Food Memes

With the spread of celebrity chefs, restaurant rating and the glossy food media we’ve come to think we understand a great deal more about food than we really do. Like the Endless End of America, a series of memes about food, it’s history and how we interact with it have creeped into our world. And, like the Endless End of America, they just don’t stand up to scrutiny. These memes show up in the food media and advertising and it is well past time to have them deflated. I will tackle two memes: the “Cooks like Grandma” meme, and the “Smell and taste memory meme”. It’s not that they don’t exist, it’s that they are something different from what we are being told; and, yes, in sometimes they don’t exist.

This was precipitated by a video about the wiz bang restaurant Alinea, in Chicago. Here is a link to it. Take a watch, I’ll wait. Now that you’ve seen it you have to remember I’ll be discussing this video only. How it partakes of a series of tropes in the food media. It is often called food porn. An attempt by watching to experience vicariously something that really makes use of another sense. Touch for sex, and taste for food.

I have no real opinion of it as a place to eat. Like most really high end places, you go, pay your nickel, and get whatever the chef is making that day. The point is that you will get to experience what ever the chef thought was best of what they could do that day. In Ailnea it’s over $200 for what is called a tasting menu. The term is Table d’hôte, or the hosts table. It’s like having your wife pick for you. Which can be viewed as lazy, or, as it should be viewed, as a way of understanding what someone else thinks; of you, of the world, of what it means to eat. It is an invitation to intimacy.

When you are cooking for your family, food as art is a silly and pompous stretch. But, the idea of food as art is what drives places like Alinea. Like music, food is ephemeral and abstract, but unlike music there is no way to record it and have it more then once, you must destroy it in order to sense it. Food as a piece of art is created individually for each audience member and can be experience by that person only once. Every taste is an unique and final experience. It will never be repeated. This leads to endless streams of verbiage and video-iage trying to capture the experience of eating some piece of food. It also leads to a lot of foot in mouth instead of food in mouth.

First a general note on the video shown, it’s a very White, very Suburban, world being shown. A world most Americans alive to see that video have never experienced. Those that could have experienced it are the wealthiest class of Americans. I watch the video and I see, someone saying, “I make the most amazing food in the world for Rich White Folk”. I know I’m being oversensitive, but I was left feeling like he wan’t speaking to me.

In my next post I’ll tackle the Grandma meme. It has a number of connotations and misrepresentations. I’ll also look at how it should be seen. By it, I mean the food of the past.

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More on Mens Clothing

Mens clothing is a lot less complicated then women’s, but I’m still surprised at the number of men who just don’t understand what the various pieces are. I saw this time and again as I looked around for prices and info for my last post. Here are some definitions and comments on them.

Suits are either 2 pieces, trousers and jacket without a vest; or 3 pieces, with a vest. The most common variety is the 2 piece, which is what I have. I prefer 3 piece suits but they are hard to find and tend to cost more. All the pieces of a suit are made from one fabric. That fabric is usually a good wool of some kind or, more these days, a cotton fabric. You usually will not see really high end fabrics in a suit. In many mens fashion spreads you will see jacket, trouser combinations, these aren’t suits and will often cost much more then most suits.

Jackets, Sport Jackets or Blazers are cut much along the same lines as a suit jacket. They often have more decretive buttons, and are made from different, and often much more expensive, materials then suits. It should come as no surprise that Jackets often cost more then suits. Hickey Freeman’s cashmere and silk blazers cost more then any of his Worsted Wool suits.

Trousers, slacks or just pants follow the same rules as Jackets. It is less common to find a pair of trousers that cost more then a standard wool suit, but it does happen.

A complete outfit is often confused with a suit in ads. Some handsome man is wearing a knockout outfit and when you check the prices it adds up to some crazy number. Its the prices of the individual items that is important, not the total. Except when that isn’t true. If you buy a suit you will be wearing it with other things. The total cost of all the other parts usual adds up to some significant percentage of the base item, lets say a suit. But, you may already have them, so you don’t necessarily have to buy them again.

Finding a Reasonably Priced Suit

For us not young guys finding a reasonably priced suit has become harder today. Suits are simply less common then 20 years ago. As Business Casual has become a more common force for evil and ugliness, and mega factories have chugged out tons of cheap interchangeable crap, dreck has taken over. Finding even a decent suit for an Ordinary Civilian has become a frustrating quest. In this post I will explain a little of why and in the process explain what choices we have left. Let me make one thing very clear. If you are off size like me (big and tall – short can usually be tailored down) you have almost no choices. There is Destination XL, which has consumed the market, or Mens Warehouse or JoS. A. Banks or the internet. This is how big and beautiful women feel. It sucks.

First I’ll work out a basic glossary of terms. Some terms are official and some are just how I use them.

Market Segment: Basically what group you intend to sell to. This can be SciFi fans, accountants or one legged banjo players.

Market Tiers: This is a sub group of Market Segments and a bit vague. You usually find this term used in Financial markets like Stocks or Arbitrage. Here is just means that you have differing quality (and price range) levels. Most people think of it as a three level system; your cheap stuff, your mid-level okay stuff and your expensive stuff. It can get a lot more complicated, but I will just gloss that over right now to keep the number low and easy.

Point of Sale: This is both the physical cash register and the final price you pay.

Jobber: In retailing this is an off-price seller. Jobbers tend to buy the remaining stock of regular retailers and then sell it for less. For example: Macys will buy 1000 suits for the Fall 2012 season. For some reason they only sell 700 of them and another 50 were returned. Rather then try to return them they will sell the 350 items to an off price retailer. Jobbers will also buy the items returned to manufactures. Syms was the great jobber of mens clothes for years. Marshalls and TJ Maxx job fashion items now.

Now, how to put those terms together. Tiers are usually discussed in price ranges. Those ranges are before any discounts or taxes and without extras like alterations. So, a fellow I know was shocked at the $2000 to $5000 price range of suites in Esquire. If he shopped for any of them he might pay more or less then that. The POS may vary quite a bit from what the range would imply. Better retailers will have occasional 50% off sales. There are usually more closeouts in stock because they are selling less to Jobbers. Alterations may not be free. This is also a large range. If I suggest this range is not crazy anymore, I’m not suggesting you have to buy at the top of the range, and if you are careful you may pay well under it. Also the range is not even. The vast majority cluster at the low end of it and a few were under $2000. Folks tend to see the high number in a tier and freak, but that’s not a good idea. Most of the prices in a tier clump at the bottom end. It you made a simple graph of all the prices of all the items in a segment; at this price there are this many items, you see a series of clumps. Each clump would be the beginning of a tier. So a $2000-$5000 tier would have most of it’s items prices much nearer to $2000 rather then $5000. Just for the record, I don’t think there really is any such tier.

This is also a trap. People more and more shop for bargains, this is the mark up just to mark down trick. It didn’t used to happen in mens clothes a lot, but it is more and more. This is where Syms was wonderful. It’s a thing I miss.

I think of mens suits as a single market segment with 4 tiers. If you worked in the business you might find they break it up differently. The first tier is the cheap mass produced disposable stuff that you will find in Kohls and Target. The second is basic working mans suit, this tier is the one that has almost completely disappeared and has been replaced by Business Casual. It was typified by Bonds and Wallachs. The third tier is high end ready-to-wear and made-to-measure, this is the the Brooks Brothers and Paul Stewarts. The forth tier is custom made or Bespoke.

So you’re looking for a suit, what now? The stores:

Jobbers are gone, Syms went away in 2011 and there is just no one left. The days of going to a store and getting a $1500 suit for $400 are pretty much over. Sales in individual stores can be great. I’ve gotten a $1500 suit for $300. It didn’t quite fit and was take it or leave it. I took it. It’s a bit baggy, so what? You can try Marshalls or TJ Maxx but I have never seen much there.

There are the cheap discount department stores like Kmart or Walmart or Kohls. I’m just skipping those. Want to spend $150 on a suit and don’t give a hoot how it looks, you don’t need me.

Regular Department stores like Macys start to carry decent stuff, but they are focused on the high turnover young folks. Lots and lots of the best of the disposables and the bottom of the real stuff. Think $200 at the bottom to $800 at the top with a real limited selection. For shirts, ties, underwear, shoes, they are much better. Suits, not so much. Checking the web pages they’re focused on slim fit edgy styles. If you still have the less then 6 foot 2 inch hard body that somebody else had in High School then go for it.

Then you have your traditional Mens Stores. There are really only two, Mens Warehouse and Jo. A. Banks. I’ve been in both, have bought from both. Mens Warehouse and Jo. A. Banks are the sole players in the Middle Class segment. I don’t love the quality or the bang for the buck, but, if you want it and want to shop the way your Dad shopped they are all that is left. Mens Warehouse starts in the $200 range and goes up to about $800. Banks goes from maybe $600 to $2000. Everything I bought from Mens Warehouse has had to be repaired at least once. They bag and fit funny. The pockets get holes. They were basic stuff, and I was not impressed. The last Banks suit I bought was almost 20 years ago. It was serviceable but I wan’t so impressed that I went back. I would go to Banks to see what they have, but not Mens Warehouse any longer. People would disagree with me, online both have their partisans. This is why I say that the $2000 to $5000 range of suits isn’t out of bounds anymore. Yes it’s pricy, but even one of the two basic mens clothiers is in the bottom of that range now. Mind you, neither MW or Banks is carrying the better ends of suits like Ralph Lauren.

Then you move into the better end of suits like Saks fifth Ave, where the suits start at about $800 and go up to $2000 (there are only 10 on Saks’ website, and 60 women’s suits). You’ll notice this overlaps the Jo. Banks suits. Brooks Brothers and Paul Stewart’s website also top off at about $2000. There are more in the stores of course.

Then you have Bespoke. Several of the bespoke tailors in NYC had lines in the under $2500 range and a few were under $1500. Of course you could pay more, a lot more depending on extras, that is still in the under the $5000 high end that was reported to me earlier.

So the final summary. Most of the good suits are in the $800 to $2500 price range. Your actual price will vary according to discounts, taxes and extras. The stores you pick will greatly restrict your choices, but that isn’t a bad thing, you don’t need to see sixty of the same thing. Jos. A. Bank and Brooks Brothers basically carry their own label goods. Mens Warehouse carries various labels (Pronto Umo is the house label and is very so-so) that are of various qualities. The higher end retailers like Bloomies, Saks, Lord and Taylor are fine if you don’t need extra long and carry various labels. If you really like some label, like Ralph Lauren, and they have their own store give it a try. It won’t kill you.

Advice for buying a Suit, if you’re not Average Sized.

A fellow I know is interested in buying a new suit. So he did what all reasonable people do, he asked for advice. So I’m going to give him some.

Men’s clothes in the last 10 years are suffering the same issues as women’s. There is a proliferation of crap at the bottom of the market, the middle is disappearing and the high end, though reaching down to the middle, is still pricy. What are you to do? Sym’s, and the other discounters are disappearing. My opinion is bite the bullet and crawl up the ladder a bit, especially if you are a big size or getting a little older, or, like me, are both.

Once you’re over 6 foot 3 or 4, you just can’t go unnoticed anymore. You’re not just wearing a suit, you’re wearing a lot of suit, so every problem with the suit will be as big as you are. If you walk up to someone, they don’t see your face, they see your lapels.

This post is not for young bucks starting out. Stop thinking of yourself as a version of who you were 20, 30 or more years ago. A young man wearing an inexpensive suit is just starting out, a mature man wearing a inexpensive suit is … well, it has a series of negative connotations. You are either the poor relative begging for scraps; desperate to not look your age or you’re cheap and miserly. All clothing is a means of communication, you have to be clear in what you are saying in your dress as much as your words. You don’t need to drop 5 figures on a bespoke suit. Dropping a hundred on an el cheapo suit won’t work either.

As for brands and stores, like I said above, unfortunately, more and more you are getting what you pay for. The quality of the sewing  for cheaper clothing from Men’s Warehouse is sad. Of the several pairs of pants that I’ve bought from them none fit right, all of the fabrics are cheap. I have had to have every one repaired. If you’re not near a tailor this can be an issue. I treat the pants like cheap jeans, though they have lasted longer then any pair of regular jeans I have owned, but they look no better. Jo. A. Bank has also slipped in quality. I was saddened last time I went. I hear there is still good stuff at reasonable prices, but I didn’t see it, and how hard are you willing to look.

If you need Extra Long, you are pretty much stuck with Rochester Big and Tall or you have to shop online. Regular Long (is that an oxymoron?) is still available at your usual suspects: Brooks Brothers or Dept. Stores like Macys.

Bradbury was wrong

In 1953 Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451. As you may know in this book all the books on earth are burned and everyone stays home every night watching TV, that’s controlled by the State. That never really happened. We’ll just accept that it is a metaphor, but, even as a metaphor it made some mistakes. It has some other more unpleasant aspects also, which I’ll touch on at the very end.

Though it has become about censorship, it was originally about the corrosive effects of Television, or more generally Mass Media, and, lets not forget, the fear that small minority groups would start trying to have books destroyed that they felt were dangerous to them. The Jews would destroy Shylock, the Blacks would eliminate Nigger Jim, etc, etc. This would lead to more and more books being destroyed as people crawled ever more tightly into their little glowing boxes of ignorance and apathy. Their eyes blindfolded by wall size TVs, their ears covered by personal loudspeakers. Sound Familiar? He postulated a tyrannical government exploiting these technologies to control the people. It’s sort of close to Orwell’s 1984 in that sense. Bradbury’s twist was that the people did it to themselves. The tyranny being as much a result of the technology as it’s cause. My issues? I never did get how books fit into this.  It was always a jump that was just to big for me. Also, I was never sure this wasn’t just a new version of the same old thing. Everyone just hiding away like that just never seemed natural to me. People don’t live that way or use technologies that way.

I think Bradbury made three major mistakes. He misunderstood how people really use technology. He ignored that books and TV share more in common then they have differences, and he ignored women. Okay, okay, I can hear all those heads scratching. A SciFi master not understanding technology? Didn’t he just call x, y, and z technology correctly? That’s turning him into the circus mentalist I discuss here. It’s not that wall size TVs don’t exist, it’s that they don’t conflict with books, and they haven’t sucked the soul out of humanity.

In dealing with technology Bradbury was very conservative. Old technologies that he knew were fine, but new ones were treated with suspicion. He was aware of the double edged sword that all technologies are by they’re nature. He never rejected progress, but I don’t think he ever took the trouble to learn and understand how things really worked. The theme that runs through his books is always the joy and light of the past and a dark anxiety about the future. One thing he didn’t get is that people assimilate technologies. Is anyone reading this really having to think about buttons? Not the ones on your keyboard, the ones on your shirt. Speaking (or writing) about your shirt, how about cloth? Cloth making is a huge technology. We can move ahead, how about eye glasses? In door plumbing? Any technology that existed when he was a child was fine, they were taken for granted, things that came after were a problem.

In Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury was worried that information would become disjointed factoids without the context provided by books. The error: information was always a series of disjointed factoids. Just because information is presented using a particular medium doesn’t provide any assurance of the quality or context of that information. Television wasn’t going to do anything new, the long history of yellow journalism shows the extent of manipulation possible with out TV. Literature itself is full of misinformation and propaganda. Shakespeare toadied up to the Tudors like no ones business.

In 1953 what books and TVs had in common is that they were both tightly controlled by a small group of gatekeepers. Whether producers or publishers, both chose what you did and didn’t see in the media channel they controlled. This reveals that, books, like TVs, aren’t  individual technologies, they are products made of dozens of technologies. They are also the ends of distribution channels. A book, just the thing you hold in your hand, is made of four basic separate technologies: paper, ink, writing, bookbinding. Each of these can and does exist separately from the others. You can write on anything, not just paper, and not just using ink. All of the technologies in TVs are also used separately. TVs are some sort of display device (CRT or Plasma for example), an antenna and a tuner. The real difference is that the book is the means of transmission of information, while the TV displays information that is being sent from somewhere else. A single TV signal can be seen by any TV that can receive it, while books are difficult for even two people to read at the same time. What Bradbury didn’t account for was that the once assembled the parts of the TV would be split again. The display would mutate into computer screens and tablets. The antennas and tuners would shrink to become our wireless world. TVs themselves would continue, but the information channel (not Tv channel) control that made him so worried (you would only think what the network told you you could think) has faded. TVs now accept inputs from many sources from Game Consoles to Cable boxes to the internet via things like Apple TV

Next time, more Bradbury and how women fit into this. A hint: Playboy, and no pictures, just reading.

A cheesy interruption.

A quick digression in reply of a post on Scott Edelman’ Blog on cheeses. I posted a reply and he seemed to ask for further info.

The upshot is that in 1878 an author in Harpers Magazine, a radical Utopianist, Marie Stevens Howland, said that she was astonished that the French had so many cheeses and the US only has a product called “Cheese” that was so uneven in quality so you needed to taste it each time to see if it was any good. I presume she was referring to store or yellow cheese as noted in this article from Mental Floss. This was the factory made Cheddar that started to grow around the time of the Civil War. This factory cheddar was the precursor to American Cheese according to this Wikipedia article. This article also points out that this cheese was heavily exported.

What does this mean? What this article caught was a transition of how food was processed to how it is processed now. As this and this article show, local, or now artisanal, cheeses were common in the US of the Colonial period up to about the middle of the 19th century. Most large farms made some variety or another. Then factory made cheese appeared. The above noted Mental Floss article gives a date of about 1851 for the first factory, it was in New York State. This gives a growing picture of how the cheese industry changed in the under 30 years between the founding of the first cheese factory with the dates of the article.

We can, and perhaps should, look at this article as an early commentary on the industrialization of the food supply. It compares the artisanal cheeses of France with the growing commodity cheese of the US, and finds them lacking. Though that does seem like comparing some Golden Glove kid to Mohammed Ali and finding them lacking.

I have some issues with the article,  and there is the feeling that a fast one is being pulled by Ms Howland. She would have been about 15 when the first factories were made, and 42 when this article was published. She would have seen the change in the cheese as how it was made changed. That isn’t commented on. Commodity products like factory cheese are made to be cheap. Cheap and plentiful. Yet Ms Howland is comparing them to the top lines in France. This would be an apples to oranges comparison. With the amount of American made cheeses being imported by Europe, and the admission that the French used salted American butter, are we to assume that American cheeses were unknown in France so they could not be directly compared. There is also this that I found. It is a business directory for NYC in the 1870s. It lists cheese importers as a class of business. So imported cheeses were available.

Her comment (as copied by Scott):

“One thing sure to surprise the American in Paris is the almost endless variety of the cheese. Here, our only idea of that article is generally the huge ‘factory cheese’ of the groceries. It has no special name, cheese to the average citizen meaning this only. He has to taste it before daring to buy it, for the name conveys little notion of its flavor or quality, and it may be mild or strong, rich or poor, though the price is the same. In Paris, no one dreams of tasting cheese when buying it.”

Fails to ring true to me. As I noted before she was 15 when the first factory was started. Artisanal cheeses had a long, though it seems fading, history. She should have known of them. He childhood home, Massachusetts is and was an prominent Dairy producing State as is New York. I would grant that Factory Cheese may have been a dominate player in the cheese business in the US. But to say “our only idea of that article” seems to be badly overstating her point. I am left to wonder, am I hearing a Utopianist Axe being ground? Or am I finding things in a hundred year old article that just aren’t there.

Was Bradbury always right?

It’s become a ritual to stand around and gawp at the great Science Fiction prognosticators. This both acknowledges their contributions and at the same time trivializes them as artists. Science Fiction authors are judged by their ability to guess the future of technology. The more accurate the guess the better. Like carnival mentalists who can guess your name (you’re often wearing it), or tell you that you mother’s favorite color is blue (it’s only the most common one). This strips the stories of anything else they might be. Is Blade Runner really only about cloning technology?

In order to turn this on its head I’d like to look at some of the things that Bradbury got wrong, why they were wrong, and what we can learn from his mistakes. I’m not going to list the guesses he missed, they may still come to be. The US Army is testing a Mechanical Hound right now. A new larger rover will be on Mars in a little over a month. Wall size TVs are getting common. Then how was he wrong? I want to avoid the discussion of some specific technology, but instead discuss how Bradbury thought about how we and technology interact.

I’ve become known as a tech geek, but most of my training and schooling is in the humanities. Anthropology is called a science, and Biological Anthropology meets a lot of those criteria, but after that — Naaah. Classical Archaeology has a huge amount of Art History. It assumes that a culture explains itself to itself through art; and that we, as fellow humans, can listen in on the conversation by studying the art. This isn’t just looking at what is represented, but by the choices of media and the constraints that assumptions make. I’ll make an example: Egyptian Statuary (all images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, metmuseum.org). What ideas, or mistakes, ruled the conventions that defined Egyptian art (or at least a small subset of them).

What we are looking at is a wooden statue about 8 inches tall, and a 20 inch high statue of Hathor. The point? Egyptian art doesn’t really have a 3/4 view. It’s meant to be viewed either from the front, or full profile. The 3/4 becomes awkward, that moment when we pass from one place to another, one truth to another, seeing parts of both but the entirety of neither. The art becomes fully resolved again as we complete our change of view. Was this some sort of technical limitation? Did the Egyptians simply not know how to make art fully in the round?

Above are images of a large statue of Hatshepsut, from her Mortuary Temple at Deir al Behari, most likely part of an outside walkway; and a small wooden female statuette, found by Howard Carter and dated to the Dynasty prior. It is most likely a household object. It could be anything from a ritual object to a toy. Both Hatshepsut and the small wooden female figure show more effective 3/4 views. Though neither reaches what was done in Greek art of the classical period (about 800 years later), neither are they accidents; both are what their creators set out to make. The head and face of Hatshepsut are far more effective then the body. The wooden female figure is very different then the others. It is schematic, without the extreme idealization of the others. Both the statue of Hatshepsut and the wooden female figure existed in places that weren’t at right angles. This shows that the artists and artisans of  Egypt were up to tackling creations that were out of the norms of right angles that they were used to. And, that the norms weren’t technical limitations, they were choices. The question is why did they choose what they did. Or, why did they make the mistakes that they did?

The standard answer, and one I agree with, is that the Egyptians lived in a square world. This, to a smaller extent, means that they thought of the universe as a square, but more, that they built a square world for themselves to live in. Their granaries are often round and domed, so they knew how to make round buildings. They could make round pillars of any size that amused them, so they understood the geometry of circles. But, they lived in square places. Places full of straight lines and right angles. Think of the Great Temple of Karnak — It’s linear in its design. The village of the workers for the Tombs of the Valley of the Kings was also a rectangle. This means, when an artist was making something, he looked at it from one side, then walked around and looked at it from the other side. You didn’t stop at the corner, any more then you wanted to sit at the corner of a table, or the corner of the room. It just isn’t a good place to sit, either you have no room and are banging elbows with your neighboors, or have to share what room there is with dust bunnies. A preference to stay out of the corners led to mistakes in the art.

I’ll join Ray Bradbury in pooh-poohing the political correctness of saying that artistic and cultural choices can’t be wrong. In this context it provides an excellent lens for critical thinking, and a means for us to break out of our own assumptions. By looking at the mistake of the poorly done 3/4 view we are forced to consider how the Egyptians saw themselves and saw their world.

So, what about Ray Bradbury? What assumptions led him to make mistakes in his art that same way that the Egyptians made a mistake in their 3/4 view statues. The mistakes I will look at occur in two stories. The Toynbee Convector and Fahrenheit 451.

More Later …