The dark side of the seafood industry. The morality of mortality. Memory versus belief. The flying cowboys lighting up the skies of the West. The food-service secrets of a tableside firestarter. All that (and more!) in this week’s edition.
Ian Urbina | The New Yorker | October 9, 2023 | 9,573 words
Where does your seafood come from? Who caught and handled it? The more I read about overfishing, illegal industry practices, and horrific work conditions, the more it stinks. Each year, China catches more than five billion pounds of seafood, much of it squid, through its distant-water fleet. These ships roam all over the world, often in unauthorized areas; analysts believe the country disguises some of them as fishing vessels when they’re in fact part of a “maritime militia” surveilling the sea, looking to expand control over contested waters. Onboard, workers are abused and held against their will. Ian Urbina, who runs The Outlaw Ocean Project, spent four years visiting the fleet’s ships and investigating their conditions. (To communicate with fishermen on ships that prohibited him on board, he tossed up plastic bottles, “weighed down with rice, containing a pen, cigarettes, hard candy, and interview questions.”) He also tracked where squid caught irresponsibly would end up: first to plants in China, some employing Xinjiang labor, and then continuing on to the very places we buy our seafood, like Costco and Safeway. This is a massive report on how China has become a fishing superpower, but Urbina also weaves within it an emotional, devastating story of an Indonesian worker who joined one of these ships in order to give his family a better life. Extraordinary reporting that’ll make you reconsider your next plate of calamari. —CLR
Hanif Abdurraqib | The Paris Review | October 16, 2023 | 3,922 words
Looking back at the last few months of my selections for this newsletter, I realize that I prize writing that escapes the presuppositions of its genre—or, rather, writing that escapes your presuppositions of its genre. Take this essay from the great Hanif Abdurraqib. When you first find your way to it in The Paris Review, you might notice the rubric “On Games” and see a screenshot from the video game Red Dead Redemption 2, and decide then and there to keep browsing. Would I begrudge you that decision? Probably not. But I’d also know that you were unwittingly denying yourself something marvelous. From the very first sentence—”I don’t find myself investing much in the kingdom of heaven”—the piece thrums with a keen melancholy that never tips into sorrow or indulgence. When Abdurraqib writes about the futility and powerlessness of playing to save the doomed, he’s of course writing about something larger, and he has no hesitation in drawing the line for you: this is about real redemption. About the sins of youth and the circumstances that absolve them, or don’t. About the love we extend to others but not ourselves. About how we face our own ever-shortening lives. The word “spiritual” is a slippery one, used as it is to mediate our own discomfort with the unknowable, but there’s no better word to apply to this essay. Abdurraqib’s spirit shimmers here, its full spectrum diffracted through his 19th-century avatar; that it does so in the service of what some might flatten to “game writing” only proves my point. This is something special. —PR
3. Mere Belief
Sallie Tisdale | Harper’s Magazine | October 16, 2023 | 6,222 words
In my earliest memory, I’m peering under my uncle Raymond’s bedroom door. He lives with me and my parents in the second bedroom of the duplex we all share. My mom’s given me his mail and I’m flicking the envelopes under the door, watching them spin over the parquet floor and disappear from view after crossing a patch of bright sunlight. I am not yet 5 years old. This is an autobiographical memory, according to Sallie Tisdale and her fascinating piece on memoir and memory for Harper’s Magazine. As a memoirist, Tisdale trades in remembering, but this is no romanticized account of an unlimited well of perfect recall that fuels her writing. She looks at the science behind what we remember and how memories morph, shifting in shape and color in the liminal spaces of our brain, while she wrestles with the conundrum of her own evolving identity, and how what seems like fact can become blurred. “It is tempting to substitute today’s psychological truth for history. Memory is wet sand,” she writes. “This is what I want to interrogate: the slipperiness, the uncertainty.” Is there nothing more beautiful—and more human—than searching for truth in the blurry spaces of our memory? —KS
Brad Rassler | Outside | October 18, 2023 | 10,300 words
Off-airport pilots. Strip baggers. Flyboys. The recreational bush pilots in this piece sport many names. But are these social media-savvy flyers bringing new people into an exciting sport or just “boys with pricey toys” who clog up the skies and take reckless risks? Brad Rassler is dedicated to his discovery mission—even braving some terrifying maneuvers while in the passenger seat of planes that weigh no more than a golf cart. I love meeting big characters, and this piece is jam-packed with them, all sporting varying amounts of facial hair, from “a thick soul patch ornamenting [a] chin” to “a ginger-brown beard that doesn’t quite attach to the mustache part.” (One lucky exception has a “handsome face smooth of whiskers but strong of jaw.”) You cannot fail to be impressed by such a range of beard-related eloquence. Culminating in a chaotic rally in the evocatively named Dead Cow Lakebed, Nevada, this feature is quite the ride. —CW
Adam Reiner | Eater | October 11, 2023 | 1,553 words
Adam Reiner’s short but sweet Eater piece on food as entertainment is perfectly satisfying. For three years Reiner worked as a captain at a Manhattan chophouse called The Grill, where he prepared food tableside, including Dover sole and Bananas Foster, the flaming pièce de résistance. Reiner serves more than stories of boorish patrons as seen from behind the gueridon. (The fancy trolley containing cooking ingredients and utensils.) He gives us a taste of food-as-performance at his restaurant and others, such as Papi Steak, where the $1,000 wagyu ribeye’s reveal is meat theater—complete with special effects that could rival Taylor Swift in concert. “The steak even has its own designated entrance music that blares in the dining room to announce its arrival,” he writes. Reiner also reveals the perils of performance, and the very real anxieties that go along with it. For every Bananas Foster or cherries jubilee, there’s always the potential that the flambé is a flop, “like striking a book of matches in the rain.” Steak entrances and fancy flaming bananas aside, it’s Reiner’s writing that will keep you coming back for more in a story that’s less about the food and more about his uneasy relationship with the distastefulness of restaurant showmanship. —KS
What was our readers’ favorite this week? Drumroll, please!
Kate Linthicum | Los Angeles Times | October 10, 2023 | 2,576 words
The pandemic prompted a lot of people to move to a lot of different places. But as Kate Linthicum reports for LAT, the scale of “Blaxit”—Black Americans’ emigration around the world—could make it one of the largest such patterns since the 1920s. But while Europe has long been a home for Black American artists, the current moment stretches from Mexico to Ghana, and encompasses all walks of life. This is what following one’s bliss looks like. —PR