Friday, October 26, 2007

Bill Buford’s Search for Chocolate

This is a somewhat formal thing I wrote for the Guilfordian Practicum.

Bill Bruford, in this week’s New Yorker, continues his association with obsessive foodies with an article that follows the exploits of chocolate-entrepreneur Fredrick Shilling into the Brazilian rainforest in search of the perfect bean. Bruford, who wrote last year’s best selling book (Heat) about party-animal celebrity chef Mario Malto, approaches his subjects as a novice, taught by the people on the cutting-edge about the changing nature of their obsessions, which is usually food. He often seems to play Sal Paradise to the larger than life personalities he writes about, but his style is deceptive in that it offers subtle insight into the quirks of these Dean Moriarty-like figures. In this article, Buford exposes the contradictions of Shilling’s vision for a purely organic chocolate revolution and leaves the entrepreneur’s decision to sell his company, Dagoba, to Hershey for $17 million up to the reader’s interpretation.

The story of Dagoba goes roughly like this. In 2005 Shilling and his girlfriend Tracy Holderman debuted their products in New York to rave reviews. They started a company, smoked a lot of pot, but didn’t know business so they brought in Shilling’s father to help, and soon business was booming. A few years later Shilling allegedly had an epiphany in the form of a dream that involved a Mayan goddess and a whirlwind tour of the cocoa growing-areas of the world. Soon after, Shilling sold his company to Hershey and now acts as a consultant.

Although chocolatiers may consider Shilling a sell-out, Bruford depicts Shilling as a relentless, although sometimes misguided, visionary. The reader might find Shilling’s personality, like much of his products, somewhat hard to digest. Bruford does a masterful job of amalgamating the personality and the product, combining Shilling’s over-the-top enthusiasm with an honest critique of some of his wares, many of which seem inedible. Shilling is looking for organic serotonin substitutes and antioxidants much of the time, and the results can be brutal on the palate. At one point, after tasting a drinking chocolate, Bruford asks, “Why make a drink that tastes disgusting?”

Bruford’s article is also a rich resource for a 101 guide to the role of chocolate in world history. The research is meticulous but not pedantic. Descriptions of the mystical qualities of chocolate from Montezuma to Pepys provide the reader with a good understanding of why Shilling is so obsessed. The bulk of the article relates a trip Bruford took to the Brazilian rainforest with Shilling, one that saw the men sampling cocoa pulp and spitting out the bitter seeds, the part used to make chocolate. Bruford explains how the plant relies on the bitterness of the seeds to regenerate more plants. Animals and people eat the sweet citrusy pulp but eject the seeds, assuring continues growth. Details like these, interspersed with the personal history of their guide, Badaro, bring Bruford’s journalistic experience into full focus. The trip culminates in the three men immersing themselves in fermenting cacao pulp, sloshing around like pigs in a trough, a bacchanalian if not exactly appetizing image.

Bruford’s subjects may represent the cutting-edge of culinary quests, but in a sense there is a cutting-edge quality to Bruford as well. Rejecting the idea of writing as a seasoned insider, Bruford instead immerses himself from a point of little reference and then gathers as much information from actual experience necessary to write a thorough expose. As Shilling searches for the perfect cacao bean, Bruford also seems to be searching obsessively for something—the nature of the compulsion that drives people to dedicate their existence to a single vision. The reader can be glad for Bruford’s attempts to locate the origin and destination of these visions.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ian's Index

Beginning a post with a description of how badly I’ve been procrastinating is getting redundant so I’ll just give you a statistical update:

Statistics for October 21, 2007:

Minutes studying for GRE: 0
Minutes watching Redskins game: 72
Minutes reading Huckleberry Finn when you told yourself you would only read a couple of chapters and then study for the GRE: 125
Minutes trying to start a new satirical blog about litblogs: 49
Minutes spent believing that Wordpress is run by Nazis: 9
Minutes deciding that you would try the new blog with Blogspot and not Wordpress: .3
Minutes spent trying to post a picture in the header of the new blog and not have it be frighteningly gigantic: 18
Minutes spent trying to spell frighteningly: .9
Minutes spent believing Blogspot is run by Nazis: 9
Minutes spent deciding that you don’t really have the time to keep up with a new blog: 2
Minutes spent noodling on the guitar: 17
Minutes wandering around looking out the window: 8
Minutes spent noodling on the guitar s’more: 14
Minutes spent giving self pep-talk to gear up for a five-mile walk with dog:
Minutes spent going on five-mile walk with dog: 0
Minutes spent looking for syllabus to see what to read for tomorrow: 6
Minutes spent doing assigned reading for tomorrow: 0
Minutes spent trying to come up with the next statistic: .8
Minutes spent checking comments and reading blogs: 70
Minutes wondering if my comments are arcane and awkward: 13
Minutes checking email: 2
Minutes responding to emails: 0
Minutes it takes dog to convince me to let him get on the couch: 1.8
Minutes it takes dog to take over couch and push me into a corner: 15
Minutes it takes to get every dog-hair out of house: 1,235,689,675, 869,638
Minutes being annoyed because there is something in my eye: 5
Minutes being amazed that the Redskins are winning: 32
Minutes feeling guilty that my team has such a politically incorrect name: 6
Minutes feeling guilty that my other team, the Braves, have such a politically incorrect name: 6
Minutes rationalizing that judging things as politically-incorrect is just another form of suppression: 9
Minutes spent wondering if that thing is truly out of my eye, it feels like it, but not quite: 2
Minutes spent looking around my office and realizing what a mess it is: .5
Minutes wondering how I’m going to find the time to clean it: 1
Minutes spent trying to figure out how I’m going to wrap this post up: 4
Minutes spent grasping for a pithy end statistic: 7
Estimated minutes I will spend correcting typos in this post: 27
Estimated time I will spend doing the things I told myself I would do today: 67
Estimated times I will tell myself that this is the last day of fall break and I deserve a rest before the final push: 89

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Historians Circling Overhead

Several months ago I was walking across campus with one of my professors and two other students, and the professor started describing some strange birds she had seen on the way to work that morning. She claimed they were enormous, and were spreading their wings and doing a kind of dance. I think she said that it looked like they were about to mate. She believed they were eagles, and one of the students confirmed that eagles were indeed making a comeback in our part of the state. I was skeptical, although I didn't express it at the time. All I could offer was to describe them to my dad, a dedicated birdwatcher, and see what he thought they might be. One of the reasons for my scepticism was the many times I myself made broad claims about spotting raptors and the like, only to have my dad reveal them as crows or pidgeons.

If I had been on my toes I would have easily realized that they were more than likely turkey buzzards. She had described them as being on the ground, and earlier she had talked about how the road had recently been full of deer so that you had to be careful driving. My theory, one that I arrived at a couple of days later, was that a deer had been hit by a car and the birds she saw were buzzards, very common in our area, fighting over the carcass.

I emailed her (sometimes I just think I have too much time on my hands) with my theory and she concured, relating that the following day as she drove by there were more of them.After all this I began to think about the relationship of vultures to historians.

The class that this particular professor taught had to do, roughly, with the interpretation of the past by fiction authors. I was kind of a willing foil in her class, and I took the stance of the stuffy literalist history major who believes in absolute truths blah blah blah. We read a number of books that distorted history for literature's sake, awesome books like Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, and in thinking of the vultures I began to see myself as one of them, picking over old primary sources in an archive somewhere and digesting what I needed and regurgitating the rest up for succeeding generations all covered in stomach acids and mucous. I'm kind of gangly too, although gangly is quickly turning into paunchy, and I hunch over a lot and my face can get very red--just like the turkey buzzard.

I've been churning this in my mind for these past months--this class made such an impression on me--but I didn't know what to do with it. I didn't particularly think that the vulture/historian concept was such a bad thing, but I couldn't quite figure out how it could be good. Then I was visiting the always wise and witty (and probably the most shameless punster I know of) Archie and discovered this.

If the vulture keeps the environment free from carcass odor then, if I stretch, I can tie together my analogy. Historians treat history to a thorough deodorizing if they are good. I don’t mean that the historian cleanses the historical event from any of its terribleness (if it actually was terrible), only that they keep the event from just sitting there, corroding and offering up unpleasant myths and misunderstanding for concurrent and future generations. They do digest it, and produce concise packages of molecularly-changed regurgitated information—sometimes in the form of excruciatingly boring thirty-page papers for journals like The Journal of Historical Methodology and Anthropological Survey Statistics.

As I sit on my porch being eaten by little black mosquitoes, I wonder if the historian/vulture, like the mosquito, is nothing more than a parasite. Absolutely not! Whether he, or she, be a garbage collector, an interpreter, a propagandist or a poet, the historian's relationship to his source should always be reciprocal—so that the historian gives back, at least in some form, what he has taken. Let’s see a mosquito do that. Thwack!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rock-on Footballers

There is a band that lives down the street from me called Auto Passion. I used to think it was Audio Passion and I would walk by and shout “how is Audio Passion doing?” They never corrected me.

They are great musicians. The reason I know this is because they play a type of music that I don’t like (probably because I’m too old) and I still think they rock. They have the look too, they are perilously skinny and look like they never shave, although their beards never get to the Chris Robinson during the Kate Hudson days stage. (Robinson is proof that if you rock your ass off you’ll get the hotties no matter how much you look like Tom Hanks in the second half of Castaway).

These guys have the rock band thing down to a tee, but not in any kind of contrived way. They just seem to have been born to it, like I’m born to knocking my elbows on kitchen counters and swearing out loud. They lurch around the yard and smoke a lot. Their recycling bin (yep, I look) has empty 40oz PBR cans and burgundy bottles in it every Tuesday morning. They own an old Econoline, and when they drive by they hunch forward and glare down my street. If they ever see me they wave, but in a glowering, moody kind of way.

Every so often, when the weather is fair, Auto Passion comes out to play football in the street. They don’t really organize a game or anything; they just toss the football around and smoke. Sometimes one of them will have a beer loosely held in his hand while he tries a one hand catch.

I love it when they come out because they suck so badly. Not one of them can throw or catch. They run like they are from The Ministry of Silly Runs, really low to the ground, as if they stretched out any longer their back leg might break off. I sit on my porch and watch this and laugh. Sometimes they see me and they laugh as well; they know they suck as well as I do.

It seems to be a rite for them. I imagine their dark cave-like practice-room all filled with Pall Mall smoke and rank with stale beer. This may not be the case at all, but this is what I imagine. I feel like this football ritual is a way for them to air out a little, not just the football but themselves. As they slink around and hoot when someone hits a parked car, they change into kids screwing around, their talent for music uniquely balanced by their ineptitude for organized sports.

They are part of my neighborhood, and if they move I’ll kind of be disappointed. They have been around for about two years and they add a grimy neo-southern gothic element to my working-class neighborhood, which is in transition but thankfully (at least I hope) not leaning towards gentrification. I wonder if they ever hear me play drums—their drummer is awesome—and they may laugh as I laugh at them and their football shenanigans. I kind of hope they do.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I know its been a while since I've posted, and this one is going to be brief. I'm managing to beat back the huns of midterm (no offense to the huns, they did give us Bach and Beethoven), and in two days it will be fall break--YES! I've had some very welcome good news lately, my guitar playing compatriot Pete is going to be in town in a week or so, and I've been chosen by the college to help with the process of finding a new food service provider. I think its the weekly column in the paper's what's did it.

I am storing up energy for an outburst of posts by eating huevos rancheros late at night, reading, and waiting around for South Park to come on. Booker is getting more and more obsessed with his red frisbee and he carries the muddy chawed up thing around the house like Linus' blanket. Of course his goal is to have me throw it for eternity, and the neighbors might be getting ticked to hear the frisbee hitting the empty house across the street at 10pm. Then there's the drums.

I can do an extended solo for about 6 minutes now, and yesterday, as I was wrapping up, I heard something that sounded like something hitting the side of the house hard. I didn't dare go investigate. I always imagine my neighbors thinking "wow, listen to that fine young man get down on those skins--he sure is improving." But then I think about it. If I've come home from a long day at work would I want unmeasured jungle-rhythms pounding out from the neighbors upstairs window greeting me? Hmmmm, knowing my history for annoyance, I really doubt it.

I once lived in a duplex. The guy who lived next to us was pretty cool, but he would come home from work and crank REO Speedwagon from his stereo for two to three hours. Banging on the walls was futile. We even had a chat with him. It all went congenially, but to no avail, the next day 70s shlock rock was making the plaster chip again.

The only access to the basement was through our side of the house, and we realized at some point that we had the advantage--the fuse box was in the basement.

One day, when we just couldn't take it anymore, I went down to the basement and pulled the main to his apartment. All we could hear after that was the guy stomping around. I let it go for about a minute, expecting a loud knock at the door. Nothing came. After a while I tripped the breaker and we heard that noise (this was in the eighties) of a turntable starting back up, and Speedwagon churning its way from 0 rpms to 33 1/2. They weren't so speedy then. The volume came down and stayed down.

I don't know why I wrote that, I just wanted to post something today I guess, plus I like the story.

Here is a new review for the college paper.