The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Sep 20 7 2020

Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

A neglected classic of which I’d never heard, by the author of Babbit and It Can’t Happen Here. Claire Boltwood is a young Brooklyn woman whose wealthy, widowed father works far too much and has suffered a breakdown. In 1917, Claire takes matters into her own hands and undertakes to drive with her father from Minneapolis (where Dad was vacationing by running the Western branch of his company) all the way to Seattle. They are not even out of Minnesota when they meet a helpful small-town mechanic, Milt Daggett. He gets their car out of the mud and, instantly falling in love with Claire, decides to get into his own little car and head for Seattle as well. The farther West we go, the more Claire travels beyond her conventional gender role and the more Milt transcends his class. This is, in short, an American sentimental romance.

What is striking here is the conviction that Americans are fundamentally (if not universally) good, decent, and sensible — and that small-town America in particular is — despite some bad and selfish apples — pretty good and tolerably smart. In this America, hardly anyone has much education but every country lawyer and small-town doctor is a missionary of intelligence and enlightenment. This is not the rural, small-town America that inflicted Donald Trump upon the rest of the country and the world, or that persists in spreading COVID and destroying the planet. Perhaps we can find it again.

by David Wrobel and Patrick Long, eds.

One of my favorite holiday-weekend activities is to read a conference volume about an interesting and active topic that is far, far outside my field. This is a delightful collections of studies of tourism in the American West, written by professors of Tourism. Some of those professors understand why, at parties, people laugh when they explain their vocation.

People have been traveling to see the mountains, the desert, the cowboys and (especially) the Indians for a very long time. This is problematic: everything is problematic, naturally, but all this is especially problematic because the underlying racial questions can neither be avoided nor cured.

There's little here that can be operationalized beyond a sensible consensus that it’s always wise to follow the money and the observation that, if you follow the money you will find it tends to wind up in distant and unexpected places. Leah Dilworth has a lovely paper on Fred Harvey, the company that provided food and souvenirs for the Santa Fe Railroad, and the Indians. Marguerite Shaffer also has a fascinating look at novels about tourism in the early 20th century, which seems to be the best way to capture not only what tourism does but also what it is trying to do. The evil that tourists do persists after they leave in mounds of litter and mountains of slights and injustices. Much of the good goes home with the tourists in the form of a wiser, better society and a more democratic nation.

Aug 20 31 2020



Truffle Shuffle (1,2) announced a class on carbonara, and this time I signed up on my own ticket because I really like carbonara. Also, I’ve got some anchors that range from Peter Merholz’s excellent Bay Area Carbonara to the carbonara they serve at La Carbonara in the Piazza de Fiore.

This was an amped-up carbonara with fresh taglietelle and a tartufata of mixed truffles and white mushrooms, with chiffonaded (!) snap peas added at the last minute for some textural and color variety. It was fun to make pasta with French Laundry alumni, and it turned out great. It was fun, too, to see the auteur behind discuss the making of pasta.

If you don’t cook a ton, that’s OK: these online classes are great for you. They send all the ingredients, including a suitable cocktail with which to relax. This one had a Paolo Mandini, which is a cocktail intended for carbonara. They also take care to keep you out of the weeds; in fact, I wish they were a little more liberal in their criticism. (I think, in part, Truffle Shuffle is a fantasy of culinary school as it ought to have been, where the kids are all above average.)

Back when the end of the world as we knew it began, I observed that in The Art Of Escapist Cooking, Mandy Lee had developed an alternative theory of flavor. Here, between Truffle Shuffle and Pasta Grannies, is another: it's just dinner (or lunch) but it's important even so to Do It Right, even if you’re old and infirm. An interesting observation of pasta grannies is that each granny knows maybe two or three pasta shapes; the idea that there are zillions of shapes for zillions of sauces is a product of travel and scholarship, not the Way Things Ever Were.

Aug 20 18 2020

Once An Eagle

by Anton Myrer

Military journalist Thomas E Ricks (Fiasco) mentioned on Twitter that this is a novel that everyone in the U.S. military knows and that most admire. It follows small-town Nebraskan Sam Damon from his enlistment just before the First World War up through Vietnam.

It’s not a bad book, though it’s very long, and it indulges in lots of set-piece essays that pretend to be after-dinner dialogue. Indeed, we have (at least) two characters — one of them Sam Damon’s wife! — that serve primarily as a means to inject essays into the narrative. Sam Damon, once he gets going, is a fine characters; you can see why this would make an attractive assignment at West Point.

The obvious comparison is with W.E.B. Griffin and his serial novels on the Army and The (Marine) Corps. Griffin wrote later: Once An Eagle was published in 1968. The great subject for both writers is the soldier’s fight against stupid, greedy, and vain superior officers. Myrer’s book is bitterly anti-war and deeply mixed about the military; Griffin carefully sidesteps war as a subject. Myrer despises war profiteers and suspects that all rich civilians are either profiteers or parasites; Griffin is fascinated by wealth (and by the Old South). Both writers have a strange relationship with their Jewish officers. Griffin particularly admires the scrounging and chicanery that lets junior officers and non-comms get what their troops need; Myrer’s not really interested.

Unlike Griffin, Myrer’s conclusion is bleak. We aren’t going to settle down on the Carolina Shore; the war will never end.

Truffle Shuffle: Salmon

Truffle Shuffle is a Bay Area startup led by a small team of young French Laundry alumni. Right after Trump announced a travel ban, they ordered thousands of dollars of truffles to sell to restaurants. Suddenly, all the restaurants closed. So, they started selling truffles to individuals, improvising cooking kits and live, online classes.

They sent us a kit for a Sunday evening class on Salmon en papillote with truffled beurre blanc. This is salmon, vegetables and wine, wrapped up in parchment paper and baked in a moderate oven. I was, I admit, a little bit skeptical, because this did not seem to be a very difficult dish.

It was amazing.

First thing: they sent a lovely piece of carefully-farmed King Salmon — a piece that you could use with confidence for sushi. That’s good in itself, and better still in that it gives you confidence serving the salmon after the gentlest of gentle poaching. The class had a cameo and Q&A with Mitch Gronner, the cofounder of Aloha Seafood, who had some very interesting thoughts on the advantages — culinary and ecological — of farmed salmon. Here on The Atlantic Coast, we chiefly hear the case against farmed salmon; this was more interesting than I’d expected.

Second thing: using truffle butter for the beurre blanc really works.

Third: Beurre blanc is interesting. Shallot (lots of shallot) and white wine — no fat: reduce until nearly dry. Then cream: again, reduce as far as you dare. Then, start adding the butter. I’ve always started beurre blanc with a bit of fat from the pan in which to cook the shallots, but this worked brilliantly. (Beurre blanc, by the way, is the sauce that convinced Julia Child that the French knew something special about cooking.)

Fourth: 15 minutes at 300°F. That’s barely poached, we thought it was astonishingly good. (Atlantic Salmon is our most common fish, so “astonishing” is pretty good for salmon.). Soft, soft fish, warmed through and tender, infused with aroma from tarragon and its bed of squash and wax beans. Lovely yielding fish makes a nice textural contrast to the warm, crisp summer squash and wax beans.

We had a little bit of the beurre blanc left over. I chilled it, and Monday evening I slathered it under the skin of an organic, air-chilled chicken along with a smattering of fresh thyme. That worked nicely!

So: even though it didn’t seem a particularly challenging dish, and even though the tone of the whole enterprise is incredibly relaxed, the finesse and restraint (and great ingredients) made a dazzling dinner, and some unused sauce made another,

August 30 they’re doing fresh pasta carbonara with black truffle tartufata.

Thirty years ago (!) I wrote a little paper about a tool for suggesting new links for a hypertext. I’d started the paper expecting to show that then-current techniques couldn't do a decent job, but the code worked surprisingly well. I’ve revisited similar things from time to time — notably in Twig, but also in the Tinderbox Get Info ▸ Similar Notes pane.

I’ve had an opportunity to revisit the link apprentice today, and to test its performance I tried it out on this weblog’s working file (3,478 notes, half a million words). Some similar notes to The Cactus League include:

  • Jewish Comedy: A Serious History
  • The Chalk Artist

That’s interesting, though perhaps not very useful. Let’s try The Art Of Escapist Cooking:

Some top choices for last month’s post arguing that “In social media, we actually encounter monsters”, we get

  • Five Days In London
  • The Hunger Games
  • Prizes, a note about my paper with Clare Hooper on “Villainy in Web Science And New Media”

One of the related notes to this note — appearing as I write, is John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. That’s interesting, too, though some other suggestions are mysterious. Jo Walton’s Farthing? An old piece of Tinderbox fan mail? Still, not bad for an afternoon.

by Emily Nemens

A charming and atmospheric book about the world that surrounds major league baseball, the perplexities of coaches, writers, agents, wives, and even of the minor league stadium organist. There is surprisingly little baseball here: occasionally, some part of a play might be mentioned but there's scarcely a trace of the game itself. Even so, the Nemens does get the details right and avoids the ancient stereotypes when possible. There’s some echoes of Annie Savoy, but perhaps that’s because art becomes life.

Feb 20 18 2020


A while ago, I joined and did some chores for an online New England group combatting anti-semitism.

Alas: the loons have descended. They’re eager to denounce Linda Sarsour. They’re eager to denounce Bernie Sanders. They’re eager to denounce Islam. They denounce the illuminati, praise Trump, praise Russia, and muddy the waters.

In part, this is the old story of two Jews, three opinions. But I expect that in good part it’s a planned campaign from our old friends in St. Petersburg. Send a few trolls to stir things up. Get them to spread some Trump talking points: it might help. Slip in a few blood libels and Illuminati: that’s always fun. Start promoting “Islam is Evil!”: maybe we can get the Jews and the Moslems to exterminate each other, bringing on the End Times or giving Russia a nice Mediterranean port.

And if someone tries to object, shout ,“Censorship!” And shout, “Incivility!”

by Mandy Lee

A fascinating food book. Most of the best food writing has pursued what Adam Gopnik calls the “mystical microcosmic” — “sad thoughts on the love that got away or the plate that time forgot.” Mystical microcosmic writers — M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain, Michael Ruhlman — implicitly argue that they are like us, that we would enjoy what they enjoyed, that thoughtful eating can improve your life. Julia went to a fish place in Normandy and found a future husband and beurre blanc, and much of her best writing implicitly concerns the pursuit and care of each.

Mandy Lee’s book comes from a different place. In 2012, Lee was deeply depressed and living in a city she hated. Lee was born in Taiwan, grew up in Vancouver, went to grad school in (and loved) New York. Now, she was in Beijing, and everything in Beijing was awful: so awful that she could seldom get out of bed. She became an obsessive cook because focusing on elaborate and time-consuming recipes (and on elaborate and lovely photography of the prep) meant she could spend hours — days — locked in her home. Her cooking is not fun or easy or fast: her cooking is very angry, and she knows it.

Lee is always cooking for herself. (She’s cooking for her husband too, but he’s even more in shadow here than were M.F.K. Fisher’s lovers.) There’s no patron, no restaurant, no one to please but herself, and Lee is not easy to please. Her tastes are unusual, and for this she offers no explanation or apology. Reading between the lines, she likes savory and bitter breakfasts on the Chinese model, but she also really likes cheese. A few of her recipes reinvent what Minnesotans call a Juicy Lucy — hamburgers infused with tons of cheese — but hers represent a systematic study of how much cheese is possible in a burger and also feature green chili aioli, poached eggs, spicy pork or lamb patties, and sweet potato buns.

Most of the recipes concern spectacular and complex interplay of contrasting flavors and textures — finding ways to combine hot and sweet, crisp and unctuous and sour in each bite. There’s a lot of prep and plenty of challenging ingredients. In my first foray into cooking one of these, I struck out on one ingredient not only at Whole Foods but also at Super 88, an big Asian store that has two separate freezer cases of frozen buns, a whole aisle of fish sauce, and family-size packages of beef penis.

The book has a chapter on elaborate home-cooked dog food.

This is not, in other woods, a replacement for The Joy Of Cooking. But it’s got some very fine (and hilarious) writing, some nifty food ideas, and a nice insight into what cooking means to many of us.

Feb 20 11 2020

Flesh And Bone

For various reasons, I’ve been keeping strange hours lately, and this has given me some spare moments to rewatch Moira Walley-Beckett’s Flesh And Bone. It’s a brilliant, if shaggy, look at art and the people who make art. It’s very complex, masquerading as simple. I don’t think I know anyone who has seen it. (It’s easily watchable: 8 episodes, only one season. They gave up after one season because dance injuries kept exploding the schedule, but I think the end of season one says everything that they wanted to say.)

Two of the subplots involves two very different people who are writing stories. One is a world-famous choreographer, commissioned to create a ballet that revisits a dance chestnut — a girl becomes a woman — with a modern, #MeToo sensibility. It starts out a travesty: sappy, awkward and doomed. By opening night, we’re not sure. (This is also the central subplot of Robert Altman’s underrated The Company.). At the same time, we meet a homeless guy, Romeo, who hangs around one of the shabby, cheap apartments in which the dancers live. He’s clearly disturbed, and he keeps trying to map people in the neighborhood into his weird Henry Darger fantasy of dragons and rats. He, too, is making a story — and he writes it down by taking a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit and turning it into an artist’s book. It’s a very good artist’s book, though he’s still nuts, and as he writes it he’s not quite sure where he fits into the story. “I thought I was the middleman,” he says, “the sayer of things and the seer of things. Maybe even the prophet. But now I’m concerned.”