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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Pollan's process

Posted By on 02.28.07 at 07:05 PM

Narrative Digest, a site run by Harvard's Neiman Foundation for Narrative Journalism, offers a peek into Michael Pollan's creative process with an essay on nature writing adapted from a speech he gave at last year's Nieman conference. Here's a taste of what he has to say about writing in the ever-tricky first person (Warning: may only be fascinating to writers and the otherwise poorly socialized):

"The first person is often badly used, especially in newspaper journalism. I tend to rely on it heavily, but if you look at my work you'll find that, even when it's there, you learn very little about me. I use it not in confession but as a narrative device.

The key is to realize that once you've made the decision that you're writing a first-person piece, you're not done. There's a second decision: Which first person? You have many identities when you're writing. For example, I could approach a piece as a gardener. Or as a Jew. Or a son. Or father. As someone who lives in Berkeley, Calif. As any number of identities. When you're writing in first person, you're not using your whole identity. You're choosing what is useful to your story.

With "Power Steer," I wrote as a carnivore. This was an important choice. Because if I'd written about the meat industry as a vegetarian, nobody would have read what I wrote. I needed to start where my reader was. And odds were that my New-York-Times reader was a carnivore. It's also much more interesting to find out what happens to a carnivore after he's gone into the heart of darkness of the modern American meat industry than what happens to a vegetarian. Because you know exactly what would happen to a vegetarian: He'd say, "See, I told you so." That's not very interesting.

So choose your first person deliberately. Too many newspaper first persons -- and a lot of magazine first persons too -- are written in the voice of the neutral feature-writer. They're the voice of the Journalist. That is the least interesting first person you have. Nobody cares about journalists. They're not normal people. So choose a first person that draws on a more normal side of your personality. And think about which one will help you tell the story. You'll see that in very subtle ways it will shape your point of view and your tone and unlock interesting things."

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Good Thinking

Posted By on 02.28.07 at 06:59 PM

Ron Santo’s latest rejection by baseball’s Veterans Committee reminded me of how much I admired Rick Morrissey’s recent column anticipating Santo’s disappointment. “In a strange, very selfish way,” Morrissey wrote in the Tribune on February 21, “we might all be a little better off if Santo doesn’t make the Hall of Fame next week. I know that sounds horrible. But for many of us, it’s not such a bad thing to witness again how a good man responds to defeat.” Morrissey’s homage to Santo’s courage and resiliency wasn’t simply elegant, it was intelligent -- the work of a writer who'd found a subtler, more original way of thinking about a familiar topic.

I had a similar reaction a couple days later to John Kass’s last column on Mayor Daley before Daley’s reelection. Kass can write about Daley in his sleep, but this wry tribute to our LaSalle Street Putin was thought through. “The comic antics at the Cook County Board, with the media punching bag named President Todd Stroger, reinforced City Hall’s subliminal message: Without Daley, all is lost,” wrote Kass, putting into his own words an idea I'll give you in mine: in a city of warlords, many of whom, like Stroger, inherited power by permission of their clans, Daley runs as the warlord who guards the city against the clans. As Kass noted about what he called Daley's "ruthless" reign, that’s how the people, the real-estate interests, and the media like it. Certainly the warlords do.

And then there was the column by Cathleen Falsani in the Sun-Times February 23.  It began on a note I normally find obnoxious—the reporter insincerely asserting his or her own timidity in order to underscore the bravado of someone else. But in this case Falsani told us “I’m a coward” as a prelude to writing about a coward, someone whose psychology Falsani wanted to tease out: Sister Blanche, the “nervous poodle of a woman” in Dialogues of the Carmelites who, like the other Carmelites, loses her head at the end of the opera. Sister Blanche returns to the convent “just in time to be beheaded,” and Falsani wondered why. Maybe she was terrified “of breaking a vow,” maybe it was “her fear of life” if she were left behind, alone. The idea that Sister Blanche suddenly found her courage at the last minute is the trite possibility I admire Falsani for not even considering.

On other fronts . . . In Tuesday's Sun-Times Richard Roeper wrote about meeting Al Gore at the Oscars. Roeper asked Gore if he might have won in 2000 if he’d been as engaging on the campaign trail as he is in An Inconvenient Truth. “To his credit," wrote Roeper, "Gore doesn’t duck the question or deny its validity, but says he couldn’t linger on the past and had to focus on the here and now.” That's not ducking? Roeper may have more to learn about the awesome magic trick where a politician fills a notebook right before your eyes but when you look inside it’s empty.

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Longing for Liebling

Posted By on 02.28.07 at 06:15 PM

I was watching No Reservations the other night and it hit me that long before Anthony Bourdain brought his particular brand of intemperate criticism to the world of the kitchen, there was A. J. Liebling, raconteur, gourmand, and New Yorker stalwart for 30 years. His most foodcentric work is Between Meals: An appetite for Paris and is required reading for anyone interested in the glory--past glory, according to Liebling--of French cuisine. Though the vicarious pleasure of reading Liebling's descriptions of eating well as a student in Paris is considerable, it's his hilarious polemics (rants really) that provide so much of the charm. Here's Liebling on the decline of eating well:

"The reason that people who detest fish often tolerate sole is that sole doesn't taste much like fish...They prefer processed cheese because it isn't cheesy, and synthetic vanilla extract because it isn't vanillary. They have made a triumph of the Delicious apple because it doesn't taste like an apple, and of the Golden Delicious because it doesn't taste like anything...The standard of perfection for vodka (no color, no taste, no smell) was expounded to me long ago by the then Estonian consul-general in New York, and it accounts perfectly for the drink's rising popularity with those who like their alcohol in conjunction with the reassuring tastes of infancy--tomato juice, orange juice, chicken broth. It is the ideal intoxicant for the drinker who wants no reminder of how hurt Mother would be if she knew what he was doing." 

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Jazz Notes

Posted By on 02.28.07 at 04:32 PM


The Jazz Showcase, which has been homeless since the end of last year, is staging an impressive benefit tomorrow, March 1, at the Harris Theater, to help with relocation costs once it finds a new home, something owner Joe Segal says will happen. The club has long been the place in town to regularly check out the finest in mainstream jazz. The Tribune’s Howard Reich actually wrote a pretty good piece in Sunday’s paper examining the difficulties Segal faces these days—with a dying pool of talent, competition from institutions like Symphony Center, and a stubborn refusal to program many musicians that incorporate more contemporary (read: anything from the last three decades) developments into their work. Yet whatever Segal’s shortcomings, he’s remained an invaluable resource to the city, and it’s crucial that he resurface soon. Most of the performers are local, but a killer trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Danilo Perez—who recorded a live album at the club a few years ago—suggests the loyalty and appreciation some jazz stars have for Segal.

Over at the Steppenwolf, guitarist Bill Frisell performs tomorrow night as part of the three-week Traffic Jam series, a “festival of music, language and performance." (So much for specificity.) Last year Frisell released one of his best albums in years, a lean trio session with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Ron Carter that put some backbone behind the guitarist’s improvisations, which too often are puffy clouds with no rain lurking inside. Motian, who possesses one of jazz’s lightest touches but can swing like nobody’s business, kicked the guitarist’s ass, providing the sort of focus Frisell really needs. Here he’s joined by the superb violinist Jenny Scheinman—who recently delivered the goods at the Empty Bottle as part of drummer Scott Amendola’s band—and pedal steel/lap steel whiz Greg Leisz, a guy who’s worked with everyone from Matthew Sweet to Lucinda Williams to Me’Shell Ndegeocello. I saw this trio play at the Berlin Jazz Festival a couple years ago and the entire set consisted of Beatles tunes—twangy, creatively arranged versions. But it wasn’t exactly, um, high impact. No telling what their repertoire will consist of this time.

Finally, although this isn’t exactly jazz news, one of the contestants on American Idol, Chicagoan Leslie Hunt, is the daughter of drummer Steve Hunt, the explosive force behind bands like Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble, Caffeine, and a steady member of the quartet led by pianist Jim Baker that plays every Tuesday night at Hotti Biscotti.

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Hizzoner, Junior, Da Mayor

Posted By on 02.28.07 at 04:06 PM

In recognition of Mayor Daley's big reelection win last night, one northwest-side voter, otherwise known as GetRidda Da'Bum, penned the following tribute, to be sung to the tune of Steve Goodman's classic, "The Lincoln Park Pirates" (registration required).


Hizzoner, Junior, Da Mayor
I'm your mayor, hizzoner, Junior
You voters all do what I say
I blessed Hired Truck
Though it went amok
I'll still win on election day
Cuz you guys are too scared to change me
I quintupled your taxes this year
Built Millennium Park
Using TIFs to embark
And all of Meigs Field to clear

To me, way, hey
You voters must pay
So all that I wish can be mine
I'm such a spendthrift
With your unending gifts
But the voters still think that I shine
To me, way, hey
It's about me everyday
Raising each parking-lot price
Hiring back my old crooks
Don't care how it looks
My voters still think I'm real nice

I only do huge building projects
Cuz they keep you all in the dark
Without even a holler
You throw me your dollars
To destroy every one of your parks
I used to be state's attorney
Cops tortured, I let them all go
I won't fix the schools
CTA has no clue
But you still won't elect my foes


I never consult my own voters
Their aldermen follow my lead
My patronage army
You may find them smarmy
HDO carries out my bad deeds
This makes all your taxes just soar
Museums, they used to be free
Now you can't afford them
So stay home, be bored then
You'll still give me a great legacy.


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Bumps in the road?

Posted By on 02.28.07 at 02:22 PM

I once asked an alderman if I could talk to him about Chicago’s independent politicians. “Have you found any yet?” he asked me. They were hard to come by at that time—about three years ago—and they’re still not plentiful. But more of them might start surfacing after yesterday.

For starters, Richard Daley may have won by a huge margin, but the raw (and unofficial) totals show that few voters were enthusiastic about him or the race. Daley has never won a mayoral election with so few votes--317,266, with 98 percent of the precincts reporting. While Dorothy Brown ran a campaign that was far too conservative and low-key (not to mention underfunded) to compete, I’m not sure anyone thought she would finish under 100,000 votes.

In the City Council races three incumbents lost outright: the 7th Ward’s Darcel Beavers, who’s only held the seat for a couple of months, after being appointed to replace her father; the 20th Ward’s Arenda Troutman, whose campaign imploded after she was charged with bribery last month; and the 42nd Ward’s Burton Natarus, who’s best known for his off-center speechmaking (on anything from comic books to wake in the Chicago River) and attempts to legislate cleanliness and social order.

It’s not at all clear what priorities their replacements will bring to the council—or, more to the point, how likely they will be to part ways with the mayor. Brendan Reilly, Natarus's usurper, has vowed to work closely with Mayor Daley, and more importantly, the 42nd Ward produced more than 10,000 votes for the mayor, one of the highest totals in the city. That means Reilly will likely be under pressure to go along with the administration when contentious issues come up.

In the 20th Ward Troutman was defeated by Willie Cochran, who was backed by Bishop Arthur Brazier and the Reverend Leon Finney Jr., two of the most powerful figures on the south side—and big-time Daley supporters.

Seventh Ward alderman-elect Sandi Jackson is the most likely of the three to go her own way, since she owes her seat to her husband, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., an ambitious would-be mayor and occasional critic of Daley’s. For years the ward has been dominated by proud machine Democrat William Beavers, the city chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party. But last night his daughter polled less than a third of the votes cast, and Daley garnered 53 percent of the ward’s mayoral votes—a majority, but one of his shakiest performances in the city.

Of the 11 wards that will have runoff elections, independent-minded aldermen are most likely to come out of the 15th, 16th, 21st, and 49th wards. Daley had underwhelming support in the 15th and 16th, where union-backed Toni Foulkes and JoAnn Thompson were the top finishers yesterday. Twenty-first Ward incumbent Howard Brookins Jr. hasn’t had the smoothest relationship with the mayor over the last four years; his opponent, Leroy Jones Jr., is an official with the Service Employees International Union; and the 21st’s voters are among the most Daley-skeptical in Chicago, giving Dorothy Brown and Dock Walls their highest combined total (6,807) of any ward. In the 49th Ward, where alderman Joe Moore will face activist Don Gordon, voters have elected independents since 1979.

On the other side, no alderman has been more enthusiastic about his love of the mayor than the 12th Ward’s George Cardenas, who routed union-backed opponent Carina Sanchez. But that doesn’t mean his ward is as crazy about Daley as he is. The mayor won the ward handily, but received fewer than 4,000 votes there, one of his weakest showings anywhere. And while Cardenas helped Daley sustain his veto of the big-box minimum-wage ordinance last fall, 83 percent of 12th Ward voters backed a nonbinding referendum favoring a “living wage.”

Add it all up and the list of potential independents looks something like this: incumbents Toni Preckwinkle (4th), Fredrenna Lyle (6th), Ricardo Munoz (22nd), who all won reelection outright; Foulkes (15th), Thompson (16th), and Moore (49th), should they win; and Brookins or Jones (21st). On certain issues the mayor’s declining support—or aggressive federal investigators—could embolden aldermen Manny Flores (1st), Billy Ocasio (26th), Ed Smith (28th), Tom Allen (38th), and Helen Shiller (46th), who’ve all shown flashes of independence. If they win runoffs, expect Pat Dowell (3rd), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Alderman Rey Colon (35th), and Naisy Dolar (50th) to join in the fun every so often.

Of course, all of these people could decide that it’s just easier to let the mayor do his thing while they stick to securing the money for new speed bumps in their alleys. It’s happened before.

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Piggy-fresh breath

Posted By on 02.28.07 at 08:49 AM

The Year of the Pig is off to a blazing start, as Chow's blog points to news of a new product that I can only image has Sula in a cold sweat: bacon mints.

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Fud Network goes Latin

Posted By on 02.28.07 at 08:35 AM

Okay, let's be honest. if you spend any time watching Food Network eventually you'll's kinda white. PBS cooking show line-ups, while more hit or miss, have tended to be a little more diverse over the years: Vertamae Grosvenor, Daisy Martinez, Dorinda Hafner, Joan Nathan, Madhur Jaffrey's BBC shows, Ming Tsai--who used to be on Food Network--even goofy old Martin Yan (I will save my Yan rant for another day). Right now I count only five regular presenters of color on Food Network, including Al Roker of Roker on the Road, and terminal hottie Warren Brown from DC bakery CakeLove, who hosts Sugar Rush

Last week FN made a gesture toward acknowledging the size of this country's Latino community by announcing it was signing Ingrid Hoffman to a "multi-year deal to star in her own daytime series set to premiere in 2007," a move that had been hinted at earlier this year. Hoffman made her first appearance as a "Food Network talent" in her hometown of Miami at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival this past weekend. The only other Latino I know of on Food Network right now is Juan-Carlos Cruz, who hosts the horrible diet show Calorie Commando, which shows up late at night.

Five years ago Hoffman was called the "Hispanic Martha Stewart"; now she's the "Hispanic Rachael Ray." She has a weekly cooking and lifestyle show, Delicioso, on Galavision, makes biweekly appearances on Univisions's Despierta America, which is the number-one morning show in some markets, and has regular columns in BuenHogar (Spanish-language version of Good Housekeeping) and a syndicated column in Rumbo newspapers. She also has a cookbook coming out soon that she hopes becomes the "definitive guide to modern Latin cooking." So Food Network is not hiring a scrappy unknown, needless to say, but leveraging an already very leveraged and accessible food personality one step further.

Hoffman is originally from Colombia (her last name comes from her German grandfather), where she starred in commercials and telenovelas, but was told by casting directors upon her arrival in Miami approximately 20 years ago that she "wasn't Hispanic enough." She then turned to cooking, which she had learned from her Cordon Bleu-trained mother (still a consultant on Delicioso), who ran a restaurant in Bogota and a catering company in Florida. She started a restaurant called Rocca, and also ran a boutique called La Capricieuse. Like Ray, Hoffman got her start in the media through a gig on local TV, and took it from there.

Hoffman often describes Delicioso as "Sex and the City meets Martha Stewart." My Spanish isn't good enough to get a decent handle on the SATC quotient, but I can relate after watching it a few times that the show does have a good dose of table-setting and party-planning (à la Sandra Lee or Ina Garten) in amongst the cooking, outtakes at the end, plus the occasional goofy comedy segment and the bluest blue background you've ever seen on a set. It'll be interesting to see how her new show fits in at FN; in some ways it feels like the only news here is that she looks like the missing other sibling next to the heavily-promoted Ray and Giada DeLaurentiis (I want to put them all in hair nets), but I still hope she shakes things up a bit. Even a Food Network-ed take on Latin cooking would be a change.

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An exquisite sense of pain

Posted By on 02.28.07 at 06:55 AM


From Larissa MacFarquhar's New Yorker (behind the pay wall) profile of married philosophers Paul and Pat Churchland:

"He and Pat like to speculate about a day when whole chunks of English, especially the bits that constitute folk psychology, are replaced by scientific words that call a thing by its proper name rather than some outworn metaphor. Surely this will happen, they think, and as people learn to speak differently they will learn to experience differently, and sooner or later even their most private introspections will be affected. Already Paul feels pain differently than he used to: when he cuts himself shaving now he feels not 'pain' but something more complicated -- first the sharp, superficial A-delta-fibre pain, and then, a couple of seconds later, the sickening, deeper feeling of C-fibre pain that lingers. The new words, far from being reductive or dry, have enhanced his sensations, he feels, as an oenophile's complex vocabulary enhances the taste of wine." 


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Election day dispatch #32: Thanks to all our reporters!

Posted By on 02.28.07 at 12:01 AM

The stream of reports has trailed off, so we're closing down for the night. Many, many thanks to all of you who contributed. It's been fun, no? Although we're no longer monitoring the inbox, our regular bloggers will be posting on the action in the coming days. In the meantime, please feel free to use the comments section of this post to continue the hostilities discussion. 

Thanks again! 



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