Overweening Generalist

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Food/Sex/Death: Edition Aleph

"Sex is as important as eating or drinking and we ought to allow the one appetite to be satisfied with as little restraint or false modesty as the other." - either Mama Cass or the Marquis de Sade, I forget which, but as a semi-enlightened hedonist, I heartily concur.

Around Berkeley, Journalism Prof. Michael Pollan has become almost as much of an institution as Alice Waters. And Pollan has emerged as a major public intellectual over the past ten years, with such books as The Botany of Desire (my favorite), The Omnivore's Dilemma, and now Cooked. I enjoyed his pre-celebrity books on gardening too.

(There are rumors around Berkeley that someone's friend of a friend once turned down the cereal aisle at Safeway very late one night and saw Pollan fondling a box of Count Chocula, but let's remain agnostic about this.)

I have yet to read Cooked, which came out earlier in 2013, cover-to-cover. Maybe because I feel guilty I don't cook? I don't cook well. Not yet anyway. I still note daily episodes of daydreams of me cooking a Lucullan whizbang-repast of Mediterranean delicacies for friends, maybe something that looks like this. Maybe in 2014. (Riiiiight...)

Medium published an excerpt from Cooked this past April. In this snippet, Pollan delivers strong rhetoric for the Generalist (if not an overweening one), and against Specialization. His prose shimmers and I come down with a touch of rhetoric envy. While acknowledging the Adam Smithian transformative power of the division of labor in our culture, Pollan is singing my song when he writes, "Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force. And yet it is also debilitating. It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility."

I catch myself yea-saying, alone in the room, but then remember the last time I cooked was when I added filtered water to a bowl of Quaker Oats and microwaved it for 110 seconds, then poured some honey on top and sliced a banana. Somehow I sense this wouldn't cut Pollan's mustard. Or his mustard roots he grew in his own organic garden while chatting with Alice Waters about their high-paying speaking engagements upcoming. (Is mustard a root? I know there are seeds...)

Practicing biblio-osmosis (where you try to let the knowledge contained in a book sink into your nervous system simply be being near a book) with a tome on Mediterranean cooking somehow fell short, details of which are unnecessary to relate at this moment. Let this suffice: it seems I need to exert myself more.

Check out Pollan's paragraph that starts off with "Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles..." and ends with "corporations eager to step forward and do all the work for us." - Okay, I find it compelling stuff, and...shaming. We ought to take a stand against specialization by gardening, he's always argued, but now: learning to cook, which is a radical political act! To choose cooking "will constitute a kind of vote" and to "lodge a protest against specialization - against the total rationalization of life. Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives." Pollan somehow stops short of urging us to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, but I think I'm wise to his game. It's heady stuff. Aye: get commercial interests out of my cranny!

All in all, I'm swooning over the elegant ad for generalism, and all whipped up over learning how to souffle. Maybe even before the New Year. Pollan carries on a variant of the Emersonian tradition of self-reliance in Unistatian life, and I just find it appealing as all get-out. We ought to alter the ratio in our lives that has to do with  production <---------> consumption. To the barricades!

Not long after I read that excerpt, I ran across one of my favorite science writers, Maggie Koerth-Baker of boing boing. She's grown weary of Pollan's pronouncements, and offered as rebuttal one of her favorite cooks, Lynn Rosetto Kasper, and like Maggie, I recommend clicking the link for Kasper's short audio interview on Minnesota Public Radio. The gist: rather than feeling like you're letting the Earth, your own sense of coolness and the entire progressive political movement down by not learning to cook, do what you love to do instead, 'cuz that's what you'll be good at. And remember: when you're an eater, you're supporting all of those who love to cook, whether they're in your home or a kitchen in a restaurant, waiters, food delivery people, etc. Being a thankful, joyous eater has value, so stop with the guilt if you don't want to learn to cook. 

I think Kasper has let me off the hook. But I still want to try - at some point - to learn how to cook something like this:

                                                      da-rool, da-rool!

Any future situation that finds me mucking up perfectly good ingredients in the kitchen cannot possibly be as bad as this situation, described by the master storyteller and beloved Unistat anarchist Utah Phillips:

I'm going to touch on what I consider "prowess." 

First off: There's a retroviral-like myth that sex is really good exercise. Don't believe it. The New England Journal of Medicine showed that the average six minutes of fucking burns about 21 calories, which is about the equivalent of two segments of a navel orange. Some exercise. Even if you go at it for 30 minutes you're only burning 88-100 calories. A question: can't we just enjoy our "normal" fucking without having to multi-task? Can we leave the "getting in shape" bit for some other time? Why the fascistic insistence on having "better abs" while you're "making love"? How about tapping into some zen and just...Oh I don't know...paying attention while you're actually getting to do the one thing you're daydreaming about the most? Why undermine yourself? Or your partner. If either you or your partner are saying to themselves (or even out loud), "Oh yea! That feels soooo good! If only my abs were tighter, or you had more of a six-pack rather than a keg, this would be even better!," I'm sorry: you need to re-think your priorities. 

Oh, but there's the new "Coregasm," as explained by Callie Beusman, quite hilariously. Make sure you check out her other tips for staying in Navy-Seal-like shape while fucking. Callie and I are here to help any time you feel...empty and can't quite have enough of life.

Lots of us think that when it comes to sex, we're pretty good. Or maybe not-so. We have some sense of our prowess. Maybe we are on our game at times - when we've had lots of recent practice? - and then there are those not-all-that-great moments. (Hey guys! Here's a book...)

Back to prowess. It's difficult to assess prowess. There's boasting. There's he said/she said/they said. There's certainly quality, which is what most of us want, but how do you measure such an intangible? There's quantity, which seems more subject to measurement by definition.

There's USC bachelor's degree/feminist Annabel Chong (nee Grace Quek). She had sex with 251 dudes over 10 hours. I have not seen this documentary, but I've read a few articles about Annabel. She's a nice gal. Very giving. Some of her feminist colleagues seem to have balked at her stunt, but she seems like Doris Day compared to Lisa Sparks of Bowling Green, KY. (I refuse to ease into a "KY" joke here. You're welcome.) Lisa had 919 dudes in 12 hours in 2004, at the World Gangbang Festival in Poland. Just think, men: some guy's going around in bars telling an amusing anecdote that he once had "sloppy 919ths." Last I read, Lisa Sparks was happily married. She decided to settle down. We all slow down a little, I guess.

A few more miscellaneous items that might fit under this rubric of "prowess":

-Leigh Cowart's profile of porn star Marcus London, who says he can teach any man how to make a woman "squirt." London is quoted, "I put my hand inside a woman and I can tell. I can feel things. Like car mechanics looking under the hood of a car, I know what does what." Jeez Marcus, I put my hand in there too; I thought I knew what was what, but what are you, some sorta Houdini? I thought it was more up to the gal's psychosomatic synergistic physiological receptivity, and not her V-8. And oh yea: I saw what you did there with "hood." Good one.

-In my opinion, Marcus London, however good he is, is an amateur compared to Rafe Biggs, a psychologist who suffered a tragic accident and became a quadriplegic. Biggs has, like some tantric yogi Adept, rewired his brain in a remarkable case of neuroplasticity, and just...something we should all marvel at: he has orgasms through his thumbs! Yep: they're called "transfer orgasms" in the trade, and Biggs says his right thumb is the Giver of pleasure (not technically "fingering" his girlfriend, but possibly "thumbing her a ride"?), while the left is the Receiver of sex energy. I wonder if his thumb ever gets tired and he just fakes an orgasm? And what about non-orgasmic females who read this story? This could be a real blow: the guy learns how to get off through his thumbs, and they can't...I hate the word "achieve" in this sense, but let's let it stand. I say: if Biggs can do it, there's still hope for all of us. Maybe I'll work on rewiring my own brain to achieve the ability to cook? Anyway: Rafe Biggs: we salute you. Errr..."thumbs up"?

-Mary Roach's book Bonk taught me many things. One was that Masters and Johnson (Give 'em a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine! I dare ya!) coined the term "spectatoring." They said that many women didn't have orgasms because they were too self-critical and seemed to be imagining what they look like while they were fucking. The definition given was "viewing oneself judgmentally and critically during sex." (p.251) My guess is that our screwed-up sexist culture does this to women, and this is one of the few times I wish they could be more like men, as most of us apparently think we're Casanovas, temporarily in the running for People mag's "Sexiest Man Alive," while we're getting at it. Believe me, women who spectator-ate: the guy is into you; you're great and you look just grand. Seriously.

Enough with sexual matters for now. On to death.

                                          Prof Shelly Kagan of Yale

There are so many ways to go with this.

Okay, I've taken up too much of your precious time here with all these trifles about food and sex, so enjoy this philosophical essay adapted from Yale Philosophy prof. Shelly Kagan's book Death. I love the title; it sucked me right in: "Is Death Bad For You?"

This seems a wonderful way to demonstrate how philosophers are taught to think these days. You posit an idea and play with it, toss it around, look at it from a few angles, this brings us to a related idea, which you then fiddle with in your trained-philosophy brain, and so on. Suddenly, that which was familiar seems to have become unfamiliar. Is Death Bad For You? Yes, most people would reply. It's way up there on the ultimate list of Bad Things...what're ya stupid er somethin'? Then they'd hurl a couple of epithets at you (me), and suggest therapy, medication, or maybe "You need to get laid, dude!" (I would then be tempted to tell them about Marcus London and Rafe Biggs and Annabel Chong and Lisa Sparks, if only experience hadn't taught me this would likely get my ass kicked.)

Ah yes: nonexistence can be bad for us due to what economists call opportunity costs: you're deprived of the possible good things life could bring because you are no more. Bad! And: if "death is bad for you" is a true statement, there must be a time in which it is true. It certainly isn't now, because I'm alive. Check...and mate? Nope, there's way more to this: existence requirements, possible persons, death not being bad for someone who never existed, etc.

A current philosopher (at least I think so, I don't have his number and cannot verify) named Fred Feldman notes we'd like to live to be older. But to what age? If you said "Eighty five?," well then why not 87? How does 92 strike you? Ray Kurzweil apparently wants to/thinks he will live to be 973, and outdo Methuselah. Hey Ray: howzabout hangin' to 975? Dream large, man!

It all seems so...arbitrary. And here's a wrinkle: what if you're 40 now, but rather than thinking you'd like to make it to 50 (you have literally taken Van Halen out of context when they said, "I live my life like there's/no tomorrow..."), you wish you'd been born ten years earlier, so now you're 50? You would have achieved your goal already! If that seems weird and/or stupid, Shelly Kagan reminds us of Lucretius, who wondered why people worry about death and their non-existence when they seem to overlook their non-existence before they were born!

I wish I could be more like Epicurus and Lucretius on the subject of my own death, but I seem more like Woody Allen, who observed that many people would like to achieve immortality through some heroic actions or brilliant works left behind at death. Woody said he'd like to achieve it another way: "Not dying."

One last idea - but you really ought to read Kagan yourself - is the posited day all human and mammalian life on Earth gets wiped out by an asteroid. As Kagan writes, "Someone 30 years old might reasonably think to herself that if she'd only been born ten years earlier, she would have lived longer." (Touche?) That makes me think of someone living in Europe in 1348, at the height of the Black Death. Loved ones and neighbors all rotting in death all around you. And just in the past hour you note you've got a touch of the sniffles. When will the guys with the wagon come and take care of this stench?

And then you catch yourself in a wistful mood, thinking, "Man! If only I'd been born in the 1240s, 'cuz then 20 years later it would've been the Sixties. The Sixties were happenin' man! Whatever happened to the revolution? The Church does nothing but hassle us, feudalism can bite me, and now this Black Death bummer? The 1260s were da bomb. These modern days aren't all they were cracked up to be. O! To have been alive in the Sixties!"


Psuke said...

While I have a certain sympathy for Maggie Koerth-Baker's sentiments...I also agree with Pollan (and Heinlein). It's good to know *how*, even if you decide not to because you are not wonderful at it or you have other interests. Especially something as fundamental nutritional acquisition. Besides, think of the new neurons you'll grow learning a new task!


(And that concludes my pro-cooking propaganda)

michael said...

No, thanks: I probably need nudging, and it WOULD create new neural pathways and stave off brain atrophy...can I learn Portuguese instead?

I remember running into my favorite English professor in the supermarket. I had just moved out of an apartment I shared with my mom and was then renting a room in a condo with a friend from school. He asked, "Are you starting to cook for yourself?" I said, yea, sorta, but I'm really lame..."

He smiled enigmatically and said, "It's like workin' with a chemistry set." (Briefly I thought, "Does he think I cook LSD?")

I should've taken it up then, with a single-minded determination, but as I recall I was pursuing Other Things with a fury.

Psuke said...

Portuguese could be fun. Interesting pronunciations, as I recall. Like Arabic!

Perhaps your Professor cooked LSD and was offering to trade?

michael said...

He - Dr. L. David Sundstrand, now retired and writing mystery novels set in the Southwest US, like Tony Hillerman, was and maybe still is a big dude, ruddy complexion, with a Yosemite Sam 'stash. He had a fantastic speaking voice, and in his Shakespeare class he read all the parts and switched voices for each character, incl, the females. His Ophelia made us all crack up laffing.

As I recall he was really into beer. I never had the nerve to ask him if he'd done psychedelics. I'd guess he may have tried shrooms once, and probably smoked some pot in the late 1960s/early 70s.

Gawd, that guy was a great teacher. I still think of him often. He was a major infl on the persona who writes the OG.

I think maybe I should re-take-up my Japanese and try to get better at that. And what the hell: learn to cook.

Psuke said...

Just for fun you could combine the two...if you have any friends who are also interested in Japanese, have a party and do Japanese food!

Wait, didn't I say the first post was the end of pro-cooking propaganda? I did!

And, as an inveterate reader of mysteries, I'll see if I can find Dr. L. David Sundstrand in the library, he sounds classic.

michael said...

When I lived on the harbor in LA we'd go to to a place near the Honda plant in Torrance called Musha, and it was like being in Tokyo. Place was always packed and we were the only gaijin in there, and my favorite was octopus omelette. I salivate just thinking of it.

I have a Japanese female friend who makes really basic sushi, but it's good. That reminds me of a documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about maybe the greatest sushi-artist in Japan.

Psuke said...

I've seen that movie on Netflix. My friends say they can't watch it all the way through - they have to stop and go get sushi halfway through.

I tried making sushi many years ago (vegetarian sushi, Colorado not being the best for fresh fish). I could not quite get the rice right. There's a great Japanese cooking blog called Just Hungry, most of it is fairly simple. Unlike (my understanding of) Chinese cooking with it's illimitable sauces, etc.

Octopus Omelette...I'm fascinated.

michael said...

I saw Jiro on Netflix and the craving for sushi lasted four days, until I finally caved and found a place...

I just now found a blogger who writes about Musha's octopus omelette and has a picture. I don't recall mayo on top though. Maybe it's changed since the last time (nine years ago?).


Psuke said...

If I ever again visit my brother while he's in Venice, maybe I can talk him in to going. Because that looks amazing. All the ramen noodles in the middle!

Is sushi that rare in the East Bay? There's a million and six in SF, and one on every other corner in Mountain View.

michael said...

Yea, there's all kinds of sushi in Berkeley and the E.Bay, but I'm always looking for one that stands out. There's a fairly expensive place in OAK that was very good, but I forget the name.

I like Sugata, at the bottom of Solano near San Pablo, but it's no Musha.

In Japan, the waiters/waitresses are scared of us, but they smile. And they don't speak any English and of course the menus are all kanji, so we'd end up walking the waiter to the front of the store, where the little window shows very realistic-looking plastic versions of their food, and we'd point to what we wanted. If you go into a ramen shop there, everyone's quiet and slurping loudly from large bowls. I love a really fishy ramen on a rainy day, with matcha a psychedelic powdered green tea high in caffeine that tastes vaguely like grass clippings, but still oishii (delicious).

For some reason the Musha in Pasadena didn't catch on. The Torrance one seems more "authentic" than any place in Little Tokyo downtown, probably because of the branches of the car zaibatsus nearby. I hit the Santa Monica one once, but only for drinking.

Anonymous said...

The best place to brush up your
Japanese is animefreak.tv.

Kaizoku Nakama only runs to 600+
episodes (One Piece).

Cooking is something that should
not be neglected, simple is better
in the beginning, then you can do
experimental spices and techne.

The only problem is that good cooks
taste as they go along, this does
your 6 pack abs no good.

Dying is easy, anyone can do it.
Living not so easy, few master it.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Michael Pollan's guilt trips leave me cold, but I agree with him you should try cooking. My argument, though, is that trying a few dishes will (1) give you pleasure and (2) save you money.

To be more specific, if you check the right cookbooks out of the library, you will discover you can eat all of the very spicy Asian food you want very cheaply, as many good Asian dishes use no meat or use little meat. It's also good for the Earth and healthful to eat less meat, but now I sound like a left-wing scold.

Two of my favorites are "Every Grain of Rice" by Fuchsia Dunlop (she specializes in VERY spicy Szechuan dishes) and "At Home With Madhur Jaffrey" (simple but authentic Indian dishes.) I may be wrong, but I think if you tried these cookbooks, you just might find yourself indulging in a new hobby.

michael said...


Kaizoku Nakama is the Japanese equivalent of Dr. Who? (No)

I've done simple cooking and like it for myself; for others? Not so much. I have not exactly wowed any friends. I'm not afraid of gaining weight while I tinker with chemistry in the kitchen because I have some freaky metabolism and can't get above 175 (at 6 feet tall), no matter what or how much I eat. From what I can tell this has to do more with genes and my microbiome more than food choices and exercise.

michael said...

Tom -

I tend to disagree with you and Maggie about Pollan's guilt trips, although I certainly see how he can be read that way. Your reading of him seems legit. I just want writers to really try to say things - even if uncomfortable to us - and with style. (You and Maggie may have picked up on other remarks from Pollan; I took a break from his talks and media appearances.)

Earlier this year David Freedman took on Pollan in The Atlantic and it was really interesting. There was a lot of fallout from the Left defending Pollan against neoliberal-ist journalist Freedman, but then a few nowheres-near-elite bloggers on food and fatness weighed in about prominent White Men telling people what to eat. I found it all quite enlightening. Maybe I'll write about it in another Food/Sex/Death spew.

THANKS for the recommendations for Fuchsia Dunlop and Madhur Jaffrey! I'll seek 'em out.

Anonymous said...

That sounds like one of RAWs Koans
One Piece as the Nihon version of
Dr. Who.

It may be, I haven't seen much Who
since the Tom Baker era. If you're
after the courtly version they have
Murasakis Genji in an anime version
also. I left Japan in 1970 and am
surprised how much of the language
I recognize from the anime, I guess
it seeps into you even if you don't
try to study it.
I liked Pollan enough to give one
of his books away as a gift. It
had some good ideas in it. I do
pay more attention to how the
biotic world impacts us now as
he pointed out, having lost a lot
of sweat in the garden while the
lazy plants looked on with a bit
of a smirk.

Eric Wagner said...

So much time, so much to do. Reading a lot of Louis Zukofsky lately, I feel very ignorant, especially when it comes to knowledge of languages. There seem so many areas to learn, and cooking has little appeal to me right now. That may change in the next five minutes.

Great blog as usual.

michael said...


re: our Nihon: mine oddly becomes more available to my consciousness (and speech!) when I'm in a Japanese restaurant. It's as if the environment nudges that dormant part of my brain that knows 60 phrases and says, "a-TEN-SHUN!"

When I'm lazing around the house, my J. seems nonexistent.

That's the part I like the most about Pollan: the systems part: thinking/soil/sun/growth/transport/plate/health/esthetics

michael said...


I kinda suck at languages. Nothing's ever good enough for me. William Weaver died recently. He translated Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco into English, among others. I always think about people who know another language so well they can give to the world the poetic thinking of another writer in another language. It's such a loving thing. I wish I could do that. Honestly, I just don't think I have it in me: too much the generalist?

My well-off and incredibly generous sister-in-law demanded my xmas list, and I put Zukofsky's A on there. Fingers crossed. I can't comment on your new blog because, like the translation thing: estoy idioto.

Eric Wagner said...

I hope you get "A" for Christmas. I just read "A" - 11 this morning (only two pages long), and it blew me away. It marks the entry of Zukofsky's wife Celia and son Paul into the poem. Zukofsky began the poem before he met Celia. He seems to me a great domestic poet, and his family seems perhaps his greatest theme.

I used to call myself bad at languages. I said to Pete Fairchild once, "I only know a little Latin and German."

He said, "You're not bad at languages if you know Latin and German." Compared to Joyce and Pound and Heinlein, you and I and others like us seem weak at languages. Compared to most American college graduates, we seem ok.

michael said...

I know 20-80 common phrases and nouns in many languages, which to me is just sorta trivial. When I "get by" with a native speaker of a non-English language, it's sorta gratifying.

Knowing the grammar and being practiced well-enough to catch what's been said - at speed - is something I've only glimpsed, in Spanish. I can listen to German and make hit-miss guesses as the the subject matter, but I can't converse in it.

To me, being able to have a conversation is the acid test. I have not really made it there. Yet.

The ultimate for me would be to make an effective translation of literature (novel/short stories/essays) from one language into English, so that a native speaker would read it and say, "Not bad!" William Weaver, who translated Eco and Calvino from Italian to English, died recently.