Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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“The reporter-source relationship is a complicated one that defies easy description. It borrows a little from the salesman-buyer relationship, the therapist-patient relationship, the police officer-witness relationship, sometimes even the growing intimacy of a friendship. We work hard to gain access and trust, and generally we avoid doing anything that stops a source from talking once she gets started.
“‘How are you now?’ I asked at the time.
“‘I’m suffering horribly . . . but I’m not suicidal,’ she said. ‘It’s a soothing thing. I don’t really want to do it. But it helps me calm down, it helps me sleep to think about the possibilities to end the suffering.’
“If I had possessed some sort of device that could peer inside her brain and pick up some biological trace amongst the billions of nerve cells and circuits that would indicate she was likely to commit suicide, would I have stopped the interview?”
— In the Tampa Bay Times, Leonora LaPeter Anton examines the suicide of one of her sources, a woman named Gretchen Molannen who was suffering from an embarrassing genital arousal disorder. Was there anything Anton could have done to prevent the death?
Photo: Roger H. Goun
Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.
George Chidi | The Intercept | October 31, 2021 | 8,064 words
This is a story of political indifference and a system woefully unequipped to truly help unhoused people with mental illness. It is also the story of Harmony, a woman living on the streets of Atlanta, Georgia in her own filth, in a state that ranks 51st in the U.S. for investment in mental health spending. “Harmony is unique,” writes George Chidi, “And yet there are at least 100 Harmonys on the streets of Atlanta. The county knows each of them by name. There’s a list.” Harmony does not want to be in hospital or incarcerated; she does want her story told. As Chidi grapples with Harmony’s living conditions, he unravels who might be able to help and who should be held accountable. And while various entities and government departments play “hot potato” with her life and liberty, Harmony’s wishes go mostly ignored. She would very much like to be left alone. “And yet despite millions in resources, much of which the state cannot figure out how to spend, Harmony remained unhoused at the foot of the iconic Coca-Cola sign above the Walgreens at Five Points — in the heart of Atlanta — as she has on and off for years, in a state of abject human degradation, with all of this misery taking place less than 100 yards from the very steps of Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities headquarters.” —KS
Chantha Nguon and Kim Green | Hippocampus Magazine | November 8, 2021 | 3,946 words
Kim Green and Chantha Nguon have been working together to write Nguon’s memoir; they’ve talked and cooked together over the past several years. This co-written collaboration in Hippocampus Magazine is a stunning, lyrical essay about Nguon’s experiences as a child in Battambang before fleeing to Vietnam, surviving the Cambodian genocide, and remembering her mother, Mae. The Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot murdered 2 million Cambodians, erasing nearly one-fourth of the population, leaving nothing but death and a devastated country with “no idea of tomorrow.” Through evocative writing, Nguon carries her family’s history forward, “borne on the smoke” from the charcoal fire of her mother’s open-air kitchen. Her memories are aromatic and vivid; she remembers flavors of happiness like Mae’s pâté de foie, and the wind in her wide-open mouth as she zoomed around Phnom Penh with her older brother on his Vespa. The recipes weaved into the piece are unexpected and poignant, as you can sample from these ingredients and steps: “Take a well-fed nine-year-old with a big family and a fancy French-Catholic-school education. Fold in 2 revolutions, 2 civil wars, and 1 wholesale extermination,” she writes. “Slowly subtract small luxuries, life savings, and family members until all are gone.” It’s one of the most moving essays I’ve read this year, and a piece I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. —CLR
Poppy Sebag-Montefiore | The Guardian | November 2, 2021 | 6,380 word
This is a detailed examination of what happened behind the scenes during a BBC Newsnight investigation into abuse committed by Jimmy Savile. It was a difficult topic to investigate — Savile had recently died and had been a beloved BBC celebrity — but rumors about Savile being a sexual predator were rife, and two journalists were determined to find the truth. The author of this piece, Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, was a friend of one of the journalists — the late Liz MacKean. Sebag-Montefiore’s affection is apparent as she documents MacKean fighting for her piece, desperate to have the voices of the women who spoke to her heard. It was a battle MacKean ultimately lost, when Newsnight editor Peter Rippon killed the story. In the end, MacKean and producer Meirion Jones, “gave all their research on Savile to the BBC’s rival, the commercial channel ITV,” and the Savile story broke. A 2012 inquiry into the BBC’s conduct over the Newsnight investigation found Rippon’s decision “seriously flawed.” In refusing to drop this story, MacKean and Jones “helped to change the culture about the way past sexual abuse is talked about, and survivors listened to.” When Sebag-Montefiore searched for an account of what they had done she couldn’t find one: “So here it is.” —CW
Stephanie Hayes | The Tampa Bay Times | November 9 | 4,500 words
My favorite genre of viral story is Animals on the Run. The zebras in Maryland, the red panda in Washington, D.C., the llamas in Arizona — in my time, I’ve loved them all. So yes, I am the target audience for this feature about a creature who went on the lam: Cornelius the rhesus macaque, who outwitted would-be captors in Florida for years (years!). But Stephanie Hayes tells a Where Are They Now story for everyone, not just the animal-obsessed like me. It’s tragi-comic, expertly written, and thoroughly engrossing. What shines most is the respect — no, the awe — that Hayes has for her elusive subject. Cornelius, it turns out, is a mystery in more ways than one. And maybe that’s how it should be. —SD
Brianne Garrett | Sweet July | October 26, 2021 | 1,674 words
Mayukh Sen talks about his path to food writing in this interview about his new book Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. Sen set out to look beyond white culinary luminaries like James Beard and Julia Child to highlight lesser-known people of color and how they’ve influenced American food. There’s plenty to appreciate in this interview; how Sen describes the way his book project evolved over time from its original intent into something larger and more nuanced and how a critical part of his focus was on honoring his subjects’ hands-on work in addition to their culinary ideas. “I wanted to tell the stories of these immigrants and really honor their labor with as much care as possible. I do hope that readers understand that for America to become this glorious, so-called melting pot of diverse cuisine, there’s a lot of struggle involved. You can see a lot of that struggle in the stories of each of these women.” —KS
This week, we’re sharing stories from Eli Murray, Rebecca Woolington, and Corey G. Johnson, Ava Kofman, Olly Nze, Dina Gachman, and Larissa Pham.
Eli Murray, Rebecca Woolington, Corey G. Johnson | Tampa Bay Times | March 24, 2021 | 6,560 words
“Hundreds of workers at a Tampa lead smelter have been exposed to dangerous levels of the neurotoxin. The consequences have been profound.”
Ava Kofman | ProPublica | April 7, 2021 | 5,890 words
“The wave of coronavirus cases that swept across the country late last year put even the most battle-hardened EMTs under unprecedented psychological strain.”
Olly Nze | The Audacity | March 24, 2021 | 2,427 words
“The day I told her I was gay, the hugs changed. They became longer and tighter, like she was trying to hug the sin out of me.”
Dina Gachman | Texas Highways | April 7, 2021 | 3,029 words
“Now I live near Brushy Creek instead of the Seine or the Pacific, and I’m not the first to make that sharp midlife turn from the city to the suburbs. ”
Larissa Pham | The Believer | April 1, 2021 | 4,100 words
“Can we fall in love completely without completely losing ourselves?”
Rachel Nuwer | Longreads | March 2020 | 28 minutes (7,033 words)
It’s a gloomy April afternoon in rural Oklahoma, and I’m sitting on the floor of a fluorescent-lit room at a roadside zoo with Nova, a 12-week-old tiliger. She looks like a tiger cub, but she’s actually a crossbreed, an unnatural combination of a tiger father and a mother born of a tiger and a lion. That unique genetic makeup places a higher price tag on cubs like Nova, and makes it easier, legally speaking, to abuse and exploit them. Endangered species protections don’t apply to artificial breeds such as tiligers. Hybridization, however, has done nothing to quell Nova’s predatory instincts. For the umpteenth time during the past six minutes, she lunges at my face, claws splayed and mouth ajar — only to be halted mid-leap as her handler jerks her harness. Unphased, Nova gets right back to pouncing.
With her dusty blue eyes, sherbet-colored paws, and prominent black stripes, Nova is adorable. But she also weighs 30 pounds and has teeth like a Doberman’s and claws the size of jumbo shrimp. Nova’s handler, a woman with long brown hair who tells me she recently retired from her IT job at a South Dakota bank to live out her dream of working with exotic cats, scolds the rambunctious tiliger in a goo-goo-ga-ga voice: “Nooooo, nooooo, you calms down!” Nova is teething, the handler explains, so she just wants something to chew on. The handler reaches for one of the tatty stuffed animals strewn around the room — a substitute, I guess, for my limbs. In that moment of distraction, Nova lunges. She lands her mark, chomping into the bicep of my producer, Graham Lee Brewer.
“Ooo, she got me!” Lee Brewer grimaces as he attempts to pull away from the determined predator. Nova’s handler has to pry the tiliger’s jaws open to detach her. After the incident, the woman conveniently checks her watch: “OK, you guys, time is up!”
I paid $80 for the pleasure of spending 12 minutes with Nova, but I’m glad the experience, billed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, is over. On our way out, we pass more than a dozen adult tigers yowling and pacing cages the size of small classrooms. Nearby signs solicit donations. You are their only hope. Sponsor a cabin or compound today! In the safety of our car, Lee Brewer rolls up his sleeve, exposing a swollen red welt. “Look at my gnarly tiger bite,” he chuckles. “I tried to play it off but I was like, this fuckin’ hurts!”
It’s not the first time I’ve seen this world up-close; I spent the better part of eight years investigating wildlife trafficking around the world. During my travels, I visited farms in China and Laos where tigers are raised like pigs, examined traditional medicine in Vietnam, ate what I was told was tiger bone “cake,” and tracked some of the world’s last remaining wild tigers in India. Almost everywhere I went, tigers were suffering and their numbers were on the decline because of human behavior. Until recently, though, I had no idea the United States was part of the problem. Read more…
From second grade to eighth grade, cereal was my portal to the United States. Whenever my dad flew from where we lived in Indonesia to the U.S. on business, he’d bring a near-empty suitcase so he could fill it with Lucky Charms, Froot Loops, Captain Crunch, and whatever other colorful boxes caught his eye. When he came home, my brother and I would deliberate over which to open first, rationing ourselves. I treasured each bowl enough that once, when a gecko flung out of the box along with a kaleidoscopic pour of fruity pebbles, I simply brought the creature outside before dipping my spoon into the bowl.
The longer I lived in Indonesia, the less I remembered about life in the United States, even though others reminded me that the U.S. was “home.” Whenever I ate cereal, I imagined an alternate version of myself. The girl I envisioned lived at the end of a cul-de-sac in a brick house like that of my cousins. She wore outfits from Limited Too, a store I’d visited once during summer vacation. She somehow didn’t have braces or wear glasses. In imagining what I might be like if I lived in the U.S., I began to construct my own version of the country based on summer visits and foggy memories of early childhood. As a result, the U.S. became more artifice than reality, a place I imagined might absolve me of my complicated feelings about identity.
But my illusions about the U.S. were as sugary and insubstantial as the cereal I associated with the country; they dissolved as soon as I moved to Texas during my freshman year of high school. Once there, I realized that even though I spoke the language and looked the part, I felt different from my peers. As much as I wanted to feel at ease in the U.S., I found myself torn between the reality of the place where I lived – all cookie-cutter homes and gleaming aisles of grocery stores – and where I’d grown up. I felt homesick for Indonesia, a place I could never truly call home, privilege making thorny my presence there.
For years, I buried the feelings of loss that came along with leaving Indonesia and instead tried to forge different lives in the states I’ve lived since then. But, like the bowls of cereal of my past that once brought me back to a country I’d left behind, I was given a piece of Kopiko after a meal a couple years ago, and the even the sight of the wrapper was enough to transport me to my old house, one shaded by a rainbow eucalyptus trees and robust flower blooms. Food can be nostalgia embodied, a means of traveling to a place you wish you could return to, a way of bringing to life a memory. Candy in hand, I remembered wandering aisles of the outdoor market, where sounds became a kind of song: vendors chattering, pans clanging, someone calling nasi goreng! nasi goreng!, live birds chirruping from a small cage, knives whisking over metal sharpeners, chickens scuttling around table legs looking for scraps, and motorcycles chortling to life before whining down the road. For sale were tables of produce – spiky round rambutan, bundles of greens, starfruit stacked in precarious piles, shrink-wrapped mango, mounds of durian – slick bodies of fish gutted and chickens plucked clean of their feathers. Nothing went to waste. Blood was boiled down until it congealed, and intestines were arranged on plates like long tendrils of spaghetti.
Perhaps food isn’t a permanent means of returning to anywhere, but a taste can be enough to bring you home. In the following essays, writers interrogate the complicated pasts of place through food, express nostalgia for long-gone homes, and find belonging by sharing meals. As for me, when I put the Kopiko on my tongue, thousands of miles away, the blend of coffee and sugar resonated bittersweet, as it always had, before melting away.
1. I Want Crab. Pure Maryland Crab. (Bill Addison, September 15, 2016, Eater)
I moved away from Maryland over 25 years ago, but if I don’t make it back to the state at least once a year for steamed crabs, I’m like a bird whose migration pattern has been disrupted. I’m unsettled in the world.
Back in Maryland after time away, Bill Addison digs into a pile of local crab while ruminating on the history, preparation techniques, best places to eat, and future of crab in Baltimore.
2. NASA is learning the best way to grow food in space (Sarah Scoles, June 6, 2018, Popular Science)
Sure, astronauts can gaze down at Earth and see its most beautiful spots—literally all of them—every 90 minutes. But those places are always out of reach, reminders of how far away sea level is. Having something nearby that photosynthesizes might cheer the crew.
A complex set of factors such as humidity, mold, and a host of other ecosystem variants makes growing plants in space a challenge. But far away from the comforts of home, astronauts have begun cultivating zinnias and lettuce on board, thanks to the work of scientist Gioia Massa and her team, who are part of an experiment called Veggie.
3. Say It with Noodles: On Learning to Speak the Language of Food (Shing Yin Khor, February 27, 2018, Catapult)
In this beautiful illustrated essay, Shing Yin Khor expresses how difficult it is for her to communicate emotions verbally. She instead uses food as a means to share feelings of disappointment, love towards others and, eventually, love toward herself as well.
4. Eating to America (Naz Riahi, November 2018, Longreads)
Two years after the Iran-Iraq war ended, and six months after her father, a political prisoner, was executed, Naz Riahi and her mother, Shee Shee, move to the U.S. There, homesick and grieving, Riahi finds happiness and hope through food.
The food sat inside me, taking over spaces that had been full of worry just minutes before and making the worry go away.
5. An Adopted Obsession with Soondubu Jjigae, Korean Silken-Tofu Stew (Bryan Washington, February 20, 2019, The New Yorker)
I first tasted gochujang because of a boy. We were in a busted strip mall, just west of Houston’s I-610 loop. A lot of things were changing in my life, and I hadn’t been home—home home—in a minute, and we were too broke to go most places.
Though he ends up splitting up with his partner, Bryan Washington’s love for soondubu jjigae remains strong. Washington recounts his efforts to figure out how to make the stew on his own, and eventually brings the recipe home.
6. The Food of My Youth (Melissa Chadburn, July 9, 2018, The New York Review)
In search of a better future, Melissa Chadburn’s mother brings her family to northern California, where they “lived on saltines with peanut butter and beans from a can.” At fifteen, Chadburn is taken to a group home where her hunger is satiated, but she is treated as a case number rather than a child.
Only, for us, the explosions had already happened. The places we’d called home had been lit up and burned to the ground, with nothing left save for the blackened foundations of our past. We kids were screaming for love, for touch, for home.
7. Chop Suey Nation (Ann Hui, June 21, 2016, The Globe and Mail)
After a blogger wrote a post called “I can’t believe there’s a Chinese restaurant in Fogo,” Ann Hui, influenced by her family, for whom “food was an obsession,” sets out to drive across Canada to figure out how the restaurant owners decided to open shop in such an isolated location and why there’s a Chinese restaurant in nearly every Canadian town. Hui wrote a book, Chop Suey Nation, based on her article.
The name “chop suey” translates more or less into “assorted mix,” and refers to a repertoire of dishes mostly developed in North America in the mid-20th century. A mix of ideas both East and West and, to my eyes, frozen in time.
8. Farm to Table (Laura Reiley, April 13, 2016, Tampa Bay Times)
This is a story we are all being fed. A story about overalls, rich soil and John Deere tractors scattering broods of busy chickens. A story about healthy animals living happy lives, heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy and earnest artisans rolling wheels of cheese into aging caves nearby.
Skeptical of the chalkboard menus touting local, organic ingredients in front of nearly every restaurant in Tampa, Laura Reiley stops at farms, contacts vendors, and “for fish claims that seemed suspicious, I kept zip-top baggies in my purse and tucked away samples” in order to determine the extent to which restaurant owners lie about obtaining ingredients from sources close to home.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.
Anna Moschovakis | An excerpt adapted from the novel Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love | Coffee House Press | August 2018 | 11 minutes (2,908 words)
The story she was reading was about a forty-three-year-old unarmed civilian shot to death in a Tampa Bay movie theater by a seventy-two-year-old retired police captain who’d become “agitated” by the man during previews. Eyewitnesses said the victim had been “texting loudly.” Popcorn had been thrown.
She looked down from the screen at the bead of blood on her thumb. She watched it form a rivulet that ran down her palm and onto the white down comforter her friend had laid out on the bed for a Ukrainian folk singer arriving that night to teach a workshop in bilij holos at a nearby club. The blood formed a spot, brighter than the bead itself.
“He was a good, genuine person,” it was said of the deceased.
“He was just a funny guy. He brought life into every room.”
“Fate brought these two people together—it was ridiculous.”
None of the witnesses tried to stop the altercation. The movie was about Navy seals on a mission in Afghanistan. Its title was Lone Survivor.
She stared at the spot and then back at her thumb, where fresh blood coagulated. She thought again of the thing that had happened—that she had made happen, or at least not prevented from happening. The room had floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the expressway, from which she could hear the variegated moan of afternoon traffic. She was having a hard time getting up.
Charles Cummings, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who left the theater with the victim’s blood on his clothes, said he was shocked and saddened by the incident, which took place on his sixty-eighth birthday.
“I can’t believe anybody would bring a gun to a movie,” said Cummings.
“I can’t believe I got shot,” said the victim before he died.
The recipient of the texts was the man’s three-year-old daughter, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Read more…
This week, we’re sharing stories from Lizzie Presser, Kathleen McGrory, Bryan Curtis, Anna Merlan, and Amalia Illgner.