Family, language, and food in the New Yorker

The November 3rd New Yorker (“The Food Issue”) has two pieces connected, by family relationships, to “linguistics and the language sciences” (as we say in the AAAS): Adam Gopnik’s Our Local Correspondents piece “Bakeoff: What is happening to our pastry?” and Dana Goodyear’s Letter from California piece “Élite Meat: A food entrepreneur offers a delicious — but pricey — solution for guilty pleasures”, about meat entrepreneur Anya Fernald. The former leads us to McGill linguist Myrna Gopnik (mother of Adam) and Berkeley psychologist, specializing in cognitive and language development, Alison Gopnik (sister of Adam); and the latter to Stanford psychologist, specializing in infant-directed speech, Anne Fernald (mother of Anya).

I’ll start with the cast of characters, looking first at the linguists / language scientists, and then move on to the New Yorker stories.

Alison Gopnik. From Wikipedia:

Alison Gopnik (born June 16, 1955) is an American professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She is known for her work in the areas of cognitive and language development, specializing in the effect of language on thought, the development of a theory of mind, and causal learning. Her writing on psychology and cognitive science has appeared in Science, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, New Scientist, Slate and others. Her body of work also includes four books and over 100 journal articles.

… [Personal life] Gopnik is the daughter of linguist Myrna Gopnik. She is the firstborn of five siblings that include Blake Gopnik, the Newsweek art critic, and Adam Gopnik, a writer for The New Yorker. She was formerly married to journalist George Lewinski and has three sons: Alexei, Nicholas, and Andres Gopnik-Lewinski. She is now married to computer graphics pioneer Alvy Ray Smith, the co-founder of Pixar.

Myrna Gopnik. From Wikipedia:

Myrna Gopnik is a Professor Emerita of Linguistics at McGill University. She is known for her research on the KE family, an English family with several members affected by specific language impairment [SLI].

Anne Fernald. From Wikipedia:

Anne Fernald is an American psychologist, the Josephine Knotts Knowles Professor in Human Biology at Stanford University, and has been described as “the leading researcher in infant-directed speech”.

Fernald specializes in children’s language development, investigating the development of speed and efficiency in children’s early comprehension in relation to their emerging lexical and grammatical competence. Recently, she has also begun to study language development in bilingual Spanish-English speaking children and children who are learning Spanish in addition to English.

… Her husband, Russell Fernald, is the Benjamin Scott Crocker Professor in Human Biology at Stanford.

Personal connections: Fernald is the director of the Language Learning Lab in Stanford’s Center for Infant Studies. The lab is in Margaret Jacks Hall at Stanford, where the linguistics department is also located. So she’s someone I know. I also know Myrna Gopnik (from a meeting of research directors in the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s “particular program” in cognitive science some years ago). And I’ve heard Alison Gopnik give a number of talks, though I don’t think we’ve actually met.

Adam Gopnik. From Alison and Myrna to Adam. From Wikipedia:

Adam Gopnik (born August 24, 1956) is an American writer, essayist and commentator. He is best known as a staff writer for The New Yorker — to which he has contributed non-fiction, fiction, memoir and criticism — and as the author of the essay collection Paris to the Moon, an account of five years that Gopnik, his wife Martha, and son Luke spent in the French capital.

Adam Gopnik writes about food sometimes (see a 2011 piece on this blog about Gopnik’s promoting turkey with pesto as a Thanksgiving meal) and about language sometimes (see a 5/23/14 Language Log posting by Mark Liberman, “Adam Gopnik gets it”, about a New Yorker piece of his on “Word Magic”).

Now, from Gopnik in the latest New Yorker, about food but with some attention to language and a bow to his mother:

Oblivious of the peril, we wake and find ourselves in an age of mutated pastry, cross-bread, trying to be two things at once. Doughnuts cross with croissants [the Cronut], croissants cross with pretzels [the pretzel croissant]; Montreal bagels are made puffier for New York tastes, and New York bagels are made as thin and sweet as the ones in Montreal. The Crumbs Bake Shop chain, having almost gone bankrupt pushing cupcakes, comes back to life to push the “baissant,” a bagel-croissant chimera. (A significant baker in Canada long ago crossed the brioche and the croissant to create the “broissant,” but, the baker being my mom, it so far remains blessedly uncommodified, and eaten only by her grandchildren.)

Let us look, then, at these case studies of how stale bread becomes fresh and familiar sweets take mutant forms, and ask why people line up at an ungodly hour to eat sweets that taste odd and look new.

Anya Fernald. From the Dana Goodyear New Yorker story:

Thirty seconds after I met Anya Fernald, the co-founder and C.E.O. of Belcampo, a sustainable-meat company whose ambition is to seduce Americans away from industrial food, she offered me a plate of lamb tartare. Fernald is thirty-nine and nearly six feet tall, with growing-out ombré hair and the exuberant energy of a team of wayward ponies; we were sitting at the counter of a butcher shop and restaurant she had recently opened in downtown Los Angeles. [There’s now one in Palo Alto too.] I said no, as nicely as I could. Something that a retired U.S.D.A. safety expert had once told me about raw lamb, stored grain, barn cats, and Toxoplasma gondii was ricocheting around my brain. Fernald looked at me quizzically and immediately delivered a mug of bone broth, a grayish, mildly animal brew that tasted how I imagine stone soup would. If I am ever recovering from hypothermia, I hope there is some handy. Then we split a succulent twelve-and-a-half-dollar steak-grind burger with homemade ketchup, and a Moroccan-flavored goat-leg sandwich.

… Belcampo, which has its offices in Oakland, California, and its core landholdings near Mt. Shasta, owns a farm, a slaughterhouse, restaurants, and butcher shops, and grows most of its own feed.

… Born on a farm in Bavaria, she spent her childhood drinking raw milk and eating liverwurst sandwiches. Her father, a professor of biology at Stanford, was working with the animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz, and her mother, who now directs a laboratory devoted to language acquisition at Stanford’s Center for Infant Studies, was apprenticed to a goldsmith. The family were tenants on a baronial estate, living over the dairy barn in a loft that was previously used to teach milkers. A rubber udder hung from the ceiling; the cows below provided heat. On a trip to London, Anya, passing a butcher shop, pressed her face against the glass and declared, “There is nothing so beautiful as freshly squiggled meat.” She was twelve when the family moved to Palo Alto. She became a vegetarian and then, for one dark summer after her sophomore year at Wesleyan, a vegan, grinding her own flour from cattails. [But she then gave up vegetarianism during a period in Italy.]

Families. There’s a much larger theme in here, about high-achievement families (like the Gopniks and the Fernalds), many of them academically oriented to some degree. These families form by marriage, and then some of their children join the family business, so to speak, or achieve success in related fields. My own little family, with me, my wife Ann, my man Jacques, and our daughter Elizabeth, is a case in point. Elizabeth’s current job title is Core Paranoid at Yahoo! (I am not making this up), but her life history is steeped in linguistics.

Then there’s the Kroebers: the celebrated cultural anthropologist and anthropological linguist (specializing in Native American languages) Alfred L. Kroeber and his wife Theodora Kroeber, author of Ishi in Two Worlds, and their two children and their grand-children. From Wikipedia on their son Karl (and, incidentally, their daughter Ursula):

Karl Kroeber (1926–2009) was an American literary scholar, known for his writing on the English Romantics and American Indian literature. He was the son of Theodora and Alfred L. Kroeber, noted anthropologists.

… Kroeber was the brother of the science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. He was father of Paul Kroeber, a linguist [another specialist in Native America languages]; Arthur Kroeber, a journalist and consultant on the Chinese economy; and Katharine Kroeber Wiley, a writer.

Linguist children of a linguist parent or parents are numerous indeed. You could write a book.

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