Friends of the maximum

Phil Ford

Happy new year. Sorry I couldn't muster up an exclamation point for that sentence. New Years' has always struck me as a pointless and disaster-prone holiday. When younger I would try strenuously to live up to expectations and would end up horribly drunk and passed out in the subway, or (a bit older and losing enthusiasm for the mandatory jollification) stuck in some bar with a bunch of people I didn't know and passing the time watching Ultimate Fighting on the bar TV until the ball mercifully dropped in Times Square and I could go home. I don't even try to live it up on New Years' anymore, though I still get the minor disasters: this year I've got a lung infection the doctor was careful not to call pneumonia. Ill-health has not kept me from doing a lot of cooking, though, which has been fun. (Wintery things like roast pork shoulder, beef stew, pasta with smothered onion sauce, cheese-and-beer fondue . . . mmm.)  And speaking of which, one of the things we got for Christmas is a book of short pieces by Anthony Bourdain (The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones).

One of these pieces ("Woody Harrelson: Culinary Muse") is a enjoyably nasty takedown of the "raw foods" movement. Bourdain doesn't like the lumpish aesthetics of raw food, describing the cover of one prominent cookbook as something that "looks as if some fifties-era Betty Crocker got titanically drunk and decided to lay out a buffet for the Symbionese Liberation Army." But more to the point, he doesn't like the spirit of abnegation that lies at the heart of raw food ideology. Raw foods advocates are afraid of all the impurities we're supposedly putting in our bodies, all the mucus and toxins we're building up (hey, I can relate), and their answer is drastic renunciation: most raw foodies appear to be vegans who eat vegetable, fruits, seeds, sprouted grains, and nuts (things  that are "still alive") prepared at room temperature. This leaves out an awful lot — not just ingredients, but the entire range of chemical changes that take place when food is heated. Roxanne Klein's introduction to her raw foods recipe book ("cookbook" seems to be the wrong word) describes going to Thailand and being inspired by Woody Harrelson to cultivate this (to me) rather peculiar self-imposed restriction. "Every evening, our group would sit down to a fantastic feast of Thai vegetarian curries, noodles, and rice dishes. Woody, however, would always order a bowl of fruit or a green papaya salad. We tried to get him to sample the wonderful cooked dishes we were eating, but he always declined." Bourdain explodes in wrath at being asked to see this act of doltish incuriosity as one of saintly self-denial. "Who would listen to anyone who can visit Thailand—a country with one of the most vibrant, varied, exciting culinary cultures on the planet (including a rich tradition of tasty vegetarian fare)—and refuse to sample its proudly served and absolutely incredible bounty? What kind of cramped, narrow, and arrogant worldview could excuse shutting oneself off totally from the greater part of an ancient and beautiful culture?"

Bourdain goes on to say that Woody snubbing Thai chefs to eat
the same little salad every day is not really all that different from
the stereotypical Ugly American who only eats at chain restaurants
while on vacation, and he has a point, but there's more to it than that. One finds the same spirit of pointless renunciation in Dogme 95 purists, punk bands anxiously clutching their little handful of guitar chords, early-music purists (Richard Taruskin called them "authenticists") getting a fit of the vapors when they hear Bach played on a Steinway, or scholars who police the boundaries of their discipline and turn away visitors at the border (or at best let them in on a tourist visa). The world is a big place, and jammed with inconceivably more unknown, scary, stinky, yummy, sexy, gross, funny, weird, loud, just generally intense things than anyone can possible cram into his or her sensoria in a lifetime. Why would anyone say, in the face of all that wonder, no thanks?

I'm no big fan of Robertson Davies and think his music-student bildungsroman Lyre of Orpheus is a particularly lame example of what Joshua Clover calls "nerf humanism," but there's a pretty good line in there about the kind of people who resent the novel's main character for devoting herself to her music studies. This was really Davies's big theme — the small-town parochialism of middle-class Ontario WASPs in the prewar years, their pride, ignorance, resentment, sanctimony, and spite. Davies has one of his sock-puppet characters* say that "All they ask of God is a kind of spiritual Minimum Wage and in return they are willing to give up the sweets of life—which God also made, let me remind you." Such people are the "Friends of the Minimum," seeking some kind of marginal safety in return for forswearing pleasure and then shunning those unwilling to join them in their miserabilism.

Don't get me wrong — it's not as if I'm out there grabbing life by the short ones. I spent my New Year's Eve last night falling asleep before 11 pm watching That's Entertainment II on TCM. Not exactly Iggy Pop. But if *you* were out there tying one on and are now clutching a bag of ice to your head as you read this, good on you. Boring and sedate and middle-aged as I am, I have a certain philosophical respect for the Friends of the Maximum, among whom I would count eminent persons such as Bourdain himself, Norman Mailer, Dave Hickey, Richard Taruskin, Vladimir Horowitz, Frank Sinatra, Maria Callas . . . the various people I have written approvingly about in the two-and-a-half years I've been doing this blog. And my friends too, are all good friends of the maximum, and this seems like as good a time to give thanks for them as any: Graham, Mark, Heather, Mitch, Tim, Jim, John, Byron, and lots of others I am forgetting in my addled wheezing state — happy new year, all.

*i.e., characters who embody the Jovian Spirit of Vitality that Davies clearly prided in himself

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to Friends of the maximum

  1. David Cavlovic says:

    Re: Woody Harrelson: I’ve always wondered whether is extreme activities were to distance himself as far as possible from his father the professional hitman. As for veggies changing their chemical structure when cooked, does Woody then CHEW his hemp rather than light it?
    Re: Robertson Davies: He used to be a customer at the bookstore I worked at in Yorkville. He once left a satchell behind. We opened it up to look for a phone number or address or something to get in touch with him. All we found was an empty scotch bottle…

  2. rootlesscosmo says:

    I recommend Bourdain’s short book about Mary Mallon, aka “Typhoid Mary.” There’s general agreement, I gather, that she got a raw deal, but Bourdain tells her story in a spirit of craft solidarity, one hard-working cook to another, that’s very satisfying.

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