple of interesting ideas about this in “Out of the Kitchen…” One of these ideas is that what much of the audience in middle class America is taking from food shows are not lessons on cooking but a kind of cultural capital, a way to feel and seem more sophisticated than maybe we actually are, to improve ourselves, a way to not be intimidated by the foods of our economic betters. I find this is probably somewhat true of my own experience with food culture; even though I’m perfectly happy making and eating a simple salad from pre-washed lettuce out of a plastic bag and basic vegetables I buy at the supermarket, there is something I like about knowing the names of various gourmet ingredients and preparations and Wikipedian factoids about technique and style and food culture; it does make me feel slightly richer and more upper class to speak of sriracha and vichyssoise, as if my culinary vocabulary were currency that I could actually spend somewhere.

The other thesis that Michael Pollan goes on about, the more interesting idea, I think, is that “the reason we like to watch cooking on TV is that there are things about cooking we miss. We might not feel we have the time or the energy to do it ourselves every day, yet we’re not prepared to see it disappear from our lives entirely.” Pollan argues that we watch food shows to create this simulacrum of what it feels like to cook, to regain some of the joy of cooking without actually taking part in the act of doing it, which is something that he says changes in our society have kept us from. He talks at some length in the later parts of the essay about how cooking is tied very deeply (biologically, socially, culturally) to human identity and so, in this country we live in where we don’t cook anymore, watching food shows is this way of sort of unconsciously yearning for this animistic, physical, familial something from our past that we miss without even knowing that we miss; he says that “we might not feel we have the time or the energy to do it ourselves every day, yet we’re not prepared to see it disappear from our lives entirely.” Faulkner has this phrase about using language to describe sadness, that it’s “a gap to fill a lack,” and I think this is kind of what Pollan is saying about how we watch Rachel Ray and Ina Garten and what they mean to us, these fake mothers in their Potemkin kitchens who are trying to remind us what love used to be.

What?! You’re telling me Bobby Flay strikes deep emotional chords?” (this is the one really annoying stylistic tic of Pollan’s essay; he keeps talking to this fake audience surrogate who is meant to represent us but who is just dumber than life itself).  Anyway, the whole argument that M.P. makes about our yearning and desire for something important and almost lost from our identity is a very compelling and complex and also really just kind of poetic and beautiful thing, an argument that I have trouble completely refuting in part because I think that it’s very likely true in some ways but also because even if I could prove it wrong, I wouldn’t want to because I think it’s beautiful, the same way I don’t want to argue with a poem or get pissed off at the way sunshine feels on my face. While I think the argument is valid enough, though, I just think that maybe there’s a simpler explanation for why people are tuning in to all these food shows on television, which is just, you know, that they’re good and fun and entertaining to watch.

Like, I think I watch a good food show on television because it’s a good television show, first and foremost, not because of its nutritional content or because I think it will “teach me something” or because it’s reaching deep down to some primal ur-cook residing inside of me and trying to claw his way out. I don’t watch Barefoot Contessa or Giada at Home because I care about the recipes or techniques contained within them or because I feel deeply that Ina Garten is some sort of living Venus of Willendorf, I watch them because the HD photography on those shows is absolutely exquisite; I watch the dishes in those shows the way I would look at a beautiful still life of a bowl of fruit on the wall of a gallery or museum.  Maybe I watch Good Eats to learn a little bit about food, but mostly I watch it because it’s pretty rare to see a clever and quirky and formally inventive, auteur-driven show like that anywhere else on television. I watched the original British Kitchen Nightmares because it was a beautifully made, touching, kitchen sink (pardon the pun) docu-drama; I watch the new American one because it’s a white trash car crash. Anthony Bourdain’s shows have always been really strongly-voiced first person autobiographical television memoir of the type which just doesn’t exist in many other manifestations in the medium. These are the reasons I watch these shows above all else, because they’re good shows. My dad noted the other day while we were watching the first episode of the new Project Runway that after watching however many seasons of the show that he’s watched, hours and hours and hours of television, he still doesn’t have the first idea about how you would go about making a piece of clothing, he doesn’t understand any aspect of how any single step of the design or garment construction process would even work in theory or in practice. I agreed with him, that he was right and that I didn’t have a clue either and we hadn’t learned anything at all and wasn’t that weird? We mused on this for a second and then we watched the rest of the show anyway and it was entertaining and we enjoyed it and I’m so glad that spacey hipsterina got voted off right away. My dad and I don’t watch Project Runway because we’re deeply invested in the idea of making and wearing clothes as a basic facet of human life and we don’t watch Top Chef to soothe the phantom pain of some lost deep and primal connection to our food; we watch them because they’re fun, well-made, dramatic and entertaining shows with captivating characters and interesting plots.

In the same way, I read good food writing not because I particularly care all that much about food but because really it’s just good writing and I like to read good writing, no matter what it’s about. I read and reread Jeffrey Steingarten not because I particularly care that much about food (I’ve never cooked or thought about cooking one of his recipes) but because he’s a good writer with a good voice who’s so good that he makes me care about food at least for the span of his essay. If Calvin Trillin decided that instead of eating and food he would rather write about nuclear reactors or plumbing or calculus, I would happily read any of that stuff; for me personally, the subject is irrelevant, I just want the pure pleasure that a good literary artist can offer me. One of my very favorite things to read, the thing I look forward to every week, is a regular online New York Times column called Scent Notes. Scent Notes, written by “professional perfume critic” Chandler Burr, is a weekly review of a new fragrance from Yves Saint Laurent or Givenchy or [insert famous and expensive designer here].  I have never personally worn perfume in my life; I have never bought perfume for anyone in my life; I have no real interest in doing either of those things in the future of my life and even if I did do one of those things (most likely the second one), I would probably never be able to splash out the cash necessary to buy one of the fancy perfumes reviewed in Scent Notes. Yet despite all of this, Scent Notes is one of my very favorite things to read and I love to read it and I think it’s so good and I look forward to it every week (though Burr seems to be on sabbatical now?!). Every column is like this incredible post-Montaigne spritz of charm and elan and gossip and knowledge, this distillation of criticism and poetry into a tiny bauble full of linguistic essence. A recent review of a new fragrance by Clinique began:

“The single most persistent and complex problem with criticism of art, in any medium, is arguably the problem of historical context. In what era and under what aesthetic was the object created? And how, then, can we critique it, given that it was conceived for people whose sensibilities differed from ours? Is it successful because it speaks to us now or because it spoke to them then?

Any number of classic perfumes pose this problem. Exhibit A: the prewar Guerlains. If the classics are, to use the industry term, “re-orchestrated” (updated to fit contemporary olfactory style in order to sell better in 2009), then all bets are off. These scents are the equivalent of Beethoven sonatas done as a Jay-Z-produced mash-up. Which is fine — they appeal to the kids and move product — but they’re no longer Beethoven.

On the other hand, to the degree to which these works of scent art are still faithful to their 19th- or 20th-century originals, the historical context problem surfaces. Let’s say we take them on their own terms today, and let’s use Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir as a case in point.”

This is all for a review of this liquid stuff that you spray on yourself that smells good! I consider myself pretty articulate and that’s about all I could every say about a perfume, I think, yet here Chandler Burr has written this vibrant piece of prose about it which involves and invokes history and music and poetry in ways that I couldn’t imagine, which takes me somewhere that I hadn’t been before and exposes a new world to me, an essay which is as interesting a piece of criticism as anything I’ve read lately in Bookforum or the LRB (okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s still really good!).  I found reading his column to be an amazing experience, maybe as amazing as I found reading Harold Rosenberg when I was studying art history in college and maybe even more amazing, in a way, because I could look at a Rauschenberg or Pollock the way that Rosenberg did and I could see and understand some of what was there and what had happened to make it without his help, I had some grounding in why it was important and good and could give you some fairly educated thoughts on it of my own.  However, I bet that if you sprayed some of Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir in the air in front of me and and asked me step through it, though, and tell you what I thought of it, I would say, “Um, yeah, that smells pretty good” and that would be about it, and yet here is this person who can take something as simple as a smell and weave all these gossamer threads of thought together around it into a little tapestry for me and you to witness every week, this paean to perfume.

There was a great deal of Internet controversy recently over one of Cintra Wilson’s Critical Shopper columns in the New York Times Styles section; if you’re reading my blog, I’m pretty sure you heard all about it, but for the purposes of writing this essay I have to summarize it anyway, I guess. In the column, Cintra reviewed the new JC Penney store which opened in Manhattan, in the process of which review apparently offending a great many women by making comments which they interpreted as being snarky and “New York elitist” and very offensive to those who are overweight.  While I am suburban, Southern non-elite on record as thinking that Cintra Wilson is a funny and wonderful writer, I would agree that maybe this particular column wasn’t her best work or whatever, although I find some of the criticisms of it to be a little absurd. First of all, I think it’s kind of ridiculous to expect a fashion critic for the New York Times to give a positive critique of a place as inarguably dowdy and downmarket as Penney’s; as I discussed the other day with a fellow blogger, this would be like expecting Sam Sifton, when he becomes the the new Times food critic this fall, to hand out glowing and eloquent reviews of the menu options at Hardee’s and Wendy’s, since that’s where “real people” eat in “real America,” you know, and, then, if he dared to criticize the crudeness of the flavors of the Chili Cheese Thickburger or to note that repeatedly consuming fast food like this would probably make you fat, the bloated massses would rise together from their couches and potatoes to leave comments and blog entries calling him “an arrogant New York bastard” who didn’t understand anything about this country or the way “we” live here.  After the JC Penney Critical Shopper was published, the blogs boiled over with passionate populist epistles about the importance of stores like Penney’s to the people who shop there, the affordable fashions that they offer to people around the country who can’t afford anything else and who still, of course, need clothes to wear, the public service that this store provides.  I don’t disagree with any of this, it’s all very true, but, you know what, Hardee’s offers lots of people around the country affordable food that keeps them going every day, too, that keeps them from starving; they too do a service for this country that can’t be denied.  Does that mean that they should be heralded by the esteemed critics for the most important cultural arbiter in our country?  I don’t think so, personally, I don’t really think the Charbroiled Chicken Club sandwich is worth that, although I guess that might make me an elitist.

The reaction to this one specific column, though, is really just a representation of something much larger, I think.  I’ve talked about this previously at length, but the Critical Shopper is one of my favorite things in the entire New York Times every week; it’s part of the Styles section, which is my favorite section of the Times and which basically every media blogger finds some way every week to deride as “irrelevant” or “ridiculous” or “worthless” or “stupid,” criticisms which have, of course, intensified exponentially in the wake of the JC Penny piece.  These criticisms, while overly snarky and very easy to make, are often valid enough in their own way. When Chandler Burr was hired as the New York Times‘ perfume critic, the Columbia Journalism Review was one of many news outlets to do a story about how ridiculous it was for a newspaper to have a perfume critic “in this age of newsroom cutbacks and insufficient coverage of “gathering threats” overseas and at home.”  That was back in 2005, when newspapers still, you know, had money and stuff, and this tension felt between “real journalism” and “unnecessary and frivolous” criticism has only intensified since then.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand the argument that says if we only have a certain amount of money for our media that our priority should be to spend it on “important” things like government oversight and hard news and what have you, I get it.  If you held a gun to my head, I would agree with you that, yes, of course, covering health care reform is much, much more important than publishing a review of a new fragrance by Dior (actually, I would probably insist on intense, round-the-clock coverage of the gun you were holding to my head, to be honest).

At the same time, though, I don’t think a world without poetry and art is really a world worth living in.  Yes, something like perfume criticism or even critical shopping is completely and totally unnecessary and irrelevant, but it’s kind of wonderfully unnecessary, it’s gloriously irrelevant, it’s this great privilege we’re given to watch a very clever person’s mind deal with a stupid and frivolous thing and it’s a privilege I don’t really want to live without. You can say that makes me shallow, you can say I should care about more important things in the world, more serious things, and you’re right, I can’t argue with that, but I also can’t change how I feel, I can’t change what gives me pleasure and what doesn’t, and the Critical Shopper column is one of the most pleasurable reading experiences available to me every week. In the most recent Critical Shopper, Mike Albo describes the experience of visiting Hollister, another chain store that any mall denizen of a certain age is familiar enough with. Here is just one paragraph of his critique:

“On the way down I stopped in the fragrance room and sampled the Laguna Beach body mist. It smelled like Jolly Ranchers being breathed on my face by Hayden Panettiere. Here the store also sells its California fragrance, which is spritzed on the mannequins every hour; it’s a noxious concoction that, I assume, is distilled from mink sex glands and the tears of broken-hearted teenage girls.”

I had been enjoying the essay up until that point but this Hayden Panettiere simile was the thing that really drove me over the top, pleasure-wise, the cherry on top of this sundae of an essay. You could go back through the archives of the Critical Shopper and find at least a couple shining sections like this in every single piece and very likely a whole bunch more, gleaming gems of sentences and haute couture phrasings, ginned-up descriptions and fizzy, ephemeral tones, clever voices and news ways of thinking and feeling about the world all centered around and focused on something as ordinary as clothes, these patch-work bits of prose that serve to defamiliarize and recontextualize the simple pieces of fabric that we wear on our bodies every day to cover up our nakedness.

It’s funny, because all these Critical Shopper essays are, in a way, like science fiction to me; they describe a world which is almost completely alien to my own, like a distant planet I can see up in the sky on a clear night. I don’t come from a ton of money and I will very likely never have a ton of money because I live in a world short on money and I’ve chosen a life that will not logically lead me to having much money in the future. Whatever, this is not a poverty pissing contest, there are many people who have lives that are much, much harder than mine, I’m not complaining at all.  Besides, I think not growing up rich has been really good for me in all the obvious ways; I was raised by my parents was to not define myself by how much stuff I had, what I wore or how I looked, that it was what I did and thought and learned that was really important. As a result of my upbringing, though, I’ve never spent much on clothes. When I was a kid, I remember shopping at Belks and Walmart and JC Penney, which I think Cintra Wilson rightly derides for being ugly and provincial, even though it provided the clothes of my childhood; when I was an adolescent, I moved on to Old Navy and the Gap, those faux-cool arbiters of lower middle class un-style; when I was in college, I went to thrift stores and vintage stores and back to the mall again; when I lived in Korea, where my dollar counted for more than in the states, I went to Uniqlo and shopped from cramped, small stalls in underground markets and malls. I can think of exactly one time in my entire life that I have spent more than seventy five dollars on an article of clothing (a perfectly fitting suit jacket in a Japanese department store which I spent the equivalent of $200 on, holding my breath as I handed over the cash; a button fell off the first time I wore it). I’m kind of a little embarrassed to admit all of this, worried what you’ll think of me, what some random stranger in “New York” might think about me and my sartorial poverty, and then I’m embarrassed to be embarrassed, that I’ve so internalized these silly notions of class and worth and beauty that I even care about them, that they take up space in my head that I could devote to more useful stuff.  The truth is, I would be anxious and afraid to even just walk ino the stores that are reviewed in these columns I read every week, scared that the people inside of them would be able to instantly tell that I didn’t belong, that I wouldn’t buy anything, that I couldn’t really afford to be there. The glittery, shimmering objects that are described in the Critical Shopper are things which are very literally out of my reach; I will probably never touch, just physically touch any of the things I read about there, much less own them or maybe even be friends with the kind of people who own them.  I can’t buy any of these stupid, expensive things because I don’t have that kind of money, the money it takes to buy them.

But all that doesn’t matter so much to me because I what I can do is read beautiful sentences about them written by great writers and imagine the things for myself, see them in my mind’s eye, inside.  Because in the space of imagination anything is possible, I can do all that for free, it doesn’t cost me anything but it still gives me something for my nothing, some nice feeling inside that I can enjoy for a moment, a gap to fill a lack. All I may be doing by doing this kind of Styles section reading is empty consumption, taking in worthless words about worthless things that don’t help me improve myself or improve the world around me in any way, empty thoughts about stupid possessions in pursuit of pure, frivolous pleasure, but, you know, whatever, I don’t care, these words make me and other people happy and if they make us happy, that means they have some worth, even if they don’t discuss the intricacies of important contemporary issues or are perfectly politically correct and socially responsible or are even completely cruelty-free, as Cintra Wilson’s last column probably wasn’t. I’m looking at the Wikipedia page on Michael Pollan and thinking now after reading it and his wonderful article that maybe my impression of him was stupid and wrong; the summary of his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, describes arguments “that the reductive analysis of food into nutrient components is a flawed paradigm.” Apparently, in the book, he “questions the view that the point of eating is to promote health, pointing out that this attitude is not universal and that cultures that perceive food as having purposes of pleasure, identity, and sociality may end up with better health.”  I agree with all this reductive simplification of his ideas that I’ve pasted from Wikipedia, I really do.  Sometimes food doesn’t have to be nutritious and healthy, sometimes it doesn’t have to be ethically sourced and fair trade, sometimes it doesn’t have to fill you up and make you stronger and better and healthier, sometimes it just has to taste really good and make you happy to eat it because it tastes so good, make you so happy because of its good taste that you want to share its goodness and happiness with another person, the way I’m sharing this Michael Pollan essay with you, the way it’s on the table between us and we’re talking about it and enjoying it together, you and me. These words taste good and sometimes that’s all we need.

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19 Responses to “critical shopper”

  1. Sharif Says:

    The Hayden Panettiere/Jolly Rancher quote was the one I pulled when recommending the piece to people on facebook. I love Critical Shopper not necessarily because I am particularly interested in the rarified world of competitive people and their clothes, but because it’s one of the few sections of the New York Times where the Times goes out of its way to spotlight good writing. Reportage is all well and good; I want more from my paper then information and the ‘opinion culture’ of the Editorials page. I want to be reminded that there remains a cosmopolitan intelligentsia somewhere in the world. Also, both Mike Albo and Cintra Wilson are both interested in the world of glitz without necessarily buying into it. They’re tourists of that world. Wilson herself has long raved – in her books and Salon articles – about celebrity culture, body image and is far more of a feminist than any of the people bitching about her.

  2. Sharif Says:

    re: Michael Pollan.

    My favorite cooking show was The Frugal Gourmet. Ostensibly it was about teaching people new ways of cooking economically. The real pleasure of the show, however, was watching Jeff Smith get publicly drunk every episode and being unable to finish his recipes because he spent too much time rambling and refilling his glass (luckily, his assistant Craig always stepped in with a pre-prepared serving). It was my first serious exposure to alcoholism.

    • songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

      That’s funny about the Hayden Panettiere thing (I don’t think I’ve ever seen her actually act in anything but I’ve always felt she has a really good name). Anyway, I very strongly agree with all of this and I am going to have to track down some Frugal Gourmet post haste.

  3. peregrine Says:

    Back when I had cable, Alton Brown was always the one I watched, because while I had fairly reliable success making things by some of the other TV cooks (Ray has some surprisingly tasty stuff), Good Eats was the only one of the shows I could really enjoy and get something more out of than a recipe, though you’ve reminded me that Bourdain is supremely watchable as well.

    For the same reason, I’m reading this huge reference book on the molecular structure and behavior and lore of food. (I think I told you about it.) It’s sort of Alton Brown in printed-and-bound form, now that I think about it, and the reason I like both of them is not just because I’m a foodie, although I am, but because it’s sort of an eyes-wide-open approach to the world, with food as the lens of capital-T Theory, but even better because it’s something you can make and share with someone and not take too seriously because once you eat it, it’s gone.

    • songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

      Is that that Harold Mcgee book or is it the French one? Anyway, this is interesting and I have some stuff to say about this but I’m going to write you back (soon!) and I don’t want to repeat myself, so this is like an IOU or whatever.

  4. Ryan Says:

    I kept looking for the 289th page, but I couldn’t find it…more pics please. I was raised on MTV. More focus…


  5. I lived in a house with a bunch of people who were very very into their vegan diet, and it would be discussed extensively. Once there were about half a dozen of us who got into a discussion of honey that went on for over an hour. We approached honey from every possible angle. We discussed the sentience of the bees and their role as exploitees in an agricultural industry. We discussed issues of species homogeneity and it’s implication on food security. This stuff went on and on and on. Finally things were petering out, and my friend added one trailing comment that sealed the chapter up and made us never approach the issue again. With certainty she stated “oh, and also, they’re fucking bees” I mutter this to myself all the time when I hear the food talk get exasperating and minute. It helps. Try it: “they’re fucking bees“.

    • songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

      That is an excellent story and an excellent slogan. I want to get a t-shirt with that on it.

  6. Caitlin Says:

    1. I read faster than anyone I know, and I know a lot of people who like to read. But I can only assume that you must read at least ten times faster than I do, or that you read when everyone else is sleeping, because how is it possible that you seem to have read basically everything worth reading ever?

    2. The Styles section is the only section of the NYT that I read with any regularity whatsoever, for essentially the same reasons that Sharif has already succinctly and eloquently explained.

    3. I think that maybe you should be a trophy wife.

  7. songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

    1. You flatter me! I mean, I am well read enough in some areas, but I think I am mostly pretty good at faking like I know a lot more than I actually do. Also, a lot of other areas of my brain (not to mention life) have suffered because of my reading; my math skills are like third grade level at best, I have little knowledge about or understanding of even basic scientific principles.

    2. Well, thanks so much for making me feel less guilty about being socially irresponsible (or at least sharing the guilt).

    3. It is kind of disturbing at what a young age this became a major life goal for me.


  8. I too completely support Caitlin on all the three points. You really seem to be a super woman.

  9. alesh Says:

    So, yes, you’ve sort of proved your own point by writing something fun to read that makes the point that things can be fun to read even when you don’t care about whether they are true or not, which is I think not true.

    Maybe not, but I read MP’s big _Omnivore’s Dilemma_, and the practical impact it’s had on my life is maybe marginal, but it’s also not zero, and in any case while I was reading it it did not succeed because it entertained me (and thereby also enlightened me to some debatable extent) — it succeeded because it persuaded me THROUGH the remarkable entertaingness of its language.

    Which is to say that I think that if you find whatever writing entertaining in the deep sense that you obviously do, then that enjoyment is at least in part tied to your being persuaded, both in the writer’s point and in the _significance_ of the writer’s point, for at least the duration of your reading of the text. And if you then discard that having-been-persuaded, if you do not let the meaning and rhetoric touch you in some way that at least has the potential to be permanent, then I dare say that you have insulted the very text that you claim to have enjoyed, and have read things in a way that their authors, in their heart of hearts, would have just as soon you not have read.

    Just for example, do you not, when near the perfume counter at the local Macy’s (or whatever), want to stop by and see if they have one of the Notable fragrances that you have read about, perchance to enrich your reading with some real-world sensation or maybe even to briefly fantasize about buying a bottle for someone?

    I will be satisfied if you admit even the smallest impulse in this direction. But it’d be best if you did not, because in the interest of taking a foot I will then suggest that you read even more Polland, and perhaps even consider giving up those pop tarts, and I would hate to risk being shot in the head and etc. etc.

    • songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

      “Just for example, do you not, when near the perfume counter at the local Macy’s (or whatever), want to stop by and see if they have one of the Notable fragrances that you have read about, perchance to enrich your reading with some real-world sensation or maybe even to briefly fantasize about buying a bottle for someone?”

      I really don’t and have never felt the need to do this, the same way I’ve never felt a deep desire to eat at El Bulli or whatever, however much I like reading about it. It’s entirely possible that this reflects poorly on me as a reader or person; that I am either not getting something essential out of the writing or am not taking whatever I have gotten from it to the “correct” degree. I am a very imperfect reader and (especially) person so either of these things is possible. Maybe I am actually treating this “treasured” reading experience as completely disposable, the way I treat a pop tart or a show on the Food Network. That’s not what I think I’m doing or feel like I’m doing when I read (just like I don’t think a pop tart is worthless to me), but I don’t discount the possibility of this and I don’t think that would necessarily be the end of the world even if it were true. While I obviously believe we should take writing really seriously, at the same time, I don’t think we have to be sanctimonious about it, the way you are talking about my reading experience “insulting” writers and their “hearts of hearts.” Do you think, for example, that writers get offended when you reblog something they wrote on your blog and add a little two-line joke or tidbit of a statement to create your own post? Does that illustrate true engagement with their writing, does it show that reading their work has really meant something to you, the way I’m tearing myself up here in front of everybody with Wilson and Burr and Pollan? No, not really, but honestly who gives a shit about that, I bet the writers you reblog, in their “heart of hearts,” are still pretty damn grateful for you and your reading anyway, because you took the time to read something they wrote and are even spreading it around so that other people can read it.

      Also, I disagree with what you think my main thesis is, which in your mind is that things can be fun to read whether they’re “true” or “not.” Personally, I think all writing which has the capability to be really powerful and/or important and/or entertaining is “true,” in at least some sense, I don’t like to read any writing that isn’t “true” and I think I can smell “fake” or “untrue” writing from a mile away and I avoid it like the plague. If that Michael Pollan essay was really so awful, I wouldn’t have gotten past the second page. All the writing I talk about here, from Pollan to perfume reviews to MFK Fisher, is writing that I am putting out there as good, true, beautiful writing that I think is worth other people reading. What I am saying as my main point, I think, is that good, true writing is good, true writing regardless of what it’s about; that the subject of Cintra Wilson’s column isn’t really important to me because the important thing to me is to be a reader in the company of her beauty and personality, the same way that my own reader might not care about all this bullshit I’m going on about but they care about me enough and like the way that I use language enough that it’s pleasurable for them to read. Maybe I haven’t made the point perfectly and also the point has its own faults and is not air-tight or anything (for ex. I don’t read a lot of “good” sports or business or technology writing, because (oops!) those subjects don’t tend to interest me) but I think that’s what I’m trying to say with this, if I’m trying to say anything at all, is that to spend time with a good writer I like is the most important part of the reading experience for me, the way you would probably talk at length to your close friend or lover about something that interests them but kind of bores you, because the talking and the friend are what’s important, not what you’re talking about (and, if in your talking you learn something from them about their interest or are convinced of their position and change your life and stop eating pop tarts, then, you know, bonus!)

      Just my opinions, though. Thanks for reading!

  10. alesh Says:

    “Also, I disagree with what you think my main thesis is, which in your mind is that things can be fun to read whether they’re ‘true’ or ‘not.’ Personally, I think all writing which has the capability to be really powerful and/or important and/or entertaining is ‘true,’ in at least some sense, I don’t like to read any writing that isn’t ‘true’ and I think I can smell ‘fake’ or ‘untrue’ writing from a mile away and I avoid it like the plague.”

    I think that you are using the word “true” there to mean something like, intellectually/artistically honest, where I was using it to mean persuasive/convincing. To be persuasive, a writer needs good arguments. To be interesting, either the arguments or the conclusion have to be somehow be novel. To be pleasurable, the writing has be put together well (which requires, among other things, artistic honesty and a talent with language). Of those three, the last is the most important to you, I get that. For me, they are all of roughly equal importance, although note that when I say “persuasive” I do not mean that something has to have persuaded me for me to have enjoyed reading it — it simply needs to put in the effort.

    But: whether or not I was persuaded is very much a feature of my enjoyment of the piece. In other words, if I remain unconvinced it is a very different experience than otherwise. I read record reviews that are wonderfully written and which strike me as wrongheaded, and I enjoy them every bit as much as the ones I agree with. Sometimes I’ll find myself going along with an argument until I’ve finished reading, and only then evaluate it. (And by the way, I just naturally tend to have more to say about stuff I disagree with, so I might have a few paragraphs to say about a particularly boneheaded David Brooks column, whereas something that I found exactly spot-on gets a wisecrack, because really I can’t imagine that anyone wants to see “Wow, that was so true!” with a bunch of links.)

    But what you are saying is that your truth-evaluation of something you’ve read is not related to the flavor of your enjoyment of it. Just to be sure, here is you pretty much saying that:

    “I have trouble completely refuting in part because I think that it’s very likely true in some ways but also because even if I could prove it wrong, I wouldn’t want to because I think it’s beautiful, the same way I don’t want to argue with a poem or get pissed off at the way sunshine feels on my face.”

    Now I think you’re right that Pollan is much more pleased with your introspection than with my “Wow that was so true!”, but given his druthers I think he’d just as soon also have that refutation you’re alluding to. I have no idea about the perfume columnist, but Pollan is trying to change the world, and I suspect that he considers having conversations with people he disagrees with is helpful, and that he’d find the reaction “wow, this is a really pretty piece of writing, and frankly whether it’s correct or not is beside the point” (which I admit is a gross caricature of what you’re saying, but close enough to make the point?) somewhat disappointing.

    But so back to the perfume counter. You say in regard to stopping by and checking out the real world scene that you’ve enjoyed so much reading about, “I really don’t and have never felt the need to do this.” But I wasn’t trying to say that the writing would make you feel the need. Just that it provides a nudge. You can make the nudge as tiny as you’d like, but can you really deny its existence altogether? Does not your head turn a little bit? Do you not remember what you’ve read and mini-daydream for a second about what it would be like?

  11. songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

    See, I think this is just a fundamental difference in the way the two of us view reading and writing, which is perfectly fine, of course. For me, you’re completely right, I think “truth” in writing has very little to do with “persuasion” or “convincing” my reader of something. Even right now while I’m having this debate with you about truth, I’m thinking I just really don’t care at all about making you believe what I believe and I’m thinking I could be doing something more productive (for me at least) by writing about another experience of mine I’ve been brainstorming about than debating this issue with you (no offense or judgment of you in particular intended, seriously, just describing how I feel). You’re probably right that this is the difference between me and Michael Pollan, but making another person believe what I believe is just really unimportant to me and not the reason I think that I write in any way, shape, or form; what I hope to do most of all and first and foremost is offer an experience for the reader which is unique and interesting and beautiful, a moment of connection. Sometimes, like in this critical shopper thing, I use the persuasive mode of writing as a frame for creating this experience, just because the persuasive mode offers a ready narrative and structure and because I’m still young and very much finding my way as a writer and figuring out how to do the writing I think is good and all of this is a hard and difficult process for me, as I discuss constantly. Persuasion is not what I’m interested in, though, at least overt persuasion in the way you’re talking about. Like in that other piece of mine about the foot shitting that you reblogged, I don’t make some didactic point about advertising or money or anything, I just describe two of my own personal experiences and how I’m working through these issues to the reader; I would like it if all my writing could be this free of (overt) persuasion, but I don’t have all the tools that I need to make that possible yet and so sometimes I invoke a more concrete sense of the persuasive in my writing, but like I said, I don’t think “making a point” is the reason I do it (though the experience of writing for me is very abstract and spiritual and mystical for me and something I admit that I don’t understand entirely). If that “making a point” is an important part of your reading experience and/or if what I’m doing doesn’t offer you what you need as a reader, well, you know, that’s okay with me and you should read Michael Pollan or whoever else gives you as a reader what you need.

    I really don’t stop at the perfume counter even for a second ever; my head doesn’t turn, the thought doesn’t enter my mind, as far as I can remember. When I’m in the space of the department store and the mall, my mind is moving in completely different ways and over completely different territory than it is when I’m sitting at my computer reading an essay. That’s about all I’ve got to say about it.

    I’m going to cut this off here, just because, like I said, I’ve got other stuff to write about and I want to move on, but again, thanks very much for the thoughtful comments.

  12. alesh Says:

    Tell me about it .. I was late to work today working on the previous reply. Just in closing I’d like to say that the fact that you’re doing something much more subtle than advocating for a point is exactly what I’ve been enjoying about your writing. It’s a little like the This American Life idea of a story accompanied by reflection, except that you have the room to really stretch out and parse the reflection as finely as it’s parsable. (Although I’m not sure how well the minuscule dark beige text on light beige background design is serving this style or prose?)

    It’s possible to see any writing as an attempt to convince, at least of the significance of what is being written about, but I understand if this is completely unimportant to you in writing or in reading.

    I was not sure I believed you about not having any interest in that perfume counter, but it just so happens that I found myself walking through Bloomingdale’s today, and even after all this discussion and parsing I walked by the perfume section myself without the slightest inclination to pause.

    • songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

      Ha, that’s funny about the perfume counter. I was thinking that the next time I’m at the mall I might actually think about the perfume, if only because I’ve spent so much time now talking about and justifying how I don’t think about the perfume that the concept of perfume is now almost certainly occupying a larger space in my brain (the power of reading!). Thanks for the compliment and I agree that the design could definitely use some work.


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