‘Left Behind,’ again? The re-emergence of a political phenomenon

—Glenn W. Shuck

Critics just don’t get Left Behind, a new movie adaptation of the best-selling book series. Sure, it’s predictably awful. The acting is bad, the production is terrible, and the plot is thinner than Soviet toilet paper. But the stakes are far higher than with a typical, first-order howler. Left Behind preaches to the choir, sure, but this is no ordinary choir! The film, like the novels, doesn’t cater to Hollywood styles; it’s all about motivating people to “spread the word,” and that word is just as political as it is otherworldly.

Ten years have passed since the original Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins concluded. In a world where news cycles grow ever shorter, ten years is several lifetimes. Sure, the Christian suspense novels helped unleash powerful political forces then, but what about now?  The series and the values it champions may have found a way to return with the debut of the new Left Behind film.

Why Left Behind?  Why now?  Financial motives, as always, play a powerful role. Just look at recent films and television serials. Apocalypse sells. God sells. Fear sells. But another motive is at hand: apocalyptic narratives are also multi-stranded; they carry, after all, a revelation. They proclaim a new way of being in the world. In short, apocalyptic narratives often motivate action.

Dr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins helped politically conservative evangelicals in the 1990’s move beyond “single issue” and “values voters” labels to empower their political imaginations beyond narrow and predictable categories.  As the series progressed and the politics behind them came together, they helped an upstart and then highly disliked presidential candidate, George W. Bush, to two unlikely victories, selling millions of political primers along the way.  The Left Behind phenomenon helped embolden a hyper-energized religious right.

But something went wrong with doomsayers’ forecasts of evangelical political dominance: they stopped voting at the high rates that boosted President Bush. It wasn’t just that the original Left Behind film and its sequels were big–screen busts. “New” Republican standard-bearers Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney never held much appeal for evangelicals. Yes, it hurt that the Left Behind series and its spin-offs and spokespersons were no longer so influential. Moreover, Bush’s unpopularity became toxic. More “moderate” Republican candidates, however, without the full support of a key voting bloc, found a different kind of apocalypse.

Fast-forward to 2014. A president is not on the ballots but President Obama’s policies certainly are as Democrats fight to retain the Senate. Polls and pundits raise concerns for Democrats. But Democrats ought to also consider a voting bloc that has been under-engaged for a decade. Some experts have assumed evangelicals and the Tea Party are one and the same (or similar enough), hence one can already account for these potential voters. But it is simplistic to equate the Tea Party with the religious right. It takes more than faux filibusters to help push high percentages of mercurial evangelical conservatives to the polls, especially in a midterm election, albeit as critical as this year.

Re-enter the Left Behind phenomenon. Left Behind, another adaptation of the novels, is earning the Left Behind phenomenon and the values it champions, a closer look. The film does not have the highest budget, but this re-boot has fared much better than the 2001 original, grossing almost twice as much (roughly $ 7 million) in the first weekend as the ill-fated original all told.  Whether the film grosses $20 million or $50 million matters less, however, than the fact it has brought conservative evangelicals back into the news cycle.

Thus in the days leading up to the 2014 midterms, Republicans have a wild card in Left Behind that just may become an ace. It is absurd to suggest a low-budget film will change the balance of power in the U.S.A., but it has resurrected the dynamics of the novels, and conservative evangelicals finally have a powerful reminder to vote.  And as any pundit will admit, it won’t take much to tip the scales in Washington.

Finally, the timely release of Left Behind may owe to coincidence, one month before the crucial midterms.  Evangelicals do not believe in coincidence, however, nor should campaigners in evangelical-filled battleground states such as North Carolina, Kansas, and Iowa, to name a few. Left Behind is playing in the heartland, playing for the hearts and minds of conservative evangelical voters. Critics, who dismiss Left Behind as simply an awful film and fire dull hip-shots with dismissive derision and canned clichés, miss the point. Left Behind is not about film prizes or outstanding cinematography or even good taste. It’s all about “spreading the word.” Who will be left behind if the film re-energizes its core audience and steers them into action just weeks before the crucial elections next month?

Glenn W. Shuck is Assistant Professor of Religion at Williams College and author of Marks of the Beast: The Left Behind Novels and the Struggle for Evangelical Identity (NYU Press, 2004).

Books That Cook: Yellow Potatoes

During the month of September, we’vee celebrated the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! Check out the reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Our final post comes from Monica McCormick. Read below as she shares her thoughts on finding home through the joy of cooking. 

 


I have moved often in my adult life. In each new apartment, preparing meals has become a way of making a home. Pulling out my well-used pots and knives, reaching for ingredients in strange new cupboards, and learning the quirks of an unfamiliar stove are all part of the ritual. Whatever I cook, it fills my new place with comforting scents and flavors, evoking other meals in other homes, long ago.

The opening lines of Ketu H. Katrak’s essay evoked this nostalgia created by food, sounds, and scents.[1] She writes of waking in her childhood home in Bombay on a visit from the U.S., roused from sleep by clanging in the kitchen:

All these sounds mingle with the aromatic spices wafting over my waking body. The sounds of prayer and smells of chapatis and vegetables weave into a pattern of belonging, of home-sounds and home-aromas.

This brought me back to a related, though in some ways opposite, experience. At age 18, I left Stockton, California, for a year as an exchange student in Mombasa, Kenya. I have often thought of my first few mornings there, waking to strange sounds and smells: voices shouting (in what language?), a rooster crowing, the cranking of an old car engine that wouldn’t turn over, foods frying in an oil I couldn’t identify, the oddly floral soapy water my host sister was sloshing on the hallway floor. I wondered how I would ever feel comfortable with all this.

I found my way home there through the kitchen. My host family, like my California one, made meals a central daily ritual. The Oderos were Luo people from Lake Victoria in western Kenya, but in Mombasa they cooked in the Swahili style. This Indian Ocean culture was wholly new to me, combining people and traditions from places like Zanzibar, Goa, Gujarat, Oman, and the Seychelles on the East African coast. I learned to roll out flaky chapatis, though my first attempts were so far from round that my sister Leonida would laugh, “It’s the shape of Kenya!”

I grated coconut, seated on a low folding stool fixed with a serrated blade, the white flakes falling to a plate below. We packed the coconut in a long, cylindrical basket and twisted it to extract the milk that thickened stews of fish, potatoes, tomato, and curry spices, or flavored large pots of long-grained basmati rice. I pounded the tiny red chilies that grew outside our back door, burning my fingers as I scooped the paste out of the big wooden mortar and pestle.

Eventually I took on the family task of going to the covered open-air market, mixing my minimal Kiswahili with English to bargain for staples: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, rice, beans, lentils, and the local bananas, mangos, and papayas. At my favorite stand was a corpulent yet dignified man in a white skull cap, presiding over trays mounded with brilliant-colored spices: cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, paprika, mustard seeds. From his high stool he would reach out to scoop what you needed on to a metal scale, blending to your specifications, and pouring the spices into newspaper cones, twisted at the ends.

At school, we had a two-hour lunch break. Because my host family lived a long bus ride away, schoolmates would bring me to home with them. I especially loved invitations from Bansari Shah, a girl whose tiny frame belied her healthy appetite. Her mother seemed to spend all morning preparing our lunch, in a kitchen lined with shiny metal tins of lentils, grains, and spices. She would set out a gorgeous array of vegetarian dishes: okra stewed with tomato and chili; acid-yellow turmeric potatoes flecked with black mustard seeds; green mung-bean dal; shiny white rice studded with cloves and cardamom pods. Bansari pointed out her favorites to be sure I tried them, and we would tuck in happily.

When I returned to the States, I was homesick for Mombasa. I made some of this food, trying to reproduce the methods and tastes in American kitchens. Like Ketrak in Massachusetts, I found Indian grocers in Minneapolis and San Francisco where I could once again inhale the combined scent of innumerable spices, and select from bins of lentils, dried peas, and beans. I bought Indian cookbooks and made elaborate meals with many garnishes. It was all a lot of work, and over the years I’ve simplified my cooking.

But Katrak’s recipe for Yellow Potatoes reminded me of lunch with Bansari. It inspired a trip to the Indian markets on Lexington Avenue near East 29th Street. I selected fresh packets of turmeric and black mustard seeds, and asked the grocer to reach me a bunch of cilantro, a knob of ginger and a lime from the small cooler behind the counter. Back in my little Harlem kitchen, I heated a generous slug of oil in my favorite heavy pot, let the mustard seeds pop to season the oil, and sizzled cubes of potato with the spices and minced chilies. When the potatoes were tender, I added a squeeze of lime, a few torn cilantro leaves, and gave a quick stir. Breathing in the flowery, sharp, tangy aromas, I took a mouthful and felt right at home.

Monica McCormick is Program Officer for Digital Scholarly Publishing at NYU Libraries and NYU Press.


[1] Food and Belonging: At ‘Home’ and in ‘Alien-Kitchens’, by Ketu H. Katrak

Books That Cook: Lettuce in Ribbons with Cream

During the month of September, we’re celebrating the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! In the next few weeks, we’ll be serving up reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Today’s special:
Assistant Editor Caelyn Cobb, on pot brownies, Gertrude Stein, and how to cook lettuce (or “sacrifice the innocents”). 


“So does it have pot in it?” my boyfriend asked when I said I planned to make a dish from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook for our blog.

More than any other Modernist writer, Alice B. Toklas is a household name, due largely to the success of her cookbook, a mishmash of memoir and recipes which contained one of the earliest published recipes for pot brownies. I am here to break the terrible news that Books That Cook does not contain a recipe for pot brownies. (Maybe in the second edition.)

Instead, the excerpt from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is a retelling of the writer’s time at a house in the French countryside, where she and her partner Gertrude Stein spent fourteen summers. It is largely about fruits and vegetables—growing them, picking them, cooking them, serving them, and eating them. I was attracted to this chapter for two reasons. First of all, vegetables seemed much easier to prepare, involving less time, fewer ingredients, and less of my money. I was sort of right about these things, but then again, I only sort of made the recipe. But more on that later.

Mainly, though, I was drawn to this chapter due to my past life as a literature student. Most interested in feminism, poetry, and Modernism, I was steered by many TAs and professors to Gertrude Stein’s most famous work, the poetry collection Tender Buttons. I was disappointed to find that I did not like this book anywhere near as much as I liked feminism, poetry, or Modernism individually. Tender Buttons is often described as “cubism for poetry,” which mostly means that you can only sometimes tell what is going on.

It wasn’t easy being a Modernist woman, especially on the American expatriate scene, and so I feel bad about not being a bigger fan of Gertrude Stein’s work. The leading lights of the Lost Generation were the greatest literary bros of their generation, ushering in a period of literary bro-ism that persists to this day. Given the time they spent watching bullfights, locking their wives in sanitariums, learning to box, and moving young ingénues into their homes (with or without approval of their wives) because it “helped with their creativity”, it’s a wonder that they got any writing done. Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas hosted, promoted, and befriended many of these men, introducing them to leading artists and intellectuals—and looking at their memoirs, it sounds like quite a lovely and exciting time. However, Hemingway would later memorialize Stein in his own memoirs as looking “like a Roman emperor, and that was fine if you liked your women to look like Roman emperors,” so maybe not.

I mull this over as I get ready to make my dish, getting in the mood by thinking angry feminist thoughts and listening to the moodiest French band I had on my iPod. I had selected a cooked lettuce dish called “lettuce in ribbons with cream” because I thought it was funny how Toklas only begrudgingly gives these recipes, calling them “the sacrifice of the innocents” (innocents being lettuce, I presume).

It is the simplest of the recipes but also the least specific. What kind of lettuce? What is “heavy cream sauce”? I imagine her cooking with the tiny, sweet lettuce my grandpa grows in his garden, but I can’t find these in Queens and settle on two tiny heads of Boston lettuce. I contemplate making my own béchamel sauce, which I think is what she means by “cream sauce”, but I instead purchase a jar of Alfredo sauce because I do not feel like it.

The recipe does call for one specific ingredient, and that is “one teaspoon of onion juice.” They definitely do not have this at my grocery store; I turn to Google for instructions on how to make my own onion juice, but it seems like way too much work for one teaspoon. I instead buy an onion and sauté a few pieces with the lettuce. I am basically murdering this recipe, but you know, death of the author, etc.

The dish itself is pretty easy: slice up the lettuce, sauté it (with onion) in a lot of butter, then once the lettuce absorbs the butter, add salt, cover it and let simmer. I buy two heads of lettuce and the shredded bits fill three large bowls. I cook down two and half of them into a tiny wad of lettuce, which I then cover in Alfredo sauce. I am reminded of a Dutch dish, which involves cooking lettuce with ham and root vegetables in a white gravy. I’m sure it has a Dutch name, but in my family we just call it “Dutch lettuce.” It is not a crowd pleaser. My aunt would request it for her birthday dinners as a child just to prank her siblings. I begin to regret my choice of dish, but am too far in to turn back, much in the way I began to regret my decision to write my BA thesis on Modernist poetic criticism over winter break of my senior year. The only option is to suck it up and see it through.

Early in our courtship, my boyfriend had confirmed a deep love of vegetables that we both share. “Don’t insult my home by bringing a salad into it,” he warned, as I offered to do this very thing. Thus, I have promised the meal I make will not be only vegetables, and set about preparing bacon and tomato wraps while the lettuce is simmering. At the time I planned this, I had liked the BLT symmetry.

When I serve up the lettuce, he pronounces it “very tasty.” It is not bad. It is also very heavy; cooked lettuce has an earthy taste, and paired with a creamy cheese sauce, it’s extremely rich. I recommend serving it with something lighter than a bacon sandwich, like tilapia or chicken or anything besides bacon. I feel like I just ingested a grease ball.

After we finish our meal, I jokingly whip out my copy of Tender Buttons.

“Vegetable,” I read. “What is cut. What is cut by it. What is cut by it in.”

“Okay, that’s enough of that,” my boyfriend says.

Caelyn Cobb is Assistant Editor at NYU Press.

Books That Cook: Artichokes with Beurre au Citron

During the month of September, we’re celebrating the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! In the next few weeks, we’ll be serving up reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Read, savor, and be sure to enter our giveaway for a chance to win a copy of the book before it ends on September 21!

Up next on the menu: Managing Editor Dorothea Stillman Halliday masters the art of l’artichaut.


My father would have loved Books That Cook, uniting as it does two of his greatest passions: books and food. My father read voraciously, books of all kinds, several at one time, and among those were cookbooks and literary food writing. He read about the history of foods and cuisines and the culinary practices of different cultures. He traveled widely and loved to taste the world. But every night at home he sat down to a disappointing dinner.

My parents lived in Europe during their early married life and then again later, after my siblings and I were part of the mix. My father’s tastes were full of herbs and spices to begin with and grew only more sophisticated after living abroad, while my mother seemed incapable of distinguishing between delicious and dreadful food. Her culinary ability and discernment were in the great American (pre–Julia Child) tradition of the blandest meat and most overcooked vegetables, puddles of mayonnaise, and a cabinet full of prefab foods. Why make fresh potatoes, when you could make potato flakes from a box just by adding them to hot water? Why even drink fresh milk when you could mix milk from a powder? The nutrition was what mattered to her, and that was all.

Unfortunately for my parents, who were newlyweds in the late forties, they were imprisoned in the gender roles of their time. My father went into the world and worked; my mother stayed home and cooked. He read Mastering the Art of French Cooking and watched Julia Child on TV, but he felt constrained to do no more food preparation than to put cream cheese and lox on a bagel. The wife did the cooking. The husband’s lot was to sit and be served—poor wretch. He dreamed of gastronomy; she dreamed of getting all our nutrients via vitamin pills. Needless to say, this caused considerable marital friction, and were it not for frequent dinners at the local Chinese restaurant, things might have gotten really ugly.

By the mid-seventies, the culture and my parents had both evolved enough that my father finally declared that he would do the cooking from now on. The dinner table became a happier place. And the food was much improved too. My mother was relieved to be liberated from the pressure of preparing meals that continually fell short of expectations. But she never understood what the big deal was. She always greeted any culinary preparation by expounding the nutritional value of the components: “Oh, carrots are very good for you. They’re full of vitamin A” and “Spinach is loaded with iron.”

If you’ve ever painstakingly prepared a delicious meal for someone and been greeted by this kind of response, then you know that the friction at the dinner table did not disappear altogether. My father would sigh in exasperation with her lack of appreciation but would console himself with the responses he got from the rest of us and with his own enjoyment of his meal. Once, while serving up one of his creations, he loaded up a fork and offered it to my mother. “Try this,” he said. “It’s got something in it that’s very good for you: flavor.”

When asked to select a recipe from Books That Cook to write about, I chose artichokes with beurre au citron, lemon butter sauce. The dish is both simple and fine, and it is one of a very few I remember my mother making that we all truly enjoyed. I don’t know if she learned from Julia Child’s recipe or from somewhere else, but even my mother could boil an artichoke and squeeze lemon juice into melted butter.

I remember how exotic it seemed to eat a huge flower bud. It was a gustatory adventure, even a quest: We sought the hidden treasure, the succulent heart. We peeled the petals away one at a time, avoiding the sharp points—my mother either didn’t know, or didn’t bother, to cut them off. We dipped the petals in the lemon butter and scraped the “meat” off with our teeth. We worked our way past the soft inner leaves of pale green and purple, down to the choke, which guarded the heart. Once past its defenses, we beheld the grail. And there was peace and harmony at the table.

The artichoke was good, even in the hands of an unskilled cook. And it still is.

Dorothea Stillman Halliday is Managing Editor at NYU Press.

Books That Cook: A Good Roast Chicken

During the month of September, we’re celebrating the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! In the next few weeks, we’ll be serving up reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Today, editorial assistant Constance Grady shares her thoughts on “A Good Roast Chicken,” an essay featured in the book from professional chef and food historian Teresa Lust.


Roast chicken is a good dinner for many reasons. It is economical: a decent-sized bird is a good meal for a family of four, with enough left over for some sandwiches or perhaps a pot pie, and then you can turn the bones and giblets into stock for soup or a risotto. It is forgiving. You can buy a free-range organic bird from a farmer’s market for an ungodly sum, and then massage a compote of herbs and butter under its skin and stuff it with more herbs and garlic and lemon, and baste it with melted butter as it roasts, and flip it halfway through cooking so that the juices are evenly distributed through the whole chicken. This will be good. You can also buy a five-dollar bird from the supermarket and spritz it perfunctorily with Pam, perhaps shaking some table salt and pre-ground pepper over the skin, and stick it in the oven and forget about it for two hours. This will also be pretty good.

It is also—and this is probably what is most attractive about roast chicken for many of us—simple. Even a gussied-up roast chicken is quick and easy to prepare; it will allow you to put a full meal on the table with a minimum of labor. But what Teresa Lust reminds us in “A Good Roast Chicken” is that roast chicken is not an intrinsically easy dish: it’s just that we’ve outsourced the labor.

Lust is the granddaughter of farmers, and she describes in detail all of the dirty, uncomfortable farm work that goes into a roast chicken. Someone has to break the chicken’s neck. Then the chickens have to be dipped into boiling water to loosen their feathers, and plucked. The feathers that don’t come out with plucking have to be singed off, or alternatively, waxed off like unruly eyebrow hair. Then, of course, they have to be beheaded and de-feet-ed and gutted, and now at last we come to something resembling the chicken that you pick up in paper wrappings at the farmer’s market or in plastic shrinkwrap at the grocery store.

Lust does not mourn for the farm life of her grandparents. “I am not so sentimental,” she writes. I have the same attitude: I do not especially feel deprived at having never smelled chicken feathers scorching as I burn them off a partially plucked carcass. But it is good to be reminded that the food we take for granted is the product of immense industry, and that the “raw ingredients” we buy at the grocery store are anything but.

Lust’s recipe is a good balance between the easiest and the most elaborate versions of roast chicken. You rub the skin down with melted butter or olive oil, and stuff the cavity with herbs and garlic and lemon. Then you let it sit in a hot oven for an hour. Previously I have been wedded to the system of using a very hot oven for the first ten minutes to sear the skin, and then turning the temperature down for a long, slow roast, but I think Lust’s method is better. The skin comes out crisp and brown, and the meat is succulent and moist.

Lust serves her chicken with buttered carrots and parslied new potatoes. This is simple and pleasant, but I decided instead to roast the chicken on a bed of vegetables. On this I refuse to compromise: cooked this way, the vegetables caramelize and are permeated with the rich flavorful juices of the chicken, so that even celery becomes delicious. Also it saves on dishes, because the entire meal is cooked in your roasting pan. I used carrots and celery and onions and potatoes and garlic, but you can use any vegetable that catches your fancy. Zucchini is good in the summer, and so is asparagus. I am told that a bulb of fennel is a welcome addition, if you like fennel (I do not), and leeks add a nice earthiness.

Cooking this chicken, you are most likely far from the life Lust describes, “a life full of vegetable gardens and barnyards and meals rushed from the farm to the table,” and “a life where there’s no denying that what lies succulent and crisp on a bed of rosemary sprigs once scratched in the dirt.” The beauty and power of her essay is that it brings this life back to us: it reminds us of the labor embodied in the carcass of a chicken.

Constance Grady is Editorial Assistant at NYU Press.

Books That Cook: Sipsey’s Buttermilk Biscuits

During the month of September, we are celebrating the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! In the next few weeks, we’ll be serving up reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Next on the menu: Trish Palao of NYU Press takes on the buttermilk biscuit.

Read, savor, and let us know what you think in the comments section!


“These don’t compare to your grandmother’s. She made the best.”

I hear this every time I have biscuits with my dad. My father grew up in the Visayan islands of the Philippines, in a region historically known for sugar production—not biscuits. But the American presence in the country influenced its culinary tastes and my grandmother took pride in her ability to cook the way they do “state side.” My grandfather’s colleagues from the sugar mill would be sure to drop by in the mornings to talk business. In doing so they were guaranteed an invitation to join the family in a breakfast of longanisa (sausage), fried eggs, garlic rice, and biscuits.

It’s only in recent years, after gaining some confidence in the kitchen and craving my family’s cooking, that I’ve started learning how to make Filipino dishes. Biscuits are obviously not traditional fare, but its connection to my dad’s childhood memory drew me to this recipe. I was further inspired by the accompanying excerpt from Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. It recalls a picnic between two friends. Secrets are shared as they indulge in a feast that includes biscuits and honey, respectively prepared and harvested with love. How many wonderful bonds are forged over the sharing of food?

The recipe for Sipsey’s buttermilk biscuits is deceptively simple. It calls for six ingredients and consists of five straightforward pieces of instruction. I mentioned this to our Production Manager, a South Carolina native who’s as particular about biscuits as my dad. “It’ll be hard. They require a lot of time and patience.” Then I told a friend, a former wedding cake baker. “They’re the worst to make! I can never get a good batch no matter what I try.”

I decided to do more research. It was either that or brace myself for a disappointing Sunday breakfast. Food bloggers advised: use cold butter, don’t knead too much, don’t over mix, DO NOT roll out the dough, keep them close together so they rise up and don’t spread out. Turns out there were a lot of things that Sipsey didn’t tell me.

Thanks to the Internet (and the time-saving wonder that is the food processor), my biscuits turned out fine. They tasted right and they weren’t too hard or dense. Could they have been better? Definitely. But I know that a lighter, flakier, yummier biscuit is not something I can get from looking at more websites or fiddling with kitchen gadgets. It comes from attempting the dish again. And again. And again. And eventually I’ll have figured out the method, the measurements, and the timing that result in buttery excellence.

I imagine that’s what perfecting biscuits—or any treasured family dish—is really about: unwritten knowledge, skill, and technique that come only with time, experience, and enough unexpected guests who pop in during mealtime.

Trish Palao manages Advertising and Direct Marketing at NYU Press.

Books That Cook: Caramel Cake

During the month of September, we are celebrating the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! In the next few weeks, we’ll be serving up reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Next on the menu: Laura Bisberg of NYU Press bakes a cake, Maya Angelou-style.

Read, savor, and let us know what you think in the comments section!


In her autobiographical story prefacing the recipe for Caramel Cake, here’s how Maya Angelou describes the dessert:

The salty sweetness of the caramel frosting along with the richness of the batter made the dessert soften and liquefy on the tongue and slip quietly down the throat almost without notice. Save that it left a memory of heaven itself in the mouth.[1]

So let’s just say my expectations weren’t low. The first step is to make caramel syrup. The instructions sound simple enough:

Heat sugar in heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Stir constantly until melted to a brown liquid. When it bubbles over entire surface, remove from heat. Slowly add boiling water, stirring constantly.

I put the sugar in an enamel pot. (First mistake.) The sound of the sugar scraping across the bottom of the pan is nails on a chalkboard, but cake tastes sweeter for a little suffering. I can bear this.

After ten minutes of stirring, nothing’s changed. I am still just pushing sugar grains around the bottom of a pot. I begin to suspect trickery. I edge the burner up to medium for a few minutes. Then medium-high. (Second mistake.)

It suddenly gets interesting, like a chemistry experiment. The sugar clumps, slowly turns tan. “Yes,” I think. “This seems right.” At twenty minutes, the sugar melts into an amber liquid. Microscopic bubbles appear at the center and foam out from there. “Excellent,” I think. “Just as described.”

I remove the pot from the heat, and stop stirring for approximately 3.2 seconds while I pour out a cup of boiling water from the kettle. (Third mistake.)

Adding the water turns the dainty bubbles into a roiling lava field, the pleasant amber hue to dark rum. Some of the sugar has recrystallized at the bottom of the pot in elaborate configurations. I spoon out a couple of the Chihuly sugar sea monkeys with growing concern that something has gone terribly wrong.

I pour the sugar into a bowl. I dip a spoon in, give the liquid a minute to cool, taste it. How can I describe it? It’s acrid, bitter, tarrish. Like overcooked gym socks. I pour it down the sink.

Take two!

I correct for my mistakes. I use a non-stick pot. I pre-measure the boiling water. I resist the temptation to adjust the heat, and most importantly, I. Do. Not. Stop. Stirring.

It’s a sweltering early September, easily 90 degrees in my kitchen. Twenty minutes in, I badly want the glass of water which is only just out of reach, but I don’t give in to temptation. “STIR CONSTANTLY” is my new mantra. I don’t know exactly what it looks like to make meth, but I imagine it would be a bad time for the cops to raid my apartment as I stand over a pot of white powder at the stove, sweating profusely and refusing to stop stirring.

The sugar eventually goes through a few stages that it completely skipped last batch: snowflakes, sand, sea glass, pulled toffee. It takes close to an hour, but comes out fine this time. It tastes, unsurprisingly, like sugar water.

The rest of the cake comes together easily. I bake it, frost it, take a few photos for posterity.

And the taste? Just like Angelou promised, it’s “a memory of heaven itself,” if heaven tastes like delicious cake. The caramelized sugar and brown butter give it a rich flavor, sweet and salty and intense.

So here’s my advice: make this cake! It’s lovely! And if I scared you off from making the caramel syrup, I have plenty left over. I’d trade it for a kitchen air conditioner.

Laura Bisberg is Business Manager at NYU Press.

[1] “The Assurance of Caramel Cake,” from Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes (Random House, 2007).

Book giveaway: Books That Cook

To celebrate the final days of summer, we are giving away two free copies of Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal, the newest title in our Fall 2014 catalog. 

Many of us at NYU Press have been waiting to get our hands on this delightful cookbook anthology since it made an appearance on the ‘forthcoming’ list a year ago—and it’s finally here!

Organized like a cookbook, Books That Cook is a collection of American literature written on the theme of food: from an invocation to a final toast, from starters to desserts.

Including writing from Maya Angelou, Sherman Alexie, and Nora Ephron, among many others, the collection reveals the range of ways authors incorporate recipes—whether the recipe flavors the story or the story serves to add spice to the recipe.

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Sunday, September 21st, 2014 at 1:00 pm EST.

Plus, stay tuned to the blog—we’ll be offering a free chapter (recipe included!) from the book next month.

‘The Fault’ in our memories

—Jodi Eichler-Levine

One fine morning in Amsterdam, Hazel Grace Lancaster, the protagonist of The Fault in Our Stars, sports a tee shirt emblazoned with Magritte’s most famous painting. It reads, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) under a painting of… a pipe. The point of the painting is that it is not a pipe, but rather, a representation of a pipe. A signifier. A treacherous fake.

Yet sometimes we insist that we see a pipe. In the same way, The Fault in Our Stars is not a group of teenagers with cancer; it is a representation of teenagers with cancer. We are enraptured by it because it signifies suffering but it is not the real thing, giving us a vicarious “fantasy of witnessing” tragedy. We insist that we are seeing heartbreak.

The film’s blockbuster success stems from many sources: the popularity of the novel; the rising power of teenage girls at the box office; our cultural fascination with death; and the fact that it is genuinely a strong film. However, except for a significant kerfuffle over a kiss in the Anne Frank house, the role of religion in the film has gone unremarked—particularly when it is religion on the fuzzy line between what we call “religious” and “secular.”

John Green, the author of the book on which the film is based, was a religion and English major at Kenyon College. Before becoming a writer, he served as a hospital chaplain and considered a career in ministry. Perhaps this is one reason why his luminescent book is filled with existential fear and a refusal to meet the terror of theodicy with empty platitudes. Here, teens with cancer meet in the “literal heart of Jesus” for a support group at a local church. Hazel is not comforted by this 12-step two-step, but she also recognizes the Sisyphean task of the group’s peppy leader, Patrick. Elsewhere, Hazel’s father asks who we are to deny an elegant universe its desire to be noticed.

This is what I find so profound about the book, its inspirations, and its afterlife. Religion no longer happens only in formal institutional spaces (and it probably never did). In the hallways of hospitals, in our visceral reaction as characters high on a movie screen ponder ultimate questions—in the act of sitting in that dark theater itself—religion is happening. So is memory.

Augustus Waters wants to be noticed before he dies. At first, by the universe: to live an exceptional life. He and Hazel know this cannot be. They know they are finite; they never declare “always,” as some other lovers do, but rather, “okay.”

We all want to be noticed by the universe. This is why we yelp into our virtual superaddressee: the echoing expanse of Facebook and Twitter. We are all writing our own eulogies and those of our friends, day by day, good words and bad words and sublime and despairing logics (and the Kardashians, alas) all spun together. And it is here that we address the dead in plaintive tones. In the book, a grieving Hazel reads the memorial posts on Augustus’ “wall page.” She is both horrified by and empathetic towards the endless tributes. Giving in to temptation, she replies to one post, but is never answered, “lost in the blizzard of new posts.”

Hazel finds the term “forever in our hearts” especially galling.  Skeptical of memory, she mimics the poster’s intentions: “‘You will live forever in my memory, because I will live forever! I AM YOUR GOD NOW, DEAD BOY! I OWN YOU!’ Thinking you won’t die is yet another side effect of dying.” Hazel sees through memory’s ruse: we think our power to remember and to recover memories is how we resurrect those who are lost—and that has theological implications. To possess one’s own fellow creature through memory is godlike… but we are mortals.

What happens to our memories of love and of suffering, here in the twenty-first century?

Green answers us with both dark infinitude and a leap of faith. He became a parent while writing the book, and says this changed it. When Hazel is eight, her mother fears that she will not be a mother anymore without her daughter. Years later, she moves past that into a brazen, stark resilience. She tells Hazel that she will always be her mother. Green has said, “I just could think of no other way to lay bare the absolute hideousness of living in a world where parents have to bury their children … Humans have always lived in that world, and always will.”

And yet, he also writes: “I couldn’t write the book until I understood that the love between a parent and child (like many other kinds of love) is literally stronger than death: As long as either person survives, the relationship survives.”

John Green wants to have his existential cake, and eat it, too. Maybe that’s not the worst idea ever.

Okay.

Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. She holds a joint appointment with the Women’s Studies Program. She is the author of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature (NYU Press, 2013).

American Literatures Initiative approaches 100th book

“The American Literatures Initiative, the first of the university press collaborative publishing grants awarded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, approaches 100 book mark.”

To learn more about this exciting news, read an excerpt from the press release below! [The full version appears on the ALI website here.]

In 2007, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, looking for ways to encourage presses to collaborate more on basic publishing operations, and looking to support the more economical publication of first scholarly books in what they called “underserved” fields, issued a call for grant proposals to the University Press community. The call for grant proposals was open-ended: there was no definition of an underserved field, nor were any guidelines provided about the potential size of a grant, the timeframe, or the number of presses needed in the collaboration. However, each proposal had to address several key issues, including providing evidence of an underserved field, identifying  more economical and transformative processes for the publication of first books, and providing a plan for long-term sustainability of publishing monographs  in the discipline.

The American Literatures Initiative (ALI) was the first such grant awarded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2008, to be followed by a half dozen additional grants during 2008 and 2009. The ALI allowed five similarly-sized university presses—NYU Press, along with Fordham University Press, Rutgers University Press, Temple University Press, and the University of Virginia Press—to collaborate on the publication of 125 first books in the field of literary studies over five years, with a grant of $1.3 million.

As the ALI approaches the publication of its 100th book, the many skepticisms voiced at the beginning—that presses could not effectively collaborate in these ways—were unfounded. To find out more about the participating publishers and the project’s goals, the Directors of the ALI presses were asked to provide a candid assessment of their progress to date, with the hope that some of the successes of the ALI might be adapted by individual university presses, or scaled onto other university press collaborations.

What’s the future of the ALI after the next grant period ends? “We’re exploring several options,” said Steve Maikowski, Director at NYU Press. “We see the ability to make a strong case to continue funding the most successful, transformative parts of the program, scaling back the big marketing spend, continue our experimentation in collaborative production methods, and focusing on the core plant costs, which will make these niche monographs a bit more viable on our lists. Without such outside support, some of the ALI presses may have to again significantly reduce the titles published in this field.”

In spite of the new financial challenges faced by the ALI, for new scholars in literary studies, the ALI is a beacon of hope in an otherwise dreary publishing landscape for first books for scholars in the humanities. And the ALI has indeed achieved many of the original goals in the grant proposal to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Perhaps most gratifying is the number of prizes won by the ALI to date, most recently the top book prize of the American Studies Association. These distinguished prizes fulfill one of the most important goals: that ALI would become the destination point for the best, award-winning original scholarship in literary studies.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

Peter Coviello’s new book, Tomorrow’s Parties, launches an innovative (and often
unexpected) exploration of nineteenth-century American sexuality through the lens of literature. Here, we talk with him about Joseph Smith, the Velvet Underground, and how he came about his cover image. 

NYU Press: Tell us a bit about your book.

Peter Coviello: Tomorrow’s Parties considers the strange forms pleasure, desire, and carnality could take in the writing of the American nineteenth century, just before these aspects of sex came to be reassembled under the sign of something called “sexuality.” It looks closely at imaginings of erotic life that can seem, to modern eyes, weird and unlikely, hard even to recognize as sex at all.

So I’m interested – when I’m reading Henry James or Harriet Jacobs or Joseph Smith – in
what a modern notion of sexuality might prevent us from seeing clearly, might mute or distort. In this way I think of the book as in dialogue not only with scholarship about sex in the American nineteenth century but with new queer work that worries over the adequacy of “sexuality” itself as a cherished bit of conceptual terminology. It’s my sense that a lot of us doing queer work today are wondering afresh at the misapprehending, sometimes colonizing tendencies of “sexuality” even in its queerest registers; so Tomorrow’s Parties tries to tell a story about how the emergence of that sexuality came to happen, and at what cost.

NYUP: Why the title, Tomorrow’s Parties? Are you a Velvet Underground
fan?

PC: I am. So there’s that. I also found a curious commonality across a lot
of the writers I was reading: a tendency to transform their own uneasiness with the
cramped, narrowing conceptual languages of erotic life that were available to them
into this ardent, yearning investment in futurity, and what might be possible there.
Again and again I encountered authors who, when gripped by one or another kind
of sensual intensity or bodily captivation, would begin dreaming of the future, of
some as yet unripened set of conditions under which those pleasures might find for
themselves a different kind of legibility, and perhaps even a way of living them out
in concert with a range of other people. The more I thought about that – and I do a
lot of my thinking surrounded by music – the more the phrase “tomorrow’s parties”
became inevitable.

NYUP: How did you find such a captivating image for the cover?

PC: This would’ve been in Brooklyn, I’m guessing, in the early 2000s. I was being led around a mazy gallery and feeling, I confess, a little out of my depth. Then I turned a corner and found myself abruptly transported.

Julie Heffernan’s paintings are strange without being surreal, classical but not imitative, painterly without being ironic. You look at them and feel unnerved, as though you’re seeing not a deft citation of classical style but that style as appraised
at a somehow estranging distance. There’s an eerie kind of rupture being staged in Self-Portrait in the Bedroom by the central figure – painted in outblown nonrealist extravagance – but of what? And by what? Of the antique Tintoretto-esque framing gestures by a present, or a future, that confounds it? Of an inherited order by all that fractures it: bodiliness, imagination, their pairing in sex?

Tomorrow’s Parties is about rupture: about all that might be lost – all the
extravagant ways of imagining the very parameters of sex – with the ascent of
modern languages of sexuality and sexual identity. So when my great editor Eric
Zinner asked about images for the cover, I didn’t hesitate: I could think of no image
that performed that interplay between capture and excess, legibility and erotic
obliquity, more beautifully than Heffernan’s. I’m delighted to have it for the book

Peter Coviello is Professor of English at Bowdoin College, where he specializes in nineteenth-century American literature and queer studies, and where he has served as Chair of the departments of English, Africana Studies, and Gay and Lesbian Studies. His book, Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Ninteenth-Century America is out now from NYU Press.

New Spreadable Media essays: Week 3

We’re at week three since launching the online component of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture!

Here are this week’s round of web exclusive essays written by selected contributors who have shaped the argument put forth in Spreadable Media:

  • The Value of Retrogames“—Bob Rehak, a film and media studies professor at Swarthmore College, examines how grassroots interest in residual media and culture may coalesce online, sparking new kinds of cultural practices and production.
  • Clothing has passed between different kinds of exchanges for centuries, acquiring different meanings and values in the process—and, in “A Global History of Secondhand Clothing,” filmmaker and MIT media historian Hanna Rose Shell traces and examines those shifting sartorial roles.
  • In “Retrobrands and Retromarketing,” York University professor Robert V. Kozinets discusses the strategies through which companies engage in “retrobranding,” reviving or relaunching brands from the past in ways that capitalize on existing fandoms and provide launching points for the creation of new markets.

Check ‘em out, and stay tuned at http://spreadablemedia.org/essays—where each week leading up to the book’s publication (in January 2013!), a new batch of exclusive essays will be released.

(And hey! Feel free to debate/critique/trash each piece in the comments section. Expand the conversation, transform the ideas. That’s how spreadable media works.)