The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Q&A with author Rachel C. Lee

Last season, Faye Qiyu Lu, one of our fall interns and an undergraduate at NYU, put together a series of questions for Rachel C. Lee, author of The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America. Check out the Q&A on the book below! 

What does the term “exquisite corpse” entail for your project?

Rachel C. Lee: The exquisite corpse, for me, is a structure for collaboration, an experimental method that values distributed sites of intelligence, despite the likely disjunctures of approach and worldview of various participants. In the early 2000s, I began working with a group of feminists in Los Angeles to create a critical-creative prose piece using the cadavre exquis as our model. That exercise led me to appreciate the conjunctive elements of scholarly endeavor, rather than simply to pretend that, for instance, a book emanates from a singular monastic researcher. At the same time, I had also been writing about performances, novels, science exhibits, and other cultural artifacts. All were concerned with racially marked populations and some used “body parts” in their compositions, for instance, wielding human detritus as art material or referring to fleshly organs in their titles. I discovered that these Asian American artists were not simply responding to how racial violence occurs through the assertion of anatomical difference between “colored” and “white” people—differences not simply in hair texture and skin color, but in diet, endurance, pain threshold, and so forth—they were also responding to the way in which biotechnology was changing Enlightenment notions about the integrity and autonomy of the human organism.

André Breton credited games like the cadavre exquis with bringing about something unexpected—a “pooling” of creativity and knowledge, perhaps an early intimation of what is now called “crowd sourcing.” That description seemed an apt figure, encapsulating the way my book had grown from an engagement with racial profiling tied to external features and body parts to an examination of such profiling in relation to risk assessments of populations based on genetic, metabolic, endocrinological, and environmental regulation.

It is argued in the book that a biosocial/biopolitical perspective would shed new light on the literary study of race (Asian American in this case). How did you first arrive at this approach?

The literature on biopolitics and biosociality—which I became familiar with through anthropologies and sociologies of medicine—helped me understand the gap between those who were studying embodiment on the scale of perception and corporeal dynamics and those who were studying it more sociologically, as properties and propensities of bodies aggregated into types. We can think of these as an approach that starts from inside a particular, situated body and an approach that starts from outside, looking over a crowd of bodies. As I explain in the first chapter of my book, literary artifacts often focalize their stories through the perspectives of individual protagonists.

In the case of canonical literature by racial subjects, readers who take up these books vicariously see from the viewpoint of these racially specific characters, taking on their speech inflections, and understanding or sympathizing with the traps of these characters’ own and others’ making. This approach corresponds to the anatomical-political register of biopower—how individual bodies feel the effects of (and partially defy) the managerial, biopolitical aspects of biopower codified in institutions such as the the legislature, the courts, the health clinic, the army, the Taylorized workplace, the credit and finance sector, and so forth. Public policy and the law necessarily address social problems–such as harm caused by institutional bias against racial others, the disabled, and sexual minorities, for instance–in terms of broad edicts aimed at ensuring classes of individuals are not singled out for unfair treatment. In other words, legal and policy discourses necessarily “abstract” individuals into populational patterns, but who wouldn’t feel that his/her individual instance of tragicomedy has not been heard in the broad edicts of these bureacracies? It is the desire to be in a particular body, or the riveting concreteness of a particular body’s story, that finds us looking to literature.

Apparently your study examines not only literature, but also various art forms. Is it pushing your own boundaries as a literary scholar?

Since the completion of my first book in 1999, I had been working on the difference between scripts treated as literary texts and live performances on the stage. Indeed, in my earlier work on standup comedienne Margaret Cho, the archived ‘text’ of a live performance was not a written transcript but a DVD. When working on performance, one pays attention not simply to the verbal emanations of the performer, but to the communicative and tonal qualities of gesticulating arms, crouched legs, pointed toes, sweat streaks, facial grimaces, costume, etc. I suppose you could say that I spent the first decade of the 2000s pushing my boundaries as a transdisciplinary scholar, not simply in terms of taking stage performances as part of my archive but also in my consideration of visual media and other forms of visual-tactile interfaces enabled by electronic platforms. Perhaps the biggest boundary I have recently pushed is that between bioscientific and humanistic approaches. However, here I am grateful to be following in the footsteps of brilliant feminist science and technology scholars such as Donna Haraway, Banu Subramaniam, Hannah Landecker, and Elizabeth Wilson.

Why did you choose the specific cases of Cheng-Chieh Yu’s dance theater, Margaret Cho’s stand-up comedy, Amitav Ghosh’s novel, and Denise Uyehara’s performance art?

The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America is also an experiment in various modes of critical writing. My introduction, first chapter, final chapter, and epilogue are all driven by argument and theory. There, I use examples from literature, scientific exhibit, clinical practice, and visual design and art in aggregate, as it were— meaning their force of evidence lies in the sum of their effect. In four chapters on the artists identified above, I ruminate at length on each artist’s corpus, dwelling in the minutiae of their choreographies, multi-media art practices, narrative structures, and pedagogical commitments. The goal is to draw out what ethical and political practices they accomplish—and urge us to accomplish—through their work. There are numerous ways in which the works of the four primary artists overlap and could be explored, but I didn’t want the length of the book to be too forbidding. For instance, while I expressly explore the boundaries among species—microorganisms and their insect and vertebrate hosts—through Amitav Ghosh’s fiction, I could also have turned to dancer Cheng-Chieh Yu, who has a series of dance performances devoted to the animal-human divide; these dances convey a sense that the movements of Chinese martial arts and the pharmacopeia of Chinese medicine acknowledge the continuity of humans and other animals. Similarly, both Margaret Cho and Denise Uyehara (both queer actresses) have recently turned to the topic of having babies; nonetheless, I felt Uyehara’s earlier work on disability and incarceration was far more pressing to address.

Lastly, you mentioned the hope to “provoke a new symbiont species of inquiry.” Would you consider The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America successful at doing so?

Immodestly, I’d love to say yes, but future readers will have to answer that question! Perhaps the best I can do is point to how biotechnology on a daily basis is disaggregating and reaggregating our body parts in ever new ways. Biotechnology now allows for something called the “three-parent embryo,” basically the altering of one’s offspring’s cellular materials, such as mitochondria, while maintaining that offspring’s genetic (nuclear DNA) tie to the parent. While the three-parent embryo is not a new species (all the parts combining are from one species), it nevertheless might do as a figure that is good to think with in our current moment. Such new combinations in and across bodies are coming into being because of well-funded infrastructures enabling their realization. My book aspires to be a more modest infrastructure, enabling analogous new inquisatorial combinations across bodies of disciplinary inquiry.

We might also take a cue from artists, poets, novelists, and standup comedians themselves, who are not leaving the social and ethical implications of these new technologies up to the biotech industry, but are speculating and imagining multiple futures emerging from these changes. Asian American Studies, race studies, literary studies, and American Studies, whether in a symbiont or three-parent embryo manner, would do well to amplify their engagements with bioscience in order to continue the work of critical race studies, social justice, and ethical pedagogy in relation to these developments.

Rachel C. Lee is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at UCLA. She is the author of The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation, co-editor of the volume Asian America.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace, and editor of the Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature and Culture.

The satiric lesson of ‘Dear White People’

—Pamela Newkirk

[This article originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Rarely is a white audience afforded a lucid and freewheeling response to the deluge of indignities blacks still endure. Instead, reaction to the barrage of stereotypes embodied in many Tyler Perry films, the one-dimensional depiction of blacks in news or reality television, or whites’ insulting appropriation and commodification of a hard-earned black urban culture, is seldom considered.

Now Dear White People, appropriately set on an elite and predominantly white university campus, delivers a timely and barely satiric lesson on why, for many blacks, tensions continue to simmer beneath the nation’s facade of racial harmony and transcendence. The film’s writer-director, Justin Simien, lays out an ambitious lesson plan to reveal how racial stereotypes play out on an elite campus that claims to celebrate diversity.

Inclusion in such settings typically means a small number of blacks fitting into preconceived notions of who and what they are. And for many, the stereotype of black life—of a monolithic, urban slang-wielding group that glorifies criminality and crass consumerism—is more salient than the reality of black individuality.

So many conflate blackness with an underachieving urban underclass that, for some white filmgoers, it’ll come as a surprise that blacks don’t wish to be viewed as products of street culture. Nor do they relish the curiosity of whites who touch their hair or inquire about its texture, manageability, or authenticity. The individuality and dignity readily accorded whites are often denied blacks, so few African-Americans manage to escape some of the slights deftly depicted on screen.

Even at elite colleges, many high-achieving African-Americans are often addressed by their white peers as if aliens from a rap video, rather than as fellow classmates from similar or even more-privileged backgrounds. Why white students feel entitled to use the N-word, or to affect urban slang when greeting their black classmates, is both confounding and yet all too familiar.

One character in Dear White People, a prototypical nerd and gay writer, is assumed to be a member of the Black Student Union and to live in black housing when in reality he feels as alienated by many blacks as he does by the larger culture. A girl from the South Side of Chicago is so determined to fit in that she conforms to a narrowly prescribed, self-deprecating role; while the main character, Sam White, is the agitator whose provocative campus radio show, Dear White People, not only catalogs the daily slights but lashes back. In one show she mockingly counsels: “Dear White People, don’t dance.” But behind the scowl is the pain and frustration of a sensitive aspiring filmmaker who privately favors the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman over Spike Lee.

While Sam speaks for the black students, she is understood best by her perceptive white boyfriend. He alone among the characters sees and fully appreciates the person beneath the skin. It is here where we are granted a close-up look at the intricate dance that is race, the complicated series of endlessly variable calculations that defy neat categories or lazy shorthand. It’s all covered, sometimes tumbling all at once from the screen with such velocity that one may at times miss the subtlety.

What becomes clear is that the central black characters are anything but the interchangeable cartoon cutouts they are in the imaginations of their white—and sometimes their black—peers. The cost of acceptance in predominantly white settings is often great, as is the temptation to insist that America has come so far on the racial front that whites can be considered the new victims of discrimination who can mindlessly evoke black stereotypes for fun.

In the end it’s not their race that unites these highly individual black students at the proverbial cafeteria table, but rather the barrage of indignities that effectively obliterates their differences. It’s the persisting erasure—the inability to see them as unique individuals—that cuts so deeply.

Recognition or even denial may account for some of the uneasy laughter I heard in the Upper West Side theater where I was among an age- and racially-diverse New York audience. Not all will agree that the filmmaker’s incisive critique is justified, but this film is certain to be discussed, on campuses and elsewhere, for many weeks and years to come.

Pamela Newkirk is Professor of Journalism at New York University. She is the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media (NYU Press, 2012).

‘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.