Consider the Kitchen, Philip Roth, and Italy

Food and fiction live side by side in the March 18 issue of The New Yorker, and what a welcome issue this is.

Talking food, the magazine’s columnist, Jane Kramer, reviews Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by British food writer and historian Bee Wilson. The book, equal parts culinary history and culinary anthropology, sounds fascinating, a must-read for those of us who spend hours and hours in our kitchens but rarely consider how we – the big collective we – arrived there, fork (and knife and spoon) in hand. According to Kramer, Wilson knows her stuff and tells it like a rollicking good story, beginning with the Greeks and their intellectual gatherings (symposia) during which the philosophers would be fed and lubricated with “a sickening amount of watered down wine” (the reviewer’s words) before being led into post-conversation entertainments, and the Romans and their entertainment-forward orgies – a sort of symposia sans the intellectual foreplay – where a host would communicate his wealth through the size of the meals his kitchen would produce.

As sophisticated as those cultures may have been for their times, cooking and dining evolved slowly, and advances were made according to a random combination of quirky choice and efficiency, only really becoming what we might call civilized in the 1600s when a host began to set the dining table, providing flatware for his guests. Before that time, diners used their hands (brought to the meal with them of course), then perhaps a spoon (another personal belonging), and then a knife, also brought from home and carried in and out of banquets on one’s belt – part-time cutlery, part-time protective weapon. The fork, and the fact that it was now provided for the guest, changed the tenor of the gathering. Cutting food into smaller pieces slowed down our ancestors as they had to balance food on the tines as they brought it to their mouths. Manners developed. And so did our modern bite. The mechanics and alignment of the human jaw actually changed because no one needed to rip and tear to eat, but could instead chew daintily. Now, writes Wilson, “our top layer of incisors hangs over the bottom layer, like a lid on a box.”

There’s much more in Consider the Fork, the chronicling continues to the present day, noting technological advances as well as small gadgets and the pursuit of local and international ingredients. For the skinny on all that, you’ll need to read the review. And then follow my lead and put Bee Wilson’s book itself on your reading list.

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The other column that caught my eye in March 18’s issue was Adam Gopnik’s Happy Birthday, a nod to Philip Roth on the eve of the writer’s 80th birthday, and as his home city of Newark, New Jersey plans a birthday fete including literary presentations and bus tours of pertinent Roth sites. The celebrating comes at a pivotal time. You may have read a few months ago (as I did) that Roth announced his retirement from writing. According to a November piece, also in The New Yorker, Roth reached 74 years of age, re-read the classics and then re-read his entire works. His reason was expressed to a French magazine this way:

I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing. And I thought it was more or less a success. At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said, ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ It’s exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.

After that, I decided that I was finished with fiction,” Roth went on. “I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to write it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore.

That sounds done to me.

Roth’s first book, the collection of stories called Goodbye, Columbus, was published in 1959; his last  – Nemesis – in 2010. There were twenty-five books in between. He has won more awards than most of his fellow American authors, and rightly so: he is a clear writer, clearly talented, devoted to the disciplined art of writing – facts indisputable whether you like his books or you don’t. Roth the writer is a presence, often formidable. Many aspire to have his career, his way with words, and most feel almost certain that we never can or will.

In fact, it is highly unlikely that that kind of career will be repeated or graced with the time and compensation it takes to hone such skill. After sending his birthday wishes, Gopnik acknowledges just this, and laments that we may never see a writer the likes of Roth again. As he notes in this Talk of the Town column, “it is hard not to worry that it (the birthday celebration) doubles as a bon voyage party for the American writer’s occupation itself…Thanks to the Internet…anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists, giving it all away for the naches (i.e., for the the pure joy of doing so, definition mine). It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer.”

As I report on this mix, I also know I am in the mix, and I do appreciate the irony of that, of me presenting you with an article that mourns the demise of professional, paid writing. Still, it is an article worth reading, just as many of the books and essays coming from the new legions of writers may be worth reading. The good merely needs to be winnowed out and promoted, and it will be readers like all of you who do that. It will be the readers, as Gopnik himself notes, who have the final say.

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On that note, let me add that even though I’ve offered you links to both articles, I urge you to pick up this latest issue of The New Yorker and read it cover to cover in support of these two (and other) excellent essayists.

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I leave for Italy in less than three weeks, and plans for the trip have occupied a good part of my time over the last several weeks. I have been a little less present here on the blog than I would like, but it will be my first time in that country and the foreignness of it all is a bit daunting. Lucky for me, I stumbled across a couple of tourist service websites that have made planning events for this newbie traveler to Italy a snap. In both Florence and Rome I have scheduled walking tours to markets, food shops, and restaurants with local guides and food enthusiasts in order to get a better feel for both cities and their cuisines. If you have plans to head anywhere in the world, check out Vayable for some off-the-beaten-path adventures (not all food related, I promise!) and really wonderful guides who seem thrilled to help you have the time of your life in the place they call home. Rest assured, I’ll be sharing sights and tastes with you as I go. It’ll be the next best thing to walking around with me.

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©2013  Jane A. Ward