Tuesday, November 24, 2009

From the Food Network to Foodsheds

This week’s mail brought the Food Issue of The New Yorker--fittingly enough for Thanksgiving week and the season that saw the demise of the magazine Gourmet. The first article I turned to was Adam Gopnik’s essay on our hunger for cookbooks and the role they have come to play in the era of the celebrity chef. Every age gets the cookbooks it deserves, he writes, and it says something about us that our cookbooks have become as much about memoir and spectacle as about putting something delicious on the table. Home cooks are left chasing an ever-receding ideal.

The desire to go on desiring, the wanting to want, is what makes you turn the pages—all the while aware that the next Boston cream pie, the sweet-salty-fatty-starchy thing you will turn out tomorrow, will be neither more nor less unsatisfying than last night’s was.
But as I look at the cookbooks in my own kitchen—and they occupy a long bookcase under the dining room window, which they share with field guides to birds and bugs and shells and the binoculars—I see something else: cultural anthropology, shared ethnic heritage, what food says about where our ancestors made their own hearths and what of that heritage we still carry with us. To me, cooking is an initiation into a long chain of human ritual of applying fire to food that stretches back and back and back to the first moment that humans cooked game over a fire and decided it might taste better with some salt on it.

Cookbooks in America were created for homesteaders, young married women setting up house far from their birth families and learning to “stand facing the stove.” English cookery books had no advice on how to cook such New World wonders as crawfish, corn, turkey, cranberries, and squash. It was women such as Eliza Smith, Amelia Simmons, and Fannie Farmer who taught American women (and home cooking was women’s work) how to turn the fruits of the American plains into hoppin’ john and rhubarb pie. As early as the eighteenth century, cookbook writers stepped up to offer advice and recipes and by the middle of the nineteenth century American publishers were putting out hundreds of cookbooks.

You can explore this rich history through the digital collection of American cookbooks at the Michigan State University’s Feeding America project. For the 200th birthday of the cookbook in America back in 1996, the university digitized 76 examplars from their collection of 7000 American cookbooks, representing the late 1700s to the early 1900s.

Gary Nabhan, known for his book with Stephen L. Buchmann, The Forgotten Pollinators (Island Press, 1996), has moved in recent years to writing and thinking about “foodsheds” and endangered foodways. As a counter to the cult of personality on the Food Network and the high theatrics of Iron Chef America, the whole slow-and-local food movement is shining a light on vanishing food traditions and heirloom varieties of native foods that are in danger of passing from our culture. Nabhan is an ethnobiologist, nutritional ecologist, and leading proponent of preserving old foodways and thinking about food ecologically, tracing food from source to table in a foodshed the way we trace water from its source to the sea in a watershed.  You can check out his many books at his website. I’m looking forward to reading the one (Why Some Like It Hot) that will explain my nine year old’s obsession with Cholula hot sauce.

Finally, I’m marking my calendar to attend this upcoming talk in January at the Harvard Natural History Museum by Richard Wrangham on the cooking hypothesis, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Wrangham is a biological anthropologist who has put forth the hypothesis that cooking back in Paleolithic times “drove large-scale changes in our physiology, behavior, and cognition and has defined our species to this very day.”

One by one,  traits long touted as uniquely human--to play, to grieve, to use language and tools--have been found among the other taxa. But so far, cooking is still ours.

More about Nabhan’s Renewing America’s Food Traditions iniative at Slow Food USA.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Wild Music

Berkeley-based artist Gail Wight is speaking tonight in the refurbished Mammal Halls of the Harvard Natural History Museum. I'm looking forward to her talk on taking a walk with Darwin's ghost and learning about her recent projects. The talk is teasing her upcoming book and exhibit, Restless Dust, at the San Francisco Center for the Book, where Wight is artist in residence. I am very sorry I am going to miss that show, because I love the off-kilter wonder-cabinet-meets-Wonderland aesthetic that infuses everything Wight does. Here is Wight's statement from the SFCB website:

In attempts to understand life, I have: made maps of various nervous systems, practiced art while under hypnosis, conducted biochemical experiments on myself and willing others, executed medical illustrations in black velvet, documented dissections of humans, dissected machines and failed to put most of them back together, removed my teeth to model information systems, translated EEGs into music, painted with slime mold, made music with mice, drawings with bones, and have attempted to create models of my own confused state.  The interplay between art and biology, theories of evolution, cognition and the animal state-of-being form the groundwork for my thoughts. In what ways do we resemble worms? Is a machine more or less reliable due to its lack of endorphins, emotions, and opiate addictions? Can an artist collaborate with other species? What does compassion look like at the neuroanatomical level? My artwork investigates issues in biology and the history of science and technology. It explores the cultural impact of scientific practice, and our ongoing redefinition of self through epistemological constructions. I try to follow the ways in which these ideologies--both metaphysical and manifest--travel through time, moving from the scientific to the social sphere, the social to the scientific, and so often become the overlooked of the everyday.

Her past projects as documented on her website are really something else. I love invented instruments (see: Harry Partch) and music and instruments based on natural and animal sounds (such as the daxophone, a bowed instrument modeled on the great vocal range of the badger). When you combine invented instruments and animal music, well, it just doesn't get any better, in my book. Wight is the mastermind behind Rodentia Chamber Music, La Traviata staged for crickets, and a Plexiglas cello in which whisker switches (and of course they have to be whisker switches) are tripped by mice, playing prerecorded cello music and amplified mouse scufflings.

I had just taken my resident nine-year-old to the Museum of Science's exhibit Wild Music: Sounds and Songs of Life. A bad idea: school holiday, for one thing, and they have a Harry Potter exhibit on at the moment, for another. We love the MOS, but not when it's that crowded with Potterites. We skipped quickly through Wild Music and headed to the planetarium show instead. On a quieter day, I might make my way back to the Wild Music exhibit at the MOS, to try my hand at the parabolic microphone, but wishing they'd brought in some artists and musicians who could have explored music in a wilder way.

More about Wight here.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Better Together

I don't know whether the Amazon.com algorithms have come up with this combination yet, but I have a pair of books I believe are Better Together.

I've been reading Darwin: A Life in Poems by Ruth Padel, resident poet at Christ Church, Cambridge, and a great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin. It came to my attention when I found online the poem, "Like Giving to a Blind Man Eyes":

He’s standing in Elysium. Palm feathers, a green
    dream of fountain against blue sky. Banana fronds,
slack rubber rivulets, a canopy of waterproof tearstain
    over his head. Pods and racemes of tamarind.
Follicle, pinnacle; whorl, bole and thorn.

He walks through hot damp air
and tastes it like the breath of earth, like blood.
    He is possessed by chlorophyll. By the calls of unknown birds.
He wades into sea and scares an octopus. It puffs black hair
    at him, turns red – as hyacinth – and darts for cover.
He sees it watching him.
The book tells Darwin's life in verse, with some minimum of annotation, and a lot of Darwin's own words. It's by turns enthralling and appalling in its evocation of the privations of nineteenth century travel and the oppressive splendor of tropical nature. In some ways it reminded me of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (with its own echoes of Gosse and Son), some of the Patrick O'Brien Master and Commander novels, and A. S. Byatt's "Morpho Eugenia" in Angels & Insects. The life lived and documented and the life imagined work together in a kind of biological symbiosis. Padel pulls it off beautifully.

Darwin: A Life in Poems has both made me want to read more poetry and to pick up again James T. Costa's splendid annotation of On the Origin of Species. From the Open Letters Monthly blog:
It’s entirely possible – I think it’s likely – that when the overwhelming and heartwarming cascade of attention to the 2009 anniversary of Darwin’s 1809 birth and 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species has at last subsided, the palm for Best in Show will go to James Costa’s beautifully-produced and scrupulously, joyously annotated version of the Origin....And Costa’s contributions are just what annotations should be. He’s respectful of his subject text, but he’s also always mindful of all the scientific and cultural changes that have happened since. But his most winning quality is his own enthusiasm, not just for The Origin of Species but for the vital panoply of the whole natural world.
As Jim's former editor, I take great satisfaction in seeing the book receive what I can't help considering well deserved kudos--especially kudos that recognize the quality that makes the annotations effective and memorable: their joy.

The Annotated Origin is, to my knowledge, the only version of Darwin's master work annotated by a working evolutionary biologist for modern readers. Costa also happens to be a gifted explainer of science to nonspecialists and a passionate field biologist used to thinking about how evolution is continuing to shape the world around us, even as  Darwin's idea continues to evolve in ways he could not have imagined.

Here is a Nature podcast of Padel reading from Darwin: A Life in Poems.  You can download Costa's introduction to the Annotated Origin, "The Road to the Origin," here.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Curious Tactile and Conceptual Enchantment

I'm late to this party, because the crochet coral reef, brainchild of sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim, has become something of a YouTube phenomenon. Since it began as a  project in L.A. in 2005 to recreate the Great Barrier Reef in wool, the crocheted reef has spawned sister reefs around the world, works of communal art combing hyperbolic forms, non-Euclidean geometry, grass-roots environmental activism, and feminine handicraft. I can't recall a case of science meeting art with such outre, outsize, and instantly captivating results. When I first saw these images, I gasped at the astonishing profusion of sponges, sea urchins, corals, anemones, and nudibranchs, knitted by girls and women from around the world, in forms  ever evolving, just like the real thing.

Here is Margaret talking about the project at a TED conference:

I once asked the mathematicians why it was that mathematicians thought this structure was impossible when sea slugs have been doing it since the Silurian age. Their answer was interesting. They said, "Well I guess there aren't that many mathematicians sitting around looking at sea slugs." And that's true. …We started out, Chrissy and I and our contributors, doing the simple mathematically perfect models. But we found that when we deviated from the specific setness of the mathematical code that underlies is the simple algorithm, crochet three, increase one. When we deviated from that and made embellishments to the code, the models immediately started to look more natural. And all of our contributors, who are an amazing collection of people around the world, do their own embellishments. As it were, we have this ever evolving, crochet taxonomic tree of life. …. So this project really has taken on this inner organic life of its own. There is the totality of all the people who have come to it. And their individual visions, and their engagement with this mathematical mode. … We live in a society that completely tends to valorize symbolic forms of representation -- algebraic representations, equations, codes. We live in a society that's obsessed with presenting information in this way, teaching information in this way. But through this sort of modality, crochet, other plastic forms of play, people can be engaged with the most abstract, high powered, theoretical ideas -- the kinds of ideas that normally you have to go to university departments to study in higher mathematics, which is where I first learned about hyperbolic space. But you can do it through playing with material objects.
The Wertheim sisters run a "play tank" (as opposed to a think tank) in Los Angeles. Margaret is a science writer who has written about the history of math and physics. Christine is a professor of art at California Institute of the Arts. Their Institute for Figuring is dedicated to the idea that we can gain surprising insights about intellectual puzzles in math and science by actually setting aside symbols and data sets for a moment and making a model we can handle. "The conceptual enchantment," as Margaret Wertheim told the New York Times, "is open to everyone."

For more about the crochet reef, see the links above. For a different but equally interactive and evolving model of the tree of life, visit the Encyclopedia of Life online or read up on the  blog of the latest New England Aquarium expedition to the Phoenix Islands to save one of the last remaining pristine reefs.