rub me! truss me! eat me!

FOOD MAGAZINES GO ALL OUT FOR THE HOLIDAYS; UPDIKE'S HEAVY BREATHING IN THE NYRB.


James Poniewozik
November 20, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

1-900-PILGRIM - - - >

It's November, and time again for amateur chefs to dust off the french fried onions as family members converge by the hearth, hoist a cup of cheer and gather 'round the table to fuck the turkey.

Eat! Sorry! It's just that looking at this month's food and shelter magazine covers has got me a little, ahem, worked up. I know it's hardly original to compare food photography with erotica, but the current crop of turkey porn goes beyond mere simile. We're not talking artfully coiffed tagliatelle with shaved truffles here. We're talking crotch shots. Oven-bronzed, greased up drumsticks splayed invitingly, these juicy barnyard bitches are ready to take you on, and Grandma and the kids too. In a country that refuses to believe its much-coveted deli slices and "tenders" come from actual animals, the turkey shoulders a lot of repressed carnality during its once-a-year full-frontal turn, and so it is that the bird appears in Bon Appetit lolling sexily on a beach; in Eating Well bedded on a divan of bulging grapes; in Gourmet sporting a suggestive sage pubic tangle that would have made Georgia O'Keeffe blush.

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These bosomy fowl are baring all, of course, to lure you into the magazines' thick annual flagship issues, drumming up subscribership and newsstand sales as we hunker down for a long winter of gravy drinking. But the rub, contentwise, is that while these trend-driven magazines thrive on the constant cycling of in-and-outgredients, the Thanksgiving feast, like any other Puritan sex ritual, admits of little creativity -- sea to shining sea, it's a rote, missionary-position scrimmage followed by a little tube-watching and a snooze.

A frustrated food editor can but give us our humble turkey and try to jazz things up with the trimmings, which Bon Appetit does by featuring the American West, a land still regularly prospected by starry-eyed Eastern greenhorns for its rich deposits of high-grade myth. The operative myth here is that America is still an idiosyncratic confederation of regions with distinct personalities and tastes rather than one nation under Ocean Spray (a canard that, for example, Jane and Michael Stern's quixotic "Road Food" column in Gourmet disproves by exception). The magazine itself isn't much of a read, though if you ignore the forgettable travel features you'll find several elaborate holiday menus from the Rockies, the Texas Hill Country, California and even Hawaii, where the naughty bird gets a sesame-oil rubdown from "Entertaining" columnists Jinx and Jefferson Morgan.

Oh, and don't forget the Pacific Northwest -- as if you've been able to do so for the past 10 years -- a region that is also ascendant in its cedar-planked, pinot noir glory in the current issue of Gourmet, which earns kudos for daring to present a birdless Thanksgiving dinner featuring salmon. Indeed, it is to Gourmet's credit that, except for its "Happy Thanksgiving" cover and a going-through-the-motions "traditional" menu feature, it gives only perfunctory recognition to the holiday; it knows you're going to roast your frozen Bowlingball like you always do, and it's perfectly willing to wait for you to get back to serious cooking. And serious reading -- instead of simply upping its recipe count, it gives generous space to writers like Alan Richman, grouchily witty in a column on the emergence of fine dining in Israel.

The turkey is madonna and whore to Eating Well, which represents better than its upscale peers the culinary contradictions of the high-carbo '90s. If you want information on great healthful cooking, it's here, and often well presented -- Deborah Madison's vegetarian column is a standout example -- but it appears amid the sort of guilt-ridden tease that has rafts of Americans "dieting" all the way to the bottom of their bushel bags of Baked Tostitos. "Indulge!" "Indulgent!" "Indulging!" the articles enthuse, even as they enumerate fat grams to the decimal place. Here's a real appetite suppressant: Molly O'Neill concludes the issue with another sappy boomer mea culpa for abandoning tradition, bemoaning the lost years when she spurned the bird of our fathers for quail, capon and even tofu (cue up "Turn, Turn, Turn" here).

For the front of her Thanksgiving issue, Martha Stewart, iconographer nonpareil, opts for no bird but rather an oddly mesmerizing centerpiece of bundled wheat. The fragile stalks bound together into a strong column make a simultaneously warming and vaguely literal fascist symbol; when a strong leader finally restores order after the next civil war, bet on Martha to design the new flag. Martha Stewart Living nods to the occasion with a feature spread on Thanksgiving in New England with Brendan Walsh (late of New York restaurant Arizona 206) but, hell, every day's an American holiday with Stewart, as shown in the drop-dead-lovely regular features, with their quasi-religious devotion to Doing One Thing Perfectly, be it knitting or making gourd vases.

It's funny, though -- despite Stewart's marketing as America's ur-traditionalist, her magazine is really the hippest of the lot; for all its celebration of Northeastern rusticity, its overall aesthetic is about as gingham as the Guggenheim Museum's. Thus the focus on decontextualized treasures -- buartnuts, pewter vessels, wildflowers -- all photographed tight and displayed against spare backgrounds with sans-serif labels, so that you could as easily imagine them in your own apartment or split-level as in a New Hampshire farmhouse, as long as you have the resources and, most important, the all-consuming will. The Way of Martha is not about returning to the land, in other words, but conquering it. And they say no one remembers the true meaning of Thanksgiving.

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RABBIT, RUT - - - >

The New York Review of Books (Dec. 4) promises John Updike on the gaunt, clinical nudes of Egon Schiele, showing at the Museum of Modern Art, but don't be fooled -- it's really an essay on the art of John Updike. Granted, you can't even read Updike on, say, sunbathing (Allure, October) without noticing his inward gaze, but this is an apt match of reviewer and material even by NYRB standards. Both men aimed at transcendence by depicting a gross (by conventional standards) sexuality -- Schiele's hairy, inflamed genitalia; Updike's hairy, inflamed New England husbands. Take Updike on Schiele's "Self-Portrait in Black Cloak, Masturbating": "(The painting) makes explicit a quality latent throughout his studies of males: a joyless, quizzical onanism, a morose fondling of a problem." There's more than an angstrom of self-recognition there. Elsewhere, Robert Stone charitably reviews Updike's "Toward the End of Time," the badly received novel that prompted a prepostmortem by David Foster Wallace earlier this fall in the New York Observer and then an op-ed tut-tutting Wallace by Anne Roiphe (whose pitying condescension belittled Updike far more than a respectful and well-reasoned pan like Wallace's ever could).

META-HOT LIVE PARANOIA - - - >

Remember Time magazine's cover story about pornography on the Internet? Remember the media hand-wringing the issue engendered over its sensationalism and acceptance of specious information? Remember the deer-in-the-headlights photo of a small child washed in the lurid glow of a monitor? Well, why should you if Newsweek doesn't? The special issue Computers and the Family reprises the image on page 14, its popeyed tot sporting a devil and angel on either shoulder. The "Coping with the Internet" feature it accompanies includes a sidebar rating porn-blocking software; it also notes that "the Net is packed with lies, inaccuracies, and hoaxes." Meanwhile, an editorial denounces "quill-and-parchment-era" constitutional freedoms and calls for a family-friendly military protectorate to aid overwhelmed parents and their vulnerable children. Ha! Just kidding on that last one, kids! Kids?

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James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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