- The appalling conditions under which farm workers grow America’s fresh produce.
- ‘Sometimes, I think of that unruly field as my grandparents’ desperation garden.’
- Butter that costs $49 per pound.
- American children are eating too much pizza.
- The implications of commercial bees for wild bee populations.
- From free school meals to food pantries.
- British shoppers are paying the same for cucumbers as they did in 1989.
- Farming without herbicides.
- French supermarkets take on budget rivals.
- What the world eats.
- McDonald’s sales are down.
- Checking the flow of illicit honey into the US.
- Turning sewerage into drinking water.
- Bonnie Slotnick’s recipe book shop will not close.
- Inside Egypt’s ahwas.
- Icicle farming.
- Red velvet Oreos.
- Determining apples’ ripeness with lasers.
- Corporate beer is badly watered down.
- Time-restricted eating.
- How farmers cope with the cold.
- Future super foods?
- Introducing Cuban cuisine. (Thanks, mum!)
- ‘Even the gleaming teeth in the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall are historically accurate, according to author Hilary Mantel, who says that in an age when eating sugar was uncommon – even for the likes of Henry VIII – tooth decay was much less of a problem.’
- Where to eat ramen in Tokyo.
- Bacon biscuits.
- Conflict Kitchen.
- The 2015 Piglet.
- Culinary tours of Cuba.
- A map of every goat in the US.
- Curry in English hands.
- The rise and rise of Jägermeister.
- The great cookbook breakdown.
- Make your own flatbread.
- Chefs love brains.
- Jonathan Gold on ramen.
- American Creme Eggs won’t change.
- Eye of the gazelle.
- ‘”Each month you can see how it’s changing by how many veggie burgers they sell,” he says. “Each month it’s more. With gentrification you start getting gourmet fried chicken…”‘
- The salt hotel.
- The best American cities in which to raise livestock.
- Make your own buttermilk.
- Roast a chicken without a recipe.
- Absurd restaurant stories.
- Korean women try US junk food.
- Making cheese in China.
- Wonder fries.
- The 8,000 calorie diet.
- Cocoa cubes.
- What is a beard friendly pub?
A few months ago, I was interviewed on a radio station about changing attitudes towards food and eating. After a caller commented that when he’d lived in rural Limpopo, he’d happily eaten frogs, but preferred McDonald’s having moved to Johannesburg, I managed—somehow—to talk myself into an urgent appeal to the nation to eat insects. I’m still not entirely sure how this happened, but I think it was partly connected to the recent slew of articles on why we need to eat insects to save the planet.
This insect turn in culinary fashion is, of course, nothing new. In 1885, the entomologist Vincent M. Holt published Why not eat insects? To some extent, current arguments for eating insects deviate little from this little manifesto. Holt remarks, rightly, that there is nothing inherently dirty about insects—in fact, crustaceans, being bottom feeders, are potentially more dangerous to eat—and that they can form part of a balanced diet. He suggests that Western aversion to eating them is linked strongly to culturally specific ideas about what is fine and not fine to eat. He cites the example of a Chinese banquet at an exhibition in London, pointing out that Britons happily sampled a menu which included cuttlefish, sea slugs, and birds’ nests because it was both exotic and, apparently, healthy. Past Europeans ate insects, and societies in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere happily, according to Holt, eat insects:
Beginning with the earliest times, one can produce examples of insect-eating at every period down to our own age. Speaking to the people of Israel, at Lev. xi. 22, Moses directly encourages them to eat clean-feeding insects: ‘These ye may eat, the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.’ …
Cooked in many and various ways, locusts are eaten in the Crimea, Arabia, Persia, Madagascar, Africa, and India. … From the time of Homer, the Cicadae formed the theme of every Greek poet, in regard to both tunefulness and delicate flavour. Aristotle tells us that the most polished of the Greeks enjoyed them… Cicadae are eaten at the present day by the American Indians and by the natives of Australia.
He appeals to his readers:
We pride ourselves upon our imitation of the Greeks and Romans in their arts; we treasure their dead languages: why not, then, take a useful hint from their tables? We imitate the savage nations in their use of numberless drugs, spices, and condiments: why not go a step further?
Contemporary interest in eating insects is, though, strongly connected to anxieties about a food chain which seems to be increasingly ecologically unsustainable. Current methods of producing enough protein for the world’s population are to the cost of animal welfare and good labour practice, consume vast quantities of water, and produce methane and other greenhouse gases. Something needs to change, and insect enthusiasts argue that crickets, grasshoppers, and caterpillars are a viable alternative to beef, chicken, and pork. In a 2013 report for the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Dutch entomologist Arnold van Huis—academic and author of The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)—notes more than 1,900 species of insects already form part of the diets of ‘at least two billion people.’ A lot of these insects are high in protein—higher, in some cases, than beef—and other nutrients. Many of them consume waste, and farming them is comparatively cheap and requires little labour.
This promotion of what Dana Goodyear calls ‘ethical entomophagy’ in Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Easters and the Making of a New American Food Culture, has met with some commercial success. There are now—outside of regions where insects are normally part of diets—businesses dedicated to farming insects for human consumption. It’s possible to buy cricket flour; Selfridges sells chocolate covered giant ants; and pop up restaurants and Noma have featured insects on their menus. The logic is that these high-end sales of edible insects will gradually influence the middle and bottom of the market. A kind of ‘trickle down’ revolution in diet.
While it is certainly true that we can and have chosen to eat foodstuffs once deemed to be dangerous or socially taboo—potatoes in eighteenth-century France, beef in Japan during the Meiji Restoration—these shifts in attitude take time to achieve. Also, in the case of potatoes and beef, these societies were strongly hierarchical with powerful aristocracies. Thankfully, most of us no longer live in a world where the king’s decision to consume a formerly shunned ingredient changes the way that all of us eat.
As every recent article on entomophagy notes, the main obstacle to the widespread incorporation of insects into, particularly but not exclusively, Western diets is a strong aversion to eating them. If only, the argument goes, picky Westerners would give up their hypocritical dislike of insects—they eat shrimp and prawns, after all—and then we’ll all be fine. But I think it’s worth taking this dislike seriously. As Goodyear makes the point, a lot of these insects aren’t particularly delicious. She tries embryonic bee drones picked from honeycomb:
the drones, dripping in butter and lightly coated with honey from their cells, were fatty and a little bit sweet, and, like everything chitinous, left me with a disturbing aftertaste of dried shrimp.
I’ve eaten fried, salted grasshoppers at a food festival on London’s south bank, and they were crunchy and salty—improved, like most things, by deep frying—but otherwise memorable only for having been grasshoppers.
Making insects palatable involves processing, something which almost inevitably increases the ecological footprint of the product. Perhaps even more importantly, as the caller I referred to at the beginning of this post said, insects are widely associated with poverty and deprivation. Modernity—life in the city—requires a new diet. While it is true that in many societies, people do eat insects out of choice, it is equally significant that when they can, people stop eating insects as soon as possible.
Our current anxiety about sustainable sources of protein is driven partly by concern that the new middle classes in China and India will demand to eat as much beef, in particular, as their Western counterparts. I wonder to what extent this concern is part of a long tradition of Malthusian yellow peril: that China, in particular, will somehow eat up all the world’s resources. I don’t have any objection to promoting entomophagy—although trickle down strategies have a fairly low level of success—but I think we should look more carefully at the reasons underpinning our interest in investing in alternative forms of protein, and also be careful that we won’t take seriously the interests and tastes of people clawing their way out of poverty.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
When I was finishing my PhD, my friend Jane gave me a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘tea is not a food group.’ She used to shout that into my room—we lived a few doors down from each other in the same student residence—as she passed me on the way to the lift. She had good reason for doing so. When I’m absorbed in writing, I can forget that the world exists: that it’s necessary to brush your hair, dress properly, cook, and not have conversations with yourself out loud. And that it’s unwise to subsist on tea.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been in the final throes of completing a book manuscript and I’ve tried—probably not always successfully—to maintain at least a semblance of normal, civilised behaviour, but tea has remained a constant. It’s a kind of writing comfort blanket; a small routine in the middle of anxious typing. In some ways, then, it was a misfortune to be in the United States for much of this period. I could drink as much excellent coffee as I could cope with, but tea? Good strong, hot black tea? Until I discovered a branch of TeaHaus in Ann Arbor, not so much.
I know that I’m not the first to complain about the difficulty of finding a decent cup of black tea in the US, and, to some extent, this belief that Americans don’t understand hot tea is something of a misnomer. Teavana, Argo, and Teahaus all attest to an enthusiasm—an apparently growing enthusiasm—for well-made tea. I’ve never encountered so many different kinds of tea in supermarkets. (And, truly, Celestial Seasonings is the best name for a brand of tea.) But it is true, I think, that it’s hard to find really good black tea in the average café. While this is probably linked to the fact that most tea drunk in the US is iced tea, it’s also because tea in these establishments is made with hot—not boiling—water. This is crucial. Tea leaves need to steep in freshly boiled water.
This aversion to boiling water can be traced back to a 1994 civil case: Liebeck vs McDonald’s Restaurants. Two years previously, Stella Liebeck, an elderly Albuquerque resident, had spilled a cup of boiling hot coffee over her lap. She sued McDonald’s, and was awarded initially $2.7 million in punitive damages. While for some, the case has become emblematic of the madness of a litigious legal system, the truth is considerably more complex. Not only had Liebeck suffered third degree burns—resulting in extensive reconstructive work and long stays in hospital—but she and her family only sued McDonald’s as a last resort. When their reasonable request that McDonald’s cover her medical bills was turned down, they decided to go to court. Moreover, in the end, Liebeck received considerably less than $2.7 million: the judge reduced that sum to $480,000, and she was awarded, eventually, between $400,000 and $600,000 in an out of court settlement with McDonald’s.
This was not, then, a frivolous lawsuit. But it was interpreted as such, and became one of the examples cited in efforts to reform tort law—the legislation which allows people to sue others in the case of injury to themselves or their property—in the US. As some lawyers argue, the tort reform lobby led by Republicans isn’t really to reduce the numbers of lawsuits submitted by greedy people, but, rather, an attempt to protect business from having to pay for its mistakes.
For tea drinkers, though, this misperception (fanned by tort reform campaigners) has resulted in tepid, unpleasant cups of tea. Concerned about similar lawsuits, restaurants now serve hot—rather than boiling—water. But perhaps there is a kind of poetic—or historical—logic to having to search high and low for decent tea in the US. The chests of tea tipped into Boston’s harbour in 1773 was both in defiance of the Tea Act and a rejection of Britain’s right to tax the thirteen colonies. When patriots switched to coffee—indeed some refused even to eat the fish caught in or near the harbour on the grounds that they could have consumed some of the tea—it was in defiance of British rule. In the land of the free, shouldn’t tea be hard to come by? This association of coffee and freedom wasn’t new, even then. Coffee houses in eighteenth-century Britain and Europe were places where middle-class men could gather to talk and think. The work of the Enlightenment was done, to some extent, over cups of coffee. But coffee was produced on slave plantations and coffee houses—and the freedoms discussed in them—were largely for white men. Coffee represented, then, freedom of the few.
Like so many people recently, I’ve been thinking about the historical contexts which produced the principles on which liberal democracies are founded. Freedom of expression and of thought, freedom to gather, freedom of religious belief are fundamental to the functioning of liberal democracies. Regardless of the fact that these principles were originated during a period in which they applied mainly to white men—and regardless of the fact that they have not prevented injustices from being committed (sometimes in their name) in liberal democracies—these remain the best, albeit imperfect, protection of the greatest number of freedoms for the greatest number of people.
To suggest that they are somehow a western invention inapplicable to other parts of the world would be an enormous insult to Egypt’s cartoonists who continue to criticise successive oppressive governments despite risking potential imprisonment or worse; to Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who received the first fifty of a thousand lashes last Friday, for writing in support of free expression; to the Kenyan MPs who last year so strongly opposed a new security bill which will dramatically curb journalists’ ability to report freely. Also, it would be a profound insult to the vast majority of Muslim people in France and elsewhere—members of a diverse and varied faith—who managed to cope with the fact that Charlie Hebdo and other publications ran cartoons which insulted or poked fun at Islam.
Whether you think that the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were amusing or clever or blasphemous or racist, is besides the point. Free speech and free expression were no more responsible for the killings in France last week than they were for the murder of more than two thousand people in Nigeria by Boko Haram. This isn’t to argue that we shouldn’t discuss—loudly, freely, rudely—how right or wrong it was to publish these cartoons in a society which many feel has strongly Islamaphobic and racist elements—in the same way we should debate potentially misogynistic, anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, or transphobic writing, art, or speech too. But to begin to suggest that there are times when we shouldn’t criticise and satirise, is to suggest that there should be limits to what we may think and imagine.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
I spent much of my time in Ann Arbor in coffee shops, writing. Having conquered my guilt at working in cafes, occupying space which could be filled by more paying customers (truly, a Calvinist education never really leaves you), I embraced America, the land of the free Wifi. One of my favourite places for working was Mighty Good Coffee, a relatively new shop and café on North Main Street—about a three minute walk on the diagonal from Kerrytown—which is bright and airy and friendly, with lovely coffee and a fridge full of yoghurt.
It also sells artisanal toast. Curious, I tried first a slice of ten seed loaf (good), and then returned with friends and ordered sourdough with cherry jam (very good indeed). But what sets artisanal toast apart from ordinary toast? Was it made by elves, as a friend asked acerbically on Facebook? As far as I could see, this was particularly nice bread, toasted in a fairly fancy toaster, served with rather special butter and jam. But for slightly more than $3.
My—and, I think, other people’s—interest in Ann Arbor’s first (possibly?) instance of artisanal toast was piqued by an article published by the Pacific Standard early last year. In it, John Gravois traces the origins of the artisan toast vogue to San Francisco and the Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club and, more specifically, to its owner, Giulietta Carrelli. The café is, as she comments, her way of coping with bouts of recurring mental illness: it provides structure, stability, and a support network, and it serves food which comforts. Gravois explains: ‘She put toast on the menu because it reminded her of home: “I had lived so long with no comfort,” she says.’
What could easily have been a story about hipsters selling the most ordinary of ordinary breakfast foods for outrageous sums of money becomes, then, a quite moving account of a young woman’s strategies for dealing with, at times, debilitating episodes of mania and psychosis. But, as Gravois notes, her decision to include toast on Trouble’s—otherwise eccentric—menu was picked up by other, more typically hipster San Francisco cafes where artisanal toast became another marker—alongside drip coffee, beards, lumberjack shirts—of hipsterdom.
At the same time as I tried Mighty Good’s toast, commentators were outraged by the latest artisanal craze: ice. Large, dense, clear cubes of ice for artisanal cocktails—mixed with homemade or small batch bitters, liqueurs, and sodas—which fit better into glasses and melt more slowly. But, as Mother Jones reported, manufacturing, transporting, and storing artisanal ice is hugely energy inefficient. It is done at some cost to the environment.
In these terms, ‘artisanal’ means handmade and small scale—it means paying attention to the production of otherwise mass-produced or mundane items like toast or ice or bread or beer or crisps. There is something innately ridiculous in elevating toasted bread to the status of cult object. The enthusiasm for the artisanal is, to be kind, an attempt to reclaim the ‘authentic’ (whatever that may be) in the face of a wholly industrialised food chain, and, to be less kind, as much of a fashion as brogues, topknots, and foraging.
It’s useful to use artisanal toast—for instance—to explore what we understand by irony. Hipsters are accused routinely—and I used ‘accuse’ deliberately—of dressing, eating, reading, thinking, and of being ironically. In an essay for the New York Times, the philosopher and literary scholar Christy Wampole writes:
Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.
Hipsters’ knowing adoption of the unfashionable, old-fashioned, and the obscure is, she argues, a form of irony: this is an appropriation of a set of markers but no real commitment to what they signify.
I would tend to disagree with Wampole—on this point and her broader argument about living without irony (and her confusion of hipster and millennial)—because I’m not entirely sure that irony is the defining characteristic of hipsterdom. The embrace of the artisanal, hipsters’ enthusiasm for recovering forgotten recipes and fashions, their opposition to the corporate and the mass produced (generally—some brands like Apple seem to be immune to this), and even the strain of literary seriousness which runs through some iterations of hipsterdom, seem to me to denote seriousness, even earnestness. Occasionally, this tips into twee, as Judy Berman observes:
twee is anti-greed and suspicious of an adult world that revolves around avarice. More importantly, twee is aware of humanity’s capacity for violence and evil, but chooses to be optimistic about human nature nonetheless. This could be a progressive stance—one that not only believes we’re capable of improvement but works toward it. In practice, though, twee politics too often prescribe escapism and isolation, allowing the privileged to respond to crises both global and personal by sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling, ‘Na na na, can’t hear you!’
If being a hipster was predicated only on irony—on not taking any of this seriously—then it would be difficult to establish cafes, shops, literary journals, and other enterprises dedicated to the small scale, the cool, and the exclusive. In fact, what much of the writing on hipsterdom misses is that it is precisely this: exclusive. It is a subculture of the (upper) middle classes. For all the fact that young hipsters have colonised historically poor parts of cities, being a hipster is expensive. Organic vegetable boxes, iPhones, copies of n+1, and fixed gear bicycles aren’t cheap.
Much of hipsters’ political and social cluelessness stems from their position of privilege. And here it’s worth thinking more about hipsters’ politics. For all that I think most hipsters would label themselves progressives, there is a strangely libertarian strand within, particularly, hipster attitudes towards food. This connection between some kinds of right wing politics and a return to the land is by no means unusual or new. Most recently, the locavore movement—in its suspicion of big business and agriculture which bleeds into a suspicion of big government—has been taken up by libertarians in some red states in the US. But I think for some hipsters, learning the skills of rural living—learning self-sufficiency—has been produced by the profound economic and social uncertainty of the past decade or so. It is no coincidence that hipsterdom emerged at around the same time as the 2008 crash. Dana Goodyear describes a feast she attends in Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture:
Jonathan, a strawberry-blonde roaster at an artisanal coffee shop in Orange County, espoused a more complex view. Late in history, with America’s institutions crumbling around them, he and his friends felt mistrustful, even paranoid. They had retreated into Home Ec, believing that if the worst were to happen, at least they’d know how to pickle their own vegetables. ‘Our generation feels lost,’ he said. ‘We’re wanting to be self-sufficient.’
The parallels between hipsters and their parents’ generation—the Baby Boomers—are particularly evident here. Hippies’ enthusiasm for homesteading and green living, their rediscovery of lost crafts and skills was partly a reaction against the growth of the corporate, but it also signalled a profound lack of faith in mainstream society, something only amplified by the environmental and economic crises of the 1970s.
My point is that if we understand hipster earnestness as both a product of privilege as well as crisis, it helps to rethink the position of irony within hipsterdom. It becomes, then, a means of establishing a line between those who understand the irony, and those who don’t. Irony is a boundary marker, but it does not constitute what it means to be a hipster. Secondly, it also helps to illuminate the politics of hipsterdom. However seriously meant, a reclaiming of old fashioned forms of cooking and preserving, an interest in old recipes, and a commitment to organic and free range food does not necessarily signal progressive politics. If anything, these are interests and pursuits of the leisured and the moneyed. To what extent are hipsters a manifestation of inequality?
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Earlier this year, the excellent Joanna Walsh inadvertently started a campaign to encourage wider and more extensive reading of women writers. What began life as New Year’s cards featuring a collection of women writers soon transformed into a Twitter hashtag—#ReadWomen2014—and then into book clubs, discussions, and a campaign which seeks, simply, to ‘create a little extra space … in which more women can be heard more loudly, both by women and men.’
I think, often, that the key to being happy as an academic is to realise how strange an occupation it is. In my case, it is doubly odd because I work in a research institute and have minimal teaching duties. I am paid to think, to write, to travel, and to read. I spend most of my time reading, and yet am constantly on the edge of panic that I’m not reading enough. Academia is a conversation with other writers. Everything is historiography. Not to read is intellectual failure.
But I need to read beyond work—mostly novels, memoirs, essays, and occasionally short stories. I read to feel the world more intensely; to feel myself in the world more intensely. I read to remind myself that what I feel is felt and shared—and has been felt and shared—by so many others. To some extent, to distinguish between academic and non-academic books is arbitrary. The most moving, thought provoking, and beautifully written book I’ve read this year was published by a university press. But for the sake of categories, and because I read fiction differently, here is a list of all of 2014’s non-academic books. I’ve not been particularly careful about only reading women writers this year, despite supporting Joanna’s campaign. And out of twenty books read and being read, twelve were by women. Reading two novels and a memoir by Michael Ondaatje—who, for some reason, I think would be a fan of #ReadWomen2014—rather increased things in favour of male writers.
I think women writers appealed to me because they acknowledged the struggles of women as well as those of men; as writers, they simply provided a fuller picture of the world.
I think so too. I think this is why I tend to reach, instinctively, for women writers.
Read in 2014: Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird; Bill Buford, Heat; Geoff Dyer, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; Anne Patchett, Bel Canto; Francesca Marciano, Casa Rossa; Monique Truong, The Book of Salt; Hannah Kent, Burial Rites; Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family, In the Skin of a Lion, and The Cat’s Table; Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels; Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah; Michael Paterniti, The Telling Room; Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year; Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies; Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me; Jane Smiley, The Greenlanders.
Can’t/won’t finish: Michel Houllebecq, Platform.
I never expected to receive an email from the Wayne County Airport Police. I had been so disoriented by the unpleasantness of immigration, crossing from Canada to the United States, that I’d dropped my travel notebook in Detroit airport. I’d only discovered its absence when unpacking in Ann Arbor and, as with most deep, unhappy losses, had only begun to realise how much I missed my small, black Moleskine diary a day or two later. But it was found, and a policewoman emailed to ask if it was mine. It arrived in a Fedex box six times its size within the week.
The diary would mean very little to anyone, I think. It contains addresses and phone numbers; lists of places to visit, things to buy, books to read, what to pack. It also includes recipes and descriptions of food I’ve eaten in Australia, Europe, Canada, and the US. It was these that I was particularly sorry to lose. In Kingston—a few days before arriving in Michigan—I’d written down the recipe for apple pie made by Elva McGaughey, my friend Jane’s mother, and an encyclopaedia of information on the home cooking of Ontario families.
That it was apple pie was significant. A week previously, Jane and Jennifer and Jennifer’s small son Stephen and I had picked apples in Québec’s Eastern Townships. We drove from Montréal, through bright green, softly rolling countryside. The sky was low and it drizzled. At the orchard, as Stephen snored gently in his sling, we filled deep paper bags with McIntosh and Cortland apples.
Several people pointed out to me that the saying should be, really, ‘as Canadian as apple pie’ because—in their view—the best pie is made with Macs, a popular variety developed by John McIntosh, who discovered these tart, crunchy apples on his farm in Ontario in 1811. The Mac now constitutes 28% of the Canadian apple crop, and two thirds of all the apples grown in New England. It is—as I discovered—excellent for eating straight off the tree, and cooks down into a slightly sour, thick mush in pie.
Today, the Mac is one of only a handful of apples grown commercially. Industrialised food chains demand hardy, uniform, easily grown varieties which can withstand long periods of storage and transport without going off or developing bruises. Until comparatively recently, there were thousands of apple varieties to choose from. Writing about the United States, Rowan Jacobsen explains:
By the 1800s, America possessed more varieties of apples than any other country in the world, each adapted to the local climate and needs. Some came ripe in July, some in November. Some could last six months in the root cellar. Some were best for baking or sauce, and many were too tannic to eat fresh but made exceptional hard cider, the default buzz of agrarian America.
Nomenclature of the Apple: A Catalogue of the Known Varieties Referred to in American Publications from 1804 to 1904 by the pomologist WH Ragan, lists 17,000 apple names. I wonder if a small part of the enthusiasm fueling the current rediscovery of old varieties—even neglected apple trees will continue bearing fruit for decades—is due to the multiple meanings we’ve attached to apples over many, many centuries. They feature prominently in classical and Norse mythology, where they are symbols of fertility, love, youth, and immortality, but also of discord. They are fruit with doubled meanings. The apple in fairytales represents both the victory of the evil stepmother, as well as the beginning of our heroine’s salvation: her prince will kiss her out of the coma induced by the poisoned apple. In her novel The Biographer’s Tale, AS Byatt represents the two wives—one in England, the other Turkish—of the bigamist Victorian explorer Sir Elmer Bole with green and red apples. The fruit in the Garden of Eden—since at least the first century CE described as an apple—bestowed both knowledge and banishment.
If the name McIntosh seemed oddly familiar, then it may be because of a now-ubiquitous Californian brand: the Apple Macintosh, launched in 1984, was named ‘Apple’ by Steve Jobs—apparently then on a fruitarian diet—and after the Mac apple, a favourite of one of the company’s top engineers. It is appropriate that these sophisticated machines which offer access to so much knowledge—licit, illicit, open, secret—should be named for apples.
When it was ready, she would put an apple in the little oven to bake. Before long, the grating of the burner door was outlined in a red flickering on the floor. And it seemed, to my weariness, that this image was enough for one day. It was always so at this hour; only the voice of my nursemaid disturbed the solemnity with which the winter morning used to give me up into the keeping of the things in my room. The shutters were not yet open as I slid aside the bolt of the oven door for the first time, to examine the apple cooking inside. Sometimes, its aroma would scarcely have changed. And then I would wait patiently until I thought I could detect the fine bubbly fragrance that came from a deeper and more secretive cell of the winter’s day than even the fragrance of the fir tree on Christmas eve. There lay the apple, the dark, warm fruit that—familiar and yet transformed, like a good friend back from a journey—now awaited me. It was the journey through the dark land of the oven’s heat, from which it had extracted the aromas of all the things the day held in store for me. So it was not surprising that, whenever I warmed my hands on its shining cheeks, I would always hesitate to bite in. I sensed that the fugitive knowledge conveyed in its smell could all too easily escape me on the way to my tongue. That knowledge which sometimes was so heartening that it stayed to comfort me on my trek to school.
The baked apple—Proust’s madeleine for twenty-first-century theorists—both opens up Benjamin’s memories of childhood during a period of acute homesickness, but, as a child, it contained the ‘fugitive knowledge’ of what lay ahead. It could fortify—sustain—him on the journey to school, between the dark warmth of home and the noise and brightness of school.
Notebooks contain the same fugitive knowledge: they are both guides for future action, and repositories of information, memory, fact gathered over time and place. They travel in pockets and backpacks and book bags from Drawn and Quarterly, accruing meaning, emotional and intellectual. They belong to time present, as well as time future and past.