Monday, June 30, 2008
down, i say, down with malcolm gladwell!
I have been harboring a nagging suspicion about Malcolm Gladwell for some time now. There is a word that keeps knocking at the back of my mind. That word is 'fraud'. I suspect, in short, that Malcolm Gladwell is a fraud. I finally picked up his book from a couple of years ago, Blink. He subtitles it "The Power of Thinking Without Thinking." The book oozes with a slickness, a snake oil salesman's set of cheap tricks and pseudo-intellectual come-ons. My feeling of distaste is so strong that I've come in a perverse way to admire Mr. Gladwell. He has caused me to hate again. I hate Blink.
But allow me to calm down. Allow me to state the case. Allow me to endeavor to prove that Blink is a piece of shit.
Malcolm Gladwell is a good writer and a clear writer. He also knows how to entertain. Blink is driven by a series of anecdotes and stories about people using their "adaptive consciousness," that faculty of the brain that makes intuitive decisions before the conscious brain has even realized it. Gladwell's first story is about a kouros (an ancient Greek statue of a young boy) purchased by the Getty museum. The museum hired lawyers and experts and scientists to authenticate the statue. They got the green light for the purchase. But another handful of experts not directly involved in the process didn't feel right about the statue. They came to a number of snap conclusions just by glancing at it that told them something was amiss. As Gladwell puts it, "In the first two seconds of looking—in a single glance—they were able to understand more about the essence of the statue than the team at Getty was able to understand after four months. Blink is about those first two seconds."
The stories keep coming. Stories about a marriage expert who can interpret just a few facial expressions during a married couple's fight and deduce whether or not they will be together in fifteen years. Stories about our worst President, Warren Harding, who looked and sounded so much like a President that first impressions alone carried him to the White House, where he drank and whored around for a couple of years and then died. There are stories about the snap decisions of cops who ended up murdering an innocent man, Amadou Diallo. These stories are inherently interesting and dramatic. Some of them are gripping.
The stories aren't the problem. The sliminess and outright incoherence comes out when Gladwell starts telling us about what these stories are supposed to mean. He is not shy about his claims. These are not just amusing stories about the complicated and sometimes contradictory ways that human beings make decisions. Gladwell positions himself as more than an observer and as something closer to a life coach or a guru. He is going to teach people how to harness and make use of the power, the magic, of unconscious thinking. He is going to make things that were difficult and well nigh unfathomable a lot easier. And if people listen to him Gladwell predicts that it "would change the way wars are fought, the kinds of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counseled, the way job interviews are conducted, and on and on. And if we were to combine all those little changes, we would end up with a different and better world." How nice, how very nice.
The oddest thing about Blink, though, is the disconnect between these transformational claims and the actual arguments to be found inside. Throughout the book, Gladwell sorts his stories and anecdotes into two broad categories. On the one side are the stories about the so-called experts being shown up by the simple power of thinking without thinking. In these cases, we learn about the magical powers we all harbor within ourselves. On the other side, are stories about first impressions that have, in fact, led people astray. In these cases, we learn how to fine-tune and perfect our blinking skills in order not to get it wrong.
The problem, of course, which Gladwell never sufficiently addresses, is that it is extremely difficult to know beforehand whether, in this or that instance, a person's power of thinking without thinking is working as a strength or a weakness. Here’s an example of the ridiculousness of it all. At one point, Gladwell discusses a musician called Kenna. Kenna grew up in the US as the son of Ethiopian immigrants. His music is hard to categorize. But it has one hell of an impact on all the people who know something about music. Gladwell is very much taken with Kenna. He writes, "people who truly know music (the kind of people who run record labels, go to clubs, and know the business well) love Kenna. They hear one of his songs and in the blink of an eye, they think, Wow!" But for all the high-powered support, Kenna's albums have so far been a disappointment in terms of sales. Gladwell draws the conclusion that Kenna has suffered from being taken out of context in the market research that goes on in the modern music business. People listen to a short clip of his music without getting the full picture. Gladwell writes,
The people at the Roxy and the No Doubt concert saw him in the flesh. Craig Kallman had Kenna sing for him, right there in his office. Fred Durst heard Kenna through the prism of one of his trusted colleagues' excitement. The viewers of MTV who requested Kenna over and over had seen his video. Judging Kenna without that additional information is like making people choose between Pepsi and Coke in a blind taste test.
Later in the book, Gladwell brings in another example from music, this time of the classical variety. A long-time problem in classical music has been the gender disparity. Women simply weren't getting very many jobs in orchestras. Eventually, someone at the Munich Philharmonic came up with an ingenious solution. People auditioning for the job did so behind a screen. Voila! Women started getting the jobs at far higher rates. Gladwell quotes Julie Landsman from the Metropolitan Opera, "I've been in auditions with without screens, and I can assure you that I was prejudiced. I began to listen with my eyes, and there is no way that your eyes don't affect your judgment. The only true way to listen is with your ears and your heart." Gladwell notes of all this that, "When the screen created a pure Blink moment, a small miracle happened, the kind of small miracle that is always possible when we take charge of the first two seconds: they saw her for who she truly was."
But then, why didn't the people in the market research surveys see Kenna for who he truly was? None of the music industry experts were claiming that Kenna is making music for the select few, they were claiming that Kenna has what it takes to be a hit maker. Sure, his music might straddle a few categories but there are plenty of stars and hit makers in the history of popular music who've done the same. The whole goddamn point of making pop music is that people listen to the song on the radio or wherever and like it. People listen to Kenna's music and some like it, but a lot more simply don't care for it. Why isn't the market research situation a perfect Blink moment for judging Pop goodness? For some reason, in the case of Kenna, Gladwell thinks that we need more information, more time, a more rounded experience. But with the classical musicians you create the Blink moment by taking information away. Of course, even in the classical music example Gladwell never suggests that the judges are making their decisions in the first two seconds. In fact, they are listening to a whole piece, they've simply been prevented from making certain presuppositions by the screen. Really, I'm not at all sure why Gladwell calls this a "perfect Blink moment." It partially contradicts everything he is trying to say about the first two seconds and it is in complete contrast to the Kenna example, which is itself an utterly muddled attempt to apply the Blink lessons to a real world scenario.
Every story in the book falls apart in these ways when you break them down and ignore all of Gladwell's bells and whistles. They simply do not go where he is trying to make them go.
Really, Gladwell is simply amazed and flabbergasted by how we manage to make judgments at all. There is no shame in this. Human judgment is a fantastical thing. But for Christ's sake Malcolm, we've all known that for a very long time. In an act of hubris, chutzpah, complete stupidity, or a combination of all three, Gladwell comes out and admits as much in the Afterword to the book. I quote the paragraph in its entirety.
What was that magical thing [the ability to make the right decision]? It's the same thing that Evelyn Harrison and Tom Hoving had when they looked at the kouros, and that Vic Braden had when he watched someone serving and knew if the ball was going to go out. It's the kind of wisdom that someone acquires after a lifetime of learning and watching and doing. It's judgment. And what Blink is—what all the stories and studies and arguments add up to—is an attempt to understand this magical and mysterious thing called judgment.
What? Judgment is an ability to apply a lifetime of learning and watching and doing to particular instances? That's the great insight of Blink? That's what all the portentous talk and self-aggrandizing tone was all about? That's what the guru wants to tell us? The thing that every single fucking human being on planet earth over the age of twelve has already figured out?
The truly maddening aspect to all this hooey is that Gladwell is not that far away from a respectable point. There is a long tradition in Western thought (and other 'thoughts' besides) of puncturing the claims of human knowledge and reminding us that most of what we know comes down to a matter of know-how and the 'knack'.
One of my favorite figures in the history of marginal thinkers is the ancient Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus. Sextus was fed up with the lofty claims of the Platonists and the Aristotelians and wanted to show that human knowledge was a more pedestrian thing. He subjected every philosophical claim to a series of withering cross examinations that inevitably exposed those claims to charges of circularity and begging of the question. It was good stuff. Let us cure ourselves, he suggested, of the will to absolute and objective knowledge and let us admit that we do know some things and that we're not always so sure exactly how we know them. He was aiming for ataraxia, or an unpurturbedness of mind. His favorite story was of the painter Apelles, who, striving too hard to figure out how to paint the foam coming from a horse's mouth, threw his painting implement in disgust and, lo and behold, it dashed against the wall in a perfect representation of the foam. The point being, when we go outside of ourselves we forget how to do the very things we have always known how to do all along. This is Gladwell's point as well. Simply living in the world gives us skills, a set of practical tools by which to continue living in the world. Wittgenstein was wont to make the same observation. He says famously that "judgment comes first." In short, we already know what we're doing before we do it and the giving of reasons tends to be an a posteriori affair.
That's the real and only insight (if we can call it that) to Gladwell's flimsy book. As human beings we do acquire a capacity to deal with the world and we often tend to make the right decisions without fully knowing why. Experience gets embedded. We act. A kind of learned instinct takes over. In our hubris, we try to codify this ability into doctrines and methodologies and systems of thought. Sometimes there is reason to do so. But in the end we shouldn't pretend that our vast acquisition of data and knowledge has allowed us to jump outside of ourselves. We don't have a God's eye view of things. We're in the mix, in medias res, and the fact that we even manage to survive from day to day is at least weak proof that we know one or two things about the world.
But for the skeptics and empiricists and nominalists and pragmatists, this realization has a melancholy side as well. Not knowing exactly how we know things is part and parcel, so far, of the essence of the human experience. Only a charlatan pretends that there is magic in it. In fact, the human condition, marvelous as it is, is also a depressing nightmare. The crap-shoot of judgment has us perpetually hanging on the edge of an abyss.
Which brings us back to Gladwell the huckster. Gladwell dresses up all of his "realizations" in fancy clothes and too much make-up. He gives himself powers that he doesn't have. He pretends to have sorted things out that he hasn't sorted out. He imagines a possible control, and pretends that he has achieved that control. All the while telling people, whispering into their ears, precisely the kinds of things they would like to believe. And then (it must, I'm sorry, be said) he goes on wildly lucrative corporate speaking engagements spinning out the same titillating stories combined with his shoddy conclusions. I even kind of hate, I must confess, the way he looks. His hair all scruffed up just so. His cute little suits. It makes the skin crawl.
Frustratingly, Gladwell ends the book with a reasonable and humane suggestion. It even managed to numb my hate for a short time. He suggests, in reference to the blind auditions that have created gender equality in the classical music world, that the justice system might benefit from the same approach. He asks, "What if we put screens in the courtrooms? … we know that what we see—particularly when it is the color of someone's skin, or gender, or age—does not always aid understanding." I don't think gender or age really has much to do with perverting justice in the American judicial system. But color, unfortunately, still does. Reducing the effect of racial bias would go a long way to balancing the scales. And Gladwell's suggestion for doing so is simple, practical, and damn well might be effective. But it has nothing to do with what he's been talking about for the previous 250 pages of the book. His judicial solution isn't about trusting our snap judgments, but about trying to mute them. It isn't about training ourselves to be clever about detecting the 'real criminal' in less than two seconds. Quite the opposite. Certainly he has left room in the book for the negative lesson, for the sense that we have to know when it makes sense to put the brakes on our adaptive consciousness. But that too is disingenuous. Blink is supposed to be about the power of the snap judgment. It is supposed to be about the wonderful things that happen when we think without thinking. And in the end, he tells us, if you want a little justice, best to give yourself some time to really think it through. The nicest thing that can be said about Malcolm Gladwell is that he doesn't even really believe his own mental garbage. If he is salvageable as a human being, it might be for the simple reason that he's a bad fraud.
In our town
new mothers spring up like weeds.
They roll fold-up strollers
along Bridge Street or
tote sleeping babes that loll like
tot marsupials in sacks
strapped across breasts:
trussed over shoulders
and buckled in back.
A moment ago
these moms were tot
Now, out of nowhere--
ignorant as saints or
immune from despair, or both--
they come toting or pushing
mute futures as if headlines
had no place in their dreams;
as if their children
were joyful counterweights
to the evening news,
brimming with hope as tabula rasas,
promising as a new day.
Perceptions: of deities
Susanne Wenger. God of Small Pox.
Clay sculpture, The Sacred Forest. Oshogbo, Nigeria (photograph by Sughra Raza, June 22, 2008).
SAFFRON MOTHER, Part III
This is the third in an open-ended series of articles about saffron. Part I highlights the culture that produced the renowned saffron-gathering murals dating to the 17th century, B.C.E., on the Aegean island of Santorini. Part II is an examination of saffron in classical mythology, with particular regard to the representation of female Olympian deities.
Today, I'll be the Saffron Mother. I'll tell you perilously close to everything you ever wanted to know about sourcing saffron -- there's lots to be wary of -- and cooking with it to fantastic effect. If you find you need to know more about saffron than I've written here, more even than you can learn from the research materials cited at the end of the post, then you are indeed special.
The image under the title, Still Life, painted by Adriaen van Utrecht in 1644 and now in the Rijksmuseum, depicts not a single thread of saffron unless, as is distinctly possible, saffron is an ingredient in the luxurious game pie spilling its contents onto a tray just below and to the right of the parrot. The brighter tones of the painting, however -- from the pale yellow of the tulips to the intense yellow of the lemons to the gold-red of the peaches to the striking orange-red of the outsize boiled lobster -- sumptuously evoke the saffron palette. Evoke but do not approach it. If you think a boiled lobster is a vivid orange-red, then you have not made a saffron infusion in a glass pot, and sat spellbound as light passed through it before taking it unto yourself.
Making a Saffron Infusion
An infusion is exactly the place to start a personal investigation of saffron. After all, you might not like the stuff, and if that's how you are, well...better to know it before you add it to food. A word to the wise -- never, never introduce saffron threads into your mouth as you might do a cardamom pod. Oh, no. You won't know it from crushed Ibuprofen if you take it in that way.
The red-orange tangle in the photo above left shows dried saffron threads many times magnified, but an actual-size photo would fail to instruct. Above right is the only flower in the world that saffron comes from, the Crocus sativus L., or saffron crocus. Those shriveled yellow things are its stamens, and no one eats them or uses them for dye, because they release neither flavor nor color, newsy looking though they may be. Those satiny red things are its lady parts, called stigmas. It is this, dried, that you will infuse and taste.
To prepare an infusion, take a pinch of dried saffron threads and fling them into a clear glass vessel that will withstand boiling water. A glass teapot is ideal, especially one with an infuser chamber. Failing that, a Pyrex bowl and a strainer will work -- just don't miss out by infusing in porcelain or some otherwise opaque container. Place your vessel in front of a window during daylight. Pour into it about 8 ounces of boiling water.
Immediately, the water will start to color an opulent yellow, deepening over the next few minutes to a clear thrilling orange. About 50,000 years ago, painters in Iraq applied this color to animals on the walls of a cave. Much later, in the early Bronze Age, it was daubed onto the sacred stones of hilltop shrines throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. This color, made from this substance, has a long, long history of delighting human beings, and you are about to drink of it.
But not just yet. Let the saffron threads continue to infuse for about 20 minutes; while remaining clear, the liquid will gradually intensify in color. Try to sit at your window and look on as this happens -- it's mood-elevating to do so, deeply enlivening, and will contribute to your anticipatory pleasure. More than all that, you will be keeping faith with those distant humans who first teased out the difference between survival and desire, never a wrong thing to do.
The photo at left, courtesy of the BBC, shows an infusion after several minutes. But, honestly, the camera cannot capture it. To heat the infusion back up, pour in about another 8 ounces of boiling water, and strain the liquid into a glass cup -- or a jelly jar. While this liquid is cooling to the temperature you think tea should be drunk at, re-infuse the strained threads in a few tablespoons of boiling water, and conserve this for later, when you will cook with it.
Okay, it's time. The steaming brilliant liquid in the cup before you will have a gorgeous aroma. It is bitter, it is creamy, it is musky, it is luxurious. People have said saffron smells of so many things: wild honey, fresh earth and new-mown hay. You cannot get near another scent that so perfectly expresses the truth of flowers, the fury beneath the sweetness, nor one that speaks so frankly of civilization's refinements.
If you have eaten the food of the Punjab, or Persian cuisine, or Sephardic cooking, or some of the classical dishes of the northern Mediterranean, or even just bitten into a characteristic yellow bun in Cornwall, then you have tasted saffron -- but not like this, in isolation. And you need to taste it like this, to discern how much saffron is right for you in the dishes you will use it to flavor. Too much can taste overwhelming or even medicinal, too little is kind of pointless.
So, take a sip. It's an epiphanial taste, no? It tastes like it smells, and like what it is -- the female parts of an autumn-blooming flower coveted since Prehistory for its frighteningly beautiful stain and magically salubrious properties. Xerxes knew this taste, and Alexander and Aurangzeb. Nowhere on earth is it disregarded. And now you too have had it.
I know -- what if you don't like it? And don't wish to finish drinking the infusion or use the rest in cooking? All is not lost. It may just be that your palate is extremely sensitive to anything that tastes at all bitter. If you don't like arugala, artichokes, pomegranates, tamarind, wild asparagus, green tea, tobiko, rosewater, cilantro, Seville oranges, dark chocolate or fresh chilis, then the odds are very great you will not like saffron and should not put yourself out to try it, even though saffron tastes like none of those things, exactly. But if you've made the infusion anyhow, and are nonplussed, then stir in some sugar or honey. Still no go? Then call almost any good cook living nearby, and make their day. Just say you have about 16 ounces of slightly sweetened bright orange saffron water, with a big pinch of semi-infused threads on the side. They'll be right over.
If on the other hand you are transported by the infusion, whimpering with lust to wrap your lip around still more saffron, then finding out how to choose and use it is the route to enlightened consumption. We should look more closely at what saffron is and is not, who produces it and how it is graded, the better to fend off all those vendors ready, in their avarice, to sell us what is not quite saffron.
Punishable by Death
In the Middle Ages in Germany, the crime of adulterating saffron for sale was punishable by death. We know the names of two Nuremberg merchants whose lives ended horribly for that reason. Today, the penalties for the crime are not truly severe, while the motive remains sky-high. Saffron fraud is lucrative, and widespread. In The Seven Deadly Sins (detail left), painted in 1933, the German expressionist Otto Dix transposes the saffron palette into a sickly key for a political allegory that would have been in large part readable by those nefarious German merchants seven centuries earlier. Avarice is the staring hooded figure at the lower left, Envy with its Hitler mustache rides on her back, and Sloth is the skeleton. If, to plump out their profits several years ago, a few hitherto trustworthy olive oil exporters in Italy adulterated their product with tree nut oil, thus posing fantastic risks to the legions of mainly US schoolchildren who go into anaphylaxis if they ingest tree nuts, then what's a little saffron fraud? It merely detracts from the splendor of certain rarefied experiences at table, after all -- it doesn't really hurt anybody. It can't be a deadly sin.
Millennia before saffron was a point of gastronomy, however, it was two conceivably more important things that people were willing to pay a bundle for -- a dye for the garments of noble women, garments whose color announced to the world the wearer's station in it, and a powerful medicine for numerous ailments, kidney disease, difficult labor and melancholy among them. Avarice and saffron are linked, as intimately linked as saffron and luxury, saffron and nobility and even divinity.
It Could Happen to You -- and It Probably Has
Cynically benefiting from the general confusion about what saffron is, what its signature taste is, and what
its true color must
be, restaurant chefs of a certain type, and even some home cooks, are inclined to adulterate their saffron dishes with turmeric, or simply to substitute turmeric for saffron, a purer deception. Turmeric is a marvelously tasty, health-giving spice which makes a brilliant yellow stain. While it is foundational to many cuisines, it is not saffron. In the spice market stall photo to the right, you can see truth in advertising about turmeric, if also poor spelling. In case that's the color of the last paella you had in a redoubtable Mediterranean joint, the chef did not use saffron.
Paprika, left, the chili-related powder disappointingly sprinkled on the crest of twice-baked potatoes and such, is another popular saffron adulterant, albeit one that backfires on the culpable cook, for saffron and paprika are mutually canceling flavors. This won't stop anyone hoping to deceive through color alone, however -- paprika is a nice red food colorant, both earthy and bright. Delicious, too, as you know if you've troubled to make a real Hungarian goulash. But saffron and goulash are two words that don't belong in the same sentence, and one mustn't punch up a paella this way.
Dried safflower petals, right, are with disarming frankness called "false saffron," and "the poor man's saffron." Despite their relation to safflower oil, they are not actually a food substance but a dye. In the American South, where I was born and raised, safflower petals find their way into love charm bags, notably for gay men. Also into potpourri. If you are good at blending color with your eyes, you can imagine that a blend of turmeric, paprika and powdered safflower petals would make a highly attractive orange-red that would bleed color on contact with moisture. Alas, others less well-intentioned than you can imagine it quite easily too. For this reason alone -- and there are other good ones -- it's prudent to stay mostly away from powdered saffron.
Saffron-on-Saffron Crime -- If You Can't Prevent It, Avoid It
Certain saffron producers have found ways to make saffron threads go further not by adulterating them but by packaging them to masquerade -- literally to masquerade -- as more valuable and potent parts of themselves.
To see how this could -- and does -- happen, it's worthwhile to return to the saffron crocus for a closer look at its parts. The graphic in the center above, from the Trade & Environment Database (TED) at American University, schematizes the stalk, called a style, connecting the stigma, the topmost very red part, to the rest of the flower. At its base, the style is white, becoming yellow, then orange, then red, then very red at the stigma. The photo at right, also from TED, shows the actual length of the style. As a cook, you're interested only in the stigma. But middling saffron -- whatever one has been asked to pay for it -- may contain much of the rest of the style. Sometimes, you can see it at a glance, as in the pretty photo, below left, from the Saffron USA site, a gateway to suppliers of Spanish saffron. The ratio of dark red to golden-orange and even pale yellow threads means this is not tip-top quality saffron, as attractive to the eye as the color variations are.
Saffron that looks like this, or that has still more yellow threads than this, demonstrates that a product that is pure is not the same thing as one that is potent. If the style is only two inches long, and the dark red half-inch is the business end, then the remaining golden-yellow-orange inch and a half acts mainly to bring up the weight of the product. So while you may have paid less than for stigma-only saffron, you've also bought a lot of filler, because the paler three-quarters of the style tastes of nothing, and releases no color.
There's an invisible and far more villainous condition to be wary of, however. Some saffron producers -- who shall be nameless -- have been known to spray the entire style with an emulsion made from the stigma. I learned of this outrage from my friend, Juan J. San Mames, owner of Saffron, Vanilla Imports in San Francisco, where I lived for many years. He tells me that some of his competitors are using this method of deriving "product x 300%," and the eye alone cannot detect it.
So, current techniques of saffron fraud are outstripping the ability of even the finest eye to spot them. What does one do? One refuses to buy saffron that lacks the needed science-based criteria in labeling, that lacks a money-back guarantee if it's not what the vendor says it is. That is, one refuses to buy most saffron.
The Provenance of the Right Stuff
Below left, in the photo by Steve McCurry, is a crocus field in the province of Khorasan in northeastern Iran, where about 55,000 families work in the saffron industry. To the right is a Reuters photo of saffron-gathering in Kashmir. Saffron culture is skilled, intensive labor, driven by crushing deadlines, for the harvest can occur only during a few weeks in the late autumn. The style need to be rapidly separated by hand from the flowers, themselves hand-picked at dawn in a manner that doesn't disturb their precious cargo. Cropping the stigma from the style is also a job for hands only -- sometimes very small hands. Drying, or curing, happens in special sheds, but it has to start when the style is fresh-plucked from the flower. There's not a minute to lose.
Picture a football field planted entirely with saffron crocuses -- that's about 75,000 flowers, yielding only a pound of saffron. The amount you've probably seen in a little glass phial in the international section of the grocery store is one to two grams, with slightly over 28 grams to the ounce. Iran, where saffron culture goes back 3,000 years, is by far the world's largest saffron producer. Kashmir produces much less than Iran, but is a more significant producer than any other country. Depending on whose expertise you value most, the wild saffron crocus, Crocus cartwrightianus L., originated either in Western Asia or on the Aegean isle of Crete, but the cultivar, Crocus sativus L., by now belongs as much to Ayurveda and the Mughals as to the Persian Empire and Aegean civilization.
People like those you see in the photos, whole families from children around 10 to grandparents, need to be decently paid for their part in the saffron industry, and that is beginning to happen. That consideration -- among others such as hotter, drier summers leading to smaller harvests -- must be factored into the decidedly rising price.
For many reasons, I buy only saffron from Iran and Kashmir. That's what I recommend you do. But let's look briefly at other choices.
The storied Spanish saffron industry is in a precarious state at present, as reflected by the most recent price per unit, a multiple of its former self, and in any case, shippers of Spanish saffron seem to me to be fonder of marketing terms than of science. "Mancha," the classic descriptor, refers not to a grade or category of Spanish saffron, but to an area where it was traditionally grown. And even so, it tends to be a real misnomer. Interestingly, compared to Iran, Spain has all these years been a smallish producer of saffron, but a big shipper -- of Iranian saffron, which the law has allowed the Spanish to import, package and market around the world as their own. A drought last year in Iran is behind the price jump in "Spanish" saffron. Greek saffron is marvelous, but it's no bargain, and one is forced to buy it in too small quantities when one can find it at all. In many places across the world, there is "boutique saffron," reflecting minuscule local industry. I would buy saffron on Santorini, say, from a farmer who grew and processed it right there.
But I'm here, not there. So I stick with superb product that has made it over all the quality hurdles, and that I can purchase in large enough quantities -- by the ounce, a little over 28 grams -- to benefit from economy of scale.
Zeroing in on Product
I have professional reasons for buying so much saffron, but if I didn't, I would buy it by the ounce anyway, asking friends who cook seriously -- or just a few voluptuaries -- to go in with me on the purchase. Everybody would come out far, far ahead, and it's the smart thing to do.
Below are two photos from the sites of my favorite -- my only -- suppliers.
Above left is saffron from Iran, sold by my afore-mentioned friend, Juan J. San Mames of Saffron, Vanilla Imports in San Francisco, who has been a direct importer for 30 years. (His vanilla can't be beat either, but that's another story.) The fully saturated uniform deep red-orange color is one of the visual benchmarks of top quality Persian saffron, which must be graded "Sargol" (the absolute best) or "Pushali" (the top tier Pushali is very, very close.) Above right is Kashmiri saffron from Baby Brand Saffron, a company in India that dates to the 1840's. The darker red with its blue overtones -- almost a blood orange color -- and the faint glossiness of the threads are typical of the best Kashmiri saffron. Proponents of Persian saffron tend not to be the same people who worship saffron from Kashmir, and that's an argument I don't wish to take sides in, for it is as needless as it is ferocious.
What, then, is the difference between them, that they have such partisans? Price is one difference, with Kashmiri saffron about 70% more expensive than Persian. Aroma is another. If all you wanted was to sniff at an open 1-ounce tin of saffron -- sometimes, that's all I want -- Kashmiri saffron would have considerably more depth and complexity. It's a knockout. Literal potency is a matter for science to decide, for it can be measured -- there's more about those controls below. But to cook with, do I think one is better than the other? No. If I did, I'd buy that one, and not both. While you can hear the difference between a Stradivarius and a Guarneri del Gesu, and the sound of one instrument might speak to you more, you probably do not believe that one wipes the floor with the other. So it is with the best of the best of Persian and Kashmiri saffron.
A story: recently, I and a group I meet with celebrated the birthday of one of our number with a blind tasting of saffron. We infused Persian saffron from Mr. San Mames as well as Baby Brand Kashmiri saffron, and ultimately murmured an opinion. My friend Lakshmi -- writer, statistician and all around terrific cook -- who grew up in Bangalore, and whose birthday it was, had the last word. "This," she said of the Persian saffron, without being told which was which, "is Mediterranean high culture. Whereas this" -- the saffron from Kashmir -- "is Asia." That observation is my guide in choosing which one to use when I cook.
Alice Waters once remarked something to the effect that cooking was shopping. She was talking about salad greens, not saffron -- but there you have it.
Terms, Touch and Smell
"Sargol" saffron denotes that the stigma has been cut from the style prior to drying. You cannot find any yellow or gold threads in Sargol saffron, and will find almost none in the best Pushali. Importantly, the cutting accelerates drying, because most of the moisture in a saffron thread is concentrated in the style. Moisture not only brings the weight up, but contributes to spoilage.
Thus, Persian saffron that is not Sargol or the best Pushali may become musty, and feel spongy. Familiarity with the literature about saffron will acquaint you with some adjectives that don't actually belong there. "Musty" as a term of approval is one such, but it's possible certain writers, sniffing saffron that has not kept well, pick up on the musty aspect as connoting mystery, the quality of being ancient, a precious thing in a chamber long-sealed. There is, too, an earthy note in saffron which some noses cannot tell from damp.
Touch is a great help in evaluating saffron. When you touch Sargol saffron it it is crinkly and dry, and you can easily crumble the threads between your fingers. In a mortar and pestle, it grinds to a powder very fast. It will keep for several years at room temperature in an airtight, lightproof container.
If we were talking about European saffron, the term to look for would be "coupe" -- or, cut. It's the same thing as Sargol -- stigma only, cut prior to drying. If you're traveling in Sicily or in the South of France or in Greece near Macedonia, you might find some very local saffron, and it would be sad not to buy it -- as sad as failing to buy apples in Vermont -- if it were dry and smelled right and crumbled easily. Not every honest small farmer can send his stuff to the lab for photospectrometry.
Regarding Kashmiri saffron, the term corresponding to Sargol and Coupe is "Mogra," with "Lacha" comparing to Pushali, although Pushali, ranging from excellent to middling, is a more varied category than Lacha. Mogra is as dry as Sargol, with a more satiny feel, as you might expect from its faint natural gloss. But opportunities for being a connoisseur of Kashmiri saffron are indeed scant. There's a long line ahead of you for the product, as the greater part goes first to the Subcontinent, Kashmir having supplied India with top quality saffron since the time of the Mughals.
Saffron and Hard Science
Depending on where the rubber meets the road for you, scientific controls on how good your saffron really is will be either crucial or not so interesting. To me, they're fascinating, for in saffron you have a substance wherein flavor, color and aroma break down to three chemical compounds whose potency can be tested for. The Chemistry section of the Wikipedia main saffron article is very well done -- according to me and to people who would know better than I if it were -- and I hope you'll consult it to go a little deeper.
For people mainly interested to cook with saffron, I will greatly simplify the riotous activity beneath the features one looks for. Aroma, flavor and color come from three compounds in saffron -- safranal, picocrocin, and crocin, respectively. For the highest category saffron -- the Sargol, Mogra, Coupe, and the best Pushali -- the minimum value of safranal is 20, and of picocrocin 70. Crocin is measured in "coloring units," the minimum being 200 for the highest category saffron. There are also minimum allowable percentages for foreign matter, floral waste, moisture and volatile material -- all these should be very, very low in the saffron you buy.
These values must be established by third-party testing in an ISO-certified photospectrometry lab, using criteria written by the ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, in Basel, Switzerland. Reading a saffron lab report will tell you exactly what you've got your hands on, and I only know one vendor who sends you the lab report for the saffron lot your order came from. This is Mr. San Mames of Saffron, Vanilla Imports. Looking at the report on his most recent shipment of Pushali saffron, you will see that its safranal value is 35.14 (minimum for highest category is 20), its picocrocin value is 86.41 (minimum is 70), and its coloring units 238.14 (minimum is 200.) So the information from him is unusually complete, and highly confidence inspiring. He believes -- and I concur with him -- that this type of information is what you need to make an informed purchase of the world's most expensive spice.
Baby Brand Saffron, too, is ISO-certified, with their number on every container, although they do not release a full lab report. Both these vendors give you far more information than any others I know -- not to mention a guarantee.
Ready to Cook
The most important thing to know -- how to make an infusion -- is already in your repertory.
I might be perfectly happy never again to do anything with saffron threads but infuse them and drink the liquid as a tisane. If this is what you want to do too, just think one pinch for every four to six servings. Depending on who's pinching, a pinch is usually thought of as somewhere between half a gram and a gram. If you want to add sugar, it's just delightful. Rosewater too. You can turn this into a cold drink by letting it achieve room temperature, pouring it over ice, adding a lime wedge and a sprig of mint. You will look far before you'll find a friend who won't be happy to be offered such a drink. If you're fond of your own company, make these things for yourself occasionally, too.
Saffron infuses not only in water, but in citrus juice, vegetable, chicken or fish stock, and in alcohol. It all depends on your recipe, but remember it's water-soluble, so it won't dissolve in oil. The least effective possible way to use saffron is just to crumble it on top of something you're cooking, or to add it dry at the last minute. To make your saffron go as far as it can, you want always to start activating the compounds at least half an hour ahead of when you actually cook. Cooking with an eye to its maximum potency will get you the best results for the least outlay.
If you're making rice, you will want to infuse the volume of liquid the recipe calls for, but adding saffron to a sauce can be as simple as infusing a small quantity of liquid -- 2 tablespoons, perhaps -- and adding it in without worrying the tiny amount of liquid will change the chemistry of performing the recipe.
If you would rather not see saffron threads in your dish, you can pulverize them yourself with a mortar and pestle, or just with the back of a spoon, before infusing. Very occasionally, you will see a recipe where powdered saffron is really best -- you're better off if you powder your own.
Even as an enthusiast, I'd never claim a pinch of saffron improves just about any dish. It should be used judiciously, in recipes that are otherwise simple enough to showcase it. It's a highly complex flavor, and it's a great pleasure to think about it as you take it in. That said, there are flavor synergies you may want to investigate, discussed below.
Despite its profligate beauty, store saffron away from light. If it's visible to you in a glass jar on the kitchen shelf, it's not going to last as long -- but that's true of any spice.
Saffron and Rice
Cooking with saffron begins -- and arguably ends -- with learning how to add it to a rice pilaf. The aroma of basmati rice and saffron cooking together is never to be forgotten, and if you made it your signature dish, you could with impunity leave many other cooking lessons unlearned.
You cannot imagine the difficulty of finding photography that does justice to saffron rice. That shows not only the tint a cook needs to look for when she prepares rice with saffron, but that suggests its deep dimensionality, its almost tear-bringing allure. I found the beautiful shot above on the Golden Rice site -- not where I would have expected it, since golden rice, thanks to the extra vitamin A in it, is not white but pale, pale gold. (I hope you'll take the time to read about it, since it's a route to more complete nutrition for the half of the world for whom rice is the major source of caloric intake.) I would not have imagined that saffron on a pale gold ground could be so vibrant, but this is the most accurate photo of what saffron rice should look like that I've ever seen.
The technique for making a rice pilaf in the style of Iran or Central/South Asia is different from what you'd do to produce a risotto, and the rice is different, too. A risotto alla milanese, the saffron rice of northern Italy, is better demonstrated than written about. For that, you need plump, long grain rice from the Po Valley -- look for Arborio. If you simply use whatever white rice you have, you could produce a saffron rice gruel, and that would be keenly disappointing. If you're going for the Iranian/Asian rice pilaf model, take care to use real basmati rice. Delving into theory of Persian cooking, I learned that every grain of rice should be separate from every other in a rice dish. In the photo above, you can count every grain with your eyes -- that's as it should be.
When cooking with basmati rice, remember to rinse it first -- just put the measure you intend to cook in a sieve, and run water through it for a few seconds, swishing it with your finger. This rinses off a crucial amount of surface starch. To get a rice pilaf that looks like the one in the photo, I've adapted a Goldenrice.org recipe. Executing this recipe with precision and care will give you a heavenly result. If you're cooking it for friends, please do it at the last minute rather than ahead -- the aroma is too soul-satisfying to deny them.
SAFFRON RICE WITH WHOLE SPICES
Heat 2.5 cups of a rich chicken stock or vegetable stock to a simmer, and infuse in it a big pinch of saffron threads. Set it aside for at least half an hour, or even better, start a day ahead with this element of the recipe.
Chop a white onion, and in a heavy-bottomed, lidded saucepan, sautee the onion over medium heat in a splash of canola or coconut oil, until translucent, golden and slightly browned -- about 5 minutes. Stir in 1 clove of garlic, smashed and minced, half a cinnamon stick, 6 green cardamom pods and a bay leaf, and cook over medium heat for 2 more minutes.
Add in a heaping cup of rinsed basmati rice, and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring to evenly distribute the contents of your pan. Pour in the saffron-infused stock, add in a scant handful of sultanas or zante currants, and bring to a boil, stirring. Then, lower the heat and cover tightly, cooking gently for about 15 minutes until the liquid is absorbed. Meanwhile, toast a handful of cashews or almonds until lightly brown, and scatter these over the rice before serving. Serve immediately! Serves 4.
Saffron and Fish
Above are photos of paella, left, and bouillabaisse, right, from Beatrice Peltre, a food writer and photographer par excellence who has kindly allowed me to raid her fascinating blog, La Tartine Gourmande, for photography showing the right intensity of saffron color in these two legendary Mediterranean dishes.
The affinity of saffron for fish is hardly a well kept secret. Even so, there is little agreement about how much saffron to use in these particular classics. I say, use your judgment, starting with about a gram -- a big pinch -- if you're cooking paella for 4 to 6, half a gram for bouillabaisse. A paella involves chicken and sausage as well as shellfish -- mussels usually, and often shrimp -- with most of the saffron flavor concentrated in the rice. Bouillabaisse, like paella, started off as a rather humble dish -- a fisherman's stew. Both were originally cooked out of doors over an open fire. In making a bouillabaisse, one wants only enough saffron to give depth to the tomato-white wine-stock color, not to turn the liquid bright orange. In Bea's bouillabaisse, you can easily see the threads, and they are a pretty touch in preparing all saffron fish dishes that are not haute cuisine. If you make a paella, remember it's about the saffron. A bouillabaisse is a marriage of classical Mediterranean flavors, saffron only one of them.
My own recipes for both are rather too elaborate for anyone who is not paid to cook. They involve making lobster stock and passing it through a drum sieve. (You don't want to know...) But for a first foray into the world of fish cookery with saffron, I have a recipe that pairs saffron and chard, a venerable combination in Provence, where, having fed the green bits of chard to hogs, farmers in olden times were looking for a way to dress up the stalks, which they themselves liked to eat.
TILAPIA with CHARD and SAFFRON
Rinse and cut into ribbons 1 bunch of chard per person for the number you intend to serve. Smash as many peeled garlic cloves as you have heads of chard. Thinly slice a big toe-size piece of peeled fresh ginger root. In a heavy-bottomed lidded skillet, sautee all this over medium heat with extra-virgin olive oil (X-V OO), adding vegetable stock or water as needed, and bearing in mind you want cooking liquid at the end. It will take about 15 minutes for the chard to become soft enough, with you stirring 5 or 6 times throughout, and otherwise keeping the lid on.
When it's done, fish out the garlic cloves (you're done with them, but leave in the ginger), remove the chard with a slotted spoon to a serving dish, and cover. Pour the liquid left in the cooking pan into a small bowl and set aside.
In a fresh splash of X-V OO in the same skillet, quickly sautee tilapia filets that have been dredged in cornmeal, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. They'll only take about 2.5 minutes -- 1.25 minutes per side for smallish filets.
Check to see if you can get any more liquid out of the chard -- it's probably released some. If so, add it to your small bowl of chard-cooking liquid. Arrange the tilapia on the bed of chard and cover to keep warm.
Tip the chard-cooking liquid from its bowl back into the skillet, and increase the heat to high. Pour in cream (half a cup to a cup, depending on number of people, use coconut milk if you don't like dairy), and an infusion made a day ahead of saffron (about a gram) in one half a cup of good orange juice. Leave the threads in. You'll have a really beautiful color, and you'll need to cook this liquid down, stirring, till it can lightly coat a spoon. Taste for salt and pepper, and add a couple drops of orange flower water if you like. Spoon this over the tilapia filets, dust with chopped cilantro, and serve.
Saffron and Sweets
As the smashing photo of sugar crystals coated with saffron in a market in Iran suggests, saffron has unstoppable synergy with sweets. Until about 10 years ago, I questioned the validity of any dessert that was not chocolate, and if you do too, then saffron could be your true alternative. It marries beautifully with other flavorings used in sweets, such as cardamom, rosewater, fresh lime juice, almonds, ginger and cinnamon.
Combining some of these with saffron will tilt your desserts in a Middle Eastern to Central Asian direction -- and that's a good thing if you feel stuck in the European canon. If you want to punch up that European repertory, however, adding saffron to a souffle au Grand Marnier is a revelation. Likewise to a plain vanilla custard or to a lemon or orange mousse. The amount of liquid for an infusion -- a tablespoon or so -- will not throw off the chemistry of such recipes.
Baking with saffron is a tradition adored by the Swedish and the Germans, especially at Christmastime, and you'll find lots of saffron in Cornish and Dutch baked goods. I'm not much of a baker, but I did create a saffron shortbread cookie made with cornmeal that I'm very proud of, that I would probably bake even if no one wanted to eat it -- the aroma produced by baking with saffron could help you sell your house.
I'm currently developing a recipe for a saffron-lavender panna cotta -- it's almost up there, but not quite. Also, I'm reviving a plan of last summer, to create a sorbet of saffron and white tropical honey from Hawaii, which I intend to garnish with some Sicilian candied rose petals I know about. This week, for someone daring, I'm working up a saffron semifreddo, which I'll drizzle with a hot sauce made of Valrhona chocolate melted in chai. Yes, it will be too much -- but sometimes that's the point.
Using saffron in ordinary desserts can be a newsy thing to do, too, and you won't need to worry about learning an unfamiliar recipe or technique. For instance, a saffron infusion in your favorite rice pudding will dial it up many notches. If you're bringing dessert to a party, you'll get almost infinite mileage out of showing up with a tapioca pudding (please use large pearls) flavored with saffron, cardamom and rosewater. One of the very most social capital-enhancing things about using saffron when you cook for friends is that they'll know you've done something lavish for them, but in fact you'll have spent far less to make the dish in question special than if you'd treated them to a slightly better than usual bottle of wine.
So, what's a ravishing yet easy saffron dessert? One that's summery, and doesn't ask you to hang over it like a lover all during the prep? Consider the avocado... In Brazil and Sri Lanka, they think the avocado is a dessert animal. Please try this for yourself! I have never fed it to anyone who didn't want a subscription to it after the first bite, appalled as they might have been to contemplate it.
AVOCADO SAFFRON MOUSSE
For a mousse for 8, take 3 ripe avocados, peeled and seeded, and blend them in a processor or blender until smooth. Add in the juice of 4 fresh, fat limes, in which a big pinch of saffron has been infused for 8 hours or overnight. (Strain it!) Sift in 1.5 cups (taste to see if this is the right amount for you) of confectioner’s sugar. Because you are not adding heat, confectioner's sugar is very important, as any other kind would stay grainy.
Puree everything until very smooth -- avocado lumps are infelicitous. With a rubber scraper, remove this mixture to a large mixing bowl -- glass or ceramic only. Fold in 1.5 cups of stiffly whipped cream, and chill for at least several hours. It will be a beautiful chartreuse color.
Serve very cold, with a few spoonfuls of tropical fruit and berries tossed with lime juice and a little sugar, honey or agave nectar. Garnish with fresh mint.
Saffron and Dollars
Many, many moons from now, readers happening onto this post and seeing its date, or turning it up through a search, will muse how they wish they'd known to buy saffron way back in the summer of 2008, because it has since become so much more expensive. The price of some things has nowhere to go but up. However, saffron has always, in legend and in history, been valued alongside gold, so modern times are not the problem. I would never blame anyone who, for reasons of principle or finance, just wasn't interested to experience saffron. But the people who feel like that are probably not the people reading this post in its entirety. So I'm going to assume a certain level of interest in readers who have come this far, and actually set out the saffron math -- with the caveat that the numbers at this writing will not for long be accurate. Also, the prices I'm quoting pertain to saffron threads, not powder.
A quick tour of retailers will be instructive. If you don't live in a metropolitan area with easy access to stores run by Iranians and Indians, then you may already shop online for spices, and if so you know that Kalustyans.com and Penzeys.com are two of the best spice merchants you can find. Let's see how fair a deal they're offering on saffron, understanding that their mission is not to under-price other vendors, only to sell you a very high quality product. As it happens, neither Kalustyan's nor Penzey's is selling Iranian saffron at this time, only Kashmiri and Spanish.
So, you can buy 1 gram (a big pinch, the stigma from 190 flowers, enough to cook a dish for 4 to 6) of Kashmiri saffron at Kalustyan's for $14.99, and 1 gram of Spanish saffron (they don't say what grade) for $12.99. At Penzey's you can buy 1 gram of Kashmiri saffron for $15.29, 1 gram of Spanish coupe for $10.89. Shoppers feeling more flush, but in fact getting a far better buy, can purchase 1 ounce (28.35 grams) of Spanish coupe from Penzey's for $169.99, and 15 grams of Kashmiri saffron at Kalustyan's for $89.99.
Now, here's the better way. At Saffron, Vanilla Imports (www.saffron.com), you can buy 5 grams of high quality Iranian saffron for $17.95 -- enough for five saffron dishes serving four to six people each. Scaling up, you can buy half an ounce -- faintly over 14 grams -- of high quality Iranian saffron for $38.95, and 1 ounce (28.35 grams) of same for $72.95. To put the priciest purchase in perspective, you could make 28 dinner parties for four to six people really special by spending $72.95. If you did have 28 dinner parties for four to six, that's between 112 and 168 servings of something you've rendered astonishing for between 43 and 65 cents more per serving than you would have spent anyway. I think this is actually pretty good, and it would still be pretty good if you used twice the amount of saffron we've been talking about. You can see why I like shopping at Saffron, Vanilla Imports.
I like buying Baby Brand Kashmiri saffron, too. The math is not as persuasive, however. But the saffron is, and the math will not be a horrible shock now. To get 5 grams of Baby saffron threads is $35, to get 10 grams is $60, and to get 20 grams is $100. For the difference in price, does it go further so that one can use less? I don't think it goes so much farther that it all evens out, but I believe the aroma is greater, and the taste meets different demands that are made on my kitchen. Remember, I am cooking, not working at the ISO.
It's worth repeating that Saffron, Vanilla Imports in San Francisco and Baby Brand Saffron (through their US resellers, Sahar Saffron in Cleveland, OH) guarantee their products. I don't know any other vendors who do. I've looked everywhere for the best values in saffron world, and I've found them.
Back to the Dutch, and Beyond
It's time to take one last look at that lobster bigger than the poodle in the still life by Adriaen van Utrecht that may or may not depict saffron. In The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, Simon Schama tells us of the tensions produced in 17th century Amsterdam when nimiety in the way of material goods sat badly with a long-established ethic of thrift and virtue. The Dutch were suddenly so positioned as to have anything they could name from anywhere in the known world. Immediately, they began ascribing sinfulness to certain new substances, candied fruit being high on that list. Saffron had been known in the days before super-prosperity was achieved, so it did not quite qualify as a gruesome luxury.
Dutch painting of the 17th century illuminates a question as familiar to us as it was then to the newly prosperous Dutch: has superabundance no moral dimension? Paintings such as this still life both celebrate and condemn the expanding sensual world, so full of the transient beauty that distracts without sustaining, but that so delights us. Should all such temptation be resisted? Or can one give in, while retaining moral fiber? If yes, then how? We too know that struggle, that makes it impossible to think of the rarest and most wondrous substances without ambivalence.
But the Dutch, as usual, are far ahead of us in matters saffron, and in such matters of virtue that can ever attach to saffron. According to the Dutch Embassy in Kabul, this autumn farmers in Uruzgan Province should be reaping their first full saffron harvest, thanks to a project set up by the Netherlands to train Afghans in raising a premium crop that will make a real alternative to opium poppies. It's an initiative to make a Golden Age Calvinist proud.
SELECTED RESOURCES for this Post
Sometimes, you write what you wish you could more simply have read. Time was, I could have used a one-stop resource on the culinary aspect of saffron. If you know anybody who could use the same thing, please send them the link to this post. If you read something here you believe not to be accurate, please write to me with information you think is better.
Persian Saffron: Saffron, Vanilla Imports, San Francisco, CA http://www.saffron.com
Kashmiri Saffron: Baby Brand Saffron http://www.babysaffron.com/
Unfortunately, there is no well written, accurate, entirely up-to-date book about saffron, with instructive and alluring visuals, superb recipes and a convincing bibliography. Each of the books below, written within the last 20 years, meets some of those criteria, however.
The Essential Saffron Companion, by John Humphries, 1998
Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World's Most Seductive Spice, by Pat Willard, 2002
Wild About Saffron: A Contemporary Guide to an Ancient Spice, by Ellen Szita, 1987
Good reading about the spice trade
Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner, 2005
Stimulating and reliable cookbooks to take you outside the Euro-American box
A Taste of Persia: An Introduction to Persian Cooking, by Najmieh Batmanglij, 1999
Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon, by Claudia Roden, 2006
Invitation to Mediterranean Cooking, by Claudia Roden, 2001
The Complete Asian Cookbook, by Charmaine Solomon, 1992 (Has a very good section on Mughlai cuisine.)
Art and excess
The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama, 1987
The Wikipedia saffron page -- Teutonically thorough and accurate, but not very foody. Tragic photos of saffron dishes.
Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages -- Through the University of Graz, Katzer has put up the most comprehensive spice guide on the Web. It's more oriented to botany and etymology than to cooking, however. Still, it's a staggering resource for cooks, and one wishes his taxonomania extended far across the edible world.
The Cooking Inn -- Author and saffron expert Ellen Szita with excellent info and recipes, although the pricing guidelines are out of date.
Amanda Hesser wrote this article about saffron for the New York times almost 10 years ago -- it's still highly pertinent, and explores the then-budding question whether Persian or Kashmiri saffron is best.
Elaine Sciolino wrote in the New York Times Travel Section, last year, about this fascinating new spice emporium in Paris. More Pushali saffron from Iran than you are otherwise likely to see in one room in the West.
The BBC looks inside the saffron industry in Kashmir -- an oldie but a goodie. You'll learn what they do with the petals.
The Trade & Environment Database (TED) at American University case study on Iranian saffron.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a beautifully organized and instructive site for anyone who wants to OD on Dutch still life painting, and much else besides.
About 3600 years ago, saffron was a component in perfume. I found out it is once more, in a scent from L'Artisan Parfumeur, Safran Troublant, by Olivia Giacobetti. I wear it to bed, just for myself and my poodle, because it's voluptuous yet peaceful too. Read about it in a glorious new book, Perfumes: The Guide,(2008), by Luca Turin, a biophysicist, and Tania Sanchez. This book will start you using your olfactory imagination like nothing else you can read. The prodigious Luca Turin writes a column for the Neue Zurcher Zeitung that you can read in English.
Special thanks to Bea of La Tartine Gourmande. For food photography on the Web, nobody can match her precision and naturalism. Visit her blog and her Flickr Photostream for more definitive food and travel photography.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
In Defense of Advertising
Winston Fletcher in New Humanist:
Hostility to advertising among British intellectuals goes back a long way. In 1843 Thomas Carlyle dubbed it a “deafening blast of puffery,” and at the end of that century the Society for Controlling the Abuses of Public Advertising (SCAPA) included among its members such notables as William Morris, Rudyard Kipling, Holman Hunt, Arthur Quiller-Couch and Sir John Millais – as well as Sydney Courtauld and the Fry chocolate family. But even then the public did not follow their leaders. 500 copies of SCAPA’s polemical leaflet were printed. Only 30 were sold.
Still, the critics kept up their fire. Many of the attacks were well-worn retreads. But in 1980 Professor Raymond Williams took the arguments a stage further. Williams – an influential Marxist academic, social commentator, critic and novelist - published an essay called Advertising: The Magic System. Far from being too materialistic, Williams argued, modern advertising is not materialistic enough, because the images with which advertisements surround goods deliberately detract attention from the goods’ material specifications: “If we were sensibly materialist we should find most advertising to be an insane irrelevance” he averred. In the 19th century he said, more or less accurately, advertising was generally factual and informative, except for fraudulent patent medicine and toiletry advertisements, which had already adopted the undesirable practices which later became commonplace. In other words Williams was not attacking all advertising, just most present day advertisements.
Why, he asked, do advertisements exploit “deep feelings of a personal and social kind?” His answer: because the concentration of economic power into ever larger units forces those units to make human beings consume more and more, in order for the units to stay operative. “The fundamental choice... set to us by modern industrial production, is between man as a consumer and man as a user.”
Quantum Mechanics and a Test of Realism
Joshua Roebke in Seed:
In may of 2004 Markus Aspelmeyer met Anthony Leggett during a conference at the Outing Lodge in Minnesota. Leggett, who had won the Nobel Prize the year before, approached Aspelmeyer, who had recently become a research assistant to Zeilinger, about testing an idea he first had almost 30 years before.
In 1976 Leggett left Sussex on teaching exchange to the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, the second largest city in Ghana. For the first time in many years, he had free time to really think, but the university's library was woefully out of date. Leggett decided to work on an idea that didn't require literature because few had thought about it since David Bohm: nonlocal hidden variables theories. He found a result, filed the paper in a drawer, and didn't think about it again until the early 2000s.
Leggett doesn't believe quantum mechanics is correct, and there are few places for a person of such disbelief to now turn. But Leggett decided to find out what believing in quantum mechanics might require. He worked out what would happen if one took the idea of nonlocality in quantum mechanics seriously, by allowing for just about any possible outside influences on a detector set to register polarizations of light. Any unknown event might change what is measured. The only assumption Leggett made was that a natural form of realism hold true; photons should have measurable polarizations that exist before they are measured. With this he laboriously derived a new set of hidden variables theorems and inequalities as Bell once had. But whereas Bell's work could not distinguish between realism and locality, Leggett's did. The two could be tested.
A History of My People...American Nerds
Of the myriad changes that occurred in American society in the late 20th century, perhaps none was so surprising and subtle as the shift toward partial acceptance - and even occasional celebration - of the American nerd.
Blending social history, memoir, and reportage, recovering nerd Benjamin Nugent takes on a tour of the world of "my people," who they are, and how they came to be. As the 19th-century educational movement alluded to above became pervasive in the nation's schools (a movement perhaps best summarized by Groton headmaster Endicott Peabody's remark "I'm not sure I like boys who think too much"), it was all too obvious that there were plenty of young men who would never fit the mold. "American Nerd" is in large part the story of how these young men (and later women) found subcultures where they did fit in.
Rome v. The Roma, Echoes of Mussolini?
Marco Brazzoduro in openDemocracy:
Since the late 1980s, Italy has been affected by an unprecedented influx of migrants. Under successive governments, policies of reception and integration have been inadequate. The result is that a feeling of uneasiness has grown among Italian citizens especially in the outskirts of big cities already suffering from poor public services. The blame for worsening living conditions is often placed on foreigners, who thus come to play the role of the classic scapegoat. Roma are at the bottom of the social scale in this respect, even lower than other categories of migrants. They are (as always since the arrival of their ancestors in Europe from India) the first to be blamed and hated.
There is another, more recent factor in the identification of the Roma as a target of accusation: the way that Italy's media and political leaders have come to emphasise in their rhetoric the theme of "security". This is so often tendentious and misleading: for example, official statistics suggest that criminal offences have not increased in the last decade (moreover, Italy has one of the lowest murder-rates in Europe). Thus, in objective terms there is no reason for a campaign which highlights new threats to "security".
Italy's media and political leaders take little notice of such objective factors. Most media outlets draw attention to those crimes committed by foreigners and deliberately stress the nationality of the offender; while politicians campaigning for the election of 13-14 April 2008 election also played frequently on this theme. The victory of the rightwing coalition was in part a result, and has been followed by attempts to implement harsh measures against the Roma: the new government, as well as targeting Roma, is also exploring the possibility - against legal and practical obstacles - of deporting non-Roma European Union citizens (especially Romanians) if they are not able to earn a living in Italy
Ma Jian, Author of Beijing Coma
In Prospect (UK), Tom Chatfield talks to the author:
Beijing Coma is a novel of oppositions; of seasonal and generational changes; of the fraught relationship between hope and experience. The build-up to protest and destruction inches forward within it alongside a narrative of present squalor and defeat—[the narrator] Dai Wei's immobile body, and the hounding of his mother by the authorities. The protestors of 1989 are painted not as revolutionaries or anarchists but, overwhelmingly, patriots fighting for what they saw as the true legacy of communism: democratic reforms. Their biggest banner, hung from the roof of the Museum of Chinese History, simply reads "honest dialogue"; other slogans include "I love democracy more than bread!" and "I can endure hunger, but not a life without liberty!" As relationships and alliances are made and broken, however, the protests take on a life of their own. At one point, the personal appearance of Zhao Ziyang, the reformist general secretary of the Communist party, offers the tantalising possibility of salvation. But even his words prove unable to break the deadlock: the political will simply doesn't exist among the party's elite. A day after his visit to the students, Zhao is stripped of all his positions, martial law is declared, and the final act begins: the forceful dismantling of the crowd into assaulted, isolated bodies. "Like deer gathering at a lakeside to drink," Dai Wei recalls, "the students gathered at the Monument [at the centre of Tiananmen Square], unaware that the square was a hunting ground and the Monument was the snare." The protestors are trapped and gunned down.
Eric Foner on The Idea of Freedom in the US, 1776 - 2008
Over at the US Study Center (Australia):
In this exclusive lecture hosted by the United States Studies Centre and Sydney Ideas, Professor Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, traced how Americans have thought about the key concept of freedom through the course of history. He argued that freedom has never been a single idea, but has been the source of considerable disagreement and conflict.
|Listen to the podcast (Running time 100:38)|
The White Whale
E.L. Doctorow's keynote address at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society meeting on "The Public Good: Knowledge as the Foundation for a Democratic Society," in The Nation:
To take the long view, American politics may be seen as the struggle between the idealistic secular democracy of a fearlessly self-renewing America and our great resident capacity to be in denial of what is intellectually and morally incumbent upon us to pursue.
Melville in Moby-Dick speaks of reality outracing apprehension. Apprehension in the sense not of fear or disquiet but of understanding... reality as too much for us to take in, as, for example, the white whale is too much for the Pequod and its captain. It may be that our new century is an awesomely complex white whale--scientifically in our quantumized wave particles and the manipulable stem cells of our biology, ecologically in our planetary crises of nature, technologically in our humanoid molecular computers, sexually in the rising number of our genders, intellectually in the paradoxes of our texts, and so on.
What is more natural than to rely on the saving powers of simplism? Perhaps with our dismal public conduct, so shot through with piety, we are actually engaged in a genetic engineering venture that will make a slower, dumber, more sluggish whale, one that can be harpooned and flensed, tried and boiled to light our candles. A kind of water wonderworld whale made of racism, nativism, cultural illiteracy, fundamentalist fantasy and the righteous priorities of wealth.
Atul Gawande in The New Yorker:
Scientists believe that itch, and the accompanying scratch reflex, evolved in order to protect us from insects and clinging plant toxins—from such dangers as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue, transmitted by mosquitoes; from tularemia, river blindness, and sleeping sickness, transmitted by flies; from typhus-bearing lice, plague-bearing fleas, and poisonous spiders. The theory goes a long way toward explaining why itch is so exquisitely tuned. You can spend all day without noticing the feel of your shirt collar on your neck, and yet a single stray thread poking out, or a louse’s fine legs brushing by, can set you scratching furiously.
But how, exactly, itch works has been a puzzle. For most of medical history, scientists thought that itching was merely a weak form of pain. Then, in 1987, the German researcher H. O. Handwerker and his colleagues used mild electric pulses to drive histamine, an itch-producing substance that the body releases during allergic reactions, into the skin of volunteers. As the researchers increased the dose of histamine, they found that they were able to increase the intensity of itch the volunteers reported, from the barely appreciable to the “maximum imaginable.” Yet the volunteers never felt an increase in pain. The scientists concluded that itch and pain are entirely separate sensations, transmitted along different pathways.
Last Night as I was Sleeping
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvellous error! -
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart
I said: Along which secret aqueduct
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvellous error! -
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvellous error! -
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt,
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvellous error! -
That it was God I had
here inside my heart.
Translation: Robert Bly
From The New Republic via Edge:
The collaboration of Kahneman and Tversky produced one of the major intellectual accomplishments of the late twentieth century: a series of ingeniously designed experiments that raised uncomfortable questions about "utility maximization," which was the major assumption of microeconomics. To wit: it makes no difference in theory whether you lose a ticket to a play or lose the $10 that the ticket cost, but when people lose the ticket they are far less likely to buy another one than when they lose the money. Kahneman and Tversky's explanation is that we create a mental account such that it makes sense to us to pay $10 to see a play but not $20, even though the utility sacrificed by losing the ticket and the money is identical.
(Note: Picture on right shows Dressed skeleton of Jeremy Bentham with wax head, British Museum).
Tversky died of cancer in 1996. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, and is an emeritus professor at Princeton. Between them, they rattled the role of reason in the pantheon of human motives. They made clear that even if we think we know what is in our own best interest, we frequently make decisions based on misinformation, myopia, and plain quirkiness. The picture of human nature that they developed was--in contrast to the world of homo economicus-- ironic, skeptical, almost wickedly complex.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Penguins on Mars?
Should we be looking for penguins on Mars, rather than little green men? Just a week after finding definitive signs of water ice just beneath the surface, news of another remarkable scientific discovery has been beamed back to Earth by the Mars lander Phoenix. This time it’s about muck. The soil under the lander was scooped up into its onboard chemistry lab just a few days ago, and subjected to a round of prodding, poking and other analysis. And the results? Martian soil is like Antarctic soil. “This soil appears to be a close analogue to surface soils found in the upper dry valleys in Antarctica,” says Sam Kounaves of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, leader of the 'wet chemistry' portion of the Phoenix mission.
Cultural Crossoads of the Levant
From The New York Times:
This spring, Ibis published one of its most controversial books yet, the first English translation of “Khirbet Khizeh,” a novella by S. Yizhar, the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky, a noted Israeli writer and longtime Knesset member. Originally published in 1949, one year after the founding of Israel, the book tells of the violent evacuation of Palestinian village by a Jewish unit in the 1948 war of independence. Yizhar, who died in 2006, was born in 1916 and served as an intelligence officer in the 1948 war. Although the novella was a best-seller in Israel when it first appeared and has been on the Israeli high school curriculum since 1964, “Khirbet Khizeh” has never been well known outside Israel. The new Ibis edition was translated by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck.
Set in and around a quiet Palestinian village, the fictional Khirbet Khizeh of the title, the novella is written in a slow, meditative style that weaves together biblical allusions with contemporary slang. At first, the soldiers wait for a command. “No one knows how to wait like soldiers,” Yizhar writes. “There is the ruthlessly long waiting, the nervous anxious waiting, ... the tedious waiting, that consumes and burns everything.” When the order comes, the unit begins shelling. The villagers flee. The book ends with the cri de coeur of the young soldier narrator. “This was what exile looked like,” he thinks out loud, watching the Palestinians leaving. “I had never been in the diaspora. I had never known what it was like, but people had spoken to me, told me, taught me, and repeatedly recited to me, from every direction ... exile. ... What, in fact, had we perpetrated here today?”
Chris Marker on Hitchcock's Vertigo
Speaking of filmmakers on filmmakers, one of my favorite film essays:
`Power and freedom'. Coupled together, these two words are repeated three times inVertigo. First, at the twelfth minute by Gavin Elster ('freedom' under-lined by a move to close-up) who, looking at a picture of Old San Francisco, expresses his nostalgia to Scottie ('San Francisco has changed. The things that spelled San Francisco to me are disappearing fast'), a nostalgia for a time when men - some men at least - had `power and freedom'. Second, at the thirty-fifth minute, in the bookstore, where `Pop' Liebel explains how Carlotta Valdes's rich lover threw her out yet kept her child: `Men could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom ... ' And finally at the hundred and twenty-fifth minute - and fifty-first second to be precise - but in reverse order (which is logical, given we are now in the second part, on the other side of the mirror) by Scottie himself when, realizing the workings of the trap laid by the now free and powerful Elster, he says, a few seconds before Judy's fall - which, for him, will be Madeleine's second death -'with all his wife's money and all that freedom and power ... '.Just try telling me these are coincidences.
Such precise signs must have a meaning. Could it be psychological, an explanation of the criminal's motives? If so, the effort seems a little wasted on what is, after all, a secondary character. This strategic triad gave me the first inkling of a possible reading of Vertigo. The vertigo the film deals with isn't to do with space and falling; it is a clear, understandable and spectacular metaphor for yet another kind of vertigo, much more difficult to represent - the vertigo of time. Elster's `perfect' crime almost achieves the impossible: reinventing a time when men and women and San Francisco were different to what they are now. And its perfection, as with all perfection in Hitchcock, exists in duality. Scottie will absorb the folly of time with which Elster infuses him through Madeleine/Judy. But where Elster reduces the fantasy to mediocre manifestations (wealth, power, etc), Scottie transmutes it into its most utopian form: he overcomes the most irreparable damage caused by time and resurrects a love that is dead.
What does Nietzsche mean to philosophers today?
Kritika&Kontext: What do you take to be the morally and politically most offensive passages in Nietzsche's writings? How do you interpret them? Do you think they are representative of his general attitude toward morality and politics?
Richard Rorty: I am most offended by the passages in which Nietzsche expresses contempt for weakness, and especially by the passages which argue that there is something wrong with Christianity because it originated among slaves. So it did, but those slaves had a good idea: namely, that the ideal human community would be one in which love is the only law. So it would. One can separate this Christian ideal from the ressentiment characteristic of the ascetic priests, but Nietzsche never made that distinction.
Paul Patton: Some of his remarks about women are among the most offensive of Nietzsche's writings. I take these to be indications of the extent to which he was a man of his time who could not see beyond the existing cultural forms of the sexual division of humankind. Like the vast majority of nineteenth century European men, Nietzsche could not divorce female affect, intelligence and corporeal capacities from a supposed "essential' relation to child-bearing. His views on women are representative of his attitude toward morality and politics in the sense that they are in tension with possibilities otherwise opened up by his historical conception of human nature. For example, at times he recognizes that supposedly natural qualities of women or men are really products of particular social arrangements. We can conclude from this, even if he could not, that these qualities are not natural but open to change. In this domain as in other of his social and political views, he was not able to foresee some of the ways in which the very dynamics of human cultural evolution that he identified could lead us into a very different future.
Audio of the Hyman P. Minsky Conference on the State of the U.S. and World Economies
Over at the Jerome T. Levy Economics Institute:
The focus of this year's conference was the current economic and financial crisis in the United States and its effects on the world economy. Topics included the causes and consequences of the “Minsky moment”; the impact of the credit crunch on the economic and financial market outlook; dislocations and policy options; margins of safety, systemic risk, and the American subprime mortgage market; financial markets regulation-reregulation; the inefficiency of computer-driven markets; currency market fluctuations; and exchange rate misalignment.
The conference was held April 17–18, 2008, at the Levy Institute’s research and conference center at Blithewood, on the campus of Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
Of Religion and Textbooks, Indian Edition
Take this lesson titled Mathamillaatha Jeevan (Jeevan, the casteless):
The headmaster asked the parents, who had come with their ward, to sit in the chairs before him, and began to fill the application form.
"What’s your name, son?"
"Good. Nice name. Father’s name?"
The headmaster raised his head, looked at the parents and asked: "Which religion should we write?"
"None. Write there is no religion."
The headmaster leaned back in his chair and asked a little gravely: "What if he feels the need for a religion when he grows up?"
"Let him choose his religion when he feels so."
This is the passage that has been singled out by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), the Church and Muslim organisations. They are demanding immediate withdrawal of the Class VII social studies book, being taught under the Kerala board, from which this passage has been taken.
The reason? Large portions of the book, they allege, is an an attempt to teach atheism to impressionable schoolchildren. They say that such lessons and others which illustrate caste cruelties will sow sectarian discontent.
Schnabel on Tarkovsky
In the Telegraph, Julian Schnabel explains to Sheila Johnston why he loves Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev:
He explains that he used to like to watch his chosen film with his children (he has five) when they were very small. Bedtime viewing chez Schnabel was unusually demanding, however. No Kung Fu Panda for his kids. Andrei Rublev is more than three hours long, in black and white, and in Russian.
"I would read the subtitles to them, as if I was reading a book," he says.
"It's like a fairytale - there are all these battles and things in it. And I think it affected them and informed the way they see things now."
Andrei Tarkovsky's film is set in medieval Russia, a country drowning in waves of invasion, plague and famine. There is much grist here for the imagination of the curious six-year-old. Boiling oil is poured down a man's throat, a horse falls down a flight of stairs, a man's eyes are gouged out, then the perpetrator looks around distractedly for his whip.
"He has no concern at all for what he's done," says Schnabel.
"The casualness of how death comes to people in the film is hauntingly real. Another moment, when a guy gets shot by an arrow and falls into the water, in slow motion, is incredibly powerful."
It will come as no surprise that Andrei Rublev is another tale of a troubled artist: a great icon painter, and his struggles with his libido, his faith and his vocation.
A Conversation with Ahmed Rashid
A religious history of American neuroscience
Leigh Eric Schmidt in The Immanent Frame:
Not long ago, researchers wired up the atheist Richard Dawkins with a helmet that would create magnetic fields partially simulating the brain activity of temporal lobe epilepsy, which they linked to dramatic visionary religious experiences and to less dramatic feelings of sensed presences. It turns out, though, that hooking up a hardboiled atheist to a machine, known as the transcranial magnetic stimulator, produced no such experiences. “It was a great disappointment,” Dawkins related after 40 minutes on the machine. “Though I joked about the possibility, I of course never expected to end up believing in anything supernatural. But I did hope to share some of the feelings experienced by religious mystics when contemplating the mysteries of life and the cosmos.”
As my own mind was being massaged with images of Richard Dawkins having his temporal lobes stimulated, an odd notion popped into my head: namely, when it comes to religion, history and culture trump neurology. I quickly noticed that the same neuroscientists who were experimenting on Dawkins, among other more amenable test subjects, were also enfolding American religious history into their neurotheological data. One of the neurologists involved in the Dawkins stunt suggested in an interview, for example, that Ellen G. White, nineteenth-century prophet of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, suffered a childhood head injury that affected her temporal lobes in such a way as to produce her subsequent religious visions.
That example immediately struck me as a curious incursion of history into the laboratory. To be sure, even as an outsider, I was aware that a thriving set of conversations exists on the borders of neuroscience and religion. There are the theological questions, the God-spot questions: can the places of divine-human encounter, or, at least, the places of the felt-experiences of divine-human encounter be scanned and visualized? There are the ethical questions: for example, can the lying brain be mapped, detected, and exposed? Or, can compassionate affects be imaged and reproduced—in effect, is altruism a mental skill that can be trained? There are also, of course, innumerable psychotherapeutic questions; prominent among them is whether prayer and meditation are effective allies in the healing arts and medical sciences. But, here was the prolific visionary, Ellen G. White, suddenly thrust into the speculations of a pediatric neurologist studying temporal lobe epilepsy, all because she had been hit in the face by a rock when she was nine years old. Perhaps there is, indeed, a conversation to be had not only between religion and neuroscience, but also, more specifically, between American religious history and American neuroscience.
In the Mirror of Abu Ghraib
A hundred years ago in Boston, the Congo Reform Association published a pamphlet by Mark Twain called "King Leopold's Soliloquy, A Defense of His Congo Rule." The text takes the form of a monologue by the Belgian monarch, as he reads through a stack of protest literature, describing crimes perpetrated by his colonial agents against his Congolese subjects: torture, abduction, enslavement, starvation, mutilation, extermination. "Blister the meddlesome missionaries!" the king fulminates. "They seem to be always around, always spying, always eye-witnessing the happenings; and everything they see they commit to paper." But, even as he rails, Leopold comforts himself with the boast that he has never come across a critic (however truthful) whom he could not discredit, stifle, or convert by the application of force or cash. Then he comes upon a pamphlet that contains photographs of mutilated Congolese, and he quakes before the evidence of this "most powerful enemy" - "the incorruptible Kodak":
The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn't bribe... the pictures get sneaked around everywhere, in spite of all we can do to ferret them out and suppress them. Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time and placidly and convincingly denying the mutilations. Then that trivial little Kodak, that a child can carry in its pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb!
But even as he frets about the dangers of photography, and sees himself exposed in the grisly images of his mutilated subjects, the old Belgian discovers the true consolation of the political criminal. After all, he tells himself, the world's response to the pictures will surely be to shudder and turn away. With that thought he bucks himself up, defiant as ever. "Why certainly," he says. "That is my protection... I know the human race."
Shuddering and turning away. We did it again at Abu Ghraib.
The Two Kinds of Decay
Emily Mitchell reviews the memoir of the poet Sarah Manguso, in the NYT Book review:
In her sharp, affecting new memoir, “The Two Kinds of Decay,” Manguso writes from the far side of a long period of remission. “For seven years I tried not to remember much because there was too much to remember,” she writes. From an original welter of experience, she has carefully culled details that remain vivid. Filtered through memory, events during her illness seem like “heavenly bodies” that “fly until they change into new forms, simpler forms, with ever fewer qualities and increasingly beautiful names.” Manguso is acutely interested in these processes of renaming and remembering, the way time changes what we say about the past. Her book is not only about illness but also about the ways we use language to describe it and cope with it.
The author of two books of poetry, Manguso brings the virtues of that form to the task of writing memoir. Her book is divided mostly into one- and two-page chapters titled like poems. She mixes high and low language, the crass and the scientific, with a lyric poet’s sure-handedness. The chapters themselves — among them “The Hematologist,” “The Forgetful Nurse,” “Corroboration” — resemble her own poetry, broken into aphoristic, discrete sections on the page. This disjointedness gives the prose a rhythm that mirrors the confusion and fragmentation of illness.
It also clears space for one of the book’s most remarkable aspects: its dark humor. What makes this account both bearable and moving is Manguso’s keen sense of the absurdities that accompany severe illness.