Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Eating and Reading -- and Turn Out the Lights and Switch the Air Conditioning Off!

I was reading The New Yorker this morning – the “Food Issue,” from a couple of weeks ago, one of those special-topic issues that span two weeks and seem to be published around Christmas or in summer mainly to give everyone at The New Yorker a week off – and I came upon a reference, in a Calvin Trillin piece about food in Singapore, to fish ball noodles.

It reminded me of the time I was interviewing Bob Gabrielson, a Hudson River fishermen, at his home in Nyack. I had read in Bob Boyle’s Hudson River book that, in Boyle’s opinion, the gonads were the best-tasting part of the shad. So, near the end of an amiable interview, I asked Gabrielson:

“You ever eat shad gonads?”

I think Gabrielson liked me in part because he was, as he said, a Squarehead from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and my family tree included a number of Squareheads who had lived in Bay Ridge. So when I asked him if he had ever eaten shad gonads, I could see his eyes twinkle and he smiled a little.

“I didn’t know they had ‘em,” he said.

Which is what occurred to me this morning when I head about fish ball noodles.

Fish ball noodles?

I didn’t know they had ‘em.

The “Food Issue” was terrific, by the way, although I’m weary of Trillin’s I'm-a-clever-and-lovable-oddball food-writing voice (I preferred it when he was doing straight reporting). The issue included an interesting Jane Kramer piece about Claudia Roden, a British cookbook author who specializes in recipes from the Middle East (in fact from Cairo and Alleppo, Syria, which were the settings of a good deal of “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” which I read on vacation). John McPhee wrote an amusing piece about strange foods he’s eaten while on assignment, although it felt a bit like a quickie knock-off, as if an editor called and said can your write 5,000 words about weird food you've eaten. And a reporter I’d never heard of, Patrick Radden Keefe, wrote a good account of the famous old wines that were sold 20 years ago under the assumption that they once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. That's the only piece that has a link, though, and it's here.

Food isn't an obsession with us, but it's a topic of some concern, especially when we're traveling, because the quality of the food you get in restaurants in America is, to put it politely, really bad and, to make it worse, frequently pretentious. Block Island isn't a restaurant-food wasteland but it's not good either. What's amazing is how few restaurants there make use of fresh fish and shellfish. Block Island has no fishing boats of its own, but on the ferry from Point Judith, you can see the stacks of cardboard boxes labeled "fresh seafood," which presumably are coming over from the fish distributors at Point Judith. But what happens to the fish when it gets to Block Island? Maybe it all goes to Finn's, which is a fish market and restaurant. We don't eat there, though, eExcept for lobster, which is good there, because on our first visit the fish we hadn't wasn't very well-cooked -- broiled to over-doneness. Of course that was in 1987, so maybe my criticism is a bit unfair.

We also don't eat at the places with obvious pretensions -- Manisses, 1661 House, Spring House, the Atlantic Inn. They are outrageously-priced and if I'm going to eat at a restaurant with a wife whose palate is extremely discerning and critical, and two kids who you never know how much of what they're served they're actually going to consume, I'd prefer that the stakes not be so high. And don't underestimate the pretension. Gina went to look at the menu at Spring House, for instance, and reported that they're selling a roasted "Bell & Evans" chicken for almost $30. I used quotation marks around Bell & Evans because the menu did. Now I don't mean to be a snob, but we ate Bell & Evans chickens in our household for years. They're better than Perdue chickens, but not that much better. The thought of paying $30 for one is mind-boggling. And the thought that a chef would promote it by mentioning on the menu is laughable.

But I digress. Back to The New Yorker. I was surprised to see on its website that this piece, about light pollution, was the most-emailed. I read it on BI during one cloudy spell when we were waiting for the skies to clear so we could see the incredible array of stars, and it turned out to be one of the more interesting pieces I've read in the NYer is a while. Here's an excerpt:

Much so-called security lighting is designed with little thought for how eyes—or criminals—operate. Marcus Felson, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, has concluded that lighting is effective in preventing crime mainly if it enables people to notice criminal activity as it’s taking place, and if it doesn’t help criminals to see what they’re doing. Bright, unshielded floodlights—one of the most common types of outdoor security lighting in the country—often fail on both counts, as do all-night lights installed on isolated structures or on parts of buildings that can’t be observed by passersby (such as back doors). A burglar who is forced to use a flashlight, or whose movement triggers a security light controlled by an infrared motion sensor, is much more likely to be spotted than one whose presence is masked by the blinding glare of a poorly placed metal halide “wall pack.” In the early seventies, the public-school system in San Antonio, Texas, began leaving many of its school buildings, parking lots, and other property dark at night and found that the no-lights policy not only reduced energy costs but also dramatically cut vandalism.

The obvious thing occurred to me: how much energy could we save, how much climate-changing carbon would we keep out of the atmosphere, if we started turning out the lights!

And that brought me to air conditioning. My observations lead me to conclude that we as a society don’t like summer any longer. I use my car air conditioner on days that I consider unbearably muggy, and when I’m on the highway. But on beautiful hot summer days, while I'm driving with the windows open, I see car after car in my town and in neighboring towns with the windows up and (presumably) the air conditioning on. On Labor Day weekend – a beautiful, hot but not unpleasantly-hot weekend – I visited two friends’ houses and was amazed to see all the windows and doors closed.

Open the doors! Open the windows! Turn off the car air conditioners! You’ll save energy and save money, and you’ll probably remember that you actually like the summertime. You can even eat outside. Although if you're having shad gonads, or fish ball noodles, I'll understand if you don't invite me.


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