Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

As recent events would have it, namely that I’ve had the death cough all week (thanks roommate) I’ve had time to sit back (in truth lie nearly comatose, lest I aggravate the death cough) and contemplate things. Of course that’s basically what I do all the time anyway, (contemplate, not lie near comatose (I’m trying to cut back on commas for lent and just removed one I had placed after “Of course,” which is making me feel decidedly uncomfortable — bring on the parentheses)) but I guess when I’m sick and it’s late February and it seems winter will never end, these contemplations run deeper, stretch further back. And I think it’s in this context that I got to thinking of my high school English teacher from years back who, suffice it to say, was a beyond excellent one.

I learned a whole lotta shit from that one (including the idea that profanity is a form of laziness and that “that” is an overused word — I agree on the latter but we’ll have to agree to disagree on the prior — a life without “fuck” is not worth living or put another way, I really enjoy using the word “fuck.”) including an introductory survey (is that repetitive?) on lit. theory and criticism which would eventually become my collegiate English concentration, because I’m precisely that cool.

One school I remember learning about way back when was New Criticism, a branch of criticism that is absolutely no longer new. What it involves, at least in part, is a close reading of the text. In new criticism, in close reading, the text is supreme (ie it holds supremacy over say the author’s biography or other “outside” things). As such we read it closely, extract as much information, as many clues as to what’s going on, what’s being said, what it all “means” as possible. Because we read so closely lots of stuff matters: sentence length, syntax, chapter length, diction and especially punctuation (including commas). It’s a fun way to read things because you can go as deep as you want. Each and every sentence is its own vast universe.

So (just removed a comma — don’t need it if sentence introduction has fewer than three words?) for old time’s sake and to connect a few lose wires in my brain, I thought it might be fun to apply a new critical approach to the Wikipedia entry for cilantro. So pop some popcorn, grab a beer, toke a fire and get comfy — you’re in for a treat; hell, you’re in for a miniseries.

As a first installment I’d like to address but one piece of wiki-cilantra-minutia. Go to Wikipedia, enter cilantro and see what happens, or simply follow this convenient link where I’ve already taken these steps for you. Perhaps you’ll notice what I have: there is no cilantro page on Wikipedia, per se; there is instead a Coriander page to which you are automatically redirected (now there’s a passive sentence — this makes it seem like the world or some ominous figure has created this coriander reality, as opposed to the more specific and isolated Wikipedia). How about that?

Sure (removed comma) in a certain sense cilantro and coriander are synonymous (which I just learned means have similar meanings, not necessarily exactly the same — I verified this through three different dictionaries), but the seed is never really called cilantro seed whereas the leaf goes by one or the other. In this way Wikipedia’s choice makes sense — coriander covers more ground. Then again (just removed a comma) the hate of the seed (I call the seed coriander and the leaf cilantro which I believe is fairly common practice, at least in the US) is not something I experience, it’s not something I really know about anyone else experiencing. While I do not love coriander seed to the degree I hate the cilantro leaf (removed comma) I do like the seed, I like it just fine.

Is it possible then that Wikiwantsta downplay the herb’s nastiness by putting the whole thing under one innocuous umbrella? No I don’t really think so. I’m not a crazy paranoid person (read I’m not a pathologically crazy paranoid person). If we look to the right of the page, the plant’s genus is coriandrum — it makes etymological sense to call the whole plant that, if we’re going to call it one thing. For Wikipedia’s purposes — a quick, schematic and sometimes in-depth look at a thing — if they want to combine the whole set of cilantro-y things, and it would make sense to, I guess choosing the one that contains the Latin root makes sense. But it is a certain kind of highbrow throwdown in an otherwise proletariat milieu. Yeah. Suck on that sentence new critics.

I guess in the end I don’t have what one might reasonably call an opinion about the coriander redirect situation, which is fairly apropos as that’s where I generally found myself in the old literary theory and criticism days: full or thoughts, most of them deconstructing each other. So let me leave my analysis in a place I don’t often like to. I think its interesting that Wikipedia redirects the cilantro seeker to the coriander page. I hate that word “interesting.” It’s usually, I find, an abdication of meaning. It’s an excuse to not opine. It’s pure theatrics facing nonplus when someone says something decidedly not interesting. But in the rare instance that something is that, just interesting, why force it to be anything else?


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Someone Who Isn’t Erin: Love the blog, but can’t get behind hating cilantro.

Erin: Thanks!; I don’t care.

SWIE: But, don’t you think other people should hate cilantro, want them to hate cilantro?

Erin: No, that’s the folks over at ihatecilantro.com (a group I will not be joining in the foreseeable future; although I do find their efforts impressive, their mission is not my own (there’s nuance to cilantro hate)).

SWIE: Word. You know, I hear there’s a cilantro hate gene…

Erin: Really, I hadn’t heard that.

SWIE: Oh yeah, totally. This guy I know was telling me th.. [interrupts]

Erin: I was kidding. I hear that a lot. I’m suspect.

SWIE: Because you’re paranoid?

Erin: No, because we’ve isolated, what, 4 genes? And one of those genes hates cilantro?

SWIE: Huh?.!

In the coming week or so I seek to prove this hypothesis through some research. Stay tuned.

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When you’re 25, more or less making a living as a writer of various merits and degrees of seriousness, residing in New York City and haling from small college town Ohio, returning to New York after Thanksgiving in said college town Ohio (and it’s distant cousin, Southwestern farmland Ohio) to begin reading Philip Roth’s Ghost Writer with lines like, “Mother, I will not prate in platitudes to please the adults!” (a rare instance of exclamation point in the otherwise understated Roth punctuation situation) you kind of second guess how you’re going to write the ostensible would-be write itself “Thanksgiving: A Safe Haven From Cilantro in a World of Fewer and Fewer” that would go something like this:

People talk about all the familiar wonders of Thanksgiving: the turkey, the dressing (stuffing, whatever), candied yams (sweet potatoes, whatever), green bean casserole, mashed potatoes (which apparently are basically full-proof, apparently), the pies, the gravy (you can poor it on everything, it’s so good, right?) And the best part of all of it: no where, ever, ever will you find a scant piece, a dash, a chiffonade of cilantro.

Is this a coincidence I ask you? Well, of course it is, strictly speaking, but it is interesting that America’s favorite meal of the year, the one we all can get totally behind is the cilantro hater’s favorite meal too. There are some places, some meals, some traditions just too sacred, just too refined to be bastardized by the presence of that nasty, can’t even compete with sage, rosemary and thyme herb…

when what you’re really thinking about is, as Roth and many great “meta,” if you will, or don’t, that’s an obnoxious ivory tower term, or write about writing writers will tend to make you do, the place of the writer, the vanity of the question itself, the inherent narcissism of it all, the writing’s relationship to other people in the writer’s life, the question of its meaning other than to perk readers to say “that’s good,” “I get it,” “that’s funny” or be entertained. These are questions others have mused on, successfully – notably, Joyce, Hollingshurst and Roth himself. I’ll leave that discourse where it lies, dynamic and totally unanswerable.

What strikes me is something I would imagine affects everyone who writes, produces art, performs any job, really: that sometimes there are more important things going on than what you’re doing. (Sure, sure, this is a young liberal idea, I get that, but we don’t want to stop wanting to be important, or rather, to do important things, right?) Food writers, when they talk about their form, tend to take one of two positions: they write entertainment (maybe infotainment) or the work is very important because everyone eats and food matters to our cultures and our histories and connects people and so on (Ms. MFK Fisher is the incontrovertible paradigm here). I agree with both positions, and I really honestly sometimes totally agree with the second one, it’s just that damn sanctimonious tone always used to defend it.

Nate Zucherman, the great protagonist of many of Roth’s novels, including The Ghost Writer, talks with his mentor, the secluded (I’m thinking Pynchon-esque) EI Lonoff, who describes his own long days of writing as essentially creating a sentence, rearranging it, eating lunch, writing another sentence, moving it around, going for a walk, throwing away all the sentences, then starting over. Bumped into my lit.-loving friend Wells in Ohio who talked about David Foster Wallace’s description of writing as setting up a 9-hour day, 1 hour of writing, 8 hours of hating himself for not being able to write anything: indeed, poor bastards.

It’s a funny occupation and people who do it love to complain about it. But they all seem drawn to it as if to some kind of duty, but a duty to self, which gets complicated. Kind of reminds me of other professions, notably chefs, who are only allowed to complain on their own time, lest they get fired, stabbed, hated or, worse, never promoted. Complain they will, but love it, need it — absolutely.

It seems to me, at the end of the day, it’s all about pleasure. People write because they’re gifted and very often privileged enough to do so and they love the sweet agony of producing something good. People read for the same reasons (yes to learn, but people that really like to learn do it for pleasure, right?) Chefs cook for their own pleasure and for that of their diners. David Kamp talks about this in his United States of Arugula, that dining, above all else, should be pleasurable.

And back to Thanksgiving, which is one of the more pleasurable meals most of us will eat in a given year. Those crazy folks we call our families we often haven’t seen in awhile, the food that never wavers, and if it does can and should be a source of hot contention, the cheesy but awesome spirit of thankfulness, or, as I like to thank of it, luckiness. The pleasure the day’s chef gets from cooking the meal: basting the turkey, sweating the onions, seeing the smiling faces of everyone eating it, not doing the dishes. Then everyone sits back and does exactly as they would like to do: take a nap, watch the game, drink a little too much and zing your family, what have you. It’s all permissible. Anything goes.

Thanksgiving is a great day and a great meal because people find pleasure in doing what they want to do and feel basically thankful for the whole situation. The same pleasure can come from writing. When you get to write about food, you get to double up on your own pleasure, and, if you can share that somehow (like my Grandpa’s tried and true every year corn pudding), well, maybe that is something important enough, at least for a day’s work.

Also, I hate cilantro.

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