This is a quick fire post, but I wanted to transcribe my notes, at least in bullet-point form from Monday’s Ferran Adria talk at the Castro. This was definitely my favorite talk of the year, if not of the last five years. I walked away completely mesmerized.
- Adria is no Anthony Bourdain. He is not there to make you laugh with funny anecdotes or foul language. Adria is there in his messianic way to: 1. guide you to create, and 2. point you towards the future of food.
- Adria opened up by stating, “In order to cook well, you must think well, and in order to think well, you must be humble.”
- Adria used the fable of the omelette and the mini-skirt to illustrate that it’s not important to be the first person to create something, but to be the person who conceptualizes it. We don’t know who invented the first omelette, but now most cookbooks devote 5% of their content to omelette recipes. Similarly, miniskirts date back to ancient Greece, but it took Mary Quant in the 60s to pair it in such a way to emphasize the female form. The evolution of the recipe is key.
- We know nothing about cuisine and everything about food is subjective. The Spanish eat the second most fish per capita, but they hate raw fish. Adria’s own parents did not like sushi, when he brought them to a Japanese restaurant.
- Back before his restaurant was big in the 90s, chefs guarded their recipes. But recipes are meant to be shared, so that people can improve them. Essentially, Adria was advocating open source cooking.
- Fruits are an alphabet. When you cook with them, you create a language.
- Adria showed us a clip of how his kitchen can make 2 meters of cheese spaghetti. When we eat a plate of spaghetti, we eat 60 meters of spaghetti.
- I can’t find a good video online of the El Bulli Foundation masterplan, but it’s going to be on a nature preserve, and it definitely puts forth Adria’s utopian vision.
- Finally, this event was also a book signing party of Adria’s The Family Meal. This is simply one of the most stunning cookbooks that I’ve ever opened.
I got distracted and stopped reading Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books: The Underground History of the Urban Poor midway. Jay-Z’s description of his hustling (a.k.a. crack-dealing) life, however, in his autobiodiscography, Decoded, brings the world of Venkatesh’s research to life in vivid color in a few sentences:
Guys my age, fed up with watching their moms struggle on a single income, were paying utility bills with money from hustling. So how could those same mothers sit them down about a truant report? Outside, in Marcy’s courtyards, and across the country, teenagers wore automatic weapons like they were sneakers….Hip-hop was already moving fashion out of the disco clubs and popularizing rugged streetwear, but we’d take it even further: baggy jeans and puffy coats to stash work and weapons, construction boots to survive cold winter nights working on the streets.
My first encounter with Patti Smith was at a Ralph Nader rally in 2000, where she gave a speech over at the Kaiser Auditorium in the East Bay. I simply thought of her as the middle-aged, frizzy-haired hippie-type that I encountered all the time growing up. I’m still not really familiar with her music, but I recently finished Just Kids, her testament of close friendship to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Just Kids is essentially the Portrait of the Artist as a young woman in the New York in the late 1960s and 1970s. Patti runs away from the factory life of New Jersey and has brushes with Andy Warhol’s factory instead. If it was anyone else, you would call the author a name-dropper, but because Ms. Smith is famous in her own right, her casual references to Warhol, Alan Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Jan Wenner, etc., function as a catalogue of ships, or rather catalogue of artists at the Chelsea Hotel. This is Patti’s origin story, and she was surrounded by gods.
Her relationships with the young, famous, and damned, however, weren’t the feature of the story that made the deepest impression on me. Rather, my head was stuck on her descriptions of living in artistic squalor. She describes catching lice, not once, but at least twice, once in Paris, and once from one of her boyfriends. Her wardrobe was chic, but expertly thrifted or found on the street. Mold was removed from loft spaces, turned into art studios, and food was cooked over a hot plate. For whatever reason, her narrative brought back a memory of my third-grade teacher, Ms. S, who told us stories of living a missionary life in Nicaragua, and of dumpster diving for food in San Francisco supermarket parking lots (these stories were told with an eye towards getting her students to donate their change to Catholic charities). They were kindred spirits in pursuit of art or public service.
Patti’s story is also Mapplethorpe’s story, the artist-hustler, who would later go on to be the center of the 1980’s culture wars (as a kid in San Francisco in the 1980’s AIDs, earthquakes, Dan White, and Mapplethorpe seemed to dominate the local TV news that I consumed). The tale of youth is sandwiched in between an elegy for Mapplethorpe, and Patti’s dirge echoes another recent memoir on loss, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. While Didion’s book was written while see was still in grief’s throes, Patti’s tale is one of the loss that lingers, even two decades after a dear friend has died.
Part of me is a bit sad that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom clocked in at somewhere around 570-ish pages, yet is being hailed by the press as one of those big books. Works such as Infinite Jest or 2666, where it takes weeks that stretch into a couple of months to finish, feel like big books. But I forgot, this is the age of Twitter and Facebook and Foursquare, so 570 or so pages ask readers to ignore their phones for a good chunk of time.
Even though Freedom is not a doorstopper, this does not detract from its breadth. As I was nearing the end (Freedom is a book easily slayed in one long weekend), the 140-character-or-less synopsis floating in my head was, “Want to know where the last 10 years went? Read Freedom.” Corruption in Iraqi procurement contracts, check. The rise of the exburbs and the housing bubble, check. The transition of NPR from a liberal news source to the place where you go for a “First Listen” of the new Bright Eyes album, check. College kids who don’t bother to check voicemail anymore because it takes too long, check. It’s all in there.
Or maybe, it’s not. This breadth is a bit deceptive. Except for the secondary character of “Lalitha,” who is of Indian descent, there really isn’t any racial color in this book. Instead Franzen fills in the lines with how Red States and Blue States, Gen Yers and Boomers, and unhappy housewives and NYC singletons view freedom. Race isn’t really addressed at all, but I don’t think this is a fair criticism because Franzen writes what he knows, from the perspective of white professionals for an audience of white professionals.
All of these big themes are wrapped around the smaller story of Patty and Walter Beglund, whose 30-plus year marriage poses the micro-level question, “Can a miserable marriage be transformed into a viable marriage?”
I haven’t read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, but I suspect that I’ll at some point end up watching the movie. As far as chick-lit fairy tales go, I think it’s harmless, even if it promotes a certain sense of spiritual narcissism.
One book that I would like to read is one that died before it’s arrival, a memoir by Gilbert’s jilted ex-husband. While it appears that he got to love after their divorce (he’s now happily married with two kids), he went in a different direction. Instead of eating in Italy or refining his yoga poses, the perfectly nice man that Gilbert left, “journeys through Kosovo, Mongolia, Iran, Iraq, and other developing countries, working with people displaced by natural disaster and armed conflict.” It’s sad that the book deal fell apart, supposedly over his refusal to salaciously spice it up with stories about Gilbert, because I think that his approach to something as painful as a divorce, serves as a nice contrast to Gilbert’s.
Addendum: Perhaps Gilbert deserves more credit. She’s set to lobby Congress for immigration / same sex partner equality.
I’ve come across a couple of things today that have emphasized the importance of public libraries as a space for the homeless to seek shelter, knowledge, and entertainment. From my loving mother, here’s a link to an AP piece* about how the main branch of the SFPL is the first library in the country to hire a full-time social worker to counsel its homeless visitors. The NY Times also recently published an informal chat of sorts with a homeless man who splits his time between the NYPL for the Performing Arts and nearby movie theatres (link via Kottke). This brings me back to Bradbury’s vision of the library as the ultimate refuge:
“Libraries raised me,” Mr. Bradbury said. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”
*The title of the AP piece features the term “San Fran.” I don’t find this offensive, but I’m puzzled as to how “San Fran” found it’s way into the AP Stylebook.