This week, after 167 years, the futures trading pits in Chicago closed down. Computers now handle the work that shouting traders flashing hand signals used to do. I was struck by this part of the story:
“What’s also disappearing is a rich culture of brazen bets, flashy trading jackets and kids just out of high school getting a shot at making it big. The pits were a ruthless place, but they were also a proving ground where education and connections counted for nothing next to drive and, occasionally, muscle.…”
In the United States, where I was born and raised, our relationship to food today seems more distant from our surroundings than ever. We Americans consistently lead the world’s wealthy nations in obesity. Have we forgotten how to nourish ourselves? Where and when did we lose our way?
The co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Dan Barber, offers one theory on America’s problem: it doesn’t have a cuisine. “All cuisines evolved out of a negotiation that the peasants were making with the landscape,” Barber explained in an interview. “Now what could the landscape provide? And how could they make it nutritious and delicious in terms of a diet? That’s the genesis of every cuisine.” In other words, a cuisine is not just a style of cooking; it's “a pattern of eating that supports what the landscape can provide.”
Here is a short piece I wrote recently for a Zócalo Public Square discussion on the question "Is Rising Inequality Slowly Poisoning Our Democracy?" The discussion included experts from the Brennan Center for Justice, Cato Institute, Economic Policy Institute, and Georgetown University Center on Poverty and Inequality.
When Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” half a century ago, he meant it to be an insult, not an ideal. In his view, a society where only the best and brightest can advance would soon become a nightmare. Young predicted that democracy would self-destruct as the talented took power and the inferior accepted their deserved place at the bottom.
Of course, the world we live in today is still no meritocracy. If most Americans are expected to go it alone, without the help of government or unions, elites continue to block competitors and manipulate the rules—as Wall Street did in spectacular fashion in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis.
When an unarmed black man dies after a confrontation with police, there is a natural tendency to focus on racist police officers or racist police departments. We saw this after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and we saw it, too, after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Walter Scott in North Charleston. Without a doubt, there are plenty of bigoted bad apples to be found, as seen in the shockingly racist emails unearthed in the Department of Justice investigation into Ferguson’s police department. But we also need to consider that big picture, or what sociologists call social structure: institutions like the economy and political system and the roles that people take up within them. After all, the modern-day factors pushing down poor African American communities—and pulling them into hostile encounters with police—involve more than just racial discrimination (or at least discrimination of the plain-vanilla variety).
In The Fray magazine is looking for essays, reportage, and photo essays that have something to say about free speech—its importance and its limits, its necessity and its consequences. When does cultural sensitivity become excessive political correctness and censorship? To what extent does free speech make a democracy more vibrant, and to what extent does it make a culture more hateful?
When I was growing up in suburban Maryland, every fall would bring a familiar sound. Thud, thud, thud!—chestnuts falling in their hardy armor. My mom and I would gather them up and roast them. I loved peeling away the smooth veneer and eating the sweet, still-warm fruit nestled inside, like nature’s Ferrero Rocher.
I was not, however, so fond of the way in which we procured our chestnuts.
My mom hunted for them on suburban lawns. This was during the nineties—before foraging was a way of life, before it entered the lexicon of popular (now mainstream) “foodie” movements, before bearded chefs in Brooklyn were cooking local and seasonal. My mom and I wandered into people’s yards, into patches of wooded private land, and picked up chestnuts by the plastic shopping bagful.
“Mom, this is probably illegal,” I would tell her, hoping my protests would get me out of the chore. What if someone I knew from school saw us? Would they think we were poor, that we couldn't afford food from a store?
The following are the best pieces published in In The Fray this year, as chosen by the editors.
Each year I go through the motions of Christmas, rarely ever feeling fully present. I spend the days leading up to the holiday cooking for my family and baking for my neighbors. I send out Christmas cards. I purchase whatever gifts I can afford. I spend the nights sipping bourbon, wrapping presents, and wondering why the holiday doesn't fill me with the kind of joy and lightheartedness we see in movies. Then the day arrives and I remember why: my family can be intolerable.
I realize you’re not supposed to say that. To be clear, I don’t mean “intolerable” in a cute, bickering, loud kind of way. I mean that since my mom died, I’m the lone woman in a family populated by troubled white and brown men—white and brown men who seem to only be capable of bonding over one thing: antiblack racism.
I had no friend quite like Ed. We also hated each other.
He was with me all the time. He knew all my secrets. When I was in high school, all I wanted was to be perfect. At 5:30 a.m. I would run six miles. Then, after school, I would study until 10 p.m., breaking only for dinner. I always had to get an A. He understood why I would wrap my hips and abdomen in duct tape to keep it all in, so that my tight pants would fit perfectly and no amount of fat could bubble over the top.
When we had meals together, he would reassure me that it was okay to eat only fruits and vegetables. He would agree when I would say, “I'm fat, I need to lose weight.” He saw what I saw in the mirror.
Last week when my two young nieces were in town, we went to a local theater to watch Jorge R. Gutierrez’s The Book of Life, an animated children’s film that is part heavy-handed love story, part love letter to Día de de los Muertos, the holiday on which those who have died are celebrated, a ritual that goes back 3,000 years. On NPR, journalist Karen Castillo Farfán wrote that the practice was developed by the Aztecs, who believed one should not grieve the loss of a beloved ancestor who passed. Instead, “the Aztecs celebrated their lives and welcomed the return of their spirits to the land of the living once a year.”
The Book of Life is one big visual representation of everything we have come to associate with the holiday: “dark” Mexican folk art, sugar skulls, papel picado in every color, and altars adorned with seven-day candles, orange marigolds, and pan dulce. The movie is bright and visually stunning, despite being about death—and the same could be said about Día de los Muertos.
"Frenemies": friends with fewer benefits. It's often an apt term to describe our working lives, where polite interactions mask fierce competition. But it applies to other domains as well: from the love-hate relationships of siblings and lovers, to the tangled web of international relations (take, for example, longtime allies Germany and the US, recently in a bitter spat over American espionage). Yet having a frenemy is not necessarily a bad thing. Musical rivalries produce great songs (see the hit musical Beautiful). One-time political opponents sometimes become the most formidable of allies (see Bush v. Gore veterans/gay-marriage crusaders David Boies and Ted Olson).
Yesterday, the world lost one of its great talents. Robin Williams was found dead in his home Monday from an apparent suicide. The sadness of his loss is matched only by the joy he brought the world over his life.
While early obituaries I've read have lauded his acting triumphs (i.e., Good Will Hunting, Dead Poet's Society), equally important to my childhood were Robin Williams' less acclaimed works, from Jumanji (50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) to Hook (31 percent) to Flubber (23 percent). Few actors have achieved such generational impact, making his death all the more painful.