Friday, September 29, 2006

In the Penny Press! Foodies and John Donne!

The Penny Press is abuzz this week with Helen Mirren's performance in 'The Queen,' but alas, no echo of that great shout of acclaim will reach this site. This is, after all, Stevereads, and one doesn't read a movie (what a blessed thing it would be if one could!).

In a perfect world, when you were all done savoring the glories and delights of this site, you'd all click over to and delight in all his thoughts about the movies and tv he's been watching. The prose would be just as tangy, the jokes would be less dependent on a working knowledge of Latin, and the cultural references would be a little more current. But this is not, as the ever-burgeoning popularity of Rachel Ray demonstrates, a perfect world.

Rachel Ray's name comes up in one of the latest New Yorker's most interesting pieces - Bill Buford's article on the rise of food TV in America.

We here at Stevereads are indifferent to foodie passions (some of you will have first-hand knowledge of the exact state of our culinary discrimination ... kindly keep it to yourselves), but one thing about which we certainly aren't indifferent is Julia Child. And you can't write about the current boom in food-tv without pretty much starting your story with Julia Child.

Buford's tribute to her is too brutally idiosyncratic to be anything but heartfelt:

Child, too, was unlike anything else on television: six-feet-two, virtually hunchbacked, seeming too ungainly for a small screen, with a long, manly face, but one that was also remarkable for its intelligent expressiveness. In it you could see her making connections, finding wonder in the properties of egg whites or the behavior of gelatine, a wonder that was at the heart of what now seems like a natural pedagogical imperative. She made people want to cook, often inspiring them with a single detail.

Buford's piece winds its way through the usual suspects of successive celebrity chefs - and his narrative comes to a halt once it enters the ever-expanding empire of Rachel Ray. He rightly assesses that her fame rests mainly on her 'supper in 30 minutes' tactic, and he tries to be diplomatic.

He talks about media savvy and cross-market appeal, but he avoids one central detail: not to put too fine a point on it, but Rachel Ray is, in addition to all her other qualities, an idiot. And the marketing strategy that's made her into an empire is aimed squarely at an audience composed of other idiots. It's not 'supper in 30 minutes' because everybody's over-extended these days - it's not that, no matter how many marketing executives tell you it is. No, it's 'supper in 30 minutes' because the network estimated - and rightly so - that the vast majority of TV-watching Americans are TOO STUPID to handle anything more complex. Rachel Ray is Cooking for Dummies brought to perky everygirl life.

Julia Child would have wept. Like James Burke and Carl Sagan and David Attenborough, she was a populizer in the old, vanished sense of the word, someone who believed you could LEARN anything, that you could stretch your mind to gain any new skill. Rachel Ray and her ilk believe in lopping off parts of that new skill until it's small enough and simple enough to fit in a Happy Meal box. Gawd forbid you should ask the American public to WORK to learn something.

Fortunately, as has been said here many times, there's always the mighty TLS.

The cover of this week's issue sports the 1595 painting of John Donne (the one that bears more than a passing resemblance to my young friend Sebastian), and there are two wonderful pieces on the poet inside.

And there are many other wonderful things inside! You can always count on the TLS reviewers to toss off carefully-considered statements you want to write in some kind of commonplace book. For instance, in a review of three books concerning empires, John Dunn (hee) says this:

No one has ever reflected more deeply about empire as either a cultural artefact or a political enterprise than Gibbon, and no one has ever seen more deeply into the political and economic realities of human collective life on a global scale than Adam Smith.

One thing that WASN'T in this issue was any kind of critical backlash to the lambasting the TLS served out upon the new Oxford Book of American Verse. John Ashbery writes in with a tepid little factual correction, but there are no howls in defense of the work itself. Maybe next issue...

(this issue also features a glowing review of 'The Queen,' but again, this isn't THAT blog ...)


Sam Sacks said...

I also liked Ben Bradlee's WWII essay in the New Yorker. Simply written, clear-eyed, and moving.

I didn't like Louis Menand's review of Charles Frazier's new book though. I haven't read the book and can't comment on the veracity of the review, but Menand conveys a dry, bored, snooty air of impervious all-knowingness when he deals in popular culture, as though he knew everything about Frazier's book before he even read it. He wishes the reader to know that he's slumming, and it's very irritating.

steve said...

plus he seemed to LIKE 'Cold Mountain' - which is very strange in its own right. Or, as ALL the characters in 'Cold Mountain' would put it, 'that was - or would be, as bleeding irises mulch down to the doom of loam - very ellandable in its own right, its freezing, forgotten right, not really its own but everyones'