September 2009 Archives

Using a box of Froot Loops and some Go-Gurt as props, Michael Pollan--looking natty in a sportcoat and tennis shoes--spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of about 7,000 people last week at the University of Wisconsin's Kohl Center.  Not too shabby for a weeknight author event.


Yet I wasn't surprised in the least by the turnout:  here in Wisconsin, food matters.  As Pollan noted, the state has been on the leading edge of current issues surrounding food, and he wasn't just trying to curry favor with us cheeseheads.  From farmers' markets to urban farming (like Will Allen's Growing Power) to CSAs to larger debates about food policy, people in Wisconsin care about food, even if we don't all agree on the best way to produce it.


As one of the speakers introducing Pollan noted, about 10% of Wisconsinites work in agriculture-related jobs.  While no one in my family farms anymore, my grandparents (now both deceased) raised hogs and Angus beef cattle.  My aunt and uncle ran a family dairy farm and still live on that land.  As for me, I don't even garden and hay makes me sneeze like you can't believe--but I'm truly proud of the farming my family members have done.  Farming is physically demanding and financially risky.  If you like to eat, you should appreciate what farmers do.


But back to Pollan:  part of what I appreciate about both his book and his talk at the UW is the way in which culture has not been left out of the equation.  In fact, one of the big drivers behind Pollan's Madison visit was the UW's Center for the Humanities.  I believe they had already lined him up as a speaker for their "Humanities without Boundaries" series even before the UW at large selected the splendid In Defense of Food:  An Eater's Manifesto as the inaugural book in its new "Go Big Read" campus-wide reading program.


Just as food is a big part of Wisconsin's economy, it's a major part of our cultural heritage.  It helps us define who we are, from grass-fed beef and wholesome CSA produce to the more indulgent side of things:  brats, cheese and local beer.  While Pollan may tick off some food scientists and nutritionists (two professions he has taken to task), he does underscore a simple and oft-forgotten message:  before we turned food into a medical and scientific minefield, it was simply a part of life.  Kudos to Pollan for being one of the voices reclaiming food's rightful place as a part of culture and daily pleasure.


Local visual artists have also engaged in food-related issues.  I still remember an excellent show the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters did on the theme of farming in 2007, "Wisconsin's People on the Land" (my review is archived here).  And, timed to coincide with Pollan's multi-day stint in Madison this month, the local artists' group artsTRIBE exhibited at this year's "Food for Thought" festival, which also featured Pollan.


While I've never been completely disconnected from my food, Pollan has inspired me to make the extra effort to buy local food more frequently and do "real" cooking more often.  (Yet I'll never, ever, give up the occasional donut; life would no longer be worth living.)  It's not just about me and my health or quality of life--it's about being invested in this place where I live, in many senses of that word.

September 29, 2009 12:39 PM |
newstand.jpg The web-based culture magazine [The Curator]( kindly published this piece on mine in August exploring the future of music magazines and the difference between them, the music industry they cover, and all the buzz over the fate of newspapers. Thanks to AW.

Few things get Quincy Jones riled up like death.

First, it was Michael Jackson's. Then, it was Vibe's.

The monthly magazine covering black pop culture was shuttered suddenly last month 16 years after Jones co-founded it. The private equity firm that owned it failed to find a buyer. That was the only way to keep it solvent. The next day, after the news emerged, Jones vowed to revive it: "They just messed my magazine all up," he told the Associated Press. "I'm'a take it online because print ... is over."


The problems facing newspapers right now have convinced some, like Jones, to think print is over. But what newspapers are facing seems categorically different from the current plight of music magazines. Significantly, newspapers haven't had to deal with piracy, which over the past decade has reconfigured the entire recording industry and by extension reconfigured the landscape that music magazines cover. For newspapers, news is news, whether in print or online. Distribution is the problem, not the nature of journalism. For music magazines, the problem is existential. What is the purpose of a music magazine in light of the dramatic shifts of the past decade?

In 2000, CD sales, having survived Napster 1.0, continued their decline, but slowly. By the middle of the decade, they were in free fall. Just two years ago, estimates ranged from 1 to 2 billion illicit downloads a year. That figure is surely low now. The marketplace value of music has cratered. It's expected to be free. Few really expect paid downloads to match, much less surpass, former profits. Most industry insiders, including musicians themselves, consider CDs to be a marketing device for live concerts. To have a hit record, furthermore, is almost meaningless when that means selling a few hundred thousand copies. Meanwhile, those able to top the charts are fewer and fewer in number. When people say Michael Jackson's death signaled an end to an era, they in part mean there won't be superstars like him ever again.

[ The whole she-bang ...](
September 20, 2009 1:38 PM |

If you live in the Midwest--and especially if you live in Madison, Wis., as I do--one of the most curious things about following coverage of author Lorrie Moore is what that coverage reveals about attitudes towards this region.  Moore, whose long-awaited new novel just came out, has lived here since 1984, when she joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


I covered A Gate at the Stairs, the new novel, for this week's issue of Isthmus, Madison's alternative weekly, and this aspect of her critical reception is one topic I tried to address (with regard to her previous books).  In a nutshell, too many reviewers have cast her in the role of pithy, coastal intellectual trapped in a land of corn and slow-witted people.  (Just one example:  Ploughshares commented that "the predicaments of East Coast sophisticates landlocked in the Midwest" is a theme in her work, and implied it about Moore as well.)  This has become a cliché that Moore herself is tired of (see her quotes in my article).


It's that same sort of attitude that led my co-bloggers and I to somewhat sarcastically call this blog "Flyover"--so you can imagine my amusement when Michiko Kakutani wrote unironically in the New York Times that "[Moore] gives us bright, digital snapshots of flyover country where nearly every small town has a local Dairy Queen..." (something Kakutani apparently finds exotic and noteworthy). 


Jonathan Lethem's piece for the NYT also touches upon similar territory.  Rather puzzlingly, he wrote that "Moore's class diagnostics are so exact she can make us feel the uneasiness not only between town and country in a single landlocked state, but between different types of farmers on neighboring plots."  This comment tells me more about Lethem than Moore.


Lorrie Moore certainly has her laser-like descriptive gifts, but being able to distinguish in a work of fiction between a Madison-like college town and a rural community is not an extravagant feat.  The differences are obvious, as are the ones between a boutique farmer of gourmet potatoes and a big commercial operation.  Would Lethem be impressed if someone could tell the difference between a yuppie-ish college town in New York and an upstate farming community?  (I won't even get into Lethem's description of Wisconsin as "landlocked," but he might want to look at a map of the Great Lakes.)


For my part, I found A Gate at the Stairs problematic and not entirely satisfying, even though there are plenty of things to like about it.  Not only are the differences between the fictional towns of Troy and Dellacrosse obvious, they're on the verge of hardening into stereotypes (as I wrote in Isthmus, "we're left with fairly stereotypical impressions of a hick rural hamlet and a navel-gazing, lefty college town").  I also thought, as one example, that Tassie's inexperience with things as commonplace as Chinese food--especially given her worldly parents and growing up near a college town--was implausible.  Do these people never go anywhere?


It's great when a Wisconsin writer--and after 25 years here, I think Moore qualifies as such--is also a writer of national and international stature.  There are a number of outstanding people here:  Jane Hamilton, Michael Perry, kids' author Kevin Henkes.  Just don't look so surprised, OK?

September 4, 2009 2:18 PM | | Comments (8)

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