Review, Apples of Uncommon Character

When Rowan Jacobsen and his wife bought an old farmhouse in Calais, Vermont, he was not a fan of apples, having eaten only three wan supermarket varieties – Red Delicious (“more icon than fruit”), McIntosh (“interminable skin”) and Granny Smith (“as close to artificial as a real fruit could be”) — throughout his life. Apples_HC_t1-232x300

But walking the perimeter of the property, Jacobsen discovered a row of apple trees, and he picked one and bit into it with the enthusiasm of Eve.

“Juice exploded into my mouth, fragrant with cinnamon and spice. It was heavenly, and I realized right then and there that I’d been missing out,” Jacobsen writes in Apples of Uncommon Character, the book born of that epiphany.

Conveniently, Jacobsen was already a food writer who had published an expansive ode to oysters, as well as a book about the decimation of American honeybees, among others. It was, then, a natural progression for Jacobsen to plunge into apple culture, which, he discovered was predominant in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but retreated in the 1900s when mass production increased supply but diminished the product.

Thousands of varieties of apples were grown in the U.S. before Prohibition hit, but by late in the 20th century, most grocers stocked only six (Red and Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith and McIntosh). At one point, Red Delicious made up three-quarters of the country’s supply. “Every tree was genetically identical, monocropped on a massive scale in the sun-soaked (and irrigated) deserts of eastern Washington,” Jacobsen writes. “American consumers brought this disaster upon themselves by consistently choosing the redder apple over the tastier one.”

But we’re getting smarter in our food choices. A “Second Age of the Apple” is emerging because of local farmers’ markets, pick-your-own orchards and an expansive crop of nouveau American foodies. “Hard cider, too, is in a full-blown renaissance; there simply have never been as many superb ciders in existence, professional and amateur, as there are at this very moment,” Jacobsen says.

The author omits one factor that apple growers can thank for burgeoning interest in their wares: his book. It is the literary equivalent of the revelatory bite Jacobsen took at his new home, an enticement to learn more about a fruit grown ubiquitous to the point of boring. An hour with it will forever change how you shop for apples, and will make you a better cook and a significantly more interesting dinner-party guest.

Do you know, for example, what’s the best apple to use for strudel? It’s a Glockenapfel, an elongated apple that originated in Switzerland and remains common there and in Germany and Austria. It is, according to Jacobsen, “one Martha Stewart Living feature away from cult status” in the US.

How about the first true American apple, the Roxbury Russet, developed in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in the early 1600s? Still popular in New England, the variety has suffered under an onslaught of competitors, but Jacobsen still recommends for eating fresh, though he calls its flavor “yummy and strange.”

Winesaps, originally called “Winesops,” make a “mischievous cider,” he says. The Bethel is “Blue Pearmain’s little brother, the less accomplished one that has slunk off to live in Vermont.” It withstands cold, but “at this point is simply holding on in a handful of spots along the northern tier of New York and New England, cozying up to boreal, self-reliant types, waiting for the grid to go down and its fortunes to rise again.”

New Hampshire’s Granite Beauty “looks like it just came off a bar fight,” he writes. “The network of pale scarring across the surface, as if you were viewing the Badlands from a plane; the strangely oily skin; the air of noble ruin; Mickey Rourke will play it in the film adaptation.”

And so it goes, for 123 varieties of apples, all photographed beautifully by Clare Barboza of Seattle. The prose is bright and engaging, disguising the fact that this is basically an encyclopedia of apples. No matter. Here’s Jacobsen explaining the history of the McIntosh, first grown near the US-Canadian border: “The original tree died in 1910 at the age of one hundred plus. At that time, the McIntosh was still merely a regional understudy, scrabbling at the edges of the industry like a little mammal waiting for the dinosaurs to croak.”

Apple trees are survivors. In Hallowell, Maine, there is a “bent old Black Oxford tree” that produces a crop of purple apples each year even though it is 215 years old. A cornucopia of facts like that, plus a cheerful evisceration of mass-market favorites (Granny Smith: “Does plastic fruit have a season?”) gives Apples of Uncommon Character equivalent staying power and assuages the steepness of its coffee-table price ($35). Moreover, there are recipes, including an apple-lime custard tart, baked apples with bourbon-soaked raisins, which looks great even if you hate raisins. Apple up.

Originally published in The Hippo.

The other Weiner

Newspapers usually verify the identity of people who write letters to the editor, but one today had me thinking the fact-checker had the day off.

Behold, in today’s Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), a slam on incumbent US Rep. Mark Sanford, signed by someone who claims to be the cousin of former US Rep. Anthony Weiner, and whose name is — wait for it — Smoky Weiner. Capturesmoky

He sounds like a character in a Dave Barry novel,  but apparently it’s true, and it gets better.  Mr. Weiner, a resident of Bowen’s Island, SC (a suburb of Folly Beach, as it were) is an electrician and also the leader of a band called Smoky Weiner and the Hot Links.

In military terms, this is a great example of “embracing the suck,” making the best of a bad situation, or in this case, a potentially troublesome name.

As for Anthony Weiner, Smoky (whose real name is apparently Andrew) wrote, “By the way, New York, that most hated state, at least had the brains to throw my infamous cousin out on his rump just for taking a couple of stupid pictures.”

Mr. Weiner, the musician, plays the harmonica, according to this profile of him in The Charleston City Paper. He suggests that South Carolinians write in Dimitri Cherny instead of voting for Sanford.  I suggest voting for Smoky instead.



Review, Doctored

If you’ve got troubles, don’t tell them to your doctor, who is probably more stressed and impoverished than you, and more exasperated than even her patients with the state of medicine today. This is the gloomy take-away of Dr. Sandeep Jauhar’s Doctored, The Disillusionment of an American Physician.  doctored

Trawling through Sermo, an online community of physicians, Jauhar finds one doctor who calls American medicine a “charade” and believes he is a “pawn in a money-making game for hospital administrators” and another who figured he made $11.74 an hour the previous year.

This is the cheery prologue to Jauhar’s own story, in which his wife longs to escape their one-bedroom apartment and a “cash-poor” life that is rich in angst and overtime, but scarce in rewards that were plentiful just two generations ago. Back then, Jauhar writes, “If you were smart and sincere and ambitious, the top of your class, there was nothing nobler or more rewarding that you could aspire to become. Doctors possessed special knowledge. They owned second homes. They were called upon in times of crisis. They were well-off, caring, and smart, the best kind of people you could know,” he writes.

What happened? Well, Medicare, for one thing, then the dastardly Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973, explosive malpractice liability premiums and the rapid growth of a “labyrinthine payer bureaucracy.” Throw in an aging population that requires more care than its parents and grandparents did, and pressure to make money, not for one’s family, but for vaguely sinister “hospital administrators” and you’re likely to just take an aspirin and call it a day.

It could be argued that Jauhar, a cardiologist who writes regularly for The New York Times and who chronicled the early days of his career in 2007’s Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation, is burned out, not from the rigors of medicine, but from his moonlighting as a scribe. And he is, in fact, a masterful writer who might have scraped by as a poet or novelist, and foregone the medical-school debt, if he hadn’t succumbed to family pressure to become a physician.  Jauhar’s mother, he reveals, wanted her sons to become doctors so people would stand when they walked in the room. He complied, but also became a fine wordsmith along the way. Here he is, musing about the notes he writes after making hospital rounds one afternoon:

“How limited our interactions with patients, I thought. We see them for a few minutes, then pen a quick summary and leave directions for the nurses to follow. To whom are we speaking in these inky chart drizzles? Doctors, patients, a phantom lawyer?”

In this, and in case histories, in which Jauhar makes plain the psychic agonies of the profession (in one case, he urged a man to have a diagnostic catheterization that, because of complications, resulted in the man’s death), Doctored delivers with enlightening punch. Its theme, however, remains darkly consistent. It’s as if Eeyore got a medical degree.

Jauhar’s points are well taken, and you don’t have to believe, as Cicero did, that men are as gods when they bestow health, to think that doctors should be well-compensated. They should be, if not for their knowledge and their willingness to do things others won’t do, then simply so they won’t be distracted by how they’re going to pay the light bill while they’re pulling our gall bladders out.

Then again, in an age in which almost every profession is convulsing, and pensions and Social Security can no longer be relied upon for old age (not that they ever should have been), there’s only so much hand-wringing from doctors that patients of modest means can take. When the average American takes a second job to pay bills, it most likely involves delivery of pizza. When Jauhar takes a second job, he’s paid a thousand dollars to deliver a speech about a drug he prescribes – and on the job, he gets dinner “with fine wines flowing freely” and even car service if he’s not up to the drive. Cue the world’s smallest violin.

At one point, while bemoaning a monthly budget that was $2,000 short of bills that had to be paid, Jauhar verbally spars with his father, who yells at him, “What’s not to enjoy? You are a doctor! You have the respect of the world!”  Though this is a parent whose influence has not always been admirable, on this point, the reader may be inclined to agree. Doctored opens a door into a once-golden world that, for most, is still enviably silver. Forgive him that, it’s still a fine read.

Originally published in The Hippo.

Review, The End of Absence

   Michael Harris recalls an encounter with a younger friend who was texting throughout the conversation. It wasn’t the texting that was memorable  — who hasn’t been there? absenceimage— but the chasm between a swath of people who see texting-while-talking as normal, and those who find discomfiture there.

“The really gruesome thing was that he didn’t notice or care that we were both so disengaged. The ‘natural’ attention of someone just a few years younger than me is vastly more kinetic and fractured – attention span has evolved,” Harris writes in The End of Absence, which he calls a “meditation” on digital culture, but is just as much blistering critique.

Harris is 33, but he’s an old soul troubled by a new age, one in which teens send 4,000 texts a month, compared to 764 for adults. “They mumble to each other friendly enough, but mostly it is their phones that grip their various attention,” Harris observes of today’s teens.

The teens are the eldest of a demographic that Harris calls “digital natives.” They dwell in violent contrast to their parents and grandparents, the “digital immigrants” who dabble in digital life. Between them are the “straddle generation,” those born, like Harris, in the 1980s, and who will eventually be the last people to remember life before the Internet.

The straddlers possess almost mystical power, with their vision of both future and past. They are the ones who see and understand what will be lost to coming generations, what Harris generalizes as “absence” but is also aptly described as distance. Either, the ability to remove oneself from the constant demands and solicitations of others.

“I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence, and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value,” he writes.

Twenty years ago, the prescient cultural critic Neil Postman wrote in Technopoly that we need a “psychic distance from technology.” Here, Harris rises in his shoes, urging not just psychic distance, but physical, too. Frustrated with his own inability to finish War and Peace – 1,300 pages and “weighing the same as a dead cat” – Harris proposes to create the necessary absence from the incessant pinging, both internal and external, and to read 100 pages a week and finish within two weeks. After this experiment, he embarks on another: to unplug – to go “analog” – for a month, to the point of duct-taping his cell phone to an old-school telephone cord in his kitchen, and only using it for tethered conversations like our grandmothers did.

Throughout his own ruminations and experiences, Harris reports on the evolution of the digital age, interviewing sources as disparate as the founder of the online dating site Plentyoffish, to a medical doctor who serves as a moderator on Wikipedia, to the Stanford professor who was the first to put college courses online. In these passages, he’s utterly engaging.

Prude alert: Harris is gay, and although he is in a committed and respectful relationship with an artist, who makes frequent appearances in the narrative, in a chapter on digital dating he wades thigh-deep into territory that some might prefer not to know about, websites like Grindr, which, by comparison, make the denizens of Ashley Madison look buttoned-up and repressed. On the whole, this chapter didn’t seem to fit the theme of the book, and it’s not the only time that Harris wanders off the path, as he does in discourses on elitism and criticism. A longtime theatre critic for The Globe and Mail, Harris struggles with the new world in which everyone’s a critic. “What a lovely thing, to shut up and listen and not broadcast anything back,” he writes.

While the conclusion of the book, a diary of the digital fast, is vaguely predictable, The End of Absence is a satisfying discourse for anyone wishing Postman had lived another 50 years. And Harris, though his friends call him a Luddite and a curmudgeon, is young and nimble, able to both savage and embrace digital life. It’s not all terrible for the kids. “They will get lost in the woods, they will run naked on beaches, they will sometimes shut off their devices,” he promises.   But this book is a reminder that parents must “proactively engineer moments of absence” for themselves and their kids. “We cannot afford to count on accidental absences any more than we can count on accidental veggies at dinner.” Hear, hear.

Originally published in The Hippo.

Do it to me one Mo time

My car is not the stuff of dreams. It’s more like the stuff of landfills.

It is eight years old and overly salted, like a bad French fry. The side-view mirror is cracked and sometimes falls out, the casualty of a long-ago car wash. 

Worse, however, than the faint smell of manure, ground forever into the stained carpet by my boots, is its obsolescence.   It is a make and model of a car deemed so commercially unpopular that its maker stopped production after just five years.

But there is this:  A friend of my son climbed in recently, and over the din of the radio and the rough teen-aged banter, I heard the boy say, in hushed decibels of reverence, “This is Hank’s car, isn’t it?”

Hank and his Mo. (Image via

Hank and his Mo. (Image via

Hallelujah, thine the glory, as my sainted grandfather used to sing. On behalf of Jeep owners everywhere, thank you, Vince Gilligan, for making the Jeep Commander relevant again.

In Breaking Bad, Gilligan gave us Walter White, the most endearing villain in television history, and his equally lovable brother-in-law, the bull-headed Hank Schrader.  It was Schrader who drove a Commander just like mine, and in doing so, snatched the car from the brink of malicious parody that befalls so many discontinued autos. 

AMC Gremlin, anyone?

Thought not.

But my Kelley Blue Book value may hold firm thanks to the other AMC.

Although the finale aired nine months ago, Breaking Bad’s popularity has yet to diminish. The box set of the series sold out within a week despite its price, $225, and it’s still fetching twice that on Amazon. The show garnered 16 Emmy nominations last week. It has legs like Meb Keflezighi– as does my Jeep, sudden of the teen-aged noblesse.

This is not the first time that a television show has jump-started a sputtering car. listed the top 100 movie and TV cars a few years ago.  The Monkees’  Pontiac GTO was No. 100; the Dodge Charger of The Dukes of Hazzard made No. 1. That car, known as the General Lee, remains a quasi-religious icon down South.  Maybe the Commander will fare the same in the Southwest.

 As much as Gilligan, I must thank the Breaking Bad writers for that, for it helped that Dean Norris’ Schrader broke good as the series played out.  Had Schrader’s seedier side prevailed – and he was occasionally a narcissistic boor, was he not?— my car might have gone the way of the Ford Pinto, buried in the dry sands of memory.

    But Hank turned out to be the good guy, perhaps the only actual grown-up in the Breaking Bad universe.   His shoot-out with two murderous men called “The Cousins” was knee-gripping television that made you wonder why you ever go to the movies.

 And there by Hank’s side, keeping him alive, was his stout-hearted, bad-ass Jeep.

Or, shall I say, my stout-hearted, bad-ass Jeep.

   In real life, the Commander fared more like the unfortunate Cousins in its brief spin through the marketplace.  Introduced in 2006, Chrysler sold just over 88,497 the first year, and the numbers plunged each year after that.  The 2010 model, the last produced, sold just 8,220.  It may not the worst selling Jeep ever; the nondescript Compass isn’t doing so great.  But the Commander was doomed by its boxy silhouette, poor driver visibility, and lousy fuel economy, just 13 mpg in the suburbs of Albuquerque.

    In shoot-outs, however, the truck rocks.

     My Jeep  joined the family in 2006, back before the housing bust. At the time, there was a radio commercial airing that made fun of big mortgage payments and how they drain money from other wants and needs.   Want to take a vacation?  Big Mo says no!  Want a new car? Big Mo says no! 

      We laughed at the ad, and someone suggested that Big Mo would be an excellent name for our imperial, outsized Commander.  And so he has ferried us about, mostly reliably, for 140,000 miles, except for that little episode with the MAP sensor. (If you have one, and haven’t had it replaced, log off and get to a dealership right now.)

   When Breaking Bad began, Big Mo was 2 years old, and already looked a little like the man who drove it:  somewhat oafish, arrogant and crusty.  But by the time Hank died in the desert –  noble, defiant, contemptuous of the surrounding moral vermin – the Commander, too, had been redeemed.  Like its owner, it was bullet-riddled, but strangely virile in repose.

   The car will endure so long as Breaking Bad does, which right now, appears to be forever; the spinoff, Better Call Saul, debuts next year.  Can’t wait.  Gilligan promises that some beloved Breaking Bad characters will recur in the prequel. Hallelujah, thine the glory.  I fervently hope they are driving.