Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Dead horse flogged

A few clarifications about Buford. There are two separate issues here. First, the New Yorker's fact-checking. Yes, people make mistakes.* And even if these are particularly surprising, given the obviousness of the mistakes, the ease with which they can be verified, and the relative quality of the publication, they are not, indeed, the end of the world.

The more important issue** is that Bill Buford*** is apparently going to keep writing stories about restaurants larded with irrelevant excurses on food history that are simply wrong. Remember, this is not an isolated incident: his original Batali piece featured a discussion of fifteenth-century squash ravioli. Since squash is endemic to the Americas (as you'll recall, "discovered" in 1492), this was a problem.

This bespeaks a lack of seriousness on both the writer's part and the magazine's, and that is what bothers me. In the culture of the New Yorker, interstate trucking and the workings of UPS conveyor belts are more important than the history of food. Again, fine; just don't publish shoddy work on the subject you so obviously disdain. I'd be perfectly happy with a weekly Table for Two paragraph on the latest LES shithole plus the odd semi-annual Trillin.

*Of course it's childish to drag all English majors into this, but if the conflation of etymology with history isn't one of their characteristic vices, I'll go 10 rounds with A. J. Liebling.

**On the irrelevance of fact-checking.

***I have nothing against Buford personally: I thought Granta was fantastic, as a teenager. I'm not, obviously, amused by the culture of culinary star-fucking hero worship, but you can hardly hold him responsible.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Frolic said...

It appears that Mr. Bufford lacks a bullshit detector. The idea that dessert didn't exist seems strange indeed.

The idea seems quite incredibly, which is the very reason that people (and New Yorker editors) should question it.

In general, the magazine lacks a bullshit detector. Is it this week where the Talk of Town goes on about the kids using superhigh pitched ring tones that adults can't hear? I don't know that it's bullshit, but I seriously doubt that cell phones have that frequency range. Just another instance where it's good to question the incredible.

Thu Jun 29, 12:09:00 PM GMT  
Blogger mmw said...

The ringtones are the Times's fault. But you can blame Menand's attempts to be topical on Remnick.

Also: Buford. One important lesson I learned from eGullett was to spell people's name right when you slag them. (Tony Bourdain wrote something stupid and hostile about Marian Burous, as I recall).

Thu Jun 29, 07:14:00 PM GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

frolic, it's a downloadable ringtone and it's not bullshit.
fact checker anyone?

Fri Jun 30, 06:50:00 PM GMT  
Blogger The Old Foodie said...

I dont have a background in journalism, so excuse the naievety of this question. Who, What, or How (sorry, I think thats three questions) are fact-checkers? I am sure that every single "fact" in an article cant be checked. So how is it done? I mean, how is it decided what is to be checked?

And surely, if a particular writer or publication is going to make something (in this case, food history) a regular feature, they should double-fact-check those points?

Sun Jul 02, 09:21:00 PM GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the squash ravioli, there may be simply a change in the usage of the word "zucca" behind what you perceive as a historical inaccuracy. Buford was not making things up. He did his research and drew from his knowledge of Maestro Martino's cookbook, ca. 1456, a ms. from the Mantuan court that was to serve as the foundation of the text that Platina compiled in Rome. (This book is now offered in an English translation from U of California Press and in CD form should you lack the linguistic skills Mr. Buford acquired while writing *Heat.* The ms. at the Library of Congress was used for the scholarly edition and was written in a peculiar N. Italian venacular, further complicating matters.) There are recipes for "tortelli di zucca," a type of stuffed pasta. Nowadays "zucca" is indeed used to designate fillings made from a pumpkin-like squash or in the U.S., butternut squash. However, back in the early 15th-century, "zucca" may have been used to refer to a type of gourd. Perhaps Buford should have offered a little more information, explaining how our squash fillings actually derive from gourd fillings, unless, of course, his editor thought that kind of arcane information would not have been of great interest to the general public and is best left to footnotes in scholarly publications. Do you read French? If so, the most comprehensive entry I have found on this subject is on the French Wikipedia, retrieved by googling relevant Latin term: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cucurbita_maxima. Further online research uncovered papers by scientists who propose an Asian origin of the family of gourds, squash and melons we assume were brought to Europe from the Americas during the 15th & 16th centuries. Since the gourds have been in Europe since "the end of antiquity" (? let's be conservative and say that's well after Constantine, so the 5th or 6th century), it would be interesting to learn more. What primary sources inspired the declaration at Wikipedia that traces arrival of the gourds to the early medieval period? What Latin (?) words appear in which archival sources and can we be sure these relate to--or are the same as--Maestro Martino's zucche? Do we know how the fruit (& blossoms, maybe?) were prepared for consumption? Were medicinal values attributed to them as was the case in http://metamedia.stanford.edu/traumwerk/index.php/Squash%20(Cucurbite) (Tacuinum Sanitatis)? Was Asia the source of varieties brought to Europe AND the Americas? I am ignorant here. Perhaps your knowledge is greater than Bill Buford's or my own. I hope to learn more.

Tue Jul 04, 05:04:00 PM GMT  
Blogger mmw said...

I don't know why this is so difficult to grasp: the word zucca existed long before the fifteenth century (it is in fact derived from the Latin word cucurbita, which goes back to Varro, at least), but the object to which it referred was certainly not "squash" or "pumpkin" or whatever Buford called it because these were unknown to Europeans. End of discussion.

What zucca did mean is another, more interesting discussion that seems not to have occurred to Buford. Originally, I proposed bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceria), to which Clifford Wright, who knows more about the subject than anyone here, added
Luffa aegyptiaca/acutangula or Citrullus colocynthis as possibilities.

I suggest you google these if you would like to know why they are not served at Babbo.

Wed Jul 05, 05:19:00 PM GMT  

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