March 30, 2017


For years, I ate hot dogs with mustard and relish—in fact, I mostly still do—and nothing else. French fries were consumed with aioli or some other kind of mayonnaise. Ketchup, for my palate, is reserved for eating breakfast at a diner: there, I will smother my breakfast potatoes with the red sauce and liberally dip my breakfast sausage in that mélange until I am happy and overstuffed.

Eating ketchup at a diner is a story I tell myself, a story that has defined my behaviour and my understanding of who I am. Amidst the breakfast potatoes and ketchup, I think about what other stories make me who I am—stories that I have crafted about my own past, and stories that others have created to make me (and people like me) understand their conception of where we fit in their world.

So, today, some reading about self-narrative, forced narrative, and an (over-a-decade-old) article about ketchup:

Woven, Lidia Yuknavitch: _Every story I have ever told has a kind of breach to it, I think. You could say that my writing isn’t quite right. That all the beginnings have endings in them._

You know, stories change, just like the lives we’ve lived and selves we’ve inhabited. Nobody’s been the same person twice. I mean really. It’s the people walking around acting and sounding especially self-assured and whole who worry me the most.

I like hearing the world’s stories about itself. That’s partly why I teach world literature. It helps me feel less incarcerated by the world, or my past, or my mistakes and confusions. It helps me remember I’m not just American. I’m not just a woman. A mother. A teacher. A wife. I find value in thinking in stories. Aren’t we all woven through with stories? Isn’t that how we think of our lives, how we survive them? Now, when someone hurts me, I remember that they are only living the terms of their own fictions—sometimes desperately—so their selves don’t unravel.

I like that idea. A woven person.

Little misshapen stars made of straw.

Smurfette’s Roots, Rachel Klein: In her original incarnation, the only female Smurf reminds me of all the assumptions I’ve had to navigate about my sexuality and sense of self as a Jewish woman.

Schindler’s List is a difficult movie to watch at almost every turn, but as a Jewish woman who has grown up with that unnamed sensation that our bodies are a battleground for men’s darkest desires, the brutal sexual assault of Helen Hirsch in the film is both validating of something we’ve known and felt our whole lives and chilling in its stark representation of the very real danger of that hunger. The Nazi Amon Goeth in one moment expresses his desire to reach out and touch” the object of his desire and, in the very next, denies her personhood. Is this the face of a rat?” he asks as he tenderly pulls her hair away from that face. And then, as he is about to kiss her—to violate her, but with such tenderness—he stops. You Jewish witch. You nearly talked me into it.” Not with her words, for she has been silent, but with her mere existence, with her seductively slight otherness” that made him wonder, what would it be like? What dark power might I unleash in her? In myself? And then, for nearly causing him to succumb to that power, he beats her.

The ironic truth of Helen Hirsch (a composite of two different maids who served in Amon Goeth’s home), of those evil queens and comic book villains, of Smurfette, is that they are all fictions created by men, either within a story itself or through its telling. They are created out of the fears and desires of men, and in their creation become a justification for imposing those fears and desires on real flesh and blood women. I’m not criticizing Spielberg for reinforcing this belief by showing it on screen—holding a mirror to this dark reality is an unavoidable part of making art about it—but it’s telling how many YouTube videos you can find of montages of Amon Goeth’s and Helen Hirsch’s scenes from the movie set lovingly to music. They all contain his abuse, yes, but they linger, too, as Goeth himself does, his hand on her breast, his mouth close to hers. As though what we are watching is a kind of unconventional romance rather than sexual violence.

The Ketchup Conundrum, Malcolm Gladwell: Mustard now comes in dozens of varieties. Why has ketchup stayed the same?

There are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Umami is the proteiny, full-bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother’s milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato. Umami adds body,” Gary Beauchamp, who heads the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, says. If you add it to a soup, it makes the soup seem like it’s thicker—it gives it sensory heft. It turns a soup from salt water into a food.” When Heinz moved to ripe tomatoes and increased the percentage of tomato solids, he made ketchup, first and foremost, a potent source of umami. Then he dramatically increased the concentration of vinegar, so that his ketchup had twice the acidity of most other ketchups; now ketchup was sour, another of the fundamental tastes. The post-benzoate ketchups also doubled the concentration of sugar—so now ketchup was also sweet—and all along ketchup had been salty and bitter. These are not trivial issues. Give a baby soup, and then soup with MSG (an amino-acid salt that is pure umami), and the baby will go back for the MSG soup every time, the same way a baby will always prefer water with sugar to water alone. Salt and sugar and umami are primal signals about the food we are eating—about how dense it is in calories, for example, or, in the case of umami, about the presence of proteins and amino acids. What Heinz had done was come up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons. The taste of Heinz’s ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?