Editor’s Notebook: Politics and Small Things

From Issue #2 of Kitchen Work magazine (www.kitchenwork.com)

Kitchen Work wasn’t founded with an explicit interest in politics. In a sense it would be more accurate to say that it was founded as a sort of antidote to politics, to celebrate and nurture and maybe even play some small part in reviving in people their interest in the quotidian, the small, the passionate intensities that make our lives together whole and worthwhile. Yet like it or not we are all a little more political now, and we’re all faced with an increasingly urgent conundrum. Put your head down and go shopping for flowers, spend your time diving into soup recipes, and you’ll regret that you stood idly by while major events transpired around you; try to stay tuned to the latest developments and risk losing your mind altogether. So into the fray we must go, if only to defend the virtue of small things — the things that ground us in what is real and true.
In a recent article in the New York Times, the poet, critic and university professor Adam Kirsch smartly made the case that many people have changed their minds about truth somewhat recently — at least in the course of modern history. In the old days, he wrote, people were quite keen to know what was true and what wasn’t. Early English novels for instance could not be published as fiction and taken seriously, so they were given titles that suggested that they were actual factual stories. It took a while, Kirsch explained, before people could wrap their heads around a fiction and appreciate it just for its nuance and not care that it wasn’t true. He writes, “The suspension of disbelief that fiction involves is a late stage in the evolution of taste, and it may prove to have been a temporary one.”
Presently, Adam Kirsch points out, everyone seems to have become hip to the idea that there’s always more than one story. The disaffected voters who ushered in the current administration did so out of deep uncertainty and despair. Public marches and demonstrations notwithstanding, the prevailing feeling among the opposition in these last few months has also been despair, as people search for some means of influence and to have their voices heard. There will be many noteworthy observations in the years to come about the significant involvement of a powerful foreign government in a U.S. presidential election, but none will be more salient than the realization that the event seems to have been met with a shrug by millions of Americans. We now collectively seem to believe that actually there exists no true story at all, anywhere.
What I think is lost but should not be forgotten in all of these rather depressing assessments about our failure to communicate is the disappearance of narrative itself. Stories themselves are trending down. It’s so true that it’s become an instantaneous cliché, but it needs to be said again: we make no time to read. Culturally speaking, broadly speaking, we spend hours every week tending to ‘social media.’ We tweet. We grab lunch. Meanwhile, our magazines have become blogs, record albums have become nearly obsolete and given way to singles. Letter writing has been overtaken by emails, which in a few short years have started to look more like text messages. Sociologists may one day confirm: even extended face-to-face conversations seem like they’re on the way out. In almost every walk of life we are losing our interest in the long form.
The long form is what gives us caution when we approach uncharted territory as we pause to think of where we’ve been and about what implications might arise tomorrow. The long form is what informs our risks, when we make more or less intelligent decisions to take a leap or not. It’s what makes us feel great about having mastered something over a period of time, and makes us sad to our cores when we witness the depth of profound tragedy. The long form is full of nuance. It is the reason that the fourth movement of a symphony depends so greatly upon the first three, and why the audience is so attentive from the moment a conductor raises his baton. It is also the reason that a restaurant with very little staff turnover can make guests feel so comfortable, and that recipes yield better results the more often they are executed.
There is a well-known Latin expression that says ‘In Vino Veritas’ — in wine there is truth. One wonders how much of that aphorism also has to do with the long form, and the truth which is inherent in virtually any work performed gradually and over a period of time. Lies and shortcuts and frauds of different kinds can be propagated over long periods of time, but the longer they are pursued, the less likely are their chances of gaining and holding traction. In spite of various assaults on wine aimed at figuring out how to abbreviate the process required to make it, winemaking remains one of our practices that is most resistant to efforts to quicken, shorten, simplify, streamline, make more efficient. Its storied relationship with truth, which has been axiomatic for millennia, cannot be coincidental.
Something happened this past summer when we announced the founding of this magazine that I could not have predicted. I sent two emails to our restaurant mailing list, announcing a call for writing and illustrations. I was positively inundated with recommendations and introductions to no fewer than twenty extremely talented and accomplished illustrators. The response from writers was comparatively…I’ll use the word lukewarm. I have wondered since what to make of it. Our restaurant is in San Francisco, and it could be that the need for graphic artists in the technology industry means that the city is full of people who can draw really well. Still, I have had many conversations in the past several months trying to convince people that we would love to publish a story about their favorite restaurant or about the fantastic breakfast they ate that day. The rumors of deteriorating interest in long form writing have been swirling for years, and I wonder if it’s fair to say that my recent experience validates them.
Nonetheless! This second issue is a veritable festival of long form treatments, perhaps none more poignant than the piece by Aaron Ayscough about a wine from the Jura region in eastern France called Vin Jaune, which takes seven years to make. Liz Benedict, in “Do You Come Here Often?,” recounts a lifetime of relationships with city restaurants, and Erin Cochran invites us to the minutes and days of operating a one-woman farm. Bill McKibben, one of the country’s greatest writers and environmental activists, took time from his advocacy on behalf of the planet to write and submit some thoughts on beer, one of his favorite of life’s little passions. And I hope you’ll enjoy my conversation with Sam Mogannam, who is the proprietor of a seventy-five year-old food market in San Francisco that might be the best in the country. There are ample opportunities in this issue to get lost in the details, if only as a break from the noise.
Best regards from the Mission in San Francisco. I hope your 2017 is off to a good* start, and thank you again for supporting our work.