When I saw Ontario red, yellow, and orange peppers on sale at the No Frills for $1.97 a lb, I thought What could be better than turning on the oven and baking stuffed peppers for an hour in an apartment with no AC?
The filling was simple enough: I cooked ground beef with some onion and garlic, added a tin of tomatoes, a cup of rice, basil, a couple spoonfuls of Terroni hot peppers, and a heaping handful of grated parmigiano. They made for a wonderful Saturday night meal (plus I scored a couple of week-day lunches).
We didn’t have to turn on the oven the following Saturday because we attended a wedding between two people who are both deeply fond of each other and food. Platters of barbecued chicken, brisket, corn bread, potato salad, macaroni salad, sautéed greens with pork, and shrimp jambalaya were served family-style. My generous samplings of the various dishes, however, created a great deal of gas in my gut. I could barely dance. I let the air out, so to speak, only because I was confident that the gentle gust would be both quiet and odourless. I was right on the first count but profoundly wrong on the second. I thought only I caught wind of the severe stank trapped under my dress. But then I saw my friends frantically waving their hands in front of their noses and clearing the dance floor.
“Someone farted!” my friend shouted over Madonna.
“Me” I whispered back. “I’m sorry.” For the next three or four expulsions, I took to the bordering woods and aired out in nature away from the revellers.
It was the second time that night that I’d apologized. Earlier, over dinner, someone brought up Nanette, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up comedy special on Netflix that isn’t really a stand-up comedy that everyone is praising. “It’s lacerating in its fury about how women and queer people like her, and everyone else who might behave or look ‘other,’ get treated, dismissed and silenced,” the New York Times recently said. “In stark personal terms, she reveals her own gender and sexual trauma, and doesn’t invite people to laugh at it.”
Although laugh I did, and cried, when I watched it weeks ago, there were other bits that left my brow wrinkled. So, when our dinner companion at the wedding brought up Nanette and looked to us to validate what he and the whole world seem to agree upon–that Gadsby is an unflinching genius who is changing the nature comedy and what comedy can be–the Beast and I looked at each other with fear in our eyes.
The Beast said something about how yes, it’s remarkable but that whenever the culture tells him that something is extraordinary and he needs to watch it, suspicion and stubbornness take over. Oh do I?
I suppose I have a touch of that in me too. But mostly, the parts about Nanette that left me with more questions than answers had to do with her art historical takedowns. Picasso was a misogynist and in one fell swoop, Gadsby dismisses Cubism mostly because he had an affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, a 17 year old woman.
“The history of western art,” she says, “is just the history of men painting women like they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers.” Except for all the moments over millennia and from around the world when it wasn’t.
I’m being trivial. I’m missing The Bigger Picture. What’s also concerning is that the people who might agree with me are the sort that I wouldn’t want to invite over for dinner. That gives me reason to pause. It’s just that these days I’m craving nuance and am having a hard time finding it.
The death of nuance today is something we’ve talked a lot about in our home–before and after we both read a great interview with the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi in Vulture in which she said: “I think in some ways nuance is dead.”
It felt like an Ah ha! moment. But Adichi continued: she said that in some instances right now, particularly regarding the #MeToo movement, we can’t afford nuance because “you run the risk of the movement falling apart.”
Mentioning Harvey Weinstein in the same sentence with Woody Allen has no nuance. But I would never dream of saying this out loud–not today. I’d be eviscerated. Although it might not be as bad as admitting that I enjoy the fiction of Philip Roth. Even Adichi admitted he had a “humanity in his work that is often overlooked when we talk about his misogyny.”
Everything today feels like accomplished fact, or as the French call it: fait accompli. Adichi has noticed how troubling it is in her classroom: “I feel like in liberal-left circles, increasingly you can’t even say that you don’t know why something is wrong,” she told Vulture. “I’ll talk to students and somebody will say something is terrible and everyone else will be nodding along; I’m thinking that half of them don’t know why that thing is terrible. They’re just afraid to ask and have other people think they’re terrible too.”
It goes the other way too: The culture will declare a new TV series, a film, a book, an essay, or a stand-up comedy special—as Something You Need To Watch or Read Right Now, and there’s little room to pick at the Something.
And, in some instances, the Something will enjoy high praise followed by a critical takedown within a 24-hour news cycle. Maybe that’s nuance at play. But I’m suspicious of the speed.
Over her lifetime, Hannah Gadsby has probably thought long and hard about Picasso—probably the most important and influential artist of the 20th century—and her takedown was nuanced from where she was sitting. Only I worry that some of the millions who listened to it will nod their heads in agreement, accepting it as accomplished fact, without any work or reflection. “Fuck Picasso,” they’ll say, passing by his art in museums around the world.
Maybe they’re right. I’m just not ready to decide yet.
Nuance is dead. This was actually the subject of a recent podcast the Beast and I recorded. For the last couple of months I’ve come home on Friday and we’ve done test runs of a thing we are calling The Consumer Report, a weekly roundup of what we’ve eaten, read, and watched brought to you by Foodie and the Beast. And, like this blog, other conversations will surface having to do with our consumptions.
Foodie and the Beast turned 10 a couple of days ago. We’d hoped the first podcast episode would launch in tandem with the anniversary. We’ve got graphics and beautiful music. We’ve talked about everything from Manolo Blahnik, Sex and the City and screwball comedies from the ‘40s to a gem of an Italian white wine we discovered and those stuffed peppers. And through food, old books and movies, we’ve weaved in relevant discourse about art and politics; about why we like and dislike the things we do. I think there’s nuance in them.
But I don’t want to release them. Maybe it’s because they’re not good enough. Maybe it’s because I’m crippled by self-doubt. Or maybe it’s because I’ve become so exhausted by being critical of the endless takes and positions on everything from How to Find Happiness in 10 Easy Steps to Why Marvel Movies Matter, that I’m afraid to add more of anything to the heap of everything.
I wish I wasn’t so afraid to put Something that’s maybe still a little raw out there. But I’m also really pleased that I’m the sort of person who pauses.
Anyway, at the end of one of these trial runs—the one about the death of nuance, in fact—the Beast read me this incredible quote by a friend of Roth’s and fellow novelist Zadie Smith.
“He was a writer all the way down. It was not diluted with other things as it is—mercifully!—for the rest of us,” Smith wrote in the New Yorker shortly after Roth passed away this year. “He was writing taken neat, and everything he did was at the service of writing. At an unusually tender age, he learned not to write to make people think well of him, nor to display to others, through fiction, the right sort of ideas, so they could think him the right sort of person. ‘Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest,’ he once said. For Roth, literature was not a tool of any description. It was the venerated thing in itself. He loved fiction and (unlike so many half or three-quarter writers) was never ashamed of it.”
“Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest.” Jesus, that stuck with me. It may be the most nuanced statement about not just fiction but all of art—including Picasso—that I’ve read in a long time.
It put into focus why this year I haven’t enjoyed, in the same way my friends have, a number of critically acclaimed books in which the moral messages felt, to me, more important than the literature.
It may also explain why I returned to a favourite author: Jim Harrison, even though he’s been shaded with “carrying the torch for male sentimentality”—a charge that may cause many to dismiss his books before cracking a spine.
“By nature I’m a semi-recluse, a tad melancholy,” he wrote in his memoir, Off to the Side. It’s a sentiment that pretty much sums up my vibe this summer.
Harrison’s reverence for classical Chinese poetry—the same poems, mostly from the T’ang Dynasty written 1,500 years ago, that bring my dad (who, coincidentally, loved Nanette) to tears—left me searching on Amazon for a good anthology.
I found one, translated by David Hinton, and nearly ordered it. Good thing I didn’t because when I told the Beast about it, he walked into the dining room, which doubles as a library, and pulled it from the shelf.
Dear god I sound “bougie” but fuck it. There’s more.
My favourite ones so far, by T’ao Ch’ien and Li Po, are surprisingly secular, simple, yet existential, and revere nature, friendship, and wine under moonlight up in the mountains.
There are also a lot of peach trees.
Reading them have provided several Ah ha! moments. I didn’t even have to look for nuance. It was staring me right in the face.