Friday, February 15, 2008

Midwest versus East Coast: Naming Conventions.

Those who know me bemoan my frequent outbursts of culture shock. I’m not talking about inane pop v. soda dithering, but the cold smack of stark realization—the East Coast is Different. The Thai restaurant on the corner is open on Thanksgiving. Where I am from, it’s impolite to ask how much you pay for housing. Manicures are really cheap. I digress…

In the Midwest, our “cutesy” names cluster around two areas of commerce: dairy and gas. In Iowa, we might frequent the “Dari Barn” for milkshakes, or the “Kum and Go” for unleaded. It’s true, branding can be hokey in general, but Central time seems to relish “olde” “cheez” and “lite” a degree further than either coast.

The East Coast has its own versions, and those are bagels and futons. Here chewy carbs and spoiled posture translate to vile iterations of the English tongue.

On my way to my first Brooklyn apartment from LaGuardia, I noticed a particularly dreary “World of Futons” next to the BQE, shortly thereafter purchased my own futon from “Futonland” and on my new commute to New Jersey I pass the “Futon Express.” In the Midwest we don’t compromise on relaxation—hence the ‘luxe’ l-shaped couches. Who knew the East Coast clamored so for discomfort? It’s hard to imagine demand being so high, especially with the cheery name that mocks the product. Something about the “pep” doesn’t compute.

Bizarrely, a similar strain runs through bagel retail.

When I was working on a campaign in New Jersey, we recommended that the candidates—I kid you not—do meet and greets on the bagel circuit. I begrudgingly suggested the following route:
• Bagelword
• The Bagelry
• Once Upon a Bagel
• Hole Lot of Bagels (grimace)
• Bagelicious
• Bagels and Cream
• Bagel Talk
Linguistically, bagels have the flexibility of Nickelodeon Gak. Is it because they are the edible version of a toy? Do bagels need to corner the market with their respective “personalities”?

Yes the wordplay is irritating, but I also find the items they modify an odd selection. I’ll be on the lookout for industries that make too much precious, and examining what they have in common. At least these avoid the stomach-churning effect of the Christian coffee shop –“Higher Grounds.”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Italian Kitchen Gadgets

A teeny living space and a subdural vigilance keep me from amassing clutter, so I own very few kitchen gadgets. However, when I go on meandering walks without a fixed destination, purpose, or time limit, I admire them from afar—our neighborhood has some neat stores with fresh wares.

The mezzaluna is one such revitalized object d’cuisine, thanks to celebrity chef/pinup Nigella Lawson.

It’s Medieval appearance (and structure) reminds one more of torture than of the refined ritual of bruising herbs. Convex steel that grows into two handles, the mezzaluna resembles the half-moon it’s named after. Either single or double-bladed, the user rocks the handles back and forth to chop herbs or vegetables. I haven’t been able to locate the provenance of the tool, since I suspect it has more sinister roots than the kitchen, but I shall report my findings at a later date.

The “handspresso” makes the luxury of quality espresso portable.

To use, manually pump the machine to “16 bars” of pressure, use one of their special espresso pods, and pour water, and it’s rearin’ to go. It’s a pretty hot gadget. Then I watched the bizarrely sensuous video, and questioned the group’s branding

See the video, below.

Handpresso Video

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

With Apologies to Terry Gross

I'm not here to start some skirmish over which public radio station passes muster, especially since I'm particularly fond of WNYC's Soterios Johnson and his dulcet tones (it's pledge time, and it just breaks my heart to hear him beg). Even though it's a tad outside my geographic comfort zone, I rely on KCRW for all things popular. Underdog Wisconsin Public Radio also produces the notable program "To the Best of Our Knowledge".

All things considered, Chicago Public Radio is pretty great--it sponsored perhaps the best show ever, the intellectual collision course that was WBEZ's Odyssey hosted by the resourceful and enlightened Gretchen Helfrich. What a pleasure it was to hear her seamlessly pivot from Walter Benn Michaels to the legacy of Andrea Dworkin (swoon!). Nationally, WBEZ is known for blockbusters This American Life and Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, but it has some other shows we could call "indigenous" to Chicago (848, Worldview, and Re:Sound) that I've missed since coming to New York.

The good news-WBEZ now has podcasts available, and it was like Christmas this morning when I found them.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Familiar Face

"If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them."--Harry Bertoia

These wonky chairs take me back to sitting outside of Grinnell College’s “Forum”--a modern architectural blunder which functioned as the campus café. Students would try to pick up these chairs, too wide for the door and bafflingly bottom heavy, to take them outside to read or eat.

Spindly and surprisingly comfortable, these iconic chairs originated in the Midwest via San Lorenzo, Italy. Harry Bertoia (1915-1978) immigrated to Michigan from Italy, where he attended Cranbrook Academy of Art, befriending Chicago design icon Charles Eames and furniture visionary Florence Knoll. Trained in jewelry construction and design, he actually cobbled together the ideas for the Eames’ wedding rings.

Bertoia followed Eames (and his wife, Ray) to California in 1943 to work in their studio where they molded plywood to make spectacular and seemingly impossible furniture. WWII rationing made precious metals hard to come by, so Bertoia transitioned from jewelry-making to helping Eames fashion parts for airplanes—Eames was Director of Research and Development for Evans Products Co. at the time.

After departing from the Eames’ studio in 1946, he shifted from wood back to metal, working with Florence Knoll on furniture design at her factory in Pennsylvania. Bertoia began to bend and stretch metal, using a sculptural approach for functional objects. The diamond chair uses meshed metal to form the back support, which then eases into an armrest shape. Unlike the wooden Eames chairs of the period (slim but still opaque wood) the ‘Diamond’ has a different space-sensibility, there and not there, both a dimension and a silhouette.

The creation of the “Diamond Chair” in 1952 raised so much revenue in royalties, Bertoia left furniture for sculpture, shifting the focus of his work from tactile to sonic—he created a series of "sound sculptures," or sculptures that would react to wind movement, including the sculpture in front of the Standard Oil building in Chicago where my Dad worked when I was a kid.

Source: Entobox

Curious, Grinnellians, as to how much these cost? A mere $2,100 each.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Appeals to my inner Débutante

I dig the translation of haute consumption using disposable production values.

Artist: Ed Vince

Monday, February 4, 2008

Cheese Worship

This is a Parmesan cheese holder, designed by sensuous Italian powerhouse Alessi. It costs $78, and it's made of pale gold and crystal, bestowing upon the jewel of Parma the sort of adulation it demands.

I think it's both an interesting object and a fascinating symbol. What would provoke the design of such a highbrow, deity-protecting item? Is Reggiano that special? Does the print on the rind intentionally resemble a luxury logo? Why does set you back $15 dollars a pound? These are signs of the cheese's cult of personality, its branded identity, its generated myth.

Reggiano is special--it's bespoke, boutique, in high demand. After the semi-hard cheese is inscribed with the signature stamp, aged 12 months, it is inspected by the Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano (the sort of fromagie-equivalent of an MC) then exported and peddled. But Parmesan, as much as it might like to, does not hold the patent on the grana (or grainy) nutty cheese flavor.

All of the authenticity "hype" would lead you to believe there is no other cheese in this market, that cheap imitators of Parmigiano are akin to off-brand Coke.

Not so! Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: grana padano.

Grana padano's tradition reaches back even further than Reggiano--'twas made by Cistercian monks in 1135 AD around the marshes of the Po river. Contrary to American belief, it is actually the most-produced cheese in Italy, with factories in Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont, Trentino, and Veneto (as opposed to just the tiny region of Parma ). Additionally, it's more affordable than it's plus chic cousin, and has almost the exact same crystallized texture and salty flavor. Of course, it is still protected by the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) which inspects and regulates Italian identity-related food items like, ie Basalmic vineagar, olive oil, and Chianti, so it's still special, but not the high-ticket item that is Reggiano.

Henry Hoffman watches Caseificio Europa make Grana Padano

Friday, February 1, 2008

Getting to Know my Neighborhood

My new favorite site, and it's evaluation of where I ate last night.

A useful tool for the hypochondriac.