The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

FINE DINING: We live today in an age of ever-increasing market specialization, with niche markets pullulating like so many phony tax shelters on a millionaire’s quarterly return (not to get off the subject here, but can anyone tell me why Bill Gates, a man with a personal income larger than the gross national product of any seven Third World countries you could name off the top of your head, a man who makes more in the time it takes for him to go to the bathroom than I will make in my entire life, needs $600 from the United States government in order to stimulate the economy?). Where once consumers had to take what goods and services corporate America offered them or do without, in today’s Internet driven market more and more customers can indulge whatever taste or interest they may have, content in the knowledge that someone somewhere will have what they want to buy, no matter how strange that purchase may seem. Nowhere is that more true than in the market for sex toys, and if you are interested in this sort of thing then you should stop reading right now, because this is the last mention of sex toys in this particular bit of business.

No, I am speaking today of the publishing industry, where the smaller, boutique publishers, the specialist presses that may only handle a few books every year, are challenging the industry’s giants for a share of the market. One need only go into bookstores and public libraries from one end of this our Great Republic to another to see the effect of these digital age Gutenbergs. Shelves strain today under the weight of new books, an odd phenomenon, given that vast numbers of the citizenry are now too illiterate to understand the pictures, much less the words, in what the trade nowadays refers to as graphic novels, which in another time and place were simply known as comic books. Cookbooks abound today as never before, with books on French and Italian cuisine growing more and more narrow in their focus. Where once Julia Child could produce a cookbook that contained all anyone would ever care to know about French cooking, today’s culinary scribes feel a constant pressure to come up with something new, something more cutting edge, something no one else has, the demand driving them to concentrate on smaller and smaller areas, to the more regional and village cuisines, going deeper and deeper into the countryside for their subject matter, until these harmless drudges of New Grub Street are describing in exquisite detail for the gastronomically deprived wretches of the New World just how the coq au vin of Madame Defarge differs in style, taste, and texture from the coq au vin of Madame Dubois, the grouchy old bat who lives two doors down from Madame Defarge in a Alpes de Haute-Provence village so remote the villagers spend a fair amount of time wondering what numeral the current Louis is up to. The discerning critic will note, however, even after a cursory examination of newly published cookbooks, that nowhere in this ever-expanding pile of culinary prose will he or she find a cookbook describing the best way to prepare and serve a missionary for the socially conscious savage who wants to impress their family and friends.

This dearth of cannibal cookbooks seems a more than a little ethnocentric to me, if not culturally arrogant to an extreme degree, privileging Western gastronomic concepts over those of other cultures. How else will the environmentally concerned cannibal learn that Roman Catholic missionaries should be thoroughly washed and dried before eaten, as they may contain artificial preservatives known to cause cancer in laboratory rats? Or that the intelligent host should never serve Methodists, Episcopalians, or Mormons as the antipasto, reserving these denominations for the main course? Most up to date cannibals already know better than to consume Presbyterians or Dutch Reformed missionaries raw, as Calvin’s doctrine of predestination tends to give the flesh a slightly bitter aftertaste that the cook can remove by first marinating the missionary in beer (Heineken works the best; Bud Lite the worst—even the most ignorant and benighted of savages know enough to regard the vast majority of American beers as little more than slightly insipid imitations of the real thing) for several hours before cooking, but where is the anthrophagous Jacques Pepin who will tell today’s hip, with it upwardly mobile fine young cannibal that they can whip Pentecostals, Fundamentalists, and Southern Baptists into a fine frothy lemon meringue just by mentioning how much most cannibals support sex education in the schools? Alas, here is a niche market if ever there was one and apparently one that no publisher in the Western world wants to touch with a six foot Pole (Come on, admit it, you didn’t think I had the guts to use any pun that awful, did you?)

All is not lost, though. Self-publishing has been around for a long while; Proust self-published the first volume of A la recherché du temps perdu, for example, and Whitman brought out the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself; but over time many people, perhaps influenced by the publishing industry itself, which stood to gain financially by such an attitude, came to look down on the practice, calling those publishers that still did it the vanity presses. This, today, is an antiquated attitude; modern digital self-publishing has made the process much more available for the common person who may not have access to the centers of bookmaking power in New York, Boston, or Churchill Downs. Today’s publishing software makes it possible for any budding Rachael Ray to tell the struggling young working mother the best way to juggle the often conflicting demands of demands of work, family, and how to get and prepare the best cut of Congregationalist they can afford quickly and easily. And it will not be long before she does, I think. The possibilities created in our digital age are endless and endlessly fascinating. Bon appetit, everybody!

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