Rod Dreher

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How Bill Buford Saved Me From Culinary School

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It has long been my ambition to go to culinary school. I know I don’t have the chops or the desire to be a professional chef, but I would love to know how to cook at the level of a professional. Maybe, just maybe, one day I would like to have my own little restaurant. Reading Bill Buford’s wonderful 2006 memoir Heat, in which he undertook the grueling — grueling — task of learning to cook like a professional (in part by interning under the leadership of his friend Mario Batali), cured me of that. Buford writes:

And I realized: no. I did not want a restaurant.

When I started, I hadn’t wanted a restaurant. What I wanted was the know-how of people who ran restaurants. I didn’t want to be a chef: just a cook. And my experiences in Italy had taught me why. For millennia, people have known how to make their food. They have understood animals and what to do with them, have cooked with the seasons and had a farmer’s knowledge of the way the planet works. They have preserved traditions of preparing food, handed down through generations, and have come to know them as expressions of their families. People don’t have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth, and, it’s true, those who do have it tend to be professionals — like chefs. But I didn’t want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human.

If you have even the slightest interest in cooking, you need to get this book. I read it when it first came out, and picked it up again last night to flip around in it. After I come up for air from all the assigned reading, I’m going to give it another go.

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The Death Of Sears

Edward McClelland argues that the decline and oncoming fall of a great American company tells us a lot about the changes in American society. Excerpt:

You shopped at Sears. You wore Toughskins jeans. You paged through the Fall/Winter catalog, thumbing frayed edges onto the toy section. You mowed your grass with a Craftsman lawnmower, and ate hamburgers off a Kenmore grill.

I know you shopped at Sears, because everyone shopped at Sears. In the history of the United States, there has been no more ubiquitous, unifying experience — religious, entertainment or retail — than shopping at Sears. For a culture that defines itself by consumption, it’s only fitting that this should be a department store. In 1972, the year Sears began building the world’s tallest building in downtown Chicago, three out of every four Americans visited one of its locations every year — a larger proportion than have seen “The Wizard of Oz.” Half of all households held a Sears credit card — more than go to church on Christmas. Sears’s sales accounted for 1 percent of the Gross National Product.

In an internal merchandising plan written later that decade, a Sears executive identified the company’s audience, and its identity: “Sears is a family store for middle-class, home-owning America. We are not a fashion store. We are not a store for the whimsical, nor the affluent. We are not a discounter, nor an avant-garde department store…We reflect the world of Middle America, and all of its desires and concerns and problems and faults.”

Unfortunately, it’s been all downhill for middle-class, home-owning America since then, and it’s been all downhill for Sears, too.

Yes, that was me. That was our family, in the 1970s. I remember exactly where I stood once as a child, inside the kids’ jeans department at the Cortana Mall Sears, waiting on my mother to arrive so we could buy new Toughskins (husky size — “husky” being the Sears euphemism for “fatty fatty toad boy”) for me, to start school that fall. There is a special quality of 1970s consumer culture despair, knowing even as a kid that these clothes are going to look like crap on you, but this is as good as it gets, and at least there’s comfort in the fact that everybody else you know is wearing the same stuff, looking equally crappy. When I was thinking about that stuff just now, the jingle for the Optical Department at Sears came to mind. It took about 10 seconds to find it archived online; see above.

Anyway, read the whole thing. The sociological analysis is intriguing. A year ago, I wrote about the death of Montgomery Ward, the steep decline of JCPenney, and the slow-motion collapse of Sears. I said then:

I don’t have anything philosophical or insightful to say about these places. They died in part because people like me quit shopping there, for whatever reason. Still, I get a little sentimental when I see news that JCPenney is in serious trouble. It’s like hearing that your childhood Sunday school teacher or your Little League coach, someone you haven’t seen in 30 years, but who once meant a lot to you, is in hospice care.

Same thing today. I don’t know what to say about the death of Sears, but it makes me sad, even though the last time I shopped at Sears, in the fall of 2012 (which was the first time I’d been at Sears since I was a teenager, probably), it was junky as hell, a place I’d never return to. I don’t think I know anybody who shops at Sears. As McClelland points out, most people today either shop at discount stores like Walmart, or at more specialized retailers. I don’t know about you, but I almost never go to department stores, even the more upscale ones, like Nordstroms. When I do, it feels nostalgic, but not in a pleasant way. It’s like riding around in a 1980s-model Lincoln Continental, but not one old-school enough to be cool. It’s not so much the merchandise as it is the form. Somehow over the years, I grew accustomed to buying stuff either over the web, or at specialty stores.

I’m fumbling here for something to say to express sadness over the loss of a childhood institution that I am not willing to support, for good reason. I imagine a lot of people my age feel that way about the churches they went to as kids.

UPDATE: “Chic in the times of Kojak”: James Lileks on the 1973 Sears catalog. I was six years old. This was my childhood! Thanks to the reader who pointed this out.

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The Wheat & The Tares In Russia

In First Things, John Burgess has a long, thoughtful, fairly comprehensive report on the rebirth of the Orthodox Church in post-Soviet Russia. Not only did I learn a lot from it, I also appreciated the author’s measured approach. He didn’t adopt the defensiveness of many Orthodox who try to downplay the corruption and other difficulties in the Putin-era Church, but neither did he, like many critics, focus on those problems as if they defined the experience of Orthodoxy in contemporary Russia. It’s hard to pick out parts of this excellent essay to excerpt, but here are a couple:

During my stay in 2011–2012, I saw firsthand the gulf between the church hierarchy and the new anti-Putin political movement. Church leaders essentially ordered their flock to avoid the demonstrations that were spilling out onto the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Believers were supposed to stay home and pray. For their part, the protest leaders ­included no church representatives and did not appeal to the Orthodox faith to justify their stand. As far as they were concerned, the protest movement and the Church had nothing to do with each other. And the Church seemed all too willing to oblige, as when Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, declared his support for Putin in the March 2012 presidential election and condemned the feminist collective Pussy Riot for intruding into Christ the Savior Cathedral to protest the Church’s unholy alliance with Putin.

But the story of the Church’s rebirth is more complicated than Western analyses suggest. Most Russians now identify themselves as Orthodox and approve of the Church’s renewed social prominence. Since the fall of communism, Christmas and Easter have been reestablished as federal holidays, and on these days the churches cannot contain all the worshippers. Thousands of church buildings have been restored to their former glory and again dominate public space. Not only President Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev but also regional and local political officials openly profess their Orthodox faith and appear next to church officials at civic events as well as religious services. In just twenty years, the Church has become Russia’s largest and most important nongovernmental organization. Sensing its growing social influence, the Church aspires to achieve nothing less than the re-Christianization of the Russian nation.

More:

The difficulty of educating people in Christian faith is hardly unique to Russia. But the Church’s ambitious hopes for in-churching will make little progress without a vibrant intellectual culture alongside its rich liturgical and monastic traditions. The Russian Orthodox Church desperately needs gifted public theologians today if it is to relate Christian faith to its culture. The challenge to developing a public theology comes not only from secularizing forces in society but also from anti-intellectual attitudes within the Church. Too many priests simply want laypeople to submit to church authority and tradition, and too many laypeople regard Orthodoxy as nothing more than a collection of rituals from which they pick and choose what works for them.

OK, one more:

Some critics assert that the evidence is already in. They believe that the Russian Orthodox Church has made a pact with the devil, who goes by the name of Vladimir Putin. I have no power of prophecy. I have learned, however, that the Russian Church has many gifts, many strengths. Today the peril in Russia to genuine Christian faith comes not from tsarism or communism but instead from an emerging global culture that reduces human life to material acquisition and consumption. In such a time, appeals to the spiritual greatness of the Russian nation may be an essential witness to the Gospel rather than a capitulation to the powers that be.

Read the whole thing. Really, do. It gives a much more complex picture of religious life in Russia than we are accustomed to reading in this country, both from Russian Orthodoxy’s fervent supporters, and its fervent critics.

By the way, you should also read Ivan Plis’s short First Things piece on the wheat and the tares of Orthodox on the Internet. Excerpt:

The Internet has given us Orthodox the solidarity, confidence, and courage to be increasingly visible among American Christians, where once we were easily ignored or forgotten. This visibility demands greater humility, love, and integrity from us, and we should welcome the opportunity to practice these virtues. But it also offers greater room for error, sin, and self-centeredness, of which we must remain vigilant.

It is unhealthy to have more co-religionist friends online than in your own parish. I have seen this happen to some converts who first encountered Orthodoxy online—an increasingly common phenomenon—and therefore naturally built their new identities around people and ideas from the Internet. The parish, characterized by creative chaos, is by definition a place to practice humility, patience, and brotherly love, and to be challenged by how others live the Christian life, not to have one’s biases reinforced.

Yes, this is all true, as I have learned through my own sins and failings.

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Why Your Kids Should Play Kerbal Space Program

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A reader passes on the cartoon above, from the excellent website XKCD. I had to laugh because last year I stood next to my space-geek son Matthew at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, listening to him explain to actual rocket scientists how everything he learned about orbital mechanics — and he knows a lot more than you would expect a 13 year old to know — he learned from the Kerbal Space Program.  No kidding, KSP is so very much more than just a game. I’ve seen Matthew learn a stunning amount from becoming ace at KSP, which is as difficult as it is fun. That cartoon is funny because there’s a lot of truth in it.

 

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‘Nice’ Christians With Wet Handshakes

Tim Stanley has had enough of Rev, a British TV show whose title character is a young Moralistic Therapeutic Deist who is the epitome of the bourgeois liberal Christian cleric:

The priest character is full of doubt, constantly questioning his vocation, reluctant to preach about sin and contemptuous of those who do (evangelicals are portrayed, inevitably, as gurning bigots). It’s never entirely clear why he wants to be a priest at all. Except, perhaps, to be nice to those who undoubtedly need it.

Interestingly, Stanley quotes the well-known left-wing Anglican priest Canon Giles Fraser’s criticism of nicey-nice, socially acceptable Christianity; Fraser’s words reminded me of something the Pastrix might say. Here’s Fraser:

These gentle people with wet handshakes are approachable community figures, helping knit together the fabric of society with bingo and Sunday school. And we also want them to be figures of fun because that is how we keep religion safe.

It wasn’t always this way. Thousands were butchered during the Civil War in the name of their different understandings of God – probably the last flowering of popular religious fundamentalism in England. I suspect it was in reaction against the deep political traumas of the 17th Century that the English re-invented Christianity as something to do with kindness and good deeds.

When religious ideology got as toxic as it did, it was an act of genius to redefine religion as being primarily about pastoral care. From the 18th Century onwards, Christianity ceased to be about pike-toting revolutionaries hoping to rebuild Jerusalem in here in England.
Instead, through the Church of England, it increasingly became a David Cameron-type faith: the religion of good deeds.

“Gentle people with wet handshakes” — a devastating description. Five little words conjure an entire personality. Nobody writes like the English. Anyway, Stanley continues, riffing off Fraser’s essay:

For Christians, love is a multifaceted thing. It’s about giving, it’s about sacrificing. And it’s an act of love to tell people when they’re going wrong. Nice atheists don’t have to do that because there’s no commandment to rescue others from themselves. But we have to – and we need to do more of it. Christians should speak out against the greed of payday loan companies that manipulate people’s desperation. Against theft from the taxpayer or the political decisions that leave the disabled or children without adequate support. Against regimes that torture and against mobs that pick on minorities. Against the tide of pornography that degrades the personhood of women. Against abortion-on-demand and against an unfair society that compels so many women to seek it. Against the decline of religious tolerance as so many countries seem determined to squeeze all faith out of the public sphere. We think we are so civilised here in the West, but by Christ’s standards we are savages. Christians who fail to point out these sins are surely as culpable as the people who commit them. It is not enough to be “nice”. Sometimes nice tips over into blind tolerance; a virtue becomes a vice.
Challenging thoughts, maybe, but this is a challenging time of year. This Holy Week, we have to contemplate directly a moment when a religious leader challenged the ethics of his society and was nailed to a cross for his courage.

Read the whole thing. It’s great.

By the way, I’ve been perusing YouTube clips from Rev, and while I completely get what Tim Stanley says, the show seems like a pretty interesting take on modern parish life, even if the soppy title character is a gentle person with a wet handshake. Check out this clip showing the bishop as risk-management CEO. There’s this one about the cynical headmistress of the parish school who understands, and accepts, that the school is not a Christian institution, but rather a place for the upwardly mobile to stash their kids. And there’s the clip I’ve embedded above, in which one actually feels sorry for the Rev, who has to put up with showbiz evangelism in his church.

UPDATE: Bill Holston, who does the Lord’s work in Texas, writes to say:

I can tell you that as an agency working with torture survivors and children escaping gang violence, the only churches that are interesting in helping us do our work are more liberal congregations, and Methodists are the head of the line.

Come on, Dallas conservative Christians, y’all are my people; where are you on this? Please give Bill, your fellow Christian, a call, and find out how you can help. I’ve known Bill for years, and he’s the real deal. The stories he tells about the suffering people who wash ashore in this country having suffered gruesome tortures at the hands of their governments beggar belief. But they happened, and happen every day.

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The Comically Sanctimonious Michael Bloomberg

Wow, he really is exactly what you think he is:

Mr. Bloomberg was introspective as he spoke, and seemed both restless and wistful. When he sat down for the interview, it was a few days before his 50th college reunion. His mortality has started dawning on him, at 72. And he admitted he was a bit taken aback by how many of his former classmates had been appearing in the “in memoriam” pages of his school newsletter.

But if he senses that he may not have as much time left as he would like, he has little doubt about what would await him at a Judgment Day. Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”

Usually your douchey rich-guy windbags are short-fingered vulgarians. But this one is just short. I love this reaction:

 

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The Avetts: Best Brothers Ever

Evidence for the claim:

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Stupid Louisiana, Smart Louisiana

Here is stupid Louisiana:

The Louisiana House rejected legislation Tuesday that would remove a problematic anti-sodomy law from the state’s books.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, told legislators that House Bill 12 would simply strike unconstitutional language from state law.

Opponents warned the bill would make children more vulnerable to sexual predators.

The underlying thread to criticism of the bill was a resistance to officially declaring homosexual sex legal in Louisiana.

“Just because we decriminalize things doesn’t make it right,” state Rep. Valarie Hodges said.

The outcome: 27 voted for the bill; 67 voted against it.

Let me make this clear: the Louisiana House refused to strike down a law that’s unenforceable. This changes nothing — it’s still unenforceable — but 67 lawmakers are apparently afraid to be called “pro-sodomy.” Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Republican from Denham Springs, provided the quote of the day:

“I wasn’t elected to rubber stamp the Supreme Court,” she said, refusing to take questions from other legislators.

It’s like those dadgum justices think they can say what the law is, or something.

But fear not! There is good Louisiana political news to report:

Here is smart Louisiana:

Edwin Edwards Has Raised Only 32K, And Here Are His Contributors

If fools and their money are soon parted, it looks like there are a lot fewer fools in our great state than one might have thought.

Now would be a very good time to read, or re-read, A.J. Liebling’s masterpiece, The Earl Of Louisiana.

UPDATE: A lawyer writes:

I am not sure if the Louisiana legislators take an oath to the US Constitution and the Lousiana Constitution but I imagine they do.  Just because five folks up on First Street in DC have declared something unconstitutional doesn’t make it so.  The legislators have their own independent duty to follow the Constitution.  By your logic, legislatures should really refrain from trying to pass much in the way of pro-life legislation because those “dadgum justices” have decreed that abortion is a constitutional right available whenever someone wants.

It may be imprudent to vote for a law that criminalizes sodomy for a lot of reasons — unenforceable under the current regime, not a wise idea generally perhaps, how do you enforce it anyway — or imprudent not to repeal the law.  But it just isn’t that compelling to base one’s vote on what the Supreme Court–or more particularly–Anthony Kennedy has decided is constitutional.

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This Is A Thing. That Exists.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

He’s the consummate villain: terrorizing villagers, pillaging towns and commanding a loyal gang of friends and flies. His name? Mr. Poo.

He is a lowly pile of waste. But now is his turn in the limelight. He stars in “Poo Party,” a music video by Unicef India, part of a campaign to end open defecation in the world’s largest democracy.

More than half of Indians don’t use toilets, according to Unicef, and 28 million children have no toilet facilities in school. It’s a serious public health problem. Fecal germs can cause a host of diseases, including hepatitis A, polio and infectious diarrhea.

“Poo Party” features a showdown between a group of citizens and the feces that have taken over their backyards, streets and public monuments. Accompanying the action, a techno-infused chorus: “Take your poo to the loo-oo-oo, take your poo to the loo-oo-oo.”

How do you say “howdy-ho” in Hindi?

This video is NSFW, by the way, because the song makes use of the S-word. I turned the volume off and my kids thought it was the funniest thing ever. Their mother did NOT approve. Which is a big part of why the rest of us found it so dang funny.

But then I read the back story behind the “Poo To The Loo” campaign, and it didn’t seem quite so funny. This is a terrible problem in India.

Still, turds chasing a man down the street, and partying in a disco toilet is not something you see every day. Ain’t you glad you read this blog?

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If You Hate The NYTimes And Hannity…

… then the Deseret News has an online newspaper for you. Excerpt:

“We heard a lot of people saying, ‘We read The New York Times and we watch Sean Hannity, and we hate them both,’” Gilbert said of how Deseret News approached the development of its national content.

“They said, ‘We admire the rigor of The New York Times, but we don’t hear any of our values reflected there. Somehow we hear some of our values in Sean Hannity, but it feels angry and polemic. They were mashing together what the market wasn’t providing, which was a thoughtful news source that was journalistic and rigorous and accurate but was asking questions that really resonated to things that mattered to their family.”

By staying away from an explicit focus on its own religion, Gilbert said Deseret News hopes to create a broad dedicated readership. “This is a huge audience, but the second you go denominational, they fragment,” he said. “Mormons read Mormon content, Catholics read Catholic content, Baptists read Baptist content.”

Here’s a link to the site. It looks sharp. I’ll read the content for a week or two, and, well, we’ll see. I think this is a great idea, though, and I wish them well.

(Thanks to the reader who sent the this in.)

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