Sunday, January 31, 2010

Once and for all: Against 'boyfriend' apparel

Back in 2007, I held forth on the annoying trend of "boyfriend" clothes. They say it's 2010, but the latest issue of Vogue has a spread advising women to wear the "boyfriend" everything. No! Don't do it! Here's why:

-Again, watch as fashion ignores women with any kind of a noticeable chest. Aside from the woman-with-tousled-hair-in-nothing-but-a-men's-dress-shirt look, menswear and that which is menswear-inspired, worn by women with anything of a bust - particularly shorter women - equals frump. One notices in Vogue that the woman who oh so adores 'stealing' from her boyfriend's closet is a model, as is her boyfriend, and the two are around the same height and proportions. What a shocker that they can share clothes! On the plus side, this trend, if it sticks, could be a great thing for men who are 5'2" and curvaceous. (The real tragedy, far as I'm concerned, is that the dream space-age dress exists, but is designed for the flat-of-chest.)

-It's a clever marketing campaign based on the idea that 'boyfriend' is a word with which women are hoped to have positive associations (it means you're coupled off and thus not in want of a man, but too young and carefree to be settled down). What it also is is an implicitly homophobic marketing campaign, telling women it's fabulous and empowering to cross-dress, so long as you present said cross-dressing as borrowing from a male partner's wardrobe. The boyfriend need not exist - the sweater can be purchased straight from the women's section. But the dressing-like-a-dude must come with an implied 'but I'm into dudes, I promise!' (Also addressed, I see now, at Jezebel.)

-On a related note, boyfriend-clothing implies that women can only abandon girly-wear once they've found a man. The boyfriend sweater is for when a woman no longer needs to impress potential mates with a sweater that clings. There's this implication that the woman who wears boyfriend dress is whatever the opposite of desperate is, and that this I'm-taken quality is in itself her allure. How a woman in baggy, ill-fitting clothes will get this across is unclear, but that's what 'boyfriend' is meant to make the shopper believe. 'Boyfriend' also implies that women only dress in clothes that fit properly when single (or, perhaps, married but ready for something on the side.) As in, love means never wanting to wear a skirt.

-On a related related note, there's something irritating about the way the menswear trend sells itself as women's liberation. As with the flapper look of the 1920s, freedom for women to look more like men, however freeing to women with naturally non-curvy builds or non-girly inclinations, adds a whole set of new restrictions, and doesn't necessarily add up to clothing any more comfortable or practical than what women currently have as options, especially given the current, corset-less state of women's clothes. There is officially nothing more comfortable than a t-shirt-material dress - toss some leggings under it if the weather requires, and guaranteed, you're twice as cozy as a guy in equally formal attire. The only uncomfortable/impractical item specific to everyday womenswear these days is the super-high heel. (Bras are, so to speak, a toss-up, either making an outfit more or less comfortable, depending.) Vogue, meanwhile, suggests a form of androgynous dress that involves pairing the structured, tailored discomfort of menswear with thousand-dollar stiletto Louboutin sandal-booties. If 'boyfriend' meant 'flats', this might be something I could halfway get behind. But if it means hobbling around in a three-piece suit, no thanks.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Friday, January 29, 2010

Recipes in prose

Last night, I impulsively whipped up a batch of something I hoped would approximate Flemish rice-pudding tart, minus the crust. Shocking, shocking success, considering I had neither saffron nor whole milk at the ready. If you cook Japanese-type sticky rice in skim milk with vanilla extract, sugar, and a pinch of salt, over a low flame, adding more milk as needed, stirring as close to continuously as you can handle, then pour a portion of the results into a ramekin, sprinkle a bit more sugar on top, and hope the broiler doesn't explode the ramekin and its contents, you too will experience the joy that is a rustic dessert made from pantry ingredients that might have been wasted by being put to healthier use. There's more rice pudding in the fridge, so next round I subject to the broiled-ramekin treatment will get a photograph that I'll add to this post.

The missing intro to the post below

The reason I liked the idea of the Gawker anti-my-gay post was that there is a definite (and much-analyzed) trend to either over - or de-sexualize what it means to be a gay man. The former is, of course, the assumption that "gay" means "ready to sleep with everyone male within a 100-mile radius, in particular your lithe 16-year-old nephew." The latter manifests itself as Queer Eye, Will and Grace, and any other attempt at defining "gay" not as "sexually attracted to/involved with men exclusively" but as "fashion-savvy and loves spending time with women." The latter - the women part - is especially problematic, because if anything, gay men have less interest in spending time with women than do any other segment of society. Much of their time can be and often is spent in an all-male world, where they can find both possible romantic partners and friends of the same sex, the two of which cannot be combined for straights. However, perhaps because gay teens often have a bunch of female friends, there's this idea floating around that gay men love-love-love women, enjoy their company more than straight men do, and want them for everything short of intercourse. But why on earth would this be the case? Of course there are individual gay men who connect for any number of reasons with individual women. And of course there are certain professions where women and gay men meet in great numbers. But once the threat of high-school bigotry subsides, does your typical gay man want to spend his time surrounded by females? That's not my sense.

So while I doubt that there's a movement of women out to 'adopt' gays as their friend-pets, I do think there's a general misunderstanding out there about how gay men relate to women. Anything that helps clear this up...

Thursday, January 28, 2010

My gay or the highway

I liked the idea of Brian Moylan's post denouncing the my-gay phenomenon, then I read it and... no. Yes, friendships between straight women and gay men have been exploited in pop culture, with the evil yet entertaining force that is SATC allegedly leading the same women who think it's necessary to walk four in a row in stilettos to think they each need 'their gay.' Yes, the expression 'my gay' is obnoxious. But has anyone not on a reality show or attempting to get quoted for a trend piece ever used it? Are there really living-and-breathing women who see their gay male friends as accessories?

So, from the standpoint of a straight woman who for geographical and professional reasons might well know more gay than straight men, each item torn to shreds:

1) "No Setting Us Up." Agreed that if you know two gay men (or women), just the two, assuming they'd be perfect for each other is naive. I've gotten the 'I have this friend who's Jewish, you two should be friends' line, a variant of this phenomenon, and I get it, not needed. But! Lots of us, particularly in big cities, humanities departments, and the like, know plenty of people of both sexes who are gay. And people are people, friends are friends. Friends set friends up with people of that friend's preferred gender, using their knowledge of that friend as a person. Most blind dates won't work regardless, but it's not, as the Gawker post suggests, that straight women are incapable of understanding 'type' when the friend in question happens to be a gay man. Suggesting that women 'can't' set up gay men in fact encourages the whole 'my gay' trend, as though friendships of this nature exist outside the normal friendship rules.

2) "We Don't Want to Go Shopping." Hmm. Agreed that gay men don't want to go to women's-only stores, any more than straight women can keep from yawning in the men's Banana Republic. Again, a SATC myth - why would gay men find it interesting to spend hours watching women try on clothes? But if the store has equal-ish sections, or if one or both parties are willing to shop in either section (in my own last such outing, for the record, I was the one scouring men's Uniqlo for myself - the sizes can be tiny!), why not?

3) "We'll Give You Sex Tips, but No Lady Business." I can't say I have this graphic discussions with any of my friends, and my only knowledge of what gay men will and won't discuss in this arena comes from Dan Savage, who's A-OK with lady business, so... maybe this is correct. Intuitively, I see why it might be, given that the one thing we can say about gay men that's not a stereotype is that their sexual expertise and interest centers on men rather than women.

4) "Your Boyfriend Drama Bores Us." By this, what's meant, apparently, is mundane, domestic, 'he leaves the seat up'-esque blah. Straight women don't want to hear this from other straight women, either. That, and people in couples with non-complaint complaints about their relationships annoy their single friends, gender and gayness being irrelevant to the situation.

5) "We Won't Hit on Your Boyfriend In Front of You." Agreed that it's wrong to assume gay men are so full of lust for all males without exception that they will find generic hetero bf in stained khakis anything special. But if the bf is appealing, and seems like me might go both ways? How is this so different from a female friend who might or might not engage in such behavior?

6) "Do Not Come to Our Clubs." OK, this one is fair. I've never understood why so many straight women think it's cool to go to gay bars. My own experience of this, coming from discussions with my fellow hetero ladies and from having been to such establishments, is that the whole 'it's awesome, no one will hit on you!' line of thought fails both because it comes from this perspective of imagining that one simply cannot enter a room with men and alcohol without attracting endless male attention, and because give it a moment and even some men at gay bars will hit on women, because it's a bar, and it's late, and there's such a thing as bi.

7) "You Are Not a Gay Man Trapped in a Woman's Body." FTM gay men won't love the line in the post about the crotch being that which divides gay men from straight women. Gender is an identity and not an organ. This point aside, female-born sorts who identify as women but express that they feel themselves to be gay men are really saying that they find many aspects of femininity as it's demanded of women - or even of female biology - frustrating, and that they envy gay men, who get to at once be male and ogle men. If a woman says this line with no awareness of the continued discrimination against gays, fine, agreed, not sensitive. But it's the continued difficulties faced by women that caused the line to be uttered in the first place. Moylan's off in comparing the straight woman/gay man relationship to that of white people who covet/brag about black friends. Because straight women and gays are both members of marginalized groups, the women benefiting from straight privilege, the gays from male privilege. We can argue how marginalized one group is relative to the other - there's no reason to believe this is an equal-measure situation - but the racial comparison here doesn't hold. (For the record, I don't personally think I'm a gay man trapped in a woman's body, but on various occasions gay men have suggested I am just that. Oh well!)

Tales from unreal America

-Things were looking grim on the vegetable front, so I decided to retry kale - that is, to try a different variety of it, via this recipe, versions of which I've seen all over the place, the idea being I'd enjoy any food covered in olive oil, lemon juice, and ricotta salata. It was most excellent, but the Epicurious reader's advice, "Use with bounty from a friend's garden," didn't apply - the stuff's from California, because god knows where anyone in NYC is getting even winter vegetables grown locally. A recent trip to the nearby farmers' market revealed only one plant-item - apples - and no vegetables whatsoever. (Although Whole Foods now has decent, if pricey, tomatoes "from Maine." Greenhouse? Lies, vicious lies, and they're really from New Zealand? One of life's great mysteries.)

-The thrift store around the corner from where I teach has intrigued me for quite some time, and today I finally peeked inside. It is officially the most expensive place to ever go by the moniker 'thrift shop' (not 'consignment', 'vintage', etc.), but it all goes to charity, it seems, so you shouldn't feel bad paying $15 for a used H&M shirt is the idea. Housing Works, I remain your loyal cheapskate.

-So I'm going to pick up where Amber left off. I realized even as I wrote the post on the frump-skank question that it might seem ridiculous to hold forth, as I did, on the plight of curvy-but-not-overweight women, and was sort of surprised neither of our threads took a call-the-waambulance turn. But to preempt such a turn they might take, the point is not to raise awareness of a great human tragedy, but to note that it's surprising that women whose builds are conventionally-enviable are shunned by the fashion industry. Whereas it's unfortunate (and perhaps a bad business decision) but not surprising when fashion excludes the obese.

What concerns me here is what it means that fashion excludes this unexpected group. Is it maybe a good thing? If Fashion is attainable only to the finest-featured of emaciated Slavic adolescents, and then only once they've been airbrushed, we're all equal in our inability to resemble Those Images, and we can all share a mix of ridicule and admiration, without taking any of it personally. Do the thin-with-boobs types really need more approbation?

On the other hand, if you look at why even the thin-with-boobs can't find flattering clothes, there's really no non-depressing answer. Either it's all a misogynistic plot to define as beauty that which lacks a specific femininity, or (and this is where my money goes) it's all about inducing self-hatred in the most women possible, defining as many traits as possible as flaws. How this works as a business model somewhat eludes me - wouldn't slim-yet-curvaceous narcissists buy more clothes than skinny women obsessed with perfectly normal bits of bulge? It seems to me that the diet industry has something to gain with this strategy, but fashion? Not seeing it.

An attempt at a practical solution: We need to stop thinking of curves as that which should be dealt with with utmost discretion, but at the same time we need to think creatively about ways to showcase the female form that are at once less revealing and more original than the push-up-bra and deep-v-neck combo. One approach is to have a sense of humor about one's shape: Rather than wistfully admitting that women, alas, often have these things called 'breasts,' and choosing a dress shirt with darts, why not a boob bow or a bra shirt? Both images here are totally SFW, and offer a glimpse at how, outside the unfortunately hard-to-imitate-at-work realm of pop-art performance, women can sport non-skank yet pro-curve attire. (Would I teach in the bra shirt? No. But in the bow outfit, why not?) Rather than avoiding pantaloons or harem pants for their hip-widening properties, why not pouf those hips out, ala bustles, for emphasis? This can even have the paradoxical effect of making whatever it is that's been absurdly poufed-out look smaller.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The frump-skank dichotomy

I'm pleased to see the why-is-there-no-place-in-fashion-for-breasts issue addressed, even if I'd have addressed it slightly differently. We're used to hearing that the problem with the skinny-model phenom is that it makes women, particularly heavier women, feel bad about themselves, and then to hearing someone else pipe in that we shouldn't be encouraging obesity, and then someone else will say that beauty comes in all sizes, and so goes the discussion. But even if we remove from the discussion issues of self-esteem, overweight, and the well-being of the models themselves, there's one rather striking problem with models being built as they are, given that their job is to show women an idealized version of how they themselves might look in different clothes.

Let me explain. The great challenge of getting dressed for the day, beginning at give-or-take age 15, is adjusting to a post-adolescent build. One is accustomed to looking for clothes that fit one body, then suddenly must find clothes that fit another. Every shape presents its own challenges, but a common situation for women with breasts and/or hips of any noticeable size is as follows: too-baggy clothes produce frump, too few or too tight produce skank. Many of us were as children built similarly to today's models, which is precisely why seeing clothes on those models is of no use to us once we're old enough to buy our own clothes. In something too low-cut, models' busts are not bursting out inappropriately. In something baggy and androgynous, their breasts and hips are not tenting out the material to produce the visual effect of a ninth-month pregnancy. This, and not (just) what I said earlier, is why the whole 'let's take our fashion tips from off-duty models!' fad is such nonsense. Look one by one through those outfits and try to imagine each on a woman whose physique doesn't give everything an ironic, avant-garde interpretation.

What's crucial here is that not all the discussion of 'curves' and 'real women' is a euphemistic one about overweight. Clothing is not marketed to or designed for heavier women, agreed, and agreed that often, the heavier the woman, the more difficult the relationship with the fashion industry. But clothing isn't marketed to or designed for thin women either. (See Amber's description and linked photos of Lady Gaga's physique for an example of thin as it exists in the everyday spectrum of women's builds.) As clothing exists, evening gowns and bikinis aside, breasts get in the way. Is an idealized woman's body one without breasts or hips?

All of this leads to two possible conclusions. One, the 'frump-skank' dichotomy is itself nonsense, and rather than being disturbed by clothes doing the 'wrong' things with our curves, we should just wear whatever we want, bursting cardigan buttons be damned. It is The Media making us believe that sheer tops or menswear-inspired pants-suits only look appropriate on the shockingly tall and thin. Flattering is a construct! (Amber's desire "to run around in a PVC bodysuit with a rooster hood, or no pants with giant hoof-heels" is matched by my own, equally radical one, which is to just wear a button-down shirt, no sweater over it, without even a moment of self-consciousness). The other is that 'flattering' is not in fact a myth, but that some trickle-down effect makes it so that even non-designer clothing is made to best flatter a body type that is, yes, 'real' in its own right, but highly unusual among grown women, even slim ones.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Elders of Arugula

It has recently come to my attention, through Facebook browsing of friends of friends' fascinating lives and an email from a listserve, that there is an entire Jewish branch of the back-to-the-farm movement, complete with a Farm School, blog, and hippie summer camp. While I was aware of people being simultaneously hippies and Jews, and certainly of Jews in the food movement (a majority of adherents? not to get all Protocols of the Elders of Arugula...), and of course that there's always been a subset of Jews who interpret Judaism to mean universalist devotion to left-wing causes, I did not realize there was a whole subculture centered around specifically Jewish efforts at farming here in the US, in 2010.

My first thought is if/how one can connect this to earlier attempts at getting Jews into agriculture. Because so much of Jewish history, really, is about Jews' relationship (or lack thereof), real or perceived, hoped-for or denounced, to the land. (For a Slate-contrarian introduction, see here.) Unlike the pro-farm Zionists, this set does not appear to be trying to found anything akin to a Jewish state. But this does, I think, have something in common with earlier efforts still, with the idea of regeneration-through-farming, that Jews' exposure to 'honest' farm work could 'normalize' a population long dependent on commerce (if more typically peddling than finance), the idea being that all work not about physically producing something was suspect, that all business, not just the sneaky sort, was inherently corrupt.

Whereas today in the US, farming is not the occupation of some vast majority, making all not involved in that line of work the odd ones out, ripe for the scapegoating. But at the same time, we're looking at a wave of (not altogether unjustified) demonization of bankers. Whether anti-banker statements do or do not usually have anti-Semitic undertones (see also this debate), the association of Jews with finance is enough of a thing that I suspect many Jews do feel uncomfortable when Wall Street is denounced, particularly when real, hardworking Americans are evoked as the opposite. Even those of us Jews who financially have no reason to feel solidarity with bankers, who may even agree with much of the anti-Wall Street critique, understand that at times, when they're insulted, we are too.

There are two possible responses, then. One is for even hippie Jews to stick up for bankers. Not going to happen, which leaves the other possibility: earnest, visible reiteration of the fact that not all Jews are suits. And what could make this point more clearly than gathering a bunch of Jews who perhaps don't go in for nose jobs or hair-smoothification and offering them work (or internships, apparently) on a farm, manicured ladies need not apply?

None of this is to say that I think this is actually the motivation of anyone involved in any of this to do so. In all likelihood, it's just about Jews who'd be doing Jewish stuff anyway also being at one in the same time Americans of a certain milieu who'd be Pollan/Waters-inspired anyway, who've joined forces to combine two of their favorite things. But I can't see "Jews" and "farm" together without this thought process rolling.

Friday, January 22, 2010

"Very often it is whole wheat. It is never sweet."

The NYT blog comment to end all NYT blog comments can be found here.

I just showed it to Jo, who explained that at his nursery school, they not only had crusty bread, but smoked cigarettes and discussed Heidegger, it was that European. This was after he'd given me his serious response, which was that he, like me, had candy bars after school, only theirs were not called "Nutrageous."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Religious beads"

-Everybody's preferred neighbor on a flight is no passenger at all. Failing that, a silent, perfume-free, recently-showered one with slim hips and thighs, who eats nothing with a crunch, crumb or odor during the flight, and graciously moves aside when you wish to get through. Anything that strays from this model elicits eyerolls, so I don't necessarily fault anyone for finding it irritating when someone gets up to pray. Unlike the delay when someone in a wheelchair gets on a bus, or when someone sitting in the window seat on the flight made the mistake of finishing the chicken and has to get up accordingly, whatever disturbance this causes is voluntary, so while all disturbances are disturbances, one caused by prayer - and we're talking about in an enclosed space from which there's no escape - is not the most 'just suck it up' as they go. But! it still falls under the 'just suck it up.' While the question of the day began as a discussion of some flight where everyone thought tefillin=bomb, some commenting on the incident are not so much frightened as irritated by prayer on planes.* Irritated is not frightened. There's a little mumbling in a Semitic language on your flight? Suck it up.

-There are no doubt secular Jews among the irritated, once prayers begin. Visibly Orthodox Jews seem to make some from just about every group uncomfortable (liberal Jews who fear being judged as of a piece with the most pious, non-Jews confused by the whole thing), with the exception of anti-Semites of the old school, who find Jews most threatening when assimilated, that is, when they go around looking like and socializing with non-Jews. It's the Jews without the religious beads they have a problem with.

-On -isms. Is it anti-Semitic not to recognize Jewish prayer garments you've never heard of before? No. Would I want to be dropped into a town where every resident thought tefillin meant prayer beads meant bombs? No.

-The obvious: just as for some, Abercrombie and "The Hills" are normal, and those who've heard of neither come from Mars, for this kid, Orthodox is normal, because someone growing up in a Jewish family or community experiences Judaism not as a minuscule part of the overall population, but as the default. (I'm taking a leap here and assuming the kid is not the child of Episcopalians who converted alone, of his own accord.) So even if on some level he realized that not all would know what he was doing (and he might not have - not all Jews, remember, are geniuses), it's highly unlikely it would have occurred to him that his prayer ritual would appear to anyone as an attempt to blow up a plane. It's not that he thought Jews were just so special that everyone should know everything about the faith, but that he does not see mysterious straps and boxes. Again, just a guess.

-A good amount of the response is in the form of evoking a theoretical Muslim 17-year-old at prayer, who, on his theoretical flight, has caused a great deal of theoretical dismay. As with any accusation of theoretical bigotry (see also Caitlin Flanagan's imaginary Mexican), there are some flaws. For one, there was no Muslim 17-year-old. The time to get indignant is when something has actually happened, which does often enough in the world of anti-Muslim prejudice that we don't need to make theoretical accusations. Something actually did happen here, and this victim was a Jew. Oh well.

Then, there's the issue of race. We're to believe that there's sympathy for the kid because he's white, whereas if he'd been a Muslim... Without rehashing the whole are-Jews-white discussion, remember that even if this kid happens to be the least stereotypically-Jewish-looking Jew around (couldn't really tell from a video), if he's sporting a religious-looking hat, say, or praying in a way that's non-Protestant, he looks Muslim or fern to the ignorant. But, geez, plenty of Jews 'look Muslim (or, more accurately, Arab, as the two are conflated in popular imagination)' without this, just as plenty of Muslims 'look Jewish.' Not (just) because these are religions rather than races, but because these are two populations with a whole lot of dark hair and non-Nordic features. The sort of white people with a grievance with Islam not based on perceived radicalism but on brownness aren't too hot on Jews either. (Except while pandering.)

-Craziness is everywhere, but if it's not on a plane, whatever, right? I was recently on the subway when a guy in the car, with a bandanna covering his entire face, kept applying the flame from a lighter to the window. I decided this was a form of etching graffiti and not a prelude to his blowing up the car, because you sort of have to think like this when it's happening right next to you and there's no discreet way to move aside. So in one case, shoes are removed, and everyone has to pay $5 for a post-security bottle of water because you never know. In the other, by all means, let's test that subway's flammability! I get that no one's crashing a subway car into a building, but is there no way the security levels could be slightly evened out?

* Charming: "If I’d been on that plane, I would have been annoyed by his insistence on practicing his silly rites in a public space. If you want everyone around you to understand your vodoo, then you should move to Israel."

Get thee to Comparative Religions 101: "why does anyone need a box on your head or arm, or for that matter, a string of rosary beads, or have to point in a certain direction in order to pray? seems to me god doesn’t care when or how someone prays, or whether you’re accessorized or not."

Let's bring that class roster up to two: "Part of my religion says that I can carry around long red tubes with strings hangin out of them which, unfortunately, resemble TNT. Am I OK to board now? Can I bring on my sacrificial animals, as well? It’s time to keep the kooks off the aircraft."

Guess they're not removing any comments: "White Jews, and ergo most of the NYT staff, DO believe that they’re superior to the rest of us and superior especially to Muslims."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Enough blogarguments

Instead, photos of recent culinary and sartorial adventures.



Because apple crumble-ish cake requires vanilla ice cream.



Because shtetl apple cake requires shtetl literature.



An uncharacteristic attempt at non-pasta-based cooking: wheatberry salad and cannellini beans with maybe too much garlic.



An uncharacteristic attempt at wearing something other than corduroys or jeans. Scarf: teeny-bopper mall store purchase while on Birthright Israel. Jacket: City Opera thrift store, brand unknown, 2003-ish. Dress: Uniqlo, recent. Tights: Old Navy, last year. Shoes, Miu Miu (ebay? thrift?), but my mother might want them back.

Towards a better definition of envirosmug

I was about to write my most non-libertarian post ever, demanding that the government step in and demand good environmental behavior so that it's not left to the consumer, who will either do a bit of the right thing with a hefty dose of smug or, turned off by the smug, proudly swing plastic grocery bags from the sunroof of his SUV. (Assuming SUVs can have sun roofs?), leading, apparently, to crankiness and marital strife, but then found that this rant's been written.

So, while I endorse Amanda Marcotte's post (not that PG, say, couldn't locate a turn of phrase in it that turns out to be shockingly questionable - I didn't read it that closely) I would only add that there's a bit more to the smugness question. Marcotte claims envirosmug is only something imagined by those who feel guilty about their own behavior. That's not how I see it. As long as the more important environmental choices are left to the individual, certain individuals (who manage to cluster at various Whole Foodses where I sometimes shop) pat themselves on the back just a teensy bit too enthusiastically for whatever it is they do that (most visibly) helps the environment, while conveniently ignoring whatever it is they do not. When I think "smug," I'm picturing not a vegetarian or a cyclist, but someone who carries a tote with one of those "I care" logos, filled perhaps with the odd "I care" product, into the SUV to drive the four blocks home. Or someone who takes the time to lecture Mark Bittman that tomatoes are out-of-season, when all the man is trying to do with this particular recipe is to encourage people to a) cook at home, and b) try a meal without meat. As I see it, government intervention here wouldn't be about bringing the 'bad' in sync with the 'good,' but simply removing self-presentation from the equation, sort of like if the cost of a 15% tip were included with the price of a meal. Sure, some could do more, but doing just a little bit would no longer feel to anyone like heroism.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Miniatures

Every time I write something about "19th C France's tiny Jewish community," I find myself picturing a community of tiny French Jews, complete with miniature berets and baguettes, and have to edit this to something like "France's Jewish minority," which fails to convey just how few Jews there were in France way back when, but which nevertheless does not make me picture an inch-long Léon Blum.

Entirely realizable goals

-Less self-injury during food preparation. No gruesome details, but it will be a while before I use a vegetable peeler again.

-No haircuts until I achieve this look. Here's to makeovers that require only inertia and the occasional trimming of bangs.

-Figure out some way to get past my fear, and my fear is that, writing about "assimilation," I will lose my thought mid-word, start on a different sentence, and hand in a paper or application with an unexplained "ass" in the middle of a sentence.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Goals for the day, some fully met, some not

-Improve upon application essay that must, among other things, distill 30-page prospectus into three pages.

-Run six miles with a freeze-prone iPod. (The serenity some feel on headphone-free runs is not something I experience. Either I think about the distance left, or I think about my work - see above - without the writing implements necessary to do anything about it.)

-Bake "shtetl apple cake," or cake from a recipe that's been passed down from Old Country times. (What I now see in the oven looks more like shtetl apple crumble, but that works too, and might work even better with the vanilla ice cream that will go with.)

-Not consume entire shtetl apple dessert before Jo gets back from his trip tonight. (This is made more challenging by item #2 and the ensuing tripled appetite, and can only be offset by preempting this impulse with something called 'dinner.' But the cake smells so good! Who could have pasta with that readily available?)

Friday, January 15, 2010

100% Made in Italy

WWPD readers have come to expect reports here every time some much-cherished American image of Western Europe (that its women are uniformly thin and chic*; that everyone shops at farmers' markets) receives some critical, contrarian attention. So, for you, a Freakonomics blog post about the less-than-picturesque reality behind Italian agriculture:

Lost in the condemnation of Italian xenophobia, however, is a less obvious but equally important discovery: Italy’s bucolic countryside — the heart of its pristine agrarian image — is sustained by foreign migrants living in, as one official put it, “subhuman conditions.” Those imported canned tomatoes that go into your classic tomato sauce obscure a world of hurt.

This is not what I want to hear when contemplating the land of slow food, ancient farm houses, rolling vineyards, and leisurely lunches over pasta, bruschetta, mozzarella, and fine wine. It’s not what I want to hear when savoring the near-spiritual identification between Italians and their legendary pastoral landscape, blessed with its inimitable air, soil, and produce.
It seems that two separate issues are at stake. One, there's the question of "subhuman conditions," and of the diminished appeal of food known to have been produced unethically. But it would be inaccurate to say that the American (and perhaps international) fantasy regarding Italian food, as (I think accurately) described in this post, is limited to a belief that Italians pay their workers a living wage. Part of the disillusionment here is, it seems, coming from the fact that the workers behind Italian food are not themselves ethnic Italians, whose families have been in that village since ancient times. Those who dream of Real Italy often want their Italian food made by Real Italians, according to the secret methods passed down from generation to generation. One finds the same issue with discussions of consumption generally - are those who instinctively gravitate to Made in Italy over Made in China reacting to the labor conditions in the two countries, the presumed quality of the goods, the mental image of like-it's-always-been-done craftsmanship, an outright (if undisclosed) irrational preference for Italians rather than Chinese people to make one's stuff, or some combination? Racism, then, or perhaps more precisely xenophobia, is operating on different levels. Americans associate ethnic-Western-European workers with good labor conditions, but it seems the fantasy has a less noble component as well, in at least some instances.

(Before anyone gets excited and starts a boycott of Italian canned tomatoes, remember that cans in an Italian-looking package could well be a domestic product. They might be produced unethically here in the US, and the can lining might give you hermaphrodite children, but African migrant workers in Italy were not harmed.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Purity bagels

Whenever I see an article about Jews being special, I count to three. What what? A Tel Aviv tech boom? What's this, kosher's joined the ranks of veganism and locavorism as a food restriction for yuppies to dabble in without thoroughly investigating? I count to three and wait for the 'Oh, you Jews think you're so damn special, well let me tell you' to begin. And it's like, look, Gentile Majority, we know we're not all geniuses, and some of us buy the kosher hot dogs as our yearly hot dogs only because the thought of a snout having gotten into the mix makes us queasier than the thought of what goes into a hot dog, kosher or not.

It's amusing, though, that kosher's being lumped in with other unrelated forms of self-denial. It's as though a certain type of consumer will buy anything so long as it's been presented as 'something- (anything-) free'. It makes sense - many products (soap, water bottles, milk, cereal) bear earnest-sounding labels of what they don't contain, and it's usually a list of things that do sound chemical, but that nine times out of ten I'm not sure why we're supposed to now want to avoid, and this from someone who reads the Well blog far too often.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In defense of froth

Dear Mr. 'I Take It Black,'

Don't you just hate it when you're on line at the local espresso joint, and the person in front of you has the nerve to order one of those complicated espresso drinks, something like a half-decaf, half-vanilla, half-half-and-half whoseawhatsit? Of course you do. Because you, of course, take your coffee black.

This says so much about your character, ITIB. Perhaps you're a simple guy, not simple in the sense of slow-witted, but an honest sort, salt-of-the-earth, and you just want your cuppa joe. Or maybe it's that you're of a more intellectual bent. Is that a black turtleneck I see? Your coffee matches it so well. Let me guess: if you drink, no apple martinis for you, and if you smoke cigarettes, there's some hand-rolling involved. The girl in leggings and Uggs in front of you just ordered a soy latte. You so saw this coming.

And I feel your pain, ITIB. More than 90% of the time I too take my coffee in its most basic form, and I appreciate this one coffee shop near campus that allows the non-espresso-drink folks to get and pay for their coffee without waiting in the frou-frou-drinks line. But because of this vast experience with black coffee, I know that you, unlike your mochafrappacounterparts, have options. You don't need to get your coffee at quirky indie coffee shops. Delis, diners, your office, you name it, it's there. Or if it's really just the one Starbucks, here's a thought: buy coffee beans at the Starbucks (or whichever other coffee shop) and make coffee at home, either to drink at home or to put in a thermos. You, unlike someone with a hankering for a mocha, can inexpensively produce a better version of your preferred beverage than you're likely to get on the outside.

What's that, ITIB? You prefer coffee bars because you plan on spending the day there with your laptop? Then you have the minutes to spare while that milk gets foamed.

*Inspired by, among other instances, this article, via.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"Waters herself is guilty of nothing more terrible than being a visionary and a woman of tremendous persuasive abilities"

Everyone should read Caitlin Flanagan's wonderfully written contrarian take-down of Alice Waters' school-garden program. God, this woman's sentences! I had to read closely, and reread, before I could summon any response other than full agreement and, well, awe. Flanagan is to the written word what Waters is to the fresh local vegetable.

Not that I needed much convincing. I was already of the opinion that there's no special advantage to knowing, in detail, how food is grown, any more than there is to knowing the technicalities of any other aspect of our lives. And Alice Waters could not be better contrarian-fodder - everything she says and does is just so lovely, so well that's nice. Even if there's more merit to the gardening curriculum than Flanagan lets on (and I wouldn't be surprised if there is), there's merit to questioning the unquestioned.

There were a few tiny aspects of Flanagan's argument I didn't find 100%, but before further rambling, I'll leave this to the comments.

Naive environmental blogging

All this talk about plastic grocery bags has me thinking once again about the issue. I'm coming around overall to the idea of totes, not just generally but personally - I mostly use them for groceries now, and still have quite the backlog of plastic ones. But if the plastic bags were to disappear entirely, I'd probably waste more plastic, since I sort of have to take the non-recycling (i.e. food) trash out daily (to avoid pests/bad smells in my studio apt), and store-bought bags would likely be more than necessary for the job. But it's not about me! It's about The American Consumer, who's throwing out plastic bags just for the heck of it, perhaps even buying plastic bags for the express purpose of doing so. Whatever it is, I'd prefer a 'refund' for bringing your own bag (as at Whole Foods) to a 'tax' on not doing so, even if the amounts add up to the same.

One thing I'm struck by is that if we're talking about pollution as it relates to grocery shopping, there's a far more visible angle, if not in Manhattan: cars. A switch from driving to walking would certainly be more difficult to institute than tossing a rolled up tote in one's purse, but if obesity's also an issue, two birds and all that.

Confession: I secretly envy people who do their grocery shopping by car. Because of this, I must condemn driving to the store. It helps me remember the upside of all this shlepping.

My (limited) sense of why people drive to the store is that it can be about living ten miles from the nearest one, without decent public transportation between, but that often enough, it's a matter of convenience. Not only does it speed up each trip, but it means, I would think, being able to buy enough for the week in one go, depending the size of your household. That, and driving gives you more choice in where you shop. There might be a supermarket within walking distance, but not a cheap/expensive/hippie one, and that's the one you want. When I lived next to the Park Slope Food Co-op, I'd always see people loading their nicely non-plastic-bagged groceries into their cars. The Co-op takes pride in its clientele extending beyond Park Slope yuppies ("Our members come from all over Brooklyn as well as the rest of New York - some even come from out of state!"), but what this adds up to is a whole lot of driving to the grocery store. Some are no doubt driving from areas without good grocery options, but all? Is The Cause worth the driving?

In other words, there's a spectrum of how necessary it is for people in different situations to drive to get groceries. So before anyone gets all, 'But you live in New York, you know nothing about how people shop elsewhere,' allow me to point out that I admitted as much in the paragraph above. A spectrum. If those who could shop locally began doing so, this would (would it? am I making this up?) potentially matter more than the plastic-bag issue. (Not that it's either-or, but the smug legions placing canvas totes into their minivans in front of the Co-op keep coming to mind.) And... once people began frequenting stores near them, those stores would improve,* and perhaps new ones would open. And we'd all get our exercise in. Yay! Of course, this would also mean distribution to stores would be less efficient - local or not, stuff's got to be getting trucked in from somewhere. In other words, I really don't know what I'm talking about, but if I have to carry and carry and carry some more, surely we must all.

*This is a variant of my argument, years ago, that if UChicago stopped forcing students in dorms to have meal plans, or perhaps eliminated dining halls altogether, everyone would have to shop at the then-lousy supermarket, thus improving the supermarket, and thus teaching students some Basic Life Skills (budgeting, cooking, shopping efficiently) that the dining hall system is designed to protect the undergrads from acquiring.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pluses and minuses

-Assuming the new Uniqlo +J collection appearing soon in the NY store is the same one as is already available in London, I'm not impressed. Does the city really need another pair of skinny jeans that, though a nice color and cut, look like they would reveal the underwear of any woman who dared sit down while wearing them? Do non-maternity t-shirts ever benefit from this kind of flare? Is there any way this jacket would not appear simply to be missing some crucial inner-thigh-covering material when worn on anyone other than a model? Finally, does anyone who lived through the 1990s not already own some variant of this puffy vest, assuming they ever remotely wanted one? Frankly, I'm relieved that I don't like this line, because the earlier +J season could not have been better, and if I found this one the same, that would put a dent in my cheapness goals.

-The plus-size model "debate" always seems more about shock-value photographs of bad-idea bathing suits than about changing ideals from skeletal to... less skeletal? The emphasis is forever on 'the size-two model,' or her far-more-offensive 'size-zero' counterpart. When really, all the fashion industry would have to do to radically change the sorts of images we see would be to photograph women and girls who wear these sizes, but as the sizes exist in chain clothing stores. Thanks to vanity sizing, the fact that most women aren't so tall, and that clothes, even tiny ones, are typically pinned back for photo shoots, I'd venture a guess that most 2s and even 0s would photograph in a way that fashion-mag readers would interpret as "plus", given what they're used to seeing. (For a reminder of the status quo, look no further than one post below at The Cut, a "lithe" Swede, 5'11", born in 1993.)

I'm not going to be so contrarian as to say that it's a good thing models look emaciated. Clearly, this does no one any favors, least of all the models themselves. But I do think demands that models should look 'healthy' are, if well-meaning, potentially dangerous. Equating health with beauty (more than is already done outside the high-fashion world) also means equating illness with ugliness. Which, of course, means equating ugliness with illness. Images that don't encourage unhealthy behavior are one thing. But images of 'health', which can't but be conveyed in ways that have little to do with actual wellness (tanned skin, shiny hair, an athletic-1990s-supermodel build), have their own problems.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Astronomie and other feminine pursuits

-Fashion! Consider this the unofficial announcement of my (theoretical) clothing line, Astronomie, inspired by the presence but relative lack of galaxy-patterned clothes on the market today. If there can be Anthropologie, there can most definitely be Astronomie, and the name would at least make sense. Now I just have to figure out how one goes about getting fabric made with photographs of, well, with photographs (I know it can be done, but have no experience with this sort of thing), and, once that's done, learning how to make clothes.

-Cooking! It could be that this and this are as good as the same recipe, which I find suspicious, but whatever it is, it looks good. I'm going to attempt a variant of this with wheatberries, cubed yam, red onion, and arugula. I'm also going to attempt to recreate a garlicky cannellini bean appetizer I had in DC, but with parsley in the place of arugula, because it just seems like it would taste better. (The arugula having not tasted like anything in this dish.) Clearly I had a little too much fun in the bulk-foods section of Fairway. What either of these might add up to in terms of meals remains to be seen, which leads me to the unfortunately realization that the main course remains to be bought. Once the semester starts, it'll be back to arrabiata...

-Grocery shopping! Of those who read it, what did you take from the New Yorker story on the guy who started Whole Foods? What I got, in part, was that Whole Foods is - gasp - an enterprise aimed at making a profit. There are, it seems, naive shoppers who imagine that the green aura of the chain means that it exists out of the selfless purpose of making you, the consumer, lead a healthy and sustainable life.

The most interesting aspect of the piece was, I felt, the reminder of how Whole Foods at once revolutionized and destroyed what was once called the health-food store, the dusty, vitamin-smelling shop aimed at aging hippies with ponytails. If someone had told me as a kid that as an adult, my main supermarket would be a glorified health-food store... My sense is that many shop at Whole Foods not because of its self-promotion-as-virtuous, but despite it. If there were another nearby source of high-quality produce, cheap pasta and bulk goods, etc., one that didn't include a section with 'natural' cosmetics and organic t-shirts or whatever it is that's sold in the middle of the stores, I'd be all for it. But the no-frills, less expensive Fairway means a subway ride beyond what I could commit to during the semester, and the even less frilly but very convenient Gristedes has all the trappings of a regular ol' nothin' fancy supermarket, yet charges a ton for absolutely everything. Whole Foods, you've won this one.

-Laundry! Better get to that...

Thursday, January 07, 2010

In search of a Mensch

Hello, readers, from the Megabus, this time with Internet.

A friend just sent me a disturbing article from the NY Observer: apparently New York gals are turning to Western European men - PhD students especially - for boyfriends and husbands in droves. It's rare that I find myself inadvertently part of a trend - the last time was when, in college, I was paring ballet flats with dark, narrow-cut jeans a few months before the rest of the American female undergraduate population. The Double X factor correctly notes that by "trend" the Observer means "three women in New York." As one of the three, I suppose I should respond.

I don't find the Observer piece terribly convincing - 'men from A are like B' arguments tend to fail, and it's odd that the possibility that the men are in these relationships for green cards is mentioned, but not that the women might be in it to get in on EU perks, such as better bakeries and not having to pay a million dollars to go to the dentist. But there might be a reason New Yorkers and Western Europeans, nothing gender-specific, would pair off. For one thing, there's proximity - New York is filled with Europeans, here as students, tourists, or more permanently, and their English is often excellent, particularly important if the European in question comes from one of those countries whose language is not taught in New York schools. Then there's the shared non-belonging to Real-America. Whether the issue is creationism, 'family values' issues, or whether straight men can and should dress elegantly, there's much agreement to be found. New Yorkers are in many ways halfway between Americans and Europeans, seeming very foreign to the former and very American to the latter. It allows New Yorkers to shall we say go both ways more easily.

There could just as well have been an article about New York's single ladies discovering men from the Heartland. Or on Jewish women who've braved the world of non-Jewish men, which is in a way the subtext of the 'New York woman' looking for love beyond the Tristate Area. (Need these written, NY Observer? Give me 15 minutes for each.)

Or, really, an article about anyone from one demographic finding anyone else from another - the piece seems to profile women whose current relationships are going well, and who - perhaps provoked by the journalist - have agreed that this is neither chance nor precarious but a pattern from which we can generalize. When in relationships with people from similar backgrounds, those with a tendency to generalize announce that what matters is to have common cultural references, blah blah, whereas if the beau happens to be of a different background, then opposites suddenly attract. Which brings me to the wise words of Mr. Dan Savage: "Every relationship fails, until one doesn't." Retroactive justification gets us nowhere.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Pandas and galaxies

At the moment, it's just me and all the country's astronomers. What I mean is, I've accompanied Jo to DC, where he's attending a huge astronomy conference, and I'm watching cuddly pandas eat bamboo (the hotel's just next to the zoo and not a whole lot else), going to obscure museums (so far, I've seen exhibits on avant-garde Japanese fashion and American Jewish soldiers and the post-WWII DP camps), appreciating Whole Foods store-brand granola in a city that no doubt has good food somewhere but not somewhere I've found it, and pretending that DC in an especially cold winter is walkable, which, even with extreme layering, it's not.

Anyhow. WANT! (Yes, my purpose in life is to lower the average IQ in this astronomer-filled hotel.) While others study the galaxy, I just attempt to dress like it. Tragically, the $30 skirt is out of stock. These, meanwhile, are perfection, and would be an exception to my anti-leggings-as-pants rule. If there is a source for space-print material, and I could go about learning to make such clothes for myself, that's what the comments are for...

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Simplicity in arrabiata

If I were to write a cookbook, it would consist of one recipe:

Pasta Arrabiata

-Heat olive oil, chopped yellow onion (or white onion? is there a difference?), chopped garlic cloves, and red pepper flakes in a pan.
-Pour in can of whole tomatoes. Add chopped fresh tomatoes if a few need to be used, or, if good ones are cheap and available, go the all-fresh route.
-Break canned tomatoes into smaller pieces either before or after the step mentioned above.
-Salt, black pepper.
-Stir occasionally so the above-mentioned sauce doesn't burn onto the pan.
-Wait over an hour, hungrily.
-Put water up to boil.
-Is it done yet? (Anticipation is key.)
-No. Nor is the water boiling.
-Finally! The pasta goes in. Ideally penne, because 'penne arrabiata' has a nice ring to it, but any mix of short pastas will do.
-I like my pasta on the crunchy side, but my dining companion does not. Depending your situation al-dente-wise, remove the pasta when appropriate, remembering to turn off the heat under both pot and pan. Remember to say aloud that you're doing so, so that you don't go out after and find yourself wondering if your apartment is about to burn down.
-Cheese is not totally necessary, and I say this as someone who thinks cheese is pretty fundamental. If you don't go with cheese (Parmesan or similar), either some capers or nothing at all will do just fine.

It's not that I can't/don't make other things too. But somehow this has become the dish - the one that always turns out well, that doesn't require preparation of any other courses, that doesn't go out of season (and given the farmers' markets here, we're down to a few remaining apples), and that isn't the kind of dinner it's possible (for me at least) not to be up for. If you're hungry for dinner, this will not disappoint. If variety's your thing, it just might.