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

If Clean Food Is for Everyone, Why Are Its Gurus All Young, Pretty Women?

Our notions of health and wellness (both charged terms these days, one might add) are still stuck in a paradigm that wouldn’t be out of place in ancient Greece; what goes on inside us must somehow be visible and recognizable on our bodies’ surface. In her Guardian essay on the rise of orthorexia — the obsession with consuming pure, “perfect” foods — Bee Wilson traces the history of a recent-yet-oh-so-familiar publishing trend: using youthful, tradtionally good-looking women to sell both specific products (hello, coconut-and-oat energy balls!) and an amorphous, ever-shifting “clean” lifestyle.

Every wellness guru worth her Himalayan pink salt has a story of how changing what you eat can change your life. “Food has the power to make or break you,” wrote Amelia Freer in her 2014 bestseller Eat. Nourish. Glow. (which has sold more than 200,000 copies). Freer was leading a busy life as a personal assistant to the Prince of Wales when she realised that her tummy “looked and felt as if it had a football in it” from too many snatched dinners of cheese on toast or “factory-made food”. By giving up “processed” and convenience foods (“margarine, yuck!”) along with gluten and sugar, Freer claimed to have found the secrets to “looking younger and feeling healthier”.

Perhaps the best-known diet-transformation story of all is that of Ella Mills — possessor of more than a million Instagram followers. In 2011, Mills was diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition characterised by dizziness and extreme fatigue. Mills began blogging about food after discovering that her symptoms radically improved when she swapped her sugar-laden diet for “plant-based, natural foods.” Mills — who used to be a model — made following a “free-from” diet seem not drab or deprived, but deeply aspirational. By the time her first book appeared in January 2015, her vast following on social media helped her to sell 32,000 copies in the first week alone.

There was something paradoxical about the way these books were marketed. What they were selling purported to be an alternative to a sordidly commercial food industry. “If it’s got a barcode or a ‘promise’, don’t buy it,” wrote Freer. Yet clean eating is itself a wildly profitable commercial enterprise, promoted using photogenic young bloggers on a multi-billion-dollar tech platform. Literary agent Zoe Ross tells me that around 2015 she began to notice that “the market was scouring Instagram for copycat acts — specifically very pretty, very young girls pushing curated food and lifestyle.”

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Corals and Crabs Get Moonstruck, Too

The moon has been on my mind lately. Maybe it’s the upcoming solar eclipse (of which I’ll only get to see 88% percent, alas), or the number of times “lunatic” has been used in political commentary over the past few months. Of course, if you’re a coral reef off the coast of Australia, the moon has always been a crucial element in your existence (specifically: your sex life), and humans’ heliocentric obsessions are just plain silly. As Ferris Jabr lovingly shows at Hakai Magazine, moonlight has only recently started to receive the attention it deserves from marine biologists and other environmental scientists — and their lateness is part of a broader, sun-versus-moon cultural binary that has perpetuated itself through the centuries.

In antiquity, the influence of the moon on earthbound life was intuited—and celebrated. Our ancestors revered the moon as the equal of the sun, a dynamic signature of time, and a potent source of fertility.

“Time was first reckoned by lunations, and every important ceremony took place at a certain phase of the moon,” wrote English classicist Robert Graves in The Greek Myths. A 25,000-year-old limestone carving discovered in a rock shelter in France depicts a pregnant woman holding what appears to be a bison horn with the swoop of a crescent moon and 13 small notches—a possible paean to reproductive and lunar cycles. And some early Meso-American cultures seemed to believe that the moon deity controlled sexuality, growth, rainfall, and the ripening of crops.

In more recent times, the importance of the moon to Earth’s creatures has been eclipsed by the great solar engine of life. The sun is searingly bright, palpably hot, bold, and unmissable; our steadfast companion for many of our waking hours. The moon is spectral and elusive; we typically catch it in glimpses, in partial profile, a smudge of white in the dark or a glinting parenthesis. Sunlight bakes the soil, bends the heads of flowers, pulls water from the seas. Moonlight seems to simply descend, deigning to visit us for the evening. We still perceive the sun as the great provider—the furnace of photosynthesis—but the moon has become more like mood lighting for the mystical and occult; more a symbol of the spirit world than of our own. “There is something haunting in the light of the moon; it has all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul, and something of its inconceivable mystery,” wrote Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim. The sun’s immense power over Earth and its creatures is scientific fact; to endow the moon with equal power is to embrace fairy tales and ghost stories.

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The Other National Pastime: Unusual Baby Names

Choosing a name for your baby is a culturally fraught decision. So much is at stake: will it invite bullying? Does it correctly channel the parents’ attitude toward the cultural zeitgeist? Is it optimized for relatability and uniqueness? In the New Yorker, Lauren Collins shares the story behind her second child’s name, a boy whose mixed Franco-American heritage added several layers of complexity to the process (who knew that a Kevin could never be taken seriously in Paris?). She also looks at the broader context of naming conventions in the U.S. — yet another realm in which American exceptionalism has played out in bizarre and unexpected ways.

In the U.S., as the law professor Carlton F. W. Larson has written, the selection of a child’s name falls within “a legal universe that has scarcely been mapped, full of strange lacunae, spotty statutory provisions, and patchy, inconsistent case law.” Generally, you can’t use a pictograph, an ideogram, a number, an obscenity, or a name that is excessively long, but the regulations vary wildly from state to state and are often the domain of randomly applied “desk-clerk law.” It’s unclear whether you can call your son Warren Edward Buffett, Jr., when you have not actually procreated with Warren Edward Buffett. There are stricter and clearer criteria for naming dogs and horses than there are for naming people. (The American Kennel Club prohibits, among other things, the words “champ,” “champion,” “sieger,” “male,” “stud,” “sire,” “bitch,” “dam,” and “female,” while the Jockey Club recently went to court to block the registration of a filly named Sally Hemings, which has since been rebaptized Awaiting Justice.) Some of the rules have more to do with keyboards than with child protection. In California, amazingly, you can be Adolf Hitler Smith, but not José Smith, because of a ban on diacritics.

The exuberance of American names has been one of the country’s hallmarks since its founding. In sixteenth-century England, the Puritans started using their children’s birth certificates as miniature sermons. They produced some doozies: Humiliation Hynde, Kill-sin Pimple, Praise-God Barebone (whose son, If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebone, eventually went by Nicholas Barbon). Charles II largely stamped out the trend during the Reformation, but the Puritans continued the practice in the New World. The Claps—a Roger and Johanna who immigrated to Dorchester in 1630—produced a virtue-themed progeny that included Experience, Waitstill, Preserved, Hopestill, Wait, Thanks, Desire, Unite, and Supply, making them perhaps the Kardashians of Colonial Massachusetts.

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The Editor Who Brought Julia Child to America

The adjective “legendary” has been losing its lustre in recent years. We often use it to connote longevity and persistence rather than greatness. The descriptor feels quite apt in the case of book editor Judith Jones, who died today at the age of 93. (She stepped down as Senior Editor and Vice President at Alfred A. Knopf in 2011, at the age of 87.) Imagine the second half of the 20th century without The Diary of Anne Frank (which Jones rescued from a pile of rejected submissions), Julia Child’s cookbooks, or John Updike’s fiction.

In a 2015 profile at Eater, Charlotte Druckman wisely gives Jones the stage. What follows is a string of observations and casual aphorisms on the evolution of food writing in the past few decades — including how she championed Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

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To Be an Instagram-Ready Restaurant, Don’t Forget Your Selfie-Optimized Lamps

Back in the 1970s, memorabilia-heavy restaurants became popular as they facilitated the loosening-up of sexual mores. These days, colorful tiles, bold wallpaper, and the occasional (ironic?) taxidermy piece can all trace their origins to our need to capture and broadcast our well-curated pleasures. As Casey Newton shows at The Verge, Instagram is the driving force behind the current vogue for easily reproduced, sleek-kitschy idiosyncrasy — including adjustable lighting that allows diners to take the most flattering selfie possible.

Few restaurants have taken photo-friendliness as seriously as Bellota, a Spanish restaurant that opened in San Francisco last year. The entryway is enclosed, creating a pleasing shadowbox effect as you look into the dining room. The kitchen is open, and encourages patrons to take 360-degree videos of the space. Many Instagram posts feature pictures of “the ham wall,” which is just what it sounds like: a window that looks into the temperature-controlled room where Bellota stores $50,000 worth of Spanish jamón ibérico.

The most striking thing about Bellota may be the custom lamps at its 25-seat bar, which let patrons adjust the lighting in order to get the perfect shot. “I’m probably the most avid Instagram user of the group, so I kept bringing it up,” says Ryan McIlwraith, Bellota’s chef. He wanted the lighting to do justice to the restaurant’s tapas plates and signature paellas. “It turned out these lamps we got were just perfect for it,” he says. The lamps can be tilted or turned 180 degrees, and the light’s intensity can be adjusted up and down. An “advanced feature” allows patrons to rest their phones on the lamp’s neck so as to take a selfie. (I did, and must admit the lighting was lovely.)

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An Expat by Any Other Name (Is Sometimes a Digital Nomad)

The rise of contemporary startup culture has already reshaped cities like San Francisco and Seattle. But as more and more tech enclaves sprout around the world, we need to pay more attention to the ways tech workers change communities and landscapes in developing countries too. Jessa Crispin does just that in her Outline piece on Roam Co-Living, a startup that caters to other so-called digital nomads who wish to spend long stretches of time (and non-trivial amounts of money) in places like Bali and Costa Rica. She asks important questions about the possibility of experiencing authenticity in perfectly manicured expat bubbles — and about the fundamental power imbalance between affluent Western visitors and local communities.

More than 230 million people live in a different country from the one in which they were born, far more than at any other time in history. We come up with different words for the same experience, based on whether these people are undesirable (brown, poor, Muslim) or desirable (white, upper-middle class, European). The undesirables are migrants or refugees, the desirables are expats or cosmopolitans.

The difference is in the level of choice, whether the person is fleeing war or abject poverty, or simply boredom and Brooklyn. Western migrants are often portrayed as being desirable because they come with money, but they come with other baggage, too. If you place a large population of transient workers with a lot of disposable income in an urban area, that area will inevitably change. Businesses with English-speaking workers that cater to the affluent class, like boutiques and coffee shops and juice bars, will flourish while businesses that cater to long-term residents, like hardware stores and shoe repair shops, will be priced out and disappear as property values rise.

I asked [Roam founder and CEO Bruno] Haid if he feels responsible at all to the neighborhoods he builds his properties in. He said he wants neighborhoods to retain their authentic nature and not become homogenized. “In a place like London,” he said, “we try to have partnerships with businesses that have been around for 25, 30 years and include them in our city guides. We have Paul the pie man, whose bakery has been around for a long time, he comes in once a month and he teaches pie making classes. So we try to integrate this. We try to give people a unique local experience.”

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New York in the 1970s Gave Us Hip Hop, Madonna, and the Chip on Trump’s Shoulder

New York’s chaotic 1970s — when the city was on the brink of bankruptcy and crime rates reached record highs — have been mythologized as the last great period of unfettered, gritty creativity before yuppies, and later hipsters, ruined everything. It’s a complicated narrative, and the election of Donald Trump, a city-hating city-dweller, makes it even more so. Here’s a man who’s unquestionably among the most provincial New Yorkers of all time, yet he’s just as unquestionably an iconic one. And his rise to prominence came about right at that moment when New York was (supposedly) at its worst and at its best. Michael Kruse, writing at Politico, dives into what we might call Trump’s Studio 54 period, the years when desperate politicians allowed Trump to build an impressive real estate portfolio underwritten by huge tax breaks, and when public (specifically, Manhattan elite) derision shaped his politics of resentment for decades to come.

If he had expected New York to grant respect the way it had handed out tax breaks and opportunities for sheer publicity, he was mistaken. Critics in the pages of the Times called him “overrated” and “totally obnoxious.” It bothered him that he could put up such a glossy building and still be so readily dismissed as an arriviste. “If I were Gerry Hines in Houston,” he told Marie Brenner for a profile in New York magazine in 1980, referring to the billionaire real estate entrepreneur in Texas, “I would be the most important man in the city—but here, you bang your head against the wall to try to get some nice buildings up, and what happens? Everybody comes after you.”

But Trump attacked New York, too. He had, for instance, valuable art deco friezes jackhammered off the face of the Bonwit Teller building during its demolition—even after he had promised to donate them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a literal and visceral assault against the exact sort of New Yorker who found him so distasteful.

They were “nothing,” Trump said. They were “junk.”

They were not, said a man from the Met. “They were irreplaceable architectural documents.”

“Obviously,” huffed an editorial in the Times, “big buildings do not make big human beings.”

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Guy Fieri’s Introspective Turn

Believe it or not, it’s been ten years since Guy Fieri — “that dude that eats the deep-fried pizza corn dog sandwiches,” as he puts it in a knowing self-parody) — first burst onto the Food Network scene. In a wide-ranging interview at Thrillist, Matt Patches elicits some Ina Garten-level moments of reflection from a chef whose TV persona — a culinary id unleashed on America — increasingly feels like a savvy, if not prophetic, pre-Trumpian construction.

You gotta know me to be able to tell me what you think I should be doing, because if you get thrown off by the fact that I have bleach-blonde hair and tattoos, and listen to rock and roll, gettin’ Sammy Hagar, and that’s where your premise is going to come from, then you really don’t know me well enough to tell me to do anything or really have a position that you should be making an opinion about me. But that’s fine.

I try to improve upon myself every day, and I try to make sure that I spend more time not doing things that I think I need to be doing. Not working. Spending more time staying grounded. I’m walking around my garden right now, as I talk. It’s my favorite place. I’ve got this big organic garden. I just put another one in up at my ranch. I love coming and seeing what we produce, and food always tastes better. My youngest will pick and eat a strawberry. “It’s the best strawberry in the world.” “Well, you’re right it’s the best strawberry in the world, you grew it.”

I don’t like to watch my shows, and nobody likes to watch himself on TV. But I watch it. I watch it with a pad of paper and sit there and take notes. Am I doin’ too much of this? Am I doin’ too much of that? Am I not giving this person enough time? Just always evaluating. Kind of like I think a race car king does, you go around the car, you go back you make your changes that you need. But have I changed from the core of who I am, and how I live, and what I do, and who is Guy Fieri? No, nor have I been instructed to. I’ve always been kind of a wild guy. I’ve always been kinda, you know, out there. That’s how I am.

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How Do You Name a Not-Quite-Fat Ken Doll?

The new lineup of Ken Dolls — seeking to represent a more multicultural, physically diverse populace (read: client base) — landed earlier this week to much fanfare. Some of the reactions were laudatory; some were less so (who can resist a man-bun joke, after all?). Caity Weaver, writing at GQ, got to follow the creative process leading to the new dolls’ release. Through her eyes, we learn how even an attempt to “celebrate diversity” often requires so much semantic and design acrobatics that it’s not very clear who the celebration is for, and who might still be excluded from it. Case in point: the tortured internal discussions at Mattel around what to call the “heavier” version of Barbie’s companion — after they’d already decided not to make him fat (“You don’t want to go too much,” as Ray Cavalluzzi, a Mattel sculptor, put it).

“With Barbie [it was] clear what was offensive with the curvier doll versus what wasn’t,” says Michelle Chidoni, a polished, deftly amiable executive from the global brand communications department. We are sitting in a capacious conference room surrounded by Barbies in fashions so cutting-edge that to describe them would be illegal. But I will reveal to the reader that a great multitude of the outfits are both fabulous and fun. “People [in focus groups] didn’t want to be called ‘plus-size.’ ‘Curvy’ was the clear winner. [But] where ‘curvy’ in the female world of fashion has become something that’s desirable and sexy and positive, the men’s fashion world has not gone there yet.”

Mattel’s constant aim when describing body types is to unearth a marketing term with “a neutral-to-positive association.” They don’t always find it on the first try. Or second. Or third. Initially, in their attempt to recapture the proud spirit of “curvy” for a male doll, the Barbie team borrowed a word from the boys’ clothing industry: “husky.” Focus-group reactions were disastrous.

“‘Husky’ just turned off every guy we talked to,” says Chidoni, shaking her head. “A lot were really traumatized by that—as a child, shopping in a husky section.” “Athletic” was rejected on the notion that athletes can have vastly different body types. “Brawny” didn’t fare much better. And so: “broad.”

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Our Contemporary Notion of Self-Esteem Was Born — Surprise! — in 1980s California

The connection between how we feel about ourselves and how well we do (at work, in school, in our personal lives) feels unshakeable. Doesn’t it seem intuitive — if not axiomatic — that confidence in our abilities begets success? Not so fast. In an excerpt from his recent book, shared at the Guardian, Will Storr uncovers the recent history of self-esteem — including its origins in shaky science that was expertly packaged and marketed by John “Vasco” Vasconcellos, a California legislator on a mission:

In the mid-80s, the notion that feeling good about yourself was the answer to all your problems sounded to many like a silly Californian fad. But it was also a period when Thatcher and Reagan were busily redesigning western society around their project of neoliberalism. By breaking the unions, slashing protections for workers and deregulating banking and business, they wanted to turn as much of human life as possible into a competition of self versus self. To get along and get ahead in this new competitive age, you had to be ambitious, ruthless, relentless. You had to believe in yourself. What Vasco was offering was a simple hack that would make you a more winning contestant.

Vasco’s first attempt at having his task force mandated into law came to a halt in 1984, when he suffered a heart attack. His belief in positive thinking was such that, in an attempt to cure himself, he wrote to his constituents asking them to picture themselves with tiny brushes swimming through his arteries, scrubbing at the cholesterol, while singing, to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat: “Now let’s swim ourselves/ up and down my streams/Touch and rub and warm and melt/the plaque that blocks my streams.” It didn’t work. As the senate voted on his proposal, Vasco was recovering from seven-way coronary bypass surgery.

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