March 13, 2013
When my mother’s brother and sister get together on holidays, they talk about my grandmother’s cooking. They have a whole routine they go through about her pies (banana cream, grasshopper, apple). My uncle complains about something with a Japanese name that seems to mean leftovers with a hot dog. They talk about her lasagna. My mom talks about my grandmother’s lasagna, too.
They are remembering the 1950s and early 60s. Italian food was an adventure for the postwar American homemaker, and my grandmother was right on-trend with the other cooking mothers of her generation. Lasagna was the exotic-other cuisine. It would be decades before every other supermarket carried imported blocks of genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it’s in your local store now because my grandmother and millions of other mid-century home cooks were tantalized by the idea of making foreign food from Italy.
I remember my own mother in the 1970s, frying corn tortillas into hard taco shells. She used wooden chopsticks to shape them in the hot oil. I’m sure it was a big project for her to figure out. She made enchiladas, too, because she was looking for an exotic cooking challenge, and in the 70s in the suburbs, that was Mexican food. She was one of many other 70s suburban housewives priming their kids for 1992, the year that salsa sales overtook ketchup in the U.S.
So I feel like I’m carrying on a family tradition. When I have a hard day at work, I need a little retail therapy in the ethnic markets in the neighborhood. A few weeks ago, I ended up with dried lime, sumac, pomegranate molasses and guava paste. It’s me and my mom and my grandmother, just like all of those other American home cooks, going for a new challenge or just looking for a change on the dinner table. We find something that is exotic but becoming more accessible, and in a decade or two it seems simply American to serve enchiladas or lasagna.
Lasagna was never exotic to Ellen’s Italian-American grandmother, who learned to make it from her Italian mother and served it for Sunday dinners her whole life. My grandmother’s food traditions – sushi, miso, tofu – which she also served to her family regularly, were integrated into mainstream American cooking and eating as well, though not exactly as she cooked them. The boundaries between what is familiar and what is exotic depends a lot on your culture of origin, but it’s safe to say that ethnic foods gain broad practice in American home kitchens in waves. For Italian food it was in the 1950s and for Mexican it was in the 1970s. It’s a pot that is always getting deeper.
It’s also rarely authentic. I don’t think Ellen’s grandmother would have thought much of my grandmother’s lasagna, even though my aunt and uncle remember it fondly. Hard shell tacos are not particularly Mexican, either. I don’t really want to know what an actual Persian cook would think of what I did with those dried limes. In part, it’s because I don’t care. I care about my Shabbat dinner guests, who loved what I did with the lime and the sumac and the guava paste. I care about the food traditions of my culture of origin, by which I mean the lasagna and the enchiladas as well as the miso and the tofu.
January 5, 2013
Kokum is its own kind of dried fruit, related to a mangosteen. Very quickly I blew through the very few American sites that mentioned kokum and got to the Indian ones. There were a handful of articles. Kokum is used, I read, like tamarind and and amchoor for sourness. The comparison wasn’t as helpful to me as I would have liked. I have never used tamarind. I have amchoor but I don’t reach for it often.
There were a lot of recipes for summer drinks with kokum and chiles, many fish dishes and dals. Their untranslated ingredient lists puzzled me (dahi? jeera? jaggery?). I could look up each individually (curds, cumin, raw sugar) but Indian dishes can have north of 20 ingredients and going through all of these Indian cooking sites that way would get tiresome. Also, I am not great at reading recipes for Indian cooking and knowing what the dish will taste like when it’s done.
After a couple of sessions with the Indian food sites, I stopped reading them. I took the kokum out of the top shelf of the cabinet and put one out on the counter. I smelled it a few times a day and tried to imagine what to do with it. Susan Feniger’s recipe used the kokum so well that I had hard time imagining anything else. Kokum was falling faster than I was down the rabbit hole. I didn’t think I could catch up.
Fruit-sour is a very common savory element. Think of the lime in guacamole, the lemon vinaigrette, the applesauce with latkes. Even if kokum is new to me, I hoped, my decades with lemon and apples would inform me on the kokum.
Today I needed to make vegan refried beans. This is something that I can make out of my head. The ingredients are all familiar to me. I know it so well I’ve never written it down. In it, lime juice is the fruit-sour.
All fruit-sours are not the same, but they all occupy a similar place. So I thought, why not put the kokum in the refried beans. Even if it was a total failure, there would be no particular loss. As I cooked I took notes, and it slowly became clear to me that Susan Feniger’s curried lentils and my refried beans are parallel, almost ingredient for ingredient:
masoor dal = pinto beans
black mustard seeds and curry leaves = epazote
onion = onion
arbol chiles = New Mexico chiles
kokum = lime
My vegan refried beans recipe ends with lime juice. Instead of finishing my beans with lime, I started them with the kokum. The result was that the beans were much deeper and richer. Lime is wonderful and bright, but it’s one-dimensional. The kokum is less bright but more complex, tangling with the epaozte and the chiles in a way that the lime could never hope to do.
18 pieces dried kokum
1 T dried epazote
1 large yellow onion cut in 8ths
2 dry New Mexico chile pods, tops cut off and seeds shaken out
1.5 c dried (unsoaked) pinto beans
swirl of cooking oil and then another later
Throw everything in a pot and cook at high pressure for 40 minutes and let the pressure come down naturally, or until the beans are soft. If there is a lot of water, pour most of it out.
Fish out the chiles and let them cool enough to handle. With the flat (not sharp) edge of a knife, scrape the flesh away from the skins. Chop the flesh a little. Discard the skins and mix the flesh back into the beans.
Salt it and heat again and let the liquid cook out more. Swirl in some more olive oil. Mash some of the beans with a potato masher.
For next time: chop onion smaller, chop kokum a little. Soak the beans so the cooking time is less.
September 30, 2011
Jacob made his own breakfast Thursday morning. He makes quinoa pasta for himself most mornings, but because we were hanging around the house waiting to go to services, he got a little more elaborate.
“Can I fry some tofu?” he asked with his head in the fridge. I get this extra-firm tofu we crumble and pan-fry.
“Sure,” I said.
He pulled green onion and sweet peppers out of the bin and shoyu out of the door. “Wait, how about the cabbage pickle? Can I fry that?” he asked.
“I’d fry the other stuff and then put the pickle on at the end,” I said. It’s the cabbage, onion, ginger and chile pickle I made for the banh mi the other day.
He cut up the vegetables and put it all in the hot frying pan with some shoyu. The green onion smelled great.
“Wait! The nori!” he yelled. He got out a sheet of nori and lined his dish with it. When the tofu was cooked he put it on top of the nori sheet and sprinkled the cabbage on top.
He made this beautiful breakfast with stuff he scrounged out of the refrigerator. He had to peel some gross parts off the week-old green onion and he had to remember that we had nori sheets in the snack cupboard. I knew that all these ingredients were in the house, but I didn’t imagine making this breakfast with them. He took what was available to him and cooked something with it.
We are people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.
On TV, Rick Bayless is doing a whole season of Mexico One Plate at a Time from Baja California. The rest of Mexico is tropical, he explains, but Baja has a Mediterranean climate. It’s dry in the summer and wet in the winter. He stood on a hill with olive groves and lamb flocks and gestured. For a moment he talked about how this isn’t what you really expect from Mexican food, but then he dove in and cooked with the chefs of Baja, lamb with smoky salsas, chard and kale in a taco with queso fresco, more lamb with lemon thyme. The chefs were all committed to the products of their region, including the local wine. I could feel from them (much more than a lot of fine-dining chefs) that the food they made was part of their identity. They embodied my sentence: We are people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.
I think that Rick Bayless felt that he had to address the question of these Mediterranean products and their place in Mexican cooking. He did it only briefly, I imagine, because he did not want to belabor the point that it’s not what we, as non-Mexicans, expect cooking from Mexico to be, based as it is on olive oil and wine and thyme and lamb. Those are products we identify more with southern Europe, but the people in Baja have probably had access to them just as long as the Italians have had access to tomatoes.
This morning, Jacob was working with ingredients that were right in front of him, just like those fine-dining chefs in Baja on Rick Bayless’s TV show.
I was talking to a colleague earlier this week and she asked me what I was cooking for Rosh Hashana. I hadn’t given it much thought back on Tuesday. “I’m more thinking about the music,” I told her. She said that for her family, it’s all about the food. Her parents are from Mexico and their parents were from Poland and Hungary. They eat gefilte fish with a sauce from Verracruz, tamales made with chicken fat instead of lard, tortilla chips with gribenes. “We are the people who live in this place,” the recipes seem to say, “and this is the food we eat right now.”
I didn’t really get around to thinking about making Rosh Hashana dinner until, I guess, Wednesday. Split pea soup, I figured, and didn’t get any further.
I didn’t even know that there was a big holiday meal on Rosh Hashana until I was in my 20s and I got invited to someone else’s. There is, it turns out, a huge tradition of big holiday meals on the night of erev Rosh Hashana. We never had them growing up. I guess it was because my mother was singing in the choir so she didn’t feel like making a big meal. We didn’t have an extended family around us to go to, so my dad and my brother and I ate a big snack and my mom got an early ride from a friend. We went to synagogue and I sat next to my dad and held his hand sometimes. His hand is square, like the shoulders of his suit jacket. That is what I remember about the High Holy Days, not a meal.
So when I am planning my own Rosh Hashana dinner I don’t have any preconceived ideas about what we should or shouldn’t eat except, of course, for the round challah. Come to think of it, I started making round braided challa for that first Rosh Hashana dinner I was invited to in my 20s.
I went to the grocery store on Thursday morning with not much of a plan. When I got there, I saw end-of-season Roma tomatoes on sale; they reminded me of a big beautiful picture of roasted tomatoes in my new cookbook, so they went on the menu. Clean new crop apples, of course, to dip in honey and then more to bake because Ruth asked for apple sauce. She loves pomegranates, also newly in season, and when I was putting together the apples and honey plate I pulled in the Asian pears from Roberto’s tree across the street. Every single piece of produce in that meal was grown in California. We are the people who live in this place, my Rosh Hashana dinner said, and this is what we eat right now.
Even when I am cooking Indian food, I am thinking as much about the Indian grocery where I get my spices as I am about India. I’ve never been to India but I go to Vik’s all the time. I don’t think I would cook nearly as much Indian food if I didn’t have Vik’s so close. I can go over there on my bike after work on the spur of the moment. I get to live in a neighborhood next to another neighborhood where a lot of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent set up their stores. It’s the same as my young colleague’s mother with her gefilte fish and chicken fat tamales. And speaking of tamales, I am quite sure I would never have tried nixtamalization if I didn’t have Mi Terra right here, selling dried untreated field corn less than a mile from my house. I am just cooking what is available to me on my bicycle.
We are the people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.
June 6, 2011
(Please note – this post is, in part, about animal slaughter.)
Ellen rolled in after midnight from her Saturday night party. She checked her email before she went to bed.
“Oh, wow,” she called out to me from the office.
“What?” I asked, flipping through House Hunters.
“Google Calendar sent me an alert. It says: Kill Chickens.”
Sunday morning, she had to get up early with the kids to take them to an event with a friend. When she got back, I had set up the driveway with knives and buckets and coolers and stools. I was wearing my oldest jeans, the ones that really should be thrown away because you can see my butt through the threadbare fabric.
“I’m going to get the ice,” I told her. We were going to put the finished birds in ice water in the big cooler to hold as we worked.
“Get me a Coke while you’re at it,” she said.
“You’re hung over,” I said.
She nodded behind her sunglasses. This has been our deal since we became parents. She can go out and party as much as she wants, but she has to bounce out of bed ready to parent the next morning. I never go easier on her with the parenting when she’s hung over and I wasn’t going to go easy on her about the chickens, either.
We are not experts at killing chickens. We only killed three last year. The first one took us nearly an hour to get through the whole process. Sunday we spent five and a half hours on 13 chickens.
The actual killing is the easiest part. It’s harder to catch them, because they are small and fast and they know something is up. It’s harder to pluck them, because it’s detail work with small, downy, wet feathers. It’s harder to gut them, because you have to understand enough about their anatomy to know where to cut the tendons and how to grab the organs and not to nick the intestines.
At one point, I was holding a thrashing, decapitated chicken between my knees, trying to make sure the blood didn’t spatter too much. There was a bin full of warm, dead birds next to me and, in back of the garage, there was pen with agitated, living birds about to be killed. E dropped the bloody head into the bucket and gestured with the bloody knife. “Do you think anyone puts this in their internet dating profile?” she asked me. “Must want to kill chickens 18 years from now.”
Of course they don’t. That’s one of the many wonderful things about marriage. From wherever we were when we met almost 19 years ago, she and I grew into this place together. I don’t know anyone else who would spend a Sunday with me, elbows deep in dead animals. I could not have asked for it all those years ago because I didn’t know I wanted it. Being with her all this time has taught us, gradually, that what we want is to raise and kill a whole bunch of chickens.
Ellen and I did this for us. Last year it might have been about teaching Jacob a lesson about where meat comes from, but this year we raised all these babies, sold some and slaughtered others because we wanted to see if we could do it. We both had doubts that maybe we were too ambitious. We both looked at each other in the middle of the afternoon, exhausted and overwhelmed. “I think we just need to push through and do them all,” she said, just as I was thinking the same thing. I could not have loved her more.
This is the very core of our marriage. We want to do it ourselves. We believe in our ability to figure out any project. We give each other permission to make something that might not pass muster in a store. She says, “I’ll kill it if you dress it,” or I say, “I’ll dress it if you kill it,” and we’re off to the races. We know it’s not going to be perfect, but we want to figure it out.
We had no intention of teaching the kids anything Sunday afternoon. This was about us, seeing if we could see this project through. We had Jacob plucking for a few minutes and then we sent him back inside to do chores and play his PS3. Ruth watched a lot of TV so that E and I could concentrate on our project and each other.
It was so much more intense than I could have imagined. When it was over, the knees of my jeans were soaked in blood. I got so accustomed to eviscerating them that when I used my fingers to break the membranes that held the organs in the body, I could identify each one by touch: heart, gizzard, liver, intestines, lungs. An animal’s body doesn’t naturally want to be disassembled. It takes force and knowledge and bladework to take apart a body. It’s very different from cutting a grapefruit into supremes or dicing a mango. The body wants to hold together. That’s the point of the tendons and membranes and skin.
Ellen talked to each bird as she killed him. (They were all roosters.) Sometimes she was soothing. She swore at the one who bit her when we were catching him. I didn’t think she would do that, address each bird as an individual right up until the moment of his death. When I was setting up the knives and the buckets in the morning I didn’t know that the afternoon was going to be so much about the two of us, together. We killed and gutted 13 chickens. It was romantic.
March 27, 2011
In our marriage, we take the French presses very, very seriously. We started using one to make coffee because it’s so low tech. That appeals to the essentialists in us. We run into a problem, though, because I need to drink an entire French press in the morning to wake up. Ellen and I tussled over it on weekend mornings for a long time. There were a lot of dust-ups when she would want to drink some coffee when I hadn’t had a full pot yet. It would seem so reasonable to her that she should get some of my coffee and I was not reasonable because I hadn’t had enough coffee yet to be reasonable. Then she found another one at a yard sale for $5. Now we have two, hers and mine, and they sit next to each other on the kitchen counter. There are no more tussles over coffee in the morning.
We need two coffee pots, which is funny for us to say because most couples would be fine with one coffee pot. We don’t need a lot of things that a lot of other American families say they need, such as two cars and a dishwasher and a steady stream of new clothes. It’s one of the reasons that our marriage works; we agree to a great extent that we don’t have to have the same stuff that everyone else does. We also agree that when we land on things that are ridiculous but work for us – such as “We need two coffee pots,” – we just do it.
When we lived in DC we didn’t make coffee. We bought it at work or at Mr. Kim’s, the corner store that was next to our apartment building. When we moved to Berkeley there wasn’t cheap coffee on the corner (though there is very expensive coffee on the corner) so we got the french press.
For years I hated the way that Ellen didn’t clean it. She would make coffee in the morning and let the grounds sit in the bottom of the pot all day long. It fucking killed me every weekday to come home and see the dirty pot with the old grounds. I never said anything about it to her, though, because although I hated it passionately I knew it was a little thing. It was trivial and it fucking infuriated me. It’s the kind of trivial thing couples fight about all the time. On Saturday morning I would hate it even more when I threw out her old grounds and washed the pot. I would unscrew the three layers of filters from the plunger and wash them with soap, one by one. I made coffee and then I washed it again so it would be clean on Sunday morning. I did that for years, hating the way she didn’t wash every time.
And then – and I don’t remember when this happened exactly – I stopped washing out the french press. I left the grounds in on Saturday and they were still there on Sunday morning and everything was fine. Now that I work from home I make coffee in a dirty french press every morning. The French press is all mine – because Ellen has her own – and I could wash if if I wanted to. I don’t. Her way, the way I hated for years, is better.
There are so many things I am sure of in my life, and when I am too sure of them I think about washing the french press. There are so many things that she does that I hate. Most of them I don’t hate as much as I hated the dirty french press. I try not to call her on them because they might be like the french press. I could be wrong and she could be right and it could be years before I realize it.
January 24, 2011
I have been following all this stuff about the superiority of Chinese mothers vaguely – reading with interest but not following every link. I didn’t want to write about it because I hadn’t read the actual book. And then yesterday afternoon the mother who dropped R off from the playdate handed me the actual book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.
I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, which says more about the book than it does about my reading speed. I was shocked.
The whole time I have been following this conversation about Amy Chua, I have been thinking of myself as the mother. I’ve been comparing myself to her, or to the bits of things that get repeated in articles and blog posts about birthday cards and garbage and such. Reading the book, though, I realized that I am a little bit like the mother – but my real role in parallel to this book is the role of the daughter.
My mother is not Amy Chua. A lot of the most extreme stuff that has been circulated in the last couple of weeks is stuff my mother would never, ever do. But a lot of the stuff in the book – big and small – brushed at my memories of childhood. I only had sleepovers with my cousins. I scraped the piano with my teeth and made a mark. I was expected to be totally respectful to my parents and older relatives.
There was a time, eight or so years ago, when I would see little half-Asian kids and I would want to walk up to their parents and say, “I am what your child will grow into.” There just aren’t very many adults my age who are that kind of mixed race, but there are tons of little kids running around who are. I forgot about them for the last few years, I guess, or I have not been thinking about it so much. I forget that I am – and will always, for the rest of my life be – at the leading edge of a cultural shift around intermarriage and multicultural families.
The parallel with Amy Chua is problematic – she’s Chinese-American, raised in the Midwest with her immigrant parents but not an extended Chinese family; my mother is third-generation Japanese American raised in a Japanese-American community. So Amy Chua is both more and less Chinese-American than my mother is Japanese-American, and their parenting is both more and less Western (as Amy Chua is calling it). I am very, very glad for all the crazy ways my mother was not like Amy Chua, most of all including but not limited to the fact that she did not stand over me at every moment that I was practicing piano and let me quit at some point because I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t care about it.
The thing that Chua hints at but does not explore is the thing that I think is the most interesting about the way that I co-parent with Ellen. Ellen and I have a huge culture clash about parenting on a daily basis, and the way we negotiate that constantly is the most intellectually stimulating part of our marriage for me. This went down in our house, word for word, a couple of days ago:
Me (yelling at B): When I tell you to do something, I tell you ONE TIME. Then you do it. I do not have to ask you more than once. When an adult tells you to do something you do it immediately!
Me (to E): Did your parents EVER have to ask you more than once to do something?
E: Yeah, they did. All the time.
I was shocked. It never occurred to me that in any family, anywhere, ever a child could think that a parent’s request was ignorable, negotiable or even postponable. I had no idea. I’ve been thinking about it ever since that dialogue, trying to re-arrange my conception of what I think B and R’s obligation is to me as their mother. I don’t even know what the conclusion is, yet, but this kind of thing – the stuff that I take as set in stone that Ellen casually dismisses – these things are the things that make me grow the most as a person as I try to be a good mother. I get the sense that Amy Chua isn’t co-parenting like this. She’s not trying to compromise and learn because there are good things about every way to raise a child – and there are also supremely messed up ways, and they exist in tandem in each parent and in each cultural conception of parenting. If you say that you are going to do it all one way, you are missing out on new ways of shaping your children and shaping yourself. I love E so much, and I hate so much about the way she parents, and I love so much more about the way she parents even more. I would not want E to hand over everything about parenting to me – and if I handed over everything to her I — I don’t even know. It’s not possible.
“There is no true collaboration without disagreement,” one of my favorite work colleagues said to me once, more than a decade ago. I think about that at least once a day about work-work or about Jewish community work, but mostly about my marriage with E. The glory of living in the U.S. in the 21st century is that we have this incredible opportunity to collaborate with people from many cultures – and they are in our families.
(Just to restate for the record: my mother never, ever called me garbage. She never would.)
November 21, 2010
We were in the car with my parents driving past the Oakland Coliseum a couple of weeks ago. My mom looked at the sign that advertised the upcoming events and asked, “Who is Steve Harvey?”
My mom does not live in a cultural vacuum. She reads the New York Times. She’s enthusiastically watched Survivor and Torchwood. She did not know who Steve Harvey is. I explained to her that he’s a comedian and he wrote a book.
Steve Harvey wrote a book that totally dominated its category on the New York Times bestseller list for the better part of a year. My mother, legitimately, does not know who he is.
The culture isn’t fracturing. It has fractured, and my mother, right there, is exhibit number one in the case of the fractured culture. I can’t think of a cultural figure who has emerged in the last ten years – since 2001 – who is known by everybody. There are Americans who don’t know who Jonathan Franzen is. There are people, millions of them in this country, who have never heard of Selena Gomez, Rick Ross, Tyler Perry, Sixteen and Pregnant. There are millions more who feel like their lives have been transformed by them.
There are so many ways we can mainline culture now that we didn’t have access to twenty years ago – hundreds of TV channels instead of six or seven, video games, the internet – that there is no longer a dominant cultural conversation, aesthetic, idea. There are hundreds of cultural institutions that are beloved to millions of Americans and completely unknown to millions more. There will never be another Oprah Winfrey. The fractured culture will not support it.
In Entertainment Weekly, there’s a feature about what was big 20 years ago. 34 million people watched Cheers on a Thursday night in November of 1990. The ratings chart later in the same magazine says that 13.6 million people watched the top-rated sitcom last week, Two and a Half Men. We don’t even think that the same things are funny anymore, and if the loss of a common sense of humor isn’t a huge sign that the culture is fractured, I don’t know what is.
I think that the fractured culture is mostly a good thing. It means that we aren’t dominated by a small set of ideas and people. If you want to find some music or tv show or writing or game that speaks to who you are, and you are not white and straight and English-speaking and male, if your parents didn’t go to college, if you are disabled or if you are so many other things – now you have a much better chance of finding something that you can identify with or that speaks to who you are.
If my mother is exhibit number one in the fracturing of the culture, she is also my exhibit number one in my argument that it needed to be fractured. I remember this clearly, it may very well have been 1990. If it was not, it was only a couple of years before or after. My mother was watching tv by herself in the evening, and she yelled, excited, for the rest of us to come to see what was on. It was a commercial, a Kodak commercial, with a young Asian woman in it. My mom was so surprised and pleased to see this one young woman on TV who looked liker her, it was such a rare thing that she called for the rest of us to see it. At the time I was only excited, too. Someone who looked like my mother on television! It was an event, remarkable.
Now, off the top of my head, I can tell you that if you want to see Asians on TV you can turn on Mythbusters, Nikita, Hawaii 5-0, Glee or Dancing with the Stars. There are probably hundreds more on the hundreds of channels, and it is no longer a remarkable moment to see a young Asian woman on TV. It sound funny or sad to relate that story of my brother and my father and me running into the living room to see the end of a commercial just because it had somebody Asian trying to sell us some Kodak product.
The culture has fractured and that is a good thing, because it means that there is more culture, more musicians and writers who can express themselves and, in the multiplication of cultures there is a multiplication of ideas and images. The poverty of being excited by a Kodak commercial has transformed into the richness of thousands of smaller, truer, more available cultural ideas.
Then, in the New York Times Friday, David Brooks (and yes, there is probably nobody with whom I disagree more on the subject of American culture than David Brooks) writes about the merging of Newsweek and The Daily Beast. They are valuable because they can revive something that has been lost, he writes. For many decades, people believed in one cultural standard.
To be respectable, it is necessary to spend your leisure time sampling the great masterworks of culture. To fight off the grubby materialism of American culture, it is necessary to be conversant in philosophy, theology and the great political events of the wider world…Poor families scratched together their dollars to buy an encyclopedia, to join the Book of the Month Club, to buy Will and Ariel Durant’s “Civilization” series or the Robert Maynard Hutchins’s Great Books… For decades, Time and Newsweek devoted more space to opera and art and theology than to Hollywood or health. You may never have visited New York City, but to be a respectable figure in your town in Wisconsin or Arizona, it was helpful to know what operas were playing or what people were reading in Paris. The magazines supplied this knowledge.
Brooks does not use the phrase “fracturing of the culture,” but this is what he bemoans when expresses his dismay that the desire for the singular vision of what is culturally important in America we were presented in Time magazine. “The new ethos valued hipness, not class,” is what he writes. That’s his view of the fractured culture. He’s wrong. His mom never called him into the living room because someone who looked like him was on tv for 30 seconds once every five years, either.
Brooks calls on the newly merged Newsweek and The Daily Beast to provide that old thing Time and Newsweek gave us, the dominant cultural ideas redominant. He’s so missing the point.
I think he’s right in saying that there were decades when you could and should have gone to the Book of the Month Club and Newsweek in order to be conversant in the culture. I think he’s wrong to say that we can or should go back to it. I believe that we are under as much obligation to study culture as he is describing, but it’s not about all of us looking to the same sources. What we must do is look beyond our own fractures. My mother should feel obligated to find out who Steve Harvey is so that she better understands the people around her for whom he is important. He’s never going to be meaningful to her – and that’s just fine. But she might owe it to her neighbors to figure out who he is. She also might laugh.
I would go to the wall to defend the idea that the fracturing of the culture is good and, at the same time, we are obligated to learn about cultures that are not our own. They exist in our cities, televisions, computers. If the fracturing of the culture has created the opportunity for more people to find culture that reflects themselves, it has also created the opportunity for us to get to know people who are nothing like us. It provides a hundred thousand shattered barriers to learning more.