The New Yorker food issue

The November 2nd issue of the New Yorker is the food issue; there are three pieces in it I’d especially like to recommend: Calvin Trillin on pork barbecue in North Carolina, Dana Goodyear on making seaweed palatable, and Nicola Twilley on how the packaging of food can affect (our perceptions of) its flavor. The first has special meaning for me, since it features my friend John Shelton Reed, and this is the second time Trillin has devoted a New Yorker food piece to covering  a friend of mine (the earlier occasion was a 1983 piece on the great linguist Jim McCawley on cooking and eating in Chinese).

John Shelton Reed. (We have to give his full middle name, so that you won’t confuse the great sociologist of the South with John S. Reed — John Shepard Reed — the former chair and CEO of Citicorp and former chair of the New York Stock Exchange.)

The academic John S. Reed and I were at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences together in 1990-91, and that’s where he and his wife, Dale Volberg Reed, and I got to be friends.

A substantial extract from Trillin’s piece (“In Defense of the True ‘Cue: Keeping pork pure in North Carolina”), giving you a good bit of the flavors of Trillin’s writing and Reed’s research:

For some years, I’m now prepared to admit, I somehow labored under the impression that Rocky Mount is the line of demarcation that separates the two principal schools of North Carolina barbecue. Wrong. The line of demarcation is, roughly, Raleigh, sixty miles west. The Research Triangle—the area encompassing Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—is a sort of demilitarized zone, where someone who’s been concentrating on the barbecue scene, as I was on my most recent visit, half expects to see the distinctive blue helmets of United Nations peacekeepers. Rocky Mount is within the eastern North Carolina sphere of influence, where barbecue means the whole hog, chopped, with a vinegar-based sauce that is flavored with pepper. To the west of the DMZ lies territory controlled by the forces of what is variously called Piedmont- or Western- or Lexington-style barbecue—a version that uses only pork shoulders, chopped (or, sometimes, sliced), with a sauce that is also vinegar-based but has been turned pinkish by the addition of ketchup or tomato sauce. All of that should have been obvious even to somebody who, being from Kansas City, was brought up to assume that barbecue meant ribs or beef brisket, with a thick, tomato-based sauce, and that the presence of chopped-up meat at a barbecue joint would be an indication that a customer of long standing had absent-mindedly shown up without his teeth.

The agent of my enlightenment on this issue was John Shelton Reed, the William Rand Kenan, Jr., Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, who is one of the preëminent sociologists of the South. John and I got acquainted a decade ago, when the two of us spoke at a Southern Foodways Alliance conference in Oxford, Mississippi—an event that some of us still refer to as the Barbecue Summit. His speech was called “Barbecue Sociology: The Meat of the Matter.” Sociologists of his era often draw conclusions from everyday activities—the words that people in various places use to address their mothers, say, or the difference between the South and other parts of the country when it comes to the practice of cremation vs. burial.

… {Trillin cites] “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue,” which John wrote with his wife, Dale Volberg Reed, and William McKinney

In John’s Barbecue Summit speech, he said, “Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Europe’s wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes.” He sees that as stemming from the “fierce localism” that is a part of Southern culture. During my visit to North Carolina, he showed me a map that he sometimes displays while giving speeches; it depicts “The Balkans of Barbecue.”

In a photo: a massive pile of barbecue in a tray, a thick slab of cornbread, and a tray of eastern North Carolina slaw at the Skylight Inn in Ayden:


Bren Smith. Dana Goodyear’s piece (“A New Leaf: Seaweed could be a miracle food — if we can figure out how to make it taste good”) follows Bren Smith and his kelp farm in the sea off Stony Creek CT. Kelp on the farm:


Charles Spence. Twilley’s piece (“Accounting for Taste: How packaging can make food more flavorful”) reports on Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University whose fascinating research program followed from a study he did on the sound of Pringles potato chips, in which he manipulated the sound of the chip:.

Pringles that made a louder, higher-pitched crunch were perceived to be a full fifteen per cent fresher than the softer-sounding chips [though the chips were all identical]. The experiment was the first to successfully demonstrate that food could be made to taste different through the addition or subtraction of sound alone. Spence published his results in the Journal of Sensory Studies, in 2004. The paper, written with a post-doc, Massimiliano Zampini, was titled “The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips.”

… scientists have long claimed that much of what is perceived as flavor is actually filtered through the olfactory receptors, with taste buds playing a much smaller role. Spence goes further, arguing that in most cases at least half of our experience of food and drink is determined by the forgotten flavor senses of vision, sound, and touch.

Coffee tastes sweeter in a white cup, and so on.

One Response to “The New Yorker food issue”

  1. John Shelton Reed Says:

    Arnold, come see us in North Carolina sometime and we’ll take you out for some fine barbecue. It has been too long since we’ve seen you. (Was it really 25 years ago we were at the Center together?)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: