Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Nightmare is OVER


The First Robin of 2021


Robins stay in Michigan for the whole winter, but they behave differently than they do in the warmer months. In summer, you often see lone robins or pairs of birds on lawns and trees in urban back yards, where they eat worms and many other things. In contrast, during the winter they flock together and prefer more wooded areas where they can find berries to eat. We saw a huge number of robins flocking around in some trees in town recently. 

I know that many people are very excited to see robins return to their back yards in spring, but I was determined to see some winter robins! I saw one near our house just before New Year's, and finally saw this flock today. (For more robin facts, see this page at the Cornell Laboratory Website.)


Another beautiful bird that stays around here during the winter is the bluebird. While searching for a robin, we saw three of them in a park not far from our house. I love the way that they keep their vivid blue color even in winter.
Three bluebirds in a tree.

The Cornell Laboratory website has an interesting paragraph about what bluebirds eat:
"Insects caught on the ground are a bluebird’s main food for much of the year. Major prey include caterpillars, beetles crickets, grasshoppers, and spiders. In fall and winter, bluebirds eat large amounts of fruit including mistletoe, sumac, blueberries, black cherry, tupelo, currants, wild holly, dogwood berries, hackberries, honeysuckle, bay, pokeweed, and juniper berries. Rarely, Eastern Bluebirds have been recorded eating salamanders, shrews, snakes, lizards, and tree frogs."

A cold and wintery day.

On another walk: the stream not yet frozen.

And a somewhat more exciting bird on another walk: a Merlin,
which is a type of falcon.

Blog post and all photos © 2020 mae and len sander.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Grimod de La Reynière, Food Critic


"Each volume of the Almanach des Gourmands contained, besides articles of interest to gourmands on the subject of different foods or furnishings for the table, some gourmand literature and a guide to the restaurants and food shops of the capital. In this last essential part of the work Alexandre-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière was the spiritual forefather of any modern reviewer from Egon Ronay to Messrs Gault and Millau." -- A Palate in Revolution: Grimod de La Reynière and the Almanach des Gourmands by Giles MacDonogh (p. 66).
Collaborating with a jury of food reviewers who were also his friends, Alexandre-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière judged the food of Paris and published reviews in his Almanach des Gourmands. The volumes of the Almanac  appeared from 1803 to 1812 in eight volumes. Grimod would solicit food sellers and restaurants to send samples so that the jury of his friends could taste and evaluate the dishes, which he would then write about. Each dish would be sampled separately -- in contrast to the way that aristocratic dinners at the time would load the table with dozens of dishes for each course. The creators of the foods were kept secret from the tasters, to help them with more objective assessment. Wouldn't this be a nice scheme for having catered dinner parties without money?

Gault & Millau, a respected restaurant guide, charges €348 for
a "Plaque Restaurant," available only to those recommended in the guide.
(Screenshot of the plaques and prices from their website)
Like Grimod, food reviewers still rely on a variety of money-making schemes. The publisher of the twenty-first century Gault & Millau guide sells plaques for recommended restaurants to display in their windows. So do dozens of other rating services worldwide, including the prestigious Michelin Guides. 

(Note: in case I was misunderstood, they do not pay for the recommendations in the guide, only for the plaques that they put on the window to advertise the recommendation.)

In the Napoleonic Empire era in Paris, restaurants as we know them were just being invented -- that is, restaurants where you could sit at your own table and order from a selection of dishes made to order by a chef. Grimod was the first food writer to offer restaurant recommendations, which he called a "legitimation." He was also the first critic to offer a testimonial to display:
"Any traiteur or restaurateur who had been granted a legitimation could, at a cost of 1.50 francs, obtain a signed and sealed document to that effect (extra copies came at 1.25 francs). The recipeient could then display the certificate in the window of his shop or restaurant." (p. 70) 

 Grimod de La Reynière was the first writer to do a lot of things, but somehow someone always came along shortly after him and did it better! He's not completely forgotten by history, but everything about him seems to be a pale shadow of what someone else did! 

  • Brillat-Savarin and Grimod (who published first) are jointly credited with the creation of culinary essay-writing. Brillat-Savarin's treatise on food, The Physiology of Taste: Or, Transcendental Gastronomy, is much more famous than Grimod's work, and still in print in a number of editions in French, English, and other languages. Try to find a book by Grimod: the bulk of his works have never been translated into English. They are expensive and hard to find in French, though it's possible to get them from -- I'm afraid this is because they just aren't as interesting or readable as the works of Brillat-Savarin.
  • Alexandre Dumas took up Grimod's project of a Grand Dictionary of Cuisine, and wrote a much better one. Grimod never finished his dictionary, but gave Dumas the idea. Let’s face it, Dumas was a more clever and imaginative writer!

Grimod belonged to an aristocratic and wildly rich family, who made huge amounts of money as tax farmers before the revolution. While his father's family had bought their way into the aristocracy, his mother was from a very ancient noble family (but of course rather poor by comparison). Because Grimod was born with a birth defect -- deformed hands -- his parents were very ashamed of him and sort of acted like he didn't exist, but he persisted. Grimod hated their pretensions and as a young man was very disrespectful of his elders. He gave parties at their palace that were irreverent and loony. To try to control their son, they used the famous method of a Lettre de Cachet to disinherit him and have him locked up or exiled. They also tried to declare him insane. It's a long complicated story that soon became entangled with the events of the French Revolution. Somehow, Grimod just sort of plodded onward until he was freed. 

During the French Revolution, Grimod escaped the Terror and did not face the dramatic fate of many similarly placed aristocrats. This was partly because of his exile, and partly because he wasn't fully credentialed as an aristocrat, thanks to his parents' embarrassment. Mostly, his escape from the Terror seems to have been by chance and luck -- not heroic or clever or full of suspense. He just wasn't in anyone's way! It may have been the best of times and the worst of times, as Dickens wrote, but for Grimod it was one day after another. While he had been unobtrusively exiled in the provinces, his had father lost all his money to a con man, and died a natural death. Even with everything against him, Grimod managed to get back their palace on the Champs-Élysées and subsequently live there in genteel near-poverty, eventually making a living as a kind of (let’s face it) hack writer.

A shop sign for the fine grocer Corcellet in Paris.
The man in the picture is said to be Grimod. 
This sign is now in the Carnavalet Museum in Paris.

Grimod loved the theater, and especially loved actresses. When he needed to make money after the Revolution, he became a theater critic, but his works were censored because he also included remarks about politics. What could he do? He started writing about food, especially the food on the menus of the new dining establishments. These newly emerging restaurants were serving high-end meals to non-aristocrats who had become rich during the upheavals of the revolution. It was at this point that he invented the food review, and founded the club for testing out the best the new restaurateurs had to offer.

Page from one of Grimod's books. (wikipedia)

My source for most of this information about Grimod's life comes from the book A Palate in Revolution: Grimode De La Reynière and the Almanach des Gourmands by Giles MacDonogh (published 1987). Grimod lived from 1758 to  1837 -- thus through the end of the French Old Regime, through the Revolution and the Napoleonic Era, and well into the next phase of French government. There's a lot of fascinating material in the book, but unfortunately the author treats it in a way that I would describe as very pedantic and often dull. Maybe it's appropriate, as Grimod himself seems to have always come close to being really innovative and interesting, but there was always someone moreso.

Let's end with a few bons mots from Grimod:
  • "DIETS AND DIETING PEOPLE: Beware of people who don't eat; in general they are envious, foolish or nasty. Abstinence is an anti-social virtue." (p. 175)
  • "KITCHENS: It is as difficult to put together a kitchen as to create a library." (p. 192)
  • "THE REVOLUTION: Had the reign of the vandals lasted longer we should have lost even the recipe for chicken fricassée." (p. 205)
  • "THREE THINGS TO AVOID: 'A little wine which I bought directly from the grower'... a dinner which is described as '...just among friends,' and amateur musicians." (p. 213)
Review © 2020 mae sander.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Fresh Orange Juice

Last week I wrote about orange juice and its role in American life, now declining (blog post here). Today I'm posting photos from random web searches, illustrating various juice squeezers that have been used to squeeze juice by hand. I also found a few vintage orange juice serving sets and glasses from the olden days when people drank a small glass of juice almost every day -- these come up for sale on eBay, Etsy, and similar sites.

This Foley juicer/strainer was a classic. It fit over a container such as a
Pyrex measuring cup, so the juice you squeezed could be measured out.

A classic for squeezing juice by hand: still available.
You have to strain the juice or pick the seeds out.

Older version, maybe Depression Glass.
My old but still working citrus juicer.
I use a wooden reamer for lemons, but not for oranges.

If you are interested in buying a juicer, here's an article for you: "The 8 Best Citrus Juicers of 2021." Prices range from $7 for a wooden reamer to $295 for a powerful electric juicer.

Juice Glasses from the Fifties and Sixties

Note that most juice glasses held 4 to 6 ounces of juice. They were often decorated with fruit motifs in various styles.

There's nothing like this available new these days!

Kraft Pimento Cheese Spread in a glass 
Cheese, jelly, peanut butter, and other processed foods were, and are, packaged in drinking glasses with pry-off lids. You could easily wash these, remove the label, and use the container for your drinks. When I was a child, we drank orange juice from the jars from Kraft cheese spread, as well as from other glasses, which constantly broke and had to be replaced. Several flavors of Kraft cheese spread are still available in such glasses, though my taste in cheese has changed. (For a history of pimento cheese see this site.)

Juice glasses from the early 1900s.

I'm sure that many people will recognize these styles of squeezers and glasses from their own experiences, both past and present. Quite a few people, in response to my post from last week, mentioned that they remember drinking from little juice glasses when they were children -- or they still do. I'm sharing with Elizabeth and the many bloggers who participate in her celebration of drinks!

Finally, on a completely different subject, here is my thought for today's holiday, Martin Luther King Day. I believe that we are about to finish with our 4 year nightmare of injustice, racism, glorification of ignorance, and mob rule.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Walking in my neighborhood

Walking down Packard Road, a major street near my house, I enjoy
looking at a wide variety of colorful buildings. I don't walk there often
because there's much more traffic than on residential streets.

A mural signed Eva Rosenfeld.
You can see we still have a remnant of dirty snow.

The ice machines at Stadium Market are painted with icy designs.

Gas pumps -- which I usually don't notice -- have colorful logos.

I walk this way often, and I may have posted photographs of these buildings before. But on a grey day, when I don't feel safe going inside, it's fun to take another look at them. These are my photos, © 2020 mae sander.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Dorah Sitole (1953-2021)

Today, I learned for the first time of a very intriguing author: Dorah Sitole, known as South Africa's "first black food writer and a celebrated food personality." (source)

Dorah Sitole, 40 Years of Iconic Food.
This book is not yet released in the US.
Dorah Sitole was born in Soweto, South Africa, in 1953. She overcame many challenges of living in that oppressive and racist regime, and became an author. She wrote: "I travelled to 19 countries across our incredible continent, and to all the provinces within South Africa, in order to capture the essence of our indigenous food. The result was Cooking from Cape to Cairo, published by Tafelberg Publishers in 1999." (source)

In October, 2020, Dorah Sitole published a new book: 40 Years of Iconic Food. She felt that she had just entered "her encore years." Alas, on January 4, 2021, she tragically died of Covid.

Reading her obituaries and the reviews of the book which just appeared, I felt very sad that I had never heard of her or read her work; I have searched for available copies of her books, but have not found a good source so that I can obtain them. I will persist!

From one of the obituaries:

"In a foreword to her book [40 Years of Iconic Food], Sitole wrote that she’d also included the two decades that prepared her for the 'path I was to walk'. 'I truly believe my relationship with food was formed by my childhood experiences. And with my encore years, this story spans six-and-a-half decades!'

"It should not be glossed over that the racial divide was present in the food writing and publishing industry, and those of us who were exposed only to the white food writers were the poorer for it; also missed was the opportunity to unite us through shared culinary heritages. Heritage Day, for instance, had everything to do with food for Sitole, as she wrote: “Marked by a kaleidoscope of colours and flavours, Heritage Day is a day many South Africans proudly celebrate. Across the country, tables will groan with food for friends and families. The base ingredients are often the same: meat, starches and vegetables. But cuisine isn’t fixed: every individual brings their history and themselves to the kitchen." (source)

I'm hoping that her new book will be released in the US so that I can read it. Ordering it from South Africa is prohibitively expensive.  

Friday, January 15, 2021

Arsène Lupin: Gentleman Burglar

What I'm reading: Arsène Lupin: Gentleman Burglar
by Maurice Leblanc.

Arsène Lupin: Gentleman Burglar by Maurice Leblanc is one of twenty four books about the fictitious criminal named Arsène Lupin, a series that began in 1905. There are a huge number of editions of these books with a wide variety of covers, usually featuring Lupin with his gentlemanly top hat. In France, it remains as popular as the contemporary Sherlock Holmes stories in England, or as the slightly later novels by Agatha Christie, though now that I've read one, I understand why Arsène Lupin is not as popular in English-speaking countries as these stories.

I read this book out of curiosity after watching the five available episodes of the new Netflix series "Lupin." Unfortunately, I don't think the original is as enjoyable as the reinterpretation, featuring a twenty-first century gentleman thief who models his exploits on the very popular original. The plot is complicated, but not very suspenseful, there are too many servants and policemen, the Paris local color is lacking (although it is set in Paris), and the dialog is stilted. Here's a sample:  

"'That power of fascination which some men exercise on women is one of those mysteries which science should investigate before it does anything else,' said the Duke, in a reflective tone." (p. 148, Kindle Edition). 

In the new "Lupin" series, the elusive burglar is shown laboriously creating his elaborate and ingenious disguises by using makeup and false facial features. The original Lupin can change his appearance in seconds with no clear effort, which isn't very convincing. Food scenes (which I always look for in detective fiction) are disappointing as well. The author includes little detail: "Jean took two bottles of wine, a rich-looking pie, a sweet, and carried them to the drawing-room." (p. 62). Or at the end, after Arsène has been running away from the police all night, this is all we learn:

"He fell upon his breakfast with the appetite but not the manners of a wolf. ... Victoire hovered about him, pouring out his coffee and putting sugar into it. 

"'By Jove, how good these eggs are!' he said. 'I think that, of all the thousand ways of cooking eggs, en cocotte is the best.'" (p. 196). 

I like this one better, even though the food scenes are also not detailed.

Review © 2020 mae sander.


Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Doing Things!


The common redpoll is a pretty bird, with a bit of red on the head and pink on the chest. There's been a flock of them in our area this season, and we've been trying to get a look at them. Finally on Sunday we found them -- we guess somewhere between 50 and 100 birds. We watched them land on a weedy field of bare stalks and feed for a while, and then suddenly all rise into the air and swoop around for a minute. Finally, on one of their flights, they swooped on out of sight.


Our area of Michigan is at the edge of the redpolls' winter range. They show up in different places in different years, seemingly seeking good supplies of seeds. According to the Cornell birding website:
"Common Redpolls are energetic little birds that forage in flocks, gleaning, fluttering, or hanging upside down in the farthest tips of tree branches. Like many finches, they have an undulating, up-and-down pattern when they fly. To keep order in flocks, redpolls have several ways of indicating their intentions. When quarreling with flockmates, a redpoll fluffs its plumage, faces its adversary, and opens its bill, sometimes jutting its chin to display the black face patch. ... In winter, some redpolls roost in tunnels under the snow, where the snowpack provides insulation and stays much warmer than the night air."

We feel lucky to have such a nice birding opportunity, as there aren't many birds to watch in Ann Arbor in winter.  


Like most of the people in the country, we are mainly staying in the house and watching TV while waiting for the vaccine to release us. We have been binge watching two previous seasons of "American Gods" on Starz (from 2017 and 2019), and when we finish the earlier episodes, we will probably watch the new season which is starting this week. 

The Neil Gaiman book American Gods is one of my favorites, which I've read 3 times. The TV series missed a lot of the best parts, such as Gaiman's witty and humorous observations about middle-American life. Disappointingly, the TV treatment also skips the food scenes from the novel -- though it does deliver "a surreal drama that truly earns its TV-MA rating. There's frequent brutal violence, with onscreen deaths by decapitation, stabbings, slashings, bludgeonings, with spouting blood, lingering shots of gore, dead bodies, and disembodied limbs." (source of this warning: Common Sense Media)

Much more enjoyable: the new Netflix series "Lupin," released last week. Produced by Gaumont Télévision in France, it's is a fabulous crime and revenge tale, set in Paris. I'm enjoying the plot and also the many beautiful scenes of Paris boulevards, interiors of restaurants and cafes, and famous monuments, along with images of less affluent parts of the city. The scenes in and around the Louvre in the first episode are especially wonderful (of course there's a shot of the Mona Lisa). A great Paris scene involves a getaway car crashing through the skylight (inverted pyramid) into the underground shopping mall attached to the Louvre.

The hero of the series, played by actor Omar Sy, is a lovable thief and a seeker of revenge. He gets his ideas for brilliant crimes from his favorite detective novels -- the tales of Arsène Lupin, which were written by Maurice Leblanc in the early years of the twentieth century. We've really liked the first 5 episodes. We can't wait for more to be released, but Netflix has not announced a date for this. Meanwhile, there are lots of other things to watch on Netflix, like "History of Swear Words," which is ok, not great.

In the Kitchen

Cooking and baking continue to be some of our best ways to pass the time. Len continues to try more and more complicated recipes for rye bread. And I've continued to look for new ways to use vegetables.

Ottolenghi’s potatoes and eggs with gochujang paste.
From the book Flavor, but the recipe also appeared in
The Guardian here.

Here's a new dish I tried: Ginger-Miso Glazed Eggplant. I served it
with a salad and chopped scallions (recipe here).

Review and original photos © 2020 mae and len sander.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

"The 99% Invisible City"

An Interesting Book!
I'm too lazy to write about it.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Orange Juice

Orange juice from Whole Foods Market (screen shot January 8, 2021)
My preference is for half-gallon cartons of pasteurized orange juice.

Throughout the pandemic, I've been ordering Whole Foods orange juice through the above page at  Evidently, a lot of people are drinking orange juice this year. While sales of orange juice in the US had been declining for years, in 2020 they increased by around 10%, partly because there's a general belief that orange juice improves one's health -- which everyone is worried about. Also, more people have been eating breakfast at home, including more orange juice. (Source: Citrus Industry Magazine, January 8, 2021)

John McPhee's book Oranges tells the history of orange groves and orange juice production in Florida, as well as the history of oranges in many other times and places. In the 1960s, when McPhee wrote, the Florida orange-growing industry was completing the transition from producing and shipping fresh fruit up the east coast to producing frozen concentrate. 

The invention of frozen orange juice had caused huge change: while formerly, growers shipped boxes of fresh oranges to consumers, they now sent most of their produce to nearby factories, in which the more imaginative businessmen among them were investing their money. Instead of selling fruit whose flavor varied from season to season, from tree to tree, and even from one section of an orange to another, the factories blended multiple types of concentrated, processed, frozen juice (which tastes, says McPhee, like a blend of sugar and aspirin) with a little of the real thing. Small or large cans of juice concentrate became ubiquitous in supermarkets and home freezers.

McPhee wrote about consumers who had gladly switched over from squeezing oranges to reconstituting the syrupy stuff from the frozen cans. He discussed the sociology of orange-juice drinking: the blue-collar families of his day were still buying canned juice, while the educated consumer had embraced the frozen, and hardly anyone still squeezed their own. Neither the juice box nor the pasteurized OJ that's now most popular had yet been invented.

Researching his book, McPhee traveled the byways of rural Florida -- remember, before Disney. He observed that even the remaining roadside orange juice stands that he found were serving reconstituted juice concentrate. Further, his interviews with growers, pickers, and factory owners revealed that many orange groves were being cleared for new land use: the NASA facility at Cape Canaveral was in the process of being built on former groves. Finally, he wrote about the frenzy of effort to create new chemical orange juice surrogates. Add water to some crystals they were inventing -- they thought you would get orange juice. (I think they were actually creating Tang, but that was still in the future and they were optimistic.)

My orange juice for breakfast almost every day.
The Whole Foods orange juice carton has a new design.

When I was a child, everyone in my family had a small glass of orange juice with breakfast. My sister, brother, and I had been given "baby orange juice," that is, strained and sweetened orange juice, in our nursing bottles from something like the age of 6 months. It was a standard practice then, but is now considered very bad for babies. We survived.

My mother, like many people, switched from squeezing oranges to reconstituting frozen juice when this innovation became available in the 1950s. Some time in the 1970s, fresh-squeezed juice became a kind of a fad. Small markets or restaurants would have juice squeezers so they could make fresh juice on demand for their customers. Soon, bigger beverage bottlers began to offer fresh juice for the refrigerator aisles in the grocery store. This was much better-tasting than frozen juice. Then the orange processing industry developed pasteurized juice, which was less expensive and had a longer shelf-life but still tasted good. I continue to purchase and drink it. I guess I’ve been a very conventional consumer all my life!

Florida growers were the largest supplier of orange juice to Americans until 2017, when Brazil overtook them. Brazil currently leads the world in production of orange juice with nearly three times US production. Many Florida groves have been converted to other land use, like subdivisions of retirement homes. Florida citrus growers have struggled unsuccessfully against citrus diseases, and occasional frosts and hurricanes have destroyed orange trees over the years. Moreover, the price of Brazilian juice is lower; thus, many bottlers no longer buy American juice. The two cartons of orange juice in my refrigerator list Mexico -- the world's third-largest producer -- as the country of origin. (Statistics on global production here.)

Hesperides by
Samuel Tolkowsky. (link)
Over the years, I've read several other books about the history of citrus fruit. My favorites are McPhee's book (which I first read in 2008 and then In 2016, with my culinary history reading group, and again this week) and a very old and hard-to-find book titled Hesperides: A History of the Culture and Use of Citrus Fruits by Samuel Tolkowsky. This extensive book covers the history of entire citrus family from ancient times up until the book’s publication in 1938 -- a very interesting cultural study!

When my culinary reading group read Oranges, we particularly admired John McPhee's style and his captivating way of portraying the many people in the orange growing business in Florida. His sketches of the lives of advertising men, grove owners, fruit pickers, and many others enlivened his description of the history of citrus in Florida. Though out of date (the book has not been revised since its publication in 1966) the book brings a lot of the business of citrus to life. We wished there would be an update to tell us about modern issues like labor fairness, water consumption, climate change, and fluctuating demand from consumers of orange juice. 

I'm sharing my orange juice memories with Elizabeth and the other bloggers who like to talk about drinks once a week. This post is based on my previous writings about McPhee's book,  blogged here and here as well as current thoughts, so it is copyright © 2008-2021 by mae sander.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Learning About Street Art in China

Is there a clear distinction between graffiti and "real" art? A photo essay titled "Great walls of China: Beijing's burgeoning graffiti scene," published in the Guardian a few days ago, definitely made me think about this question. The graffiti images in the article are amazingly beautiful and expressive, not at all like the defacing tags that I usually think of when I think of graffiti. The Chinese artists were influenced by the development of graffiti art in the West, which had appeared in Hong Kong by the 1990s. The Hong Kong artists introduced the practice to other Chinese cities, I learned from the Guardian article. 

Cultural exchange programs brought artists from Hong Kong, the UK, France, and elsewhere to Beijing, so some of the murals depicted in the Guardian are by Westerners or are international collaborative efforts. Graffiti artists' work seems to be tolerated more in China than in many cities in the west, though the artists avoid politically unacceptable topics and they do not paint on historically important buildings. They often paint murals on buildings that will soon be demolished.

Many of the depicted murals were on the Jingmi Lu wall: "a stretch of wall greater than 1km that runs alongside the main road from central Beijing to the capital’s airport in the northeast of the city. The first pieces appeared around 2010 and it became a ‘tolerated’ graffiti zone. Many of the early pieces went untouched until last year when the entire wall was cleaned."

This work is by Kwanyin Crew, painted in 2007. There are four main crews painting murals in Beijing, using traditional imagery: "China has an extensive art history reaching back thousands of years, and many of its particular characteristics have appeared in local graffiti."

The Guardian article includes a series of around 20 photos of these intriguing murals, with brief descriptions of the work, the artists, and their influences. The photos in the article were from a recent book, Beijing Graffiti,  by Liu Yuan Sheng (the photographer) and Tom Dartnell (a graffiti artist), published last month by Schiffer Publishing. 

Here is the book description  of Beijing Graffiti at
"A complex and contradictory graffiti culture has been brewing over the last few decades in one of the least expected settings—China’s capital. Through an unparalleled collection of one local photographer’s images, as well as interviews with 25 prolific artists, see how Beijing has developed its graffiti movement against the backdrop of the once-secluded nation’s rise to global economic might. While Beijing graffiti artists take their cue from the subculture’s Western origins, the local scene has also been highly influenced by both foreign visitors and traditional Chinese art and culture. Profiles of significant artists explore the dynamics of creative self-expression in such a perceivedly authoritarian setting, including the surprising amount of freedom they have to make their art undisturbed compared to Western counterparts. A must for graffiti enthusiasts, Sinophiles, and anyone interested in how this colorful subculture is still growing half a century after it emerged."
I'm sharing this with Sami's Mural Monday blog event (which starts on Sunday morning in my time zone). I hope the many mural enthusiasts who link up their photos at Sami's will enjoy this very interesting exploration of street art in a far-away place.

Blog post  published 2021 by mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

"Having and Being Had"

"The irony of our times, then, is that everyone depends on capitalism but almost no one has what we used to call a ‘regular job.’" -- Having and Being Had, p. 37.

"What I understand, after reading a book called Understanding Class, is that class is hard to understand. Nobody agrees on what it is, not even the people who study it. There are no classes— class is dead. Or there are hundreds of classes, and each occupation constitutes its own class." -- p. 66. 

Having and Being Had by Eula Biss, published last September, is a series of little essays: insightful thoughts about money (or the absence of it), class (or the absence of it), jobs (or the absence of them), and what it means to feel comfortable in American life. Each essay is complete, but they build on each other. It's just coherent enough! 

As I read I felt that I got to know the author very well, as I would if we had a series of conversations about these topics, but with more frankness than one usually gets in an ordinary conversation. In the end notes, an explanation of the author's method helped me understand this feeling that it was very frank:
"As I wrote this book, I established a set of rules for my writing. One of the first rules was that I had to name specific sums whenever I talked about money. Another rule was that I had to talk about money. These rules were a direct refusal of what I understood to be the rules of polite conversation around money: 1) Don’t talk about it. 2) If you do talk about it, don’t be specific. 3) Minimize what you have. 4) Emphasize that you’ve earned it. 5) Never forget that work is the story we tell ourselves about money." (p. 284).

The house Biss owns, where she lives with her husband and son, has a big role in her thoughts. It seems both a mystery and a miracle to her. She describes her feelings about having enough money to own this house, on Chicago's South Side, while in earlier times of her life she had barely had the money for a deteriorating apartment. She thinks about the Diggers in the 1960s in San Francisco, as described by Joan Didion. They "wrote and published for themselves, printing broadsides that critiqued the hippies. They were the counterculture to the counterculture. The Diggers would go on to provide free health care in the Haight-Ashbury and run a free bakery and stock free stores with things that had been discarded but were still good." (p. 115). Also, as she worries about the topics of class and ownership, she looks back at many historic moments, such as the original "Diggers" --

"In 1649, Gerrard Winstanley led the Diggers in an act of protest, the digging and planting of a patch of vacant land outside London. Their plan was to give the food they grew to anyone who worked with them, and to forge a new economy— not feudalism and not capitalism either." (p. 266). 

Obviously, many economists have written about money -- Biss describes her readings from these men (I don't think she included any women) including Karl Marx. Here's a sentence that kind of sums up her views about them: "Three men won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2013...— two of them for theories that directly contradicted each other." (p. 53).   

For the most part, the essays in Having and Being Had are personal. Biss feels that she has almost escaped from the class of people known as the "precariat." What class is that? --

"'Everybody, actually' is the economist Guy Standing’s answer to his own question, 'Who enters the precariat?' By everybody, he means potentially anybody. Illness or disability can force somebody into the precariat, as can divorce, war, or natural disaster. The precariat is composed of migrant workers and temp workers and contract workers and part-time workers." (p. 235).

Joan Didion, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Czesław Miłosz, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas, among others, all wrote at least a bit about money and its role in society, and I especially enjoyed the way Biss makes use of their thoughts. The views are apparent both in their writings and in their life stories. 

On Virginia Woolf, she cites the book Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light, and also Woolf's A Room of One's Own.  There are contradictions, she shows, between Woolf's ideals about her own life and the way she treated her faithful and vastly underpaid cook Nellie. 

Alice Toklas enabled Gertrude Stein to be Gertrude Stein by acting as her servant and helper, a role that fascinates Biss. She wrote:

"Gertrude had some fun with a photographer who wanted to take pictures of her doing everyday tasks like packing a suitcase or talking on the telephone. She couldn’t do those things, she told the photographer, because Miss Toklas packed her suitcase and Miss Toklas handled her calls. Miss Toklas also typed her manuscripts. Finally, the photographer asked her what she could do, and she told him she could remove her own hat and drink a glass of water." (pp. 141-142). 

As is now well-known, Gertrude Stein's family treated Alice Toklas very badly after Stein died. Although they had lived as a married couple, the law and Stein's relatives allowed Alice nothing of Stein's estate, and she was thus impoverished (but to the benefit of posterity because she had to write her cookbook to make money). I enjoyed reading what Biss wrote about Stein and Toklas, though I wish she had also discussed the essay "Money" where Stein asked "Is money money or isn't money money." (source

About Emily Dickinson we learn:

"Dickinson never owned any property herself. She died in her father’s house, the house he willed to her brother. And her garden was worked by a man her father hired to dig for her. I had some things that I called mine, she wrote of the garden, And God, that he called his. The garden was hers until frost killed the plants in the fall, when her domain was reclaimed. The lesson being, James Guthrie writes, 'that ownership of all kinds is a precarious business at best, or at worst, a form of self-delusion.'" (p. 122). 

I really liked this book. Strange personal note: I've always been fascinated by the Diggers in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s. When we left Berkeley, we were clearing out all our stuff -- and I gave all my unwanted clothing to the Diggers, including a creepy fur thing (the kind with little paws and glass eyes) that my great-aunt had insisted I take from her, but which I couldn't stand. A funny memory.

This review © 2021 mae sander.