Author Archives

Ben leads the Editorial team at WordPress.com / Automattic, and contributes to Longreads, Discover, and The Daily Post.

An Ode to Sichuan’s Singular Sensation

Photo by Ragesoss (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

We tend to think about regional cuisines in terms of flavor, texture, or signature preparation; sometimes it’s a specific combination of ingredients — think Basque piperade, or Old Bay Seasoning in Maryland. In Sichuan, it’s a sensation: the numbing, tickling heat of the region’s beloved peppercorn, zanthoxylum. (Calling it a peppercorn is actually an entrenched misnomer: it’s closer to the citrus family than to hot chilis.)

At Roads and Kingdoms, Taylor Holliday, a purveyor of Sichuan ingredients, takes readers along the peppercorn’s path from rural farms and Chengdu markets to the USDA bureaucracy that has made it extremely difficult to bring to the States. At its core, though, this is an ode to a spice that etches itself onto your memory within seconds of your first taste.

Even more than other spices, endowed by evolution with defensive odors and tastes, Sichuan pepper seems designed not to be eaten. Once you get past the thorns, the taste of a fresh or freshly dried berry leaves your mouth, tongue, and lips buzzing and numb for several minutes. It is literally electric: The active ingredient, sanshool, causes a vibration on the lips measured at 50 hertz, the same frequency as the power grid in most parts of the world, according to a 2013 study at University College London.

In late June, the Sichuan pepper harvest in Qingxi, the Hanyuan town at the heart of pepper production, was still at least a couple months away, generally “during the seventh lunar month,” according to Di. But the berries getting direct sun are already plump and red and releasing some very potent, intensely numbing oil once you bite into them or squeeze the little bumps covering the surface of the peppercorns. After the berry clumps are painstakingly harvested, the farmers sell them to a processor who dries them until the little pods open, releasing their unpleasantly brittle black seeds, at which point their shape resembles a flower, earning them the name hua jiao, or flower pepper, in Sichuan dialect.

The best hua jiao are fully open with few seeds or stray twigs, and certainly no thorns—though some have been known to sneak through in lower-quality product, which is one reason premium peppercorns are not only picked but also cleaned and sorted by hand. They deliver not only the tingly sensation prized in Sichuan food, often paired as a one-two punch with chili peppers, but also a strong citrusy perfume and taste that adds intrigue to the heat. Outsiders think of Sichuan food as spicy hot, or la, but the more prevalent and unique characteristic of the cuisine is ma, the citrus tingle of Sichuan pepper. The combination of the two, mala, is what we typically think of as Sichuan flavor.

Read the story

The Digital Age Won’t Kill Paper

Historians of early print culture have long noticed a peculiar phenomenon: Not only had the invention of print not destroyed handwriting, it actually generated the need for more of it. The vast majority of printed matter hasn’t been novels and newspapers; it’s forms, certificates, and other types of ephemera that call for information — dates, signatures, place names — to be entered by hand. Paper seems to be going through a similar dynamic: as David J. Unger points out in The Guardian after attending a paper-industry convention, the stuff you order on Amazon still requires lots and lots of paper packaging, and your smartphone can do many things, but wiping your nose isn’t one of them. Read more…

The Volcanologist’s Dilemma

Photo via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Just across the Gulf of Naples from Pompeii, the Campi Flegrei volcano — a caldera that stretches as wide as 15km across — threatens some 700,000 people living within its red zone. As Helen Gordon shows in her 1843 Magazine story on the volcanologists tasked with predicting an eruption, managing a natural disaster in a dense metro area like Naples is going to be daunting, and made even more complicated by the skepticism of many residents and the region’s aging infrastructure. Scientists like Francesco Bianco, the director of the Vesuvius Observatory, are caught in an impossible dilemma: if they sound too alarmist, people could end up not heeding their warnings; but if they stay too laissez-faire, thousands might perish.

For Bianco and the observatory staff, one of the greatest challenges will be deciding when to trigger the final red alert. There are currently no set criteria for deciding this. (Kilburn’s model may explain crust failure but even that does not guarantee an eruption.) “A lot still involves considerable amounts of expert judgment. What have you seen before?” Donovan explained. Because major eruptions are relatively rare, it can take a lifetime to build up that knowledge. The United States Geological Survey, for example, is currently facing the retirement of a tranche of experienced volcanologists and must consider how best to preserve their expertise.

The stakes are incredibly high. In the L’Aquila earthquake in Italy in 2009 (a low-probability event with high stakes, much like an eruption), more than 300 people died. Some of the victims’ families claim that reassuring statements by the then-deputy head of the Civil Protection Department fatally prompted their relatives to stay indoors when the quake struck. At the other extreme, volcanology is still haunted by the example of the 1976 Guadeloupe eruptive crisis, when 72,000 people were evacuated for between three and nine months at huge economic and personal cost. A major eruption never occurred.

When the Campi Flegrei red alert is finally triggered, the heads of the emergency services and the scientific and technical advisers will meet at the CPD’s headquarters in Rome. Here, a belt-and-braces approach to safety is observed: there is plenty of gleaming modern technology but also a crucifix on the wall and, in the small vestibule, a richly painted gold icon. “We have calculated that 72 hours is the minimum amount of time we need to complete the evacuation,” David Fabi from the emergency management office told me when I visited. This breaks down as 12 hours for organization, 48 hours for exfiltration and an extra 12-hour security margin. It will require a mammoth feat of logistics.

Read the story

Server, Busser, Manager, Spy: Inside the High-Stakes World of Restaurant Oppo Research

With the rise of crowdsourced restaurant reviews on Yelp and its many peers, you’d think old-school, print-media critics would be a thing of the past by now. You’d think wrong: as Jessica Sidman shows in her Washingtonian story, restaurant owners go to incredible lengths to identify prominent critics like the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema, in the hopes of manufacturing a flawless, multiple-star-worthy experience. A lot of the energy is spent preemptively, creating and updating dossiers with blurred photos of critics and detailed notes about their culinary (and other) quirks. But there’s also a field-level aspect to these operations — the intricate choreography that kicks into gear as soon as Sietsema or another top critic enters the house.

To communicate about a critic, some restaurants have their own code words. One Italian joint called Sietsema “Neapolitan,” because it didn’t sound too weird to say out loud in the open kitchen. Others, including the kitchens of Fabio Trabocchi, refer to Sietsema as “Papa Bear.”

“I heard ‘Papa Bear in the house,’ and it’s like a fire drill,” says a sous chef for one of Ashok Bajaj’s restaurants, which include Rasika and Bibiana. The sous chef was in the middle of butchering 150 pounds of salmon for a large banquet that night, but when the alert came in, sous chefs kicked line cooks off their stations and began preparing Sietsema’s lunch themselves. (In other kitchens, the executive chef might take over complete prep of a dish. That way, only one person is to blame if the review is terrible.) “It is a huge wrench in the operation, because what you’re basically doing is interrupting the regular flow of service to stop and concentrate on one table and the other tables surrounding.”

With the executive chef orchestrating, the sous chefs prepared triplicates of every component of every dish. Nerves, as always, ran high. “I’ve burned more shit trying to cook something perfect for Tom Sietsema than I ever would have if I didn’t know that he was there,” the sous chef says.

Read the story

The Sandwich Whisperer of Victoria Street

Photo by Eric Hossinger (CC BY 2.0)

Sandwiches are a booming, multi-billion-pound industry in the UK. In The Guardian, Sam Knight’s history of the modern British sandwich follows its transformation from a soggy excuse of a meal into a signature product of late-capitalist discipline. What made the story irresistible for me, though, are the people we meet along the way — from the Wembley factory workers stacking chicken on 33 sandwiches per minute to Julian Metcalfe, the tireless founder of Pret A Manger.

Soaring above them all, though, is Frank Boltman. A veteran filled-croissant innovator, his business never grew to the scale of the Prets of the world, but each of his multiple appearances in the piece comes full of compact, delicious morsels of sandwich wisdom.

“My idea of relaxation is to write down five new sandwiches,” he said when we met recently at his latest baby, a vaguely hipsterish place called Trade, on the Essex Road in north London. The quest of the sandwich inventor is a mostly pitiless one. The industry has its own 80:20 rule: 80% of sales come from 20% of the flavours. These are often referred to as “the core” – the egg mayonnaise, the BLT, the chicken salad – and they are as familiar as our own blood. Pret’s best-selling sandwiches (the top three are all baguettes: chicken caesar and bacon, tuna and cucumber, cheddar and pickle) have not changed for seven years. M&S’s prawn mayo has been its No 1 for 36.

Undaunted by this, Boltman starts out by choosing the bread, and the ingredients from those he is already using on his menu. The art of the sandwich designer is to think inwards, to find variations within a known and delineated realm. “It is a question of using tenacity, knowledge, know-how, flair,” said Boltman. People in the industry talk about seminal new combinations – Pret’s crayfish and rocket; M&S’s Wensleydale and carrot chutney – like Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night Dream, or Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The story comes alive again. Someone finds a new move in chess.

It is possible to be a showman. Boltman talked about a chicken and broccoli bun he made in the 80s. “Granary seeded roll as a vehicle,” he said. “Unbelievable.” While we were talking, the kitchen made me Boltman’s interpretation of the Reuben, which he sells for £8.50. I hadn’t eaten that morning, and the pastrami, which had been cured for a week, lay deep. The taste of caraway seeds in the rye bread lingered in the roof of my mouth. “Did the secret sauce come through?” he asked.

Boltman has been round the block a few times. He had a McDonald’s franchise for a while. He observed that, even as sandwiches function as an accelerant of our harried, grinding lives, they also offer a moment of precious, private escape. “People want to eat,” he said, leaning close. “They want comfort. They want solace. I’ve had a shit morning. I’ve fallen out with my boss. I’ve had a fucking horrible journey in. A poxy lettuce-and-whatever concoction in a plastic bowl is not going to do it for me. I want a cup of tea, a chocolate biscuit and I actually want to cry. I am going out for a fucking sandwich.”

Read the story

Will Podcasts and Video Journalism Make Our Syntax Less Rich?

There are many ways in which texts give us pleasure, but none has accumulated more prestige than what some have called syntactical vertigo. When we think of masters of prose, the names that typically jump to the front of the line are the Virginia Woolfs, Thomas Manns, and Marguerite Yourcenars of the world: the writers who could turn a trainwreck of clauses into an unlikely thing of beauty. This might be changing.

In her Nautilus essay on the ever-shifting terrain of English syntax, Julie Sedivy shows how languages become exponentially more complex as societies transition from oral communication to textual transmission. This makes one wonder: if we’re indeed in an age that moves (dare I say, pivots) away from the printed word, will this lead to an inevitable flattening of our syntax?

When children are fed a steady linguistic diet that is rich in complex sentences, these become easier to compute, and in turn, more readily produced under the time pressures imposed by speech. For example, psychologist Jessica Montag and her colleagues targeted relative clauses in the passive voice (the dog that was hit by the car), which are exceedingly rare in speech but more abundant in text, even that written for children. They found that heavy readers in the 8-12-year-old range produced such structures more often than children who read less. Even among adults, the production of these sentences was highly correlated with how much text they consumed, suggesting that avid readers are far more likely to transmit complex sentences to future generations.

All of this suggests that exposure to literary language is essential for the health of complex recursive sentences in English. If certain structures are too rare in speech to be reliably mastered by learners and passed on, then they may fade out within a community of non-readers. Naturally, this raises the question: Could syntactic complexity in literate languages diminish over time, if new technologies (podcasts, video lectures, and audiobooks) tether language more tightly to speech and its inherent limitations?

In fact, heavily recursive sentences like those found in the Declaration of Independence have already been dwindling in written English (as well as in German) for some time. According to texts analyzed by Brock Haussamen, the average sentence length in written English has shrunk since the 17th century from between 40-70 words to a more modest 20, with a significant paring down of the number of subordinate and relative clauses, passive sentences, explicit connectors between clauses, and off-the-beaten-path sentence structures.

These changes may reflect shifts in readers’ experience with language: Where literacy used to be an elite skill commanded by a very few steeped in lives of scholarly study, now it’s a universal basic necessity. More people now read—because they have to—but many probably still consume the vast bulk of their linguistic diet in spoken form and may have little patience for writing that is mentally taxing and reeks of snobbery. The need to make text accessible to a broader population, with a wide range of linguistic experiences, has created some pressure to bring the structures of written English more in line with spoken English.

Read the story

Unreal Estate: A Reading List About Our Shifting Vision of Home

Does anyone still remember Unhappy Hipsters, a Tumblr blog born in 2010, just months after the Great Recession officially ended? The concept was simple and irresistible. Each post contained a photo of a domestic interior from a Dwell-like magazine (or, just as often, from Dwell itself), and the photo had to include a person: a teenager lounging with a book on a nordic-looking wooden bed, a couple having a silent breakfast in a vast, concrete-floor kitchen. A caption accompanied each image, projecting a mix of smugness and existential angst onto the people occupying these impossibly streamlined spaces (“So focused on erecting a structure that would be impervious to atmospheric whims, he’d forgotten the obvious: an exit,” read a caption below an image of a man standing on a balcony of a glass-and-steel stilt house).

There’s nothing new about wanting to catch a glimpse of other people’s (nicer-than-yours) houses; what Unhappy Hipsters deftly added was an extra layer of vindictiveness to an otherwise common, aspirational voyeurism. Revisiting some of these old posts today, they feel at once naive and prophetic. In the intervening years, owning a house and designing one’s own space haven’t lost their allure as class markers and so-called #lifegoals. But they’ve also acquired a tinge of bitterness: you either can’t afford it (millennials, meet avocado toast!), can’t do it right (unlike everyone on Pinterest, Instagram, et al.), or risk trying too hard (at which point: surprise! You’re the Unhappy Hipster — in 2017, when both “unhappiness” and “hipsterism” have lost just about all meaning).

The way we organize and reshape our living quarters has always reflected, in some way, desires, hopes, and anxieties that transcended individuals. It was true when married couples started sharing the same bedroom and outhouses began to disappear in favor of indoor plumbing; it’s true today when we buy a vintage lamp or encounter a luxury bathroom almost the size of the bedroom it adjoins. Where does the current unease around the spaces we inhabit come from? What is unique about our attitude toward a supposedly universal concept like “home”? Here are four recent reads that try to address these questions.

Read more…

Misogyny, Translated

Thomas Degeorge, Slaughter of the Suitors by Odysseus and Telemachus (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the last 400 years, about 60 English translators — all men — have tackled Homer’s Odyssey. This fact has lost its transparency now that Emily Wilson, a classicist at the University of Pennsylvania, released her own version, a radically contemporary take on the most canonical text in the Western tradition. At The New York Times Magazine, Wyatt Mason recently profiled Wilson and explored her approach to the Odyssey. The effect of some of her choices is startling — like seeing an old canvas for the first time after the removal of centuries of grime. Case in point: the way she’s addressed a short but deeply troubling scene, the slaughter of the women slaves at Odysseus’ palace.

In the episode that Wilson calls “one of the most horrible and haunting of the whole poem,” Odysseus returns home to find that his palace has been overrun by suitors for his wife’s hand. Though she has resisted them, the women in her palace have not. Odysseus, after slaying the suitors, tells his son, Telemachus, to kill the women. It is an interesting injunction from Odysseus, who himself, during his 10 years of wandering, was serially unfaithful. In Robert Fagles’s much-praised translation of the poem, Telemachus says, before he executes the palace women on his father’s command: “No clean death for the likes of them, by god!/Not from me — they showered abuse on my head, my mother’s too!/You sluts — the suitors’ whores!”

But Wilson, in her introduction, reminds us that these palace women — “maidservants” has often been put forward as a “correct” translation of the Greek δμωαι, dmoai, which Wilson calls “an entirely misleading and also not at all literal translation,” the root of the Greek meaning “to overpower, to tame, to subdue” — weren’t free. Rather, they were slaves, and if women, only barely. Young female slaves in a palace would have had little agency to resist the demands of powerful men. Where Fagles wrote “whores” and “the likes of them” — and Lattimore “the creatures” — the original Greek, Wilson explained, is just a feminine definite article meaning “female ones.” To call them “whores” and “creatures” reflects, for Wilson, “a misogynistic agenda”: their translators’ interpretation of how these females would be defined. Here is how Wilson renders their undoing:

"I refuse to grant these girls
a clean death, since they poured down shame on me
and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.” 
At that, he wound a piece of sailor’s rope
round the rotunda and round the mighty pillar, 
stretched up so high no foot could touch the ground. 
As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly 
home to their nests, but someone sets a trap — 
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime; 
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony. They gasped,
feet twitching for a while, but not for long.

Read the story

An Oregon Wolf, Profiled

Emma Marris’s Outside story on OR4, the first male wolf to start a pack in Oregon since the 1940s, is a biography of a 21st-century predator told largely through the eyes of Russ Morgan, the field biologist who’d tracked him for more than six years. Marris weaves together uneasy questions about the scientist and his subject: What does preservation mean when, in order to survive, wildlife can’t transgress human definitions of acceptable behavior? What happens to the subjects we observe when we transpose surveillance technology from the human realm into the animal realm? Whose landscape is it, anyway?

The bureaucracy of wildlife management is part oxymoron, part paradox. The tensions are apparent from the moment that Morgan, the stoic biologist, places the first tracking collar around the neck of a tranquilized OR4.

Six months after their first meeting, on February 12, 2010, the black male got a collar and a name. Morgan used the signal from OR2 to track the family by helicopter. When he found the wolves, he had to try and pick the alpha male out of a half-dozen adult-sized wolves coursing through the rocky defiles of Road Canyon in lower Grouse Creek, just a few miles from the elk site. It was easy enough to spot OR2, and she had a companion running beside her, keeping close. Morgan figured he’d found his alpha.

Wolves are so fast — they can do bursts of 38 miles per hour, ten faster than Usain Bolt — that Morgan’s helicopter pilot struggled to keep up, while Morgan, leaning out the door, tried desperately to get a clear shot at the alpha’s rump. Suddenly, the big black wolf tripped over brush and rolled in a somersault. When he righted himself, he sat down and started barking and howling at the chopper, inadvertently concealing his backside.

“When he flipped over, I could see the rotor wash flattening his hair,” Morgan says. “He was frustrated. He gets pretty frustrated when he is being chased.” Finally, the wolf stood and Morgan got a shot off. Darted, the animal slowed, sat, and then went to sleep in the snow. The terrain was too steep to land, so the pilot dipped into the ravine, where Morgan stepped out with his kit. The helicopter took off, and Morgan shared a moment with the unconscious alpha. As he weighed him — 115 pounds, the largest wolf ever recorded in Oregon — took blood samples, and affixed tags and a collar, the black wolf officially became OR4, a wild animal with a name. A wild animal with his DNA on file.

OR2 wasn’t happy about any of it. She stood a couple hundred yards away while Morgan worked, howling continuously.

Read the story

The Opera Lover Who Composed “Bat Out of Hell”

American singer Meat Loaf performing on stage during the Bat Out Of Hell Tour, USA, September 1978. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Popular perceptions of rock and opera typically place the two traditions on opposite sides of the musical spectrum — so much so that a genre like rock opera could emerge in the 1960s as an oxymoronic novelty. Yet they share wide swaths of common ground when it comes to earnest expression and unabashed sentimentality. Corey Atad drives this point home in his Hazlitt piece on Jim Steinman’s prolific composing career. His biggest hits — from Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” — all proudly wear their emotions on their huge, puffy sleeves.

It’s no accident that Jim Steinman’s songs veer into the theatrical: his roots were in musical theatre. Steinman grew up in love with opera. In the late 1960s, he attended Amherst College in Massachusetts where he worked on several musical projects. In 1969 he wrote and starred in The Dream Engine, an occult rock and roll musical that served as his independent study at Amherst, and featured themes—and even lyrics—which would recur throughout the rest of his career. In fact, more than perhaps any other modern music producer, Steinman’s willingness to pilfer his own work is impressive. The move fits with his Wagnerian influences, prizing leitmotif on top of the grand scope. Looked at another way, his entire career can be seen as one long workshop for a grand musical that was never produced. Songs he’d written for The Dream Engine would go on to be recorded as recently as 2016, in his fourth collaboration with Meat Loaf, Braver Than We Are. The seeds of some of his most famous songs can be found in it, too, including the “turn around” lyric and call-and-response structure that would become central to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

The Dream Engine was seen by Joseph Papp, head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, who hired Steinman to stage it professionally. Years of workshopping went nowhere. Eventually Steinman wrote another musical, More Than You Deserve, a lurid Vietnam War story that ran for several weeks at the Public Theater in late 1973. It was on that production that Steinman met Marvin Lee Aday, aka Meat Loaf.

Around the time Meat Loaf was starring in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he and Steinman collaborated on a series of songs which would eventually become the basis for Bat Out of Hell. The seeds of the album were planted earlier in the decade, while Steinman was at work attempting to reshape The Dream Engine into a Peter Pan-inspired musical called Neverland, a reflection of Steinman’s career-spanning obsession with eternal youth. Though that project never properly got off the ground, it featured work that would later end up on Bat Out of Hell, including the title track. All Steinman needed was a muse to help him bring it all together, and in Meat Loaf he found just that.

Read the story