Aug 6, 2010

if there's something coherent here, i'm damned if i know what it is.

a long week, and one especially jarring from the contrast with maine last weekend (a weekend of nothing much but paddling around the bush compound in warm, dry, sunny weather, and getting mild sunburn). tuesday or wednesday it was so hot that the sheets felt warm to the touch. not pleasant. the humidity broke yesterday afternoon in a storm of tropical intensity and brevity, so today was hot but comparatively dry.

jim is in town for band camp so there has been more eating out than usual since he is one of the rare individuals willing to absorb high variance for a high mean in food. he also brings me latvian rye on request, which is a minor wonder of density.

i'm continually fascinated by how some people have carefully refined understandings of what seem to be impenetrable regional variation in food. jim, for instance, appears to know the inner grammar of many of the major streams of chinese cooking even though he cannot pronounce the name of his favourite chinese vegetable (丝瓜) to save his life. i do not have this knowledge of the terrain, probably because chinese food is all blended in the motherland (i had observed this previously but the ramifications, such as they are, were not evident then).

in any case, i was made aware yesterday that i'd never before eaten food that was identifiably shanghainese before, so we made our way today to what was rumoured to be an outstanding shanghainese restaurant. despite the hoop-la, it was not particularly good. in fact, some of it was actively egregious. (i ate a surprising amount of the inexplicable pancake made of corn kernels held together with lumps of cornstarch and drizzled with a spicy mayonnaise, but have since decided that it was just the surprise at work). the lions head meatballs were nice.

later, in watertown, we discovered a new, bigger, and (apparently) better middle eastern market (massis) in watertown that had hitherto eluded detection by being a block further up mount auburn street than sevan or arax. as usual, jim on faith and gut instinct alone bought enough exotic salads and pastries for a mid-size regiment. i was much more restrained and got away with some (mediocre, it turns out) cookies and a bunch of extraordinarily plump, golden-hued apricots. those were not so mediocre. then we went to sophia's and narrowly missed the last serving of frozen lemon yogurt made with their house yogurt (i got a spoonful and it leaves berryline in the dust) while downloading some local knowledge from a charmingly food-obsessed woman buying dodonis feta at the counter.

i stopped in at violette on the way home and got into a prolonged conversation with richard, the owner, who got a bit wild-eyed about the naturally made wines which he stocks almost exclusively and opined that we've been trained to not trust the taste of honest (for which read naturally made) wine. he rambled on for a bit about how natural wine is both a set of initial decisions about the processes that will and will not be used in winemaking as well as the totality of the processes and consequences that are a result of those decisions. implicit in the rambling excursus was the idea that somehow natural winemaking is the only way that wine can be made to be honest to the grape and to the drinker. this is what we grasp after when we search for authenticity. there were echoes of david pye everywhere. richard also pointed out that natural winemaking should not be confused with craft or artisanal winemaking. while this is certainly true, it is only true because of some slippage in the definition of craft. from his account (and the ongoing discussion at saignée), natural winemaking sounds like an instance of craft in the ideal-typical sense of the word.

artisanality (really, what does that mean other than small batch, laborious) has become inextricably connected with craftsmanship, and we've lost the sight of the ideal-typical conception of craftsmanship. which is, of course, the unglorified situation of making things that have to work well enough to be worth the time put into making them. the craftsman has to be understood not as an individual but as a member of a group that persists over time. and over the long evolution of crafts (like coopering or typography or boatmaking), craft processes and products gradually converge to a stable situation: they are generally neither overdone nor underdone, corners are usually not cut, the lily is not gilded as a matter of course.

put another way, the convergence of craft to a steady state is equivalent to saying that craft is a process of coming to understand, over the course of plenty of trial and error, the materials and processes available and the optimal manner in which they should be used. what doesn't work is selected out of the system. what's left is the ideal notion of craft: brutal honesty with process and material. in the real world, that can be a product of conscious refinement and cognition but often is just the consequence of selection pressure. (on this, the unknown craftsman is a great resource, and i've mentioned it before here).

and when we experience an object of craft, something of that brutal honesty comes through. we become aware (whether consciously or not) that no shortcuts taken that shouldn't have been taken, there is nothing (or almost nothing) extraneous in the object. appreciating craft as process and outcome is a form of connoisseurship as much as the appreciation of art is, and perhaps is as much a natural inclination that has to be encouraged, nurtured

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