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A kindergarten class dispersed by war. A taut investigation into two men’s disappearance. A portrait of the legendary Harry Belafonte. Memories of a traditional cooking lesson. And everything that goes into the restaurant of the moment. These are our favorite reads of the week, chosen from all of our editors’ picks.
1. How the War in Ukraine Has Forever Changed the Children in One Kindergarten Class
Elissa Nadworny, Claire Harbage | NPR | April 12, 2023 | 4,700 words
This piece takes war down to the micro level, the story of a conflict told not through politics or death tolls but through the fate of one class of kindergarten children. It makes for a blisteringly relatable read. Elissa Nadworny and Claire Harbage have carried out meticulous reporting, meeting several children and their families from a classroom in Kharkiv with “bright yellow and green walls and long, gauzy curtains.” (Such attentive details are sprinkled throughout.) Some children remain in Ukraine, but more than half have fled around the world, separated by thousands of miles. Some are struggling with new languages. Some can’t sleep. Some are still scared. They all miss each other. Beautiful photographs and snippets from their group chats help to bring their new realities to life. A small war story but a powerful one: These few children represent so many. —CW
2. The Deputy and the Disappeared
Thomas Lake | CNN | April 21, 2023 | 9,276 words
What happened to Felipe Santos and Terrance Williams, two men who went missing three months apart in Immokalee, an agricultural town near Naples, Florida? As you discover in this gripping, well-researched investigation by Thomas Lake, the evidence points to Steven Calkins, the Collier County deputy suspected to be the last person to see both men. Lake and the CNN reporting team bring inconsistencies and telling details to light, and build minute-to-minute timelines of the days these men disappeared, using interview transcripts, dispatch logs, phone records, and other documents. Calkins declined interview requests, but comments from people around him, including former colleagues, reveal suspicion and a loss of trust in the former officer. Still, the cases remain unsolved, and you wonder: Where is the justice for these men, for their families, for this small town? —CLR
3. Voice and Hammer
Jeff Sharlet | VQR | October 2013 | 8,251 words
Like Harry Belafonte himself, there is much to love about Jeff Sharlet’s profile of the legendary singer, actor, and activist who died this week at the age of 96. The writing is vivid, the quotes astonishing, every anecdote riveting. Like the one where Belafonte recruits Sidney Poitier to go with him to hand-deliver $50,000 to civil rights organizers in Mississippi, amid a storm of violence and threats of it. (“They might think twice about killing two big n****rs,” Belafonte tells Poitier.) A truck presumably driven by Klansmen meets them at the Greenwood airstrip and follows them into town, ramming the back of the car that’s carrying them. When Belafonte arrives at a dance hall where supporters are waiting, he sings a version of his most famous tune, “Banana Boat (Day-o),” and defiantly dumps a bag full of dollars onto a table. What a story — to put it lightly, holy crap. But the moment that got me most in this gorgeous piece is when Sharlet sits in an archive, headphones on his ears, watching a tape of “Tonight with Belafonte,” an iconic 1959 TV revue. “I felt like I was watching a different past, one in which the revolution had been televised,” Sharlet writes. “Goddamn. As if that was what TV was for. A signal. This, I thought, this.” I have the same feeling about Belafonte’s existence. It showed what living could be for. This, I’m still thinking. This. —SD
4. Remembering the Egyptian Childhood I Never Had Through Its Culinary Traditions
Jasmin Attia | Literary Hub | March 27, 2023 | 2,014 words
Jasmin Attia’s beautiful Lit Hub essay puts you, the reader, in the kitchen as she and her mother make waraa eynab (stuffed grape leaves). This is a story that captures all your senses: You can smell the sumac, feel the smooth grape leaves, and hear the perfect traditional soup bubbling gently on the stove, a meal that binds her Egyptian heritage with her birth in America. One of the most difficult jobs a writer must do is convey lived experience so that those who lack it can begin to understand. “But my hands must still learn what the right amount of meat feels like between my fingers. There is no recipe in my family, nothing written down, no measurements. Measurements are for the inept. This is my mother’s mantra. We, the proud women of the family, we feel and smell and taste and touch and create. We know when it is good because we know when it is good,” she writes. This small but wonderful taste of Attia’s writing left me hungry for a second helping. —KS
5. Inside Superiority Burger: The Buzziest Restaurant in America
Brett Martin | GQ | April 26, 2023 | 3,834 words
Most writing about food focuses on the output. Some of it focuses on the people. A bit of it focuses on technique. But not enough of it teases out the synesthesia of a night in a restaurant: the adrenaline, the prep, the community, the taste. The vibe of eating, as much as I hate to use that word. Brett Martin’s piece shrugs off those limitations on its way to being the most visceral look inside a restaurant since The Bear. Nominally a profile of punk-drummer-turned-chef Brooks Headley and his vegetarian burger joint, it manages to capture the twin high-wire acts of executing and eating inside New York City’s restaurant of the moment. Martin veers from evocative tasting notes (“[s]omething about the feathery sheets of tofu skin, layered on a squishy hero roll with broccoli rabe and a spiced chickpea paste that evokes Vietnamese pate, flips the same feral switch in my chest as does eating, say, andouillette, the most offaly of French sausages”) to capturing Headley at full speed on a packed Thursday night (“[o]ften, he’ll bustle in one direction, only to pull up short as though he’s forgotten what he was doing, and then run off in another”) to some shrewd commentary on the punk ethos and food gentrification. It feels, in the very best way, like you’re a drone being piloted through Superiority Burger during a dinner rush. Whether it makes you hungry is beside the point; it’s a feast of its own. —PR
It’s time for the piece our readers loved most this week — and the oversized trophy goes to:
What’s a God to a Machine?
Jeff Weiss | The Ringer | April 20, 2023 | 4,237 words
I’ll get this out of the way: I’m not a fan of Frank Ocean, nor am I really familiar with his music. Ocean’s return to the stage wasn’t some long-awaited moment for me as it was for many festival-goers on the final night of Coachella’s first weekend. But that didn’t matter one bit as I dived into Jeff Weiss’ fantastic dispatch from the desert, in which he transports the reader to the festival as the crowd waits for the singer’s headlining performance. Ocean puts on a shaky, underwhelming, and chaotic show, which Weiss masterfully describes. But what makes this piece so good is the perfect encapsulation of the collective experience that is Coachella, and — for someone like me, who experienced its earliest iterations in 1999 and the early 2000s — it’s an insightful read not just on this specific performance, but a look at how the festival has evolved over the years, and a deep, thoughtful critique on the music industry, performance and artistry, and our culture today. —CLR