Sundays in the Greatest City in the Land of Pleasant Living

This is a Baltimore story. Which in a way makes it an America story, because Baltimore is The Greatest City in America. But it’s more a generic America story because it involves so many things that characterize our country — industry and religion and spending time in cars with your family and fantasizing about the lives of people you’ve never met.

But above all, this is a Sunday morning story.

Growing up, we went to church every week. (Well, my family went to church every week. I went every other week because that’s what happens when your parents are divorced. One week here with this routine; one week there with another routine.) Early on, my step-father began taking classes  at a bible college out in the country a ways northeast of our home in Baltimore. He was ordained as a minister in the Christian Church when I was maybe in middle school. As often happens, the timeline is fuzzy. I think I was 12 or 13, but I’m an unreliable narrator.

By this time we were no longer going to the gigantic church on Mountain Road in Harford County that we’d briefly attended when I was very young. Nor were we attending the much smaller church on the Baltimore-Harford county line that we attended for most of my elementary school life*. By the time he was ordained we were attending a newer church down by the airport, which is south of Baltimore. The church now has a real building — I think — but for as long as I attended, in middle and high school, it was housed first in a conference room at a Holiday Inn near the airport and, later, in a refurbished warehouse. I’m sure it was actually further, but that latter location felt like it was only 300 yards short of one of the airport’s runways.

That’s also where I spent most of my Sundays in high school, when I wasn’t at my dad’s house and didn’t have a soccer game. Because of my parents’ involvement in the church, and because it was so much farther away from home than our previous churches, we’d stay there all day. Sometimes we’d bring bagels and pimento cheese and make little sandwiches.** Sometimes we’d go to Golden Corral with a big group from church. Sometimes we’d go to another family’s house and have lunch there. But inevitably we’d end up back at the warehouse complex. Sometimes my step-dad and I would throw around a lacrosse ball. Maybe I’d do homework, but usually we’d all hang out, us kids who were stranded there. We were in middle/high school, after all.

But that’s not the point of this story, actually. This story is from when we first started going to that church, when I was a little bit younger and didn’t play lacrosse and wasn’t really interested in girls yet. Usually when we drove down we would listen to WPOC, Baltimore’s country station. On Sunday mornings the station would play gospel. Generally white gospel,  usually a cappella stuff, the music of Appalachia and Tennessee and Kentucky (or at least the white parts of Tennessee, considering Memphis and its surroundings are the source of much of the great black gospel).

I’d be in the back seat of the car with my sister, fully immersed in my own head. We spent a lot of time in the car growing up, between church and driving between my mom’s and dad’s houses. I spent a lot of time thinking, and a lot of time playing little games. I’d tap my left foot every time a car passed driving the other direction on the highway, and my right foot every time we passed a car going the same direction. I’d try to keep time with the gospel playing on WPOC and see how many of my foot taps lined up both with passing cars and with the radio.

There’s an area we’d pass most mornings, as I-895 took us from Northeast Baltimore through Southeast Baltimore towards the Harbor and, eventually, Anne Arundel County. This area was particularly industrial. This was before the warehouse-park days at the church, and was far and away the most industrial area we’d pass all day. It struck me as somehow wonderful and foreign and terribly intriguing — the strangest industrial area I’d ever seen. This, even though every other weekend, twice a weekend, we’d drive past Sparrows Point and Bethlehem Steel and all of Baltimore’s harbor-related industry going to and from my dad’s house.

Something about this area struck me as different. We’d pass a big old cemetery on a hill, then the Baltimore Travel Plex, and then these long, straight roads and warehouses so tall they were in line with the elevated highway. One of those long, straight roads had a weird-looking bar, and all the roads looked like they were constructed for the biggest trucks ever built. It all seemed to secret and I wondered how people got down there and what they did. And the gospel played and I’d tap my feet imagining how many different strange roads we’d have to go on to get down there, and what we’d do once we were there. But we never went — why would we? Instead we drove to church, where I’d spend my Sunday, and then we’d drive past it again at night. But by that point I’d be tired and the gospel would be over and my imagination had no interest in exploring down there.

But every now and then, I’ll hear a song like Sierra Hull’s version of The Land of Living***:

And it will take me right back to that car flying down the raised highway, looking out at those massive warehouses, fantasizing about those terrifying and wonderful places. I listen to a lot of bluegrass and gospel, basically all day every day while I’m at work, and I wonder how much that’s influenced by those Sunday mornings.

As some closure to this story, when I was a junior and a senior in high school, I dated a girl from Dundalk, in Southeast Baltimore. To get from her house to my dad’s, I’d drive down those very same industrial streets I’d fantasized about when I was in middle school. Turns out, to get down there all you had to do was date a girl from Dundalk.

*In Northeast Baltimore, one can go from the inner city — scenes straight out of The Wire — to the country in about a 25 minute drive. It goes from decaying post-industrial American city to nice outer reaches of the city to older suburbs to newer suburbs to exurbs to rural, in a very short distance. We lived just about halfway out, where older suburbs meet the newer.

**This is part of why I find it so hilarious that pimento cheese is — or was, at least a couple of years ago — so trendy. It’s cheap food! It’s what you eat when your parents don’t want to go out to lunch between services at church!

***This song has a double-meaning for this story. For one, when I heard it on Spotify earlier this week, it planted the seeds of this essay. But my hometown is also known as The Land of Pleasant Living.

Sports Were Better When I Was a Kid*

Sports are happening right now. Sports are always happening. But this is the month when the big college basketball tournament happens. March Madness! Except the Final Four is actually in April. But hey, why let facts get in the way of Branding, sponsored by Pepsi and brought to you exclusively by the ESPN/ABC/Disney family of networks (who bought those rights for a trillion dollars.)

When I was a kid I watched so much sports. But it all seems so icky and evil now. The NCAA is evil. The NFL is evil-er, and that period of my life when I wrote a lot about the NFL left me rather unhappy. So I willed myself to start following soccer again, which I hadn’t done seriously since my brief college soccer career ended. But FIFA is currently in the process of literally killing people to hold its major tournament in a country that has no business hosting the tournament, and which is only doing so because of widespread and poorly-hidden bribery.

Maybe the answer is in following smaller leagues. I’ve been following Motherwell FC, a small club in the Glasgow suburbs, this year — they’ll never get bought by oil billionaires and turned into the New York Yankees like my last favorite soccer team. So maybe the answer is in smaller leagues, and the non-money college sports like college baseball and soccer (men’s and women’s) and track and field and women’s basketball — the sports where the students are actually students, there are fewer ridiculous things like national websites ranking and rating sixth graders.

The thing is, the NCAA has done an incredible job turning its two big money sports — football and basketball — into events with literally-month-long championship seasons. The college football championships really begin in December with the early bowl games — and now there’s a playoff to extend it a little further. With March Madness it’s explicit. And the NCAA and team/school officials and brands make exorbitant sums of money off of this, which many smart people argue means the athletes should be paid, too, because the NCAA’s claims of amateurism are a sham. I chafe at this, because it would expose the lie that these kids are anything but hired mercenaries playing a year or two or three before leaving to try to make it in the big-time. (Which a shockingly small fraction actually succeed in doing.) Because remember, for example, University of Maryland basketball does not really represent the state of Maryland. It’s mostly teenagers, largely from out of state basketball factories, brought in for a couple of years to play in exchange for a scholarship and under the table benefits.

I think that the better answer is to take the money out of it, remove the brands and the sponsors and the big money TV contracts, let the sports be less “successful” financially but more truly amateur. The future NBA and NFL stars can go to some truly professional development league, but let the colleges be colleges and let the students be students. This will never happen, of course.

So meanwhile, go Steelmen.

*This post was initially titled “Everyone Needs to Lose, Except for Those Who Need to Win” and was intended to be an examination of rooting for the underdog, inspired by this Vox article. But then I got on a rant, so here we are.

On Sexism and Cookbooks and the Aspirationality of Food Media

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and today is the 50th anniversary of the US’s spectacularly ugly version of Bloody Sunday. Civil rights and equality are very much on the mind at the moment. Yesterday, Helen Rosner at Eater (the website that used to write my paychex) posted an enormously thoughtful essay on sexism in cookbooks — more specifically, sexism in cookbook criticism.

The impetus for the essay was a minor brouhaha (sorry Raphael) in the food writing world, the long-and-the-short of which is this: a food website asked a very good writer to compare two very good cookbooks. The writer liked one more than the other because the other felt phony. The author of the phony-feeling one felt the criticism was slightly-veiled sexism. The author of the criticism disagreed.

In Eater, Rosner argues that they’re both wrong. Her full discussion is worth the 10 minutes (maximum) it would take to read it, but to sum: The author of the cookbook is wrong, because she thinks the critic was being sexist for judging the book on its pictures and aesthetic (what Rosner calls the “everything-else”), rather than just its recipes. The blogger is wrong because his criticisms are indeed rooted in subtly sexist values, which run much deeper than his own thinking and, indeed, are inescapable in the food world.

Everything Rosner says feels right to me. And it got me to thinking about related problems in the food world, which got me to thinking about why I left that world.*

The thing is, the Foodie Industrial Complex (otherwise known as the food media) is based on a sort of artifice, this idea that you, too, can be like the pros. This differentiates it from any other segment of the entertainment industry. A music album isn’t designed to convince you that you, too, can make beautiful music. It’s designed to make you Shake It Off. You don’t watch a movie to learn how to make movies; you watch a movie to be entertained.

With food, though, it’s all based on an aspirational ideal. You, too, can throw a glamorous dinner party in the Hamptons with all your best gay friends. You, too, can make authentic Italian food while pretentiously pronouncing “cilantro” with a rolled “R.” You, too, can live a glamorous life in Paris surrounded by beautiful people and beautiful food, or you, too, can be like the most bad-ass of bad-ass Southern chefs. That’s what the whole field is about.

(And this is just talking cookbooks and food TV. The whole idea behind websites like Eater and Grub Street is letting normal people have the sort of insider-y  knowledge of restaurants usually reserved for, you know, restaurant employees.)

As Rosner points out, the whole damn thing is pretentious, but it’s the lady-oriented stuff from Martha Stewart of Gwyneth Paltrow or, in this case, Mimi Thorisson — stuff that gets shoved into the catch-all term of “lifestyle” writing — that’s more easily written off as such. Shows and blogs that let you live vicariously through Anthony Bourdain or John Currence or Sean Brock or Chris “Put Me On Every TV Show Plz” Cosentino are more legit and more respectable and, of course, more inherently masculine. But the basic aspirationality of this side of the food world is less easy to mock or dismiss**.

And that leads me to why I left the food world anyway. For me, food has always been less about Doing It Like the Pros or aspiring to a very specific, monied way of life full of travel and fine food and wine, and much more about understanding my own culture and others through the lens of food. For the overwhelming majority of people interested in food, though, it’s the opposite. Many of the consumers of food media are the lawyers and financiers who have the money to have all the coolest grilling and cooking equipment and can try to Do It Like the Pros. But they’re only Doing It Like the Pros when they’re not out four nights a week spending so much money in restaurants that they can claim to be friends with the chef, when in reality they’re usually just privileged white men really good regulars. Besides, I’ve spent the last ten years trying to get out of restaurants, thank you very much. Put simply, I never identified with the aspirational aspect of it, and after moving to New York City to try to make it, I ran out of money before I could figure out how to achieve the anthropological aspect of it. (Not to mention I ran out of patience with the anonymous commenters, the most vile of all the rich white guys who could afford to go to the restaurants I couldn’t and really, really wanted that sort of Do It Like the Pros insider knowledge that, as I’ve mentioned, was secondary for me.)

So bringing this back to the question of sexism, I guess my point is this: it’s only going to change as women continue to gain positions of power in restaurants (especially in the back of house) and in the sorts of food media that are now dominated by men. It’s going to take more people like Helen Rosner and Amanda Kludt at Eater, April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig, and all the other Truly Badass Women who are doing awesome things, to show that the awesome things that we more often see men doing are not inherently masculine, and that women don’t have to strive for the Martha Stewart Ideal of Domestic Goddess.

*I’ve only left the food world inasmuch as I stopped food writing. After working the 2013 wine harvest and in restaurants over the last two years, I hesitate to say I truly (or ever will) have “left that world.”

**This goes way back, too. There have always been two dominant streaks in food media: the Do It Like the Pros world of James Beard and company, and the domestic goddess-ery of Martha Stewart et al. The two strands are related, occasionally opposed, but always co-existent.

What’s a Pea-Shooter Anyway? 480 Words of Nonsense

“Put that pea-shooter down.” It keeps running through my head. But he doesn’t say “down,” does he? It’s more like “day-ow-n.”

“Put that pea-shootah day-own-n.” What’s a pea-shooter anyway? It sounds delicious. Like an oyster shooter but instead of an oyster there’s a frozen pea, and instead of bloody mary mix (or whatever they put in oysters shooters; I don’t really know because I’ve never actually had one) it’s split pea soup. Though I guess if you put a pea into split pea soup you wouldn’t even notice it’s there. Kind of like the princess and the pea, you know, but with soup instead of a towering stack of mattresses.

So presumably you’d need something else. What goes with peas, potatoes? So it could be a shooter with really, really thin mashed potatoes and a pea.

Then I’d call it “Frog Eye Soup,” though, because that’s what my big sister and I used to call it when we mixed our peas into our mashed potatoes. We thought we were so clever, but actually we were just elementary school kids. Anyway, close enough to a pea-shooter. And besides:

“Put that pea-shooter down.”

The whole point of this is that a couple of weeks ago my lady and I watched Robin Hood. Not Men in Tights, not the bizarro Kevin Costner one, but the real one. The one with music by Roger Miller. “Every town / has its ups and downs / Sometimes the ups / outnumber the downs / Not in Nottingham.” But again, it’s more like “day-ow-ns.” But when you’re rhyming a word with itself it doesn’t really matter how you pronounce it.

So we were watching Robin Hood, the real one, the good one. And we fell asleep on the couch. Maybe that’s what adults do when they watch children’s movies. And now two or three or four or five weeks later (who’s to say how long ago we watched it?) one random phrase from the movie is running through my brain. Like, literally running. Inside my head there’s a vast emptiness, where for other people a functioning brain would be. And I mean it’s vast. Have you seen the size of my head? Huge head, tiny ears. I’m the anti-elf.

So there’s this vast emptiness, and there’s a marquee that just spans the entire width of it. Sometimes (usually) the marquee has random song lyrics running across it, just on a loop, singing non-stop. Sometimes it’s names that I encountered and liked, like Quincy Pondexter. But today it’s Robin Hood. “Put that pea-shootah day-ow-n.”

And the funny thing is I still haven’t figured out what a pea-shooter is.

Maybe the whole point of this is that sometimes we take things so seriously, and we should just cool it and snuggle on the couch and take naps while watching children’s movies from the 1970s.

That’s just me over-utilizing my pea-shooter. I need to put that pea-shootah day-ow-n.