Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mo Yan: The Garlic Ballads

I don’t understand China, but I decided to read The Garlic Ballads by this year’s Nobelist in Literature, Mo Yan. I don’t understand the book any more than anything else about China. I can follow the narrative, which is not in chronological order, but still not too complicated -- I just find the culture to be a challenge.

At the beginning of each chapter of The Garlic Ballads, we hear a few lines about garlic and politics, sung by a blind street singer named Zhang Kou. At the beginning:
“Pray listen, my fellow villagers, to Zhang Kou’s tale of the mortal world and Paradise! 
The nation’s founder, Emperor Liu of the Great Han, 
Comanded citizens of our country to plant garlic for tribute…” (p. 1)
Who is Emperor Liu? I don’t know. Why garlic? We’ll find out.

After a few lines of ballad starting each chapter, the author slowly introduces a number of characters: dirt farmers in the village, the poor and mistreated of China. They have planted garlic for the 1987 harvest because it was selling for a lot of money – and because the planners told them to. They are very poor. They complain all the time because of rapidly rising prices of the things they need, such as pork and fertilizer for their garlic fields. The peasant women even have to stand in line at the birthing center. They constantly have to bribe the officials, who live much better than they do.

When it’s time to sell the garlic, the market collapses and the farmers are left worse off than ever. Communist ideals of earlier days have been betrayed as this new free enterprise enables whole new abusive situations under the onus of bureaucracy. I think that this life doesn’t make sense to the characters, and that’s a reason why it doesn’t make sense to me.

The first chapter tells of the arrest of one of these farmers, Gao Yang, who seems to have no idea what crime he was being accused of. Soon we meet another character named Gao Ma, who is also accused of a crime – starting a riot at the local city hall. A third arrestee, who appears somewhat later, is a woman of the village with a complicated relationship to the others. The chapters bob and weave back and forth between the horrible conditions in their jail cells, the filth, the lice, the smells, the abusive fellow prisoners. We follow the prisoners’ memories of their lives, from the time their fellow elementary school students mistreated them, through the recent garlic debacle, and up to the time of their arrest.

Garlic is everywhere. Green shoots in the fields. Piled in the farmers’ carts pulled by cow or donkey. In everything the farmers eat. Overflowing the warehouses. Confiscated in shakedowns by petty officials. Rotting in the street. An ingredient in many very unappetizing meals. Garlic everywhere! The crop should have sold for lots of money. As the blind poet said,
“Sing of the brilliant Party Central Committee… Elders and brothers, get rich on garlic, remake yourselves!” (p. 205)
Food is one of the principal elements in the characters’ lives. Most of the time they eat coarse flatbread “hard and resistant as a frozen rag.” In jail, one prisoner receives a bowl of noodle soup to make others jealous, so they will abuse him – their normal ration is “one steamed bun and a ladleful of soup.” (p. 87) The best meal in book is for a prisoner on death row -- a last dinner of fatty pork, potatoes, wafer cakes fried on a griddle and stuffed with green onions, and bean paste. (p. 247) Prison buns are made from stale mildewed flour with a few vegetables – and garlic, “raw, cold garlic,” “cold garlic broth” (pp. 79, 123)

Sometimes I felt as if I was reading an even grimmer version of the “laughter through tears” style of Yiddish writers like Sholem Aleichem, whose characters endured similar mistreatment -- though not really as degrading. Reviewers have compared Mo Yan to Dickens, to Faulkner, or to South American Magical Realists. Hmmm.

Comedy or tragedy? There’s a comic scene when Gao Ma attempts to take a bride whose family had promised her elsewhere. But her tragic suicide is in no way amusing. The failure to sell garlic involves some comic scenes. But as the discouraged farmers, who had waited in a line of “farmers, trucks, oxcarts, horsecarts, tractors, bicycles, even motorbikes” (p. 130), dragged their garlic back home, one dies a tragic death when struck by a drunken official driving an unlicensed car. The riot in government offices is somewhat comic. I guess.

Jail time is too humiliating to be funny, as are lives of mistreatment in memories; one charater says “dogs are better off than we are. People feed them when they’re hungry, and as a last resort, they can survive on human waste.” (p. 124) Finally, one accused prisoner stands up to the judges at his trial, and a seemingly true voice of a noble soldier pleads for a better society.

The epigraph to the entire novel is attibuted to Joseph Stalin, “Novelists are so concerned with ‘man’s fate’ that they tend to lose sight of their own fate. Therein lies their tragedy.” I say attributed, since the only google hits for the quote are in articles about The Garlic Ballads, not about Stalin. I don’t understand this book.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

School Lunch


School lunches are much in the news this fall, as recently-enacted nutritional standards are mandating changes. The public schools in St. Paul, Minnesota, have been experimenting with new programs for a few years, so I was very pleased to receive an invitation to have lunch at the Horace Mann Elementary School barbecue while visiting Miriam and Alice this week. I ate with Alice and several of her friends.

"Sometimes they have completely gross foods," says Alice, "but others are the best. I like the veggie pizza, but the chicken teriyaki and other meat items are gross."

As is evident in the photo, there are lots of vegetables -- and the classroom teachers discussed this with the children earlier in the year. Each child is required to try some veggies, which at least on the special family barbecue day were served on a sort of buffet in the cafeteria (which is also the gymnasium), after the line where the cafeteria ladies put the hot dog and baked beans on our foam trays. I gathered that there used to be things like chips on the menu which have disappeared this year.

The hot dog came on a whole-grain bun, baked in the central food prep kitchen according to the various articles I read earlier this fall. Alice ate the bun but not the hot dog. The children separate the food from the foam trays after lunch, and the edible rejects go to feed pigs at a special farm.

The "breakfast cookie" had lots of healthy ingredients, but didn't taste bad -- a tiny bit salty, I thought. Beverage choices: milk or chocolate milk. I doubt that I've tasted chocolate milk since I was eating in school cafeterias myself -- this was not as sweet and creamy as the chocolate milk of my childhood, if my memory serves.

During lunch Alice and her friends normally play a game called "Hello, Bob." Someone starts by saying, "Hello, Bob. Say hello to Bob, Bob." The response is to say "Hello Bob," and turn to the next person and say the same thing. Everyone has to talk in a sort of British or Australian accent. Eventually they also say "Hello, Sheila," or "Hello, Steve Owen." Hard to describe this one, but a couple of other visiting fathers and mothers and I played along with the group.

"The school lunches are better than our old school lunches," says Miriam, who ate lunch with Evelyn and Lenny and some of her friends elsewhere in the lunch room. "But home made lunches are still better."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Disorder as art in food photos

Not all food in art is perfect, as many Renaissance artists illustrated. In a current New York times article, photographer Laura Letinsky's work demonstrates the same principles. Both in her fine-art work and in her magazine illustrations she uses chaotic or at least very informal tables with the remains of a meal, a cup of tea, or a party.

According to the article:
"Dirty spoons, empty cantaloupe rinds, half-eaten lollipops and clumsily cut slices of bread are her trade. Her pieces, she said, explore 'the problem of the illusion of perfection.' ...  
"Even Brides, a magazine that would presumably want to present images of serenity and order, ran in its July issue Ms. Letinsky’s photographs of table settings. In these pictures macaroons are half-eaten and abandoned. Teacups and bowls are askew, and party organizers have hastily tied together a mishmash of silverware. The associates who work with Ms. Letinsky on these magazine pieces seem tickled by her chaos." 

 Several slick food magazines have used her work -- but evidently there are still quite a few editors who think their readers aren't ready for such realism.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

McDonald's Everywhere

Here: a wonderful illustrated round-up of McDonald's adaptations in other lands. I would love to try some of them, like the Moroccan McArabia -- a cumin-spiced flatbread chicken sandwich (the article says it's beef but the photo is titled chicken).

Or like the Turkish Kofteburger -- "the McDonaldization of kofte, a type of Turkish kebab made with mint and parsley." The photo looks pretty much like any McD's sandwich, but it includes a lot of parsley. In China there's even a special McD's for the Chinese New Year.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

What makes us human?

Very early hominids at some point learned to eat cooked food. This allowed evolution of "smaller guts, bigger brains, bigger bodies, and reduced body hair; more running; more hunting; longer lives; calmer temperaments; and a new emphasis on bonding between females and males. The softness of their cooked plant foods selected for smaller teeth, the protection fire provided at night enabled them to sleep on the ground and lose their climbing ability, and females likely began cooking for male, whose time was increasingly free to search for more meat and honey. .... one lucky group became Homo erectus -- and humanity began."

So ends the last chapter of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human by Richard Wrangham (quotes from p. 194). The book is a wide-ranging compendium of the scientific evidence for each of the points made in this summary -- not a collection of speculations or just-so stories, but hard research-supported data. The evidence is overwhelming. And as a bonus, in the Epilogue, he observes some of the consequences of his conclusions as they apply to the modern tendency towards obesity, and has a really interesting overview of the deficits in currently available nutrition and calorie information.

Wrangham's study of evolution and of the chemistry, physics, and nutritional value of cooked vs. raw foods has rapidly become a classic. From the time of first reviews, which I read shortly after its publication in 2009, until now, when it's referenced by a wide variety works on food and evolution, I've been meaning to read it. Finally I have done so.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

A Judgement of Foodies

"Let's start the foodie backlash" by Steven Poole, a very long and ranting article in The Guardian, condemns many things about the modern interest in food, in food TV, in exotic and excessively innovative cooking experiments, and in a wide variety of what he sees as a new version of gluttony.

Straight out of primitive Christianity: medieval gluttony, he says, "wasn't necessarily a matter of eating too much; it was the problem of being excessively interested in food, whatever one's actual intake of it." He cites definitions by various authors:
  • Francine Prose -- gluttony is the "inordinate desire" for food, which makes us "depart from the path of reason."
  • Spenser's The Faerie Queene -- "loathsome Gluttony ... Whose mind in meat and drinke was drowned so." 
  •  Thomas Aquinas and Pope Gregory -- "gluttony can be committed in five different ways, among which are seeking more 'sumptuous foods' or wanting foods that are 'prepared more meticulously.'"

Poole criticizes those who claim their love of food is spiritual; he condemns those who title their cookbooks Bibles; he sneers at those who say that their fine cooking is an art form. He delves into the  history of words like "foodie" and "foodist," finding nothing to like I would say.

He summarizes his indictment:
Western industrial civilisation is eating itself stupid. We are living in the Age of Food. Cookery programmes bloat the television schedules, cookbooks strain the bookshop tables, celebrity chefs hawk their own brands of weird mince pies (Heston Blumenthal) or bronze-moulded pasta (Jamie Oliver) in the supermarkets, and cooks in super-expensive restaurants from Chicago to Copenhagen are the subject of hagiographic profiles in serious magazines and newspapers.
Normal people would normally hate the foods they are made to love, he says. They are being psyched out by hype and fancy menu descriptions:
In an experiment, two psychologists gave different groups of people Heston Blumenthal's "Crab Ice-Cream" while describing it differently: one group was told it was about to eat a "savoury mousse", the other was expecting "ice-cream". The people given savoury mousse liked it, but the people thinking they were eating ice-cream found it "digusting" and even "the most unpleasant food they had ever tasted". The psychologists add that most food tastes "blander" without the "expectation of flavour caused by the visual appearance or verbal description of what is going to be eaten".
I have my suspicions of the foodie trends that reach my little town Ann Arbor in attenuated and rather absurd (and unappetizing) ways, but I'm overawed by the vigor of the charges in this screed!