food for thought

I've learned recently that my foothold on sanity is maintained by a set of regular, simple rituals. One of them is (or was, and hopefully shall again be) posting on this blog. Before this summer I hadn't missed a single month, but I felt better when I was posting every two weeks of so. Hopefully, I'll get back in the swing of things.

My newest ritual is going to the gym (yes, folks, as in "I'm making an attempt to maintain my physical fitness"!). I find myself longing to spend those two or three hours a week focused on nothing but my own body (and, occasionally the bodies of those around me - wink, wink).

But perhaps the most significant of these rituals, the one that leaves me the most off-kilter when I fail to do it, is cooking at least one of my meals each day. Now don't get me wrong: I'm not preparing Martha Stewart-style goodies all the time. "Cooking at least one of my meals" means, at its best, making a dinner of pan-seared tuna steak with mustard sauce (tonight's calming concoction) but it also encompasses tossing some chick peas into a can of Classico marinara sauce in order to add some protein or, in its most minor form, slicing a banana into my morning granola.

As with the variable frequency of my blog entries, I don't always live up to this rigorous standard. More often than not and much to my displeasure, I have recently found myself eating on the go -- snarfing down a slice of pizza as I walk down the street (surely an experience that only New Yorkers ever have) or guzzling an iced coffee while I attempt to consume a muffin on the train during my morning commute.

[Footnote: Do any of my fellow New Yorkers eat on trains any more? Several months ago, it seems that the MTA instituted a newer, more comprehensive set of prohibitions against certain uncivilized behaviors on the trains, which (I'm told) includes eating. An elderly black man expressed shock that I was eating a bagel on the 2 train not too long ago and informed me that he'd been slapped with a $75 fine for doing so(!). I suppose understand the motivations behind such draconian policies -- I hate it when you enter a car littered with fallen french fries or riddled with treacherous rivulets of spilt coffee, but I don't think of myself as the type of person who "makes a mess" when he eats and I act as if I'm immune to the laws. I really have felt guilty, though, every time I pull out my muffin -- not only does no one else seem to be eating, but they all seem to be looking at me with scorn, as if they'd come face to face with Donald Trump or Newt Gingrich or some other arrogant, self-interested bastard. It's very unusual for New Yorkers to so consistently abide by restrictive regulations (when was the last time you obeyed the signal at a crosswalk, for example?), so I'm a bit perplexed. I can only assume that the fine for eating on the subway, like an arrest for marijuana possession, is the sort of thing that gets imposed much more frequently on ethnic and economic minorities and that by acting as if I don't have to worry about that, I'm simply asserting the inherent privilege of my race and class. I dunno.]

I don't like eating on the go; your digestion seems jostled. And I don't like buying prepared food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- my weekly purchased lunches tend to yo-yo back and forth between splurges on healthy things I like to eat (close to $10 for a big felafel sandwich at the local Yemenite grill or something with smoked salmon, mmmm) and cobbled together meals whose only redeeming quality are their relative affordability (egg salad sandwich from the deli with some pretzels). It's really agonizing to have to decide yet again where I'm going to buy lunch or dinner and to watch the $20 bills in my wallet dwindle to singles in the blink of an eye.

Like refreshing oases in this culinarywasteland come the nights when I can actually come home in time to shop, or the nights when I find in my refrigerator all the ingredients necessary for a healthy meal. Best of all are the (rarer and rarer) nights when I makes some kind of hearty salad (ideally featuring an unusual starch like cous cous or quinoa) that serves as an evening meal and doubles as a lunch for a few days running.

It's not just that I'm cheap. It's not just that I enjoy cooking and find the task meditative, calming. In fact, I've recently discovered that there's something else underlying my persistent need to be able to go to sleep and say, "Well, at least I prepared one meal myself today." It has to do with that all-American virtue: self-reliance.

I feel like a better person if I cook my own meals; I feel like I'm taking the reins of destiny in my own hands. It's as if I'm saying, "I ain't no fancy-pants city slicker that has to eat out all the time. Why, if I had to, I could cook up my own grub using some kindling and some flint. Don't need no retaurants to do it for me."

My choice of vernacular there is influenced by my lastest Netflix obsession: the American Western. Ok, so I've only watched two so far -- but I've been fascinated. I once had an English teacher who said that you couldn't understand America unless you were familiar with the Hollywood Western. I think he's right.

First piece of advice: rent Red River. I loved this movie. I think it first joined my queue around the release of Brokeback Mountain, since it's frequently cited as a "homoerotic" western. This has chiefly to do with the presence of Montgomery Clift, looking as cool and satisfying as a long drink of water. But Clift is incidental to the action; the main event here (as in every movie he appears in) is John Wayne.

I always thought that the "political" reading of the Western was something that had to be decoded, made up of unacknowledged subtexts of racism and imperialism that no one really picked up on until Roland Barthes and his boys started deconstructing things. Wrong. One of the most compelling things about Red River is how unabashedly it celebrates, glorifies the power of capitalism. There's a scene early on where some nameless Mexican disputes John Wayne's claim to a plot of land and Wayne shoots the man dead and calls the land his own. All property is theft (right?) and this movie moves on from there. It chronicles Wayne's single-minded pursuit of a trail that will allow him to move his cattle into uncharted territory. That's the main goal here: to promote commerce, move the heads of cattle along and increase the value of John Wayne's "brand" (the Red River "D"). Wayne will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, even if it means the death of some the men who are blazing the trail. Spring forward a few centuries and we have the Sam Walton story. At the same time that the USSR was churning out propaganda of its own, Hollywood (with no pressure from the state apparatus) was selling America the party line from the other side of the political spectrum.

Watching Red River is like having a political conversation with a charming, completely unabashed conservative. Such conversations can be incredibly stimulating, even sexy. That raw independence and libertarianism - that fundamental belief that the world is best run through a process of competition - may repulse the liberal soul but as a badge of style it has a lot to recommend itself. In the movie (and even more in The Searchers), there are people who doubt the John Wayne character's morality, his sanity, even his humanity. The critique of the philosophy that Wayne represents is written into the text of the film and at crucial junctures it is put in check (by Monty Clift, among others). In both Red River and The Searchers, Wayne is a monomaniac -- a man with no attachments, driven by a single idea. Men like that don't make good husbands, fathers, lovers, or even neighbors, the movies tell us. But they end up making damn fine countries. Men like that are a necessary evil -- they're the type of people who make progress happen.

The only other Western I'd ever seen before this was High Noon, a liberal allegory of the most simplistic variety, one of those thinly-veiled McCarthyite fables about standing up against groupthink. You can tell that the movie's supposed message of standing up for your principles in the face of opposition is pretty thin since it is cited as a favorite by Bill Clinton, of all people (he watched it 17 times during his presidency, apparently).

Red River (directed by Howard Hawks) and The Searchers (directed, much more portentously and ultimately less enjoyably, by John Ford) are far more interesting documents than a schematic picture like High Noon. And far truer representations, like it or not, of the American spirit. Disagree with them as you may, they compel attention. I would never want John Wayne as a father (Why in both movies is he saddled with pretty-boy surrogate sons -- Monty and lunk-headed hunk Jeffrey Hunter?); he'd have no time to talk things over with you, no tolerance for "sensitivity." As paterfamilias, he inspires respect and fear, but no affection.

How does all of this relate to my dining habits? Well, though the "foodie" movement in this country (by which I mean the advocacy of cooking from raw ingredients, the disdain for anything "processed") tends to manifiest itself among the liberal balsamic-drizzling urban elite, it is also in its own way conservative. It is anti-progress, looking back to traditional techniques. It's centered around the home and the family. And, like a Republican Senator who refuses to subsidize a welfare queen, those of us who insist on taking the time to prepare our own meals are proponents of the inherent value of putting in some work before you can get a reward. The fact that I feel guilty if I eat out for three meals a day is, in fact, the most conservative thing about me. It offers me that much-admired feeling touted by George W. Bush and other proponents of an "ownership society": a real sense of accomplishment.

Did John Wayne cook his own meals, though? Did Ronald Reagan?


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