'Cheese Sandwiches': Blogging Beyond the Lab

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by Mark Bernstein

I like to eat, and so I like to cook.

I used to be a chemist, though I never really liked bench work. The kitchen is a wonderfully transgressive laboratory, a place where you can measure things precisely if you want to, but you are also free to use a three-finger pinch of salt. The odd Erlenmeyer makes a delightful cruet, and graduated cylinders are ideal for cocktails, but if you don't feel like measuring today, nothing terrible will happen. "How many potatoes are sufficient for a meal?"  Roger Ebert asks his aunt. "One potato For every member of the family. One potato for the pot. And one last tater, honey, For fear of later company." Roger Ebert is no longer able to eat, but that doesn't prevent him from writing eloquently about the pleasures of the table. This is a very good era for thoughtful cooks, and a wonderful time for reading about cooking.

When a technical fellow like me blogs about food, we call it a "cheese sandwich" and right-thinking people often think this is a sad and silly spectacle, and also a great waste of your time and theirs. This is a mistake. In my experience,  cheese sandwiches are not principally about the cheese.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: ...you people can't order a cheese sandwich...
DEFENDANT: Fuck you.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: ... without mentioning the Holocaust.
DEFENDANT: My people do not eat cheese sandwiches.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Oh. Oh, what?  It isn't kosher?...
DEFENDANT: It isn't tasty!  Tasty, you mindless Nazi... (David Mamet, Romance)

Our host, of course, is a master of the cheese sandwich because nobody is entirely certain which topics are his metier and which are cheese sandwiches.

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One nice things about today is that I met Linda exactly 37 years ago. We've shared many meals. "The art of dining together," Michael Bywater reminds us, "is one of the great cornerstones of civilization." Commensality too often gets lost in discussions of how we ought to eat, but finding good ways to eat together can be as important as finding good things to eat. Sharing bread matters.

When we talk about things at dinner, we are often saying several things at the same time. When we write, on paper and on the Web, we are always saying several things at once. Writing with links makes this more evident, but writing has always been multivalent. What's new is that, in choosing which links to follow and which to consider later, you are explicitly reshaping the work for yourself in ways once reserved for writers and editors. The reader has always been a writer too, but hypertext links make this manifest.

When we write software, I think we are also saying a lot, both about our vision of the work and our opinions of the people who will use it. Some of the software I use has a low opinion of humanity.

Back at my usual writing space, I am wringing my hands that the dark forces of search-engine "optimization" -- the people who are gaming Google to benefit their sites -- have completely corrupted recipe searches. It's a very disturbing trend that could, if left unchecked, seriously damage the rest of the Web. Lizzy Bennett was right when she wrote here that Foodily might help out by letting people vote for their favorites, but I fear the bad apples are so common that even Farmville fans will discover they have something better to do before they find a recipe worth praise. The Web we possess is not everything it could be, but powerful forces are working tirelessly to make it worse.

This puts me in a bad mood, but in my kitchen I find I have a few cups of chicken stock. It is free, since I made it from chicken bones that I would otherwise have thrown away, and in any case I am not saving it for a museum. I thicken it with some roux cooked with some diced onion, and then simmer some broccoli in the broth. I whizz it with the immersion blender, season it with some salt and some lemon juice, and serve two warm bowls of it with crème fraiche and a cold Last Word and we sit down to a nice long talk about Lev Grossman's The Magicians (which Linda is reading) and now I am feeling somewhat better.

Mark Bernstein is chief scientist at Eastgate Systems, where he crafts software for new ways of reading and writing.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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