Readers respond to Charles Taylor's "Trauma Culture" and Laura Calder's "Recipe for Boredom."

Published December 21, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Read "Trauma Culture."

It seems strikingly clear to me. Why not to everyone? What the world needs is not more religion, but less. Any time a horrible act is committed, there is always a religious link. Either directly (World Trade Center) or indirectly (Oklahoma City via Waco) religion is always there.

-- Joy Williams

"Timothy McVeigh's vicious imagination could transform the workers at the Murrah Building into representatives of the government he hated. It only affirms his twisted logic to claim that they were patriots willing to die for their country when in fact they were simply civilians just going about their lives. (It also affirms Osama bin Laden's logic to say that the victims of Sept. 11 died because of U.S. foreign policy or, as that bloated charlatan Michael Moore claimed, for the right of Nike to sell sneakers.)"

I bet Charles Taylor found Bush II's "terrorists hate freedom" to be an insightful and complete explanation, too. Judging from the sentences I quote above, he's certainly not someone who spends time thinking about the implications of "civilians just going about their lives."

The late psychiatrist Eric Berne put forward a little parable in which a young man came home one evening all excited -- he'd gotten a big promotion! His mother congratulated and praised him, and they celebrated by having a bottle of wine at dinner. Ordinary people "just going about their lives," right?

Should we care that the young man was a guard at a Nazi concentration camp? It doesn't matter to him or his mother, obviously, but should it matter to us? How should we relate to him? Congratulate him? Condemn him? Pity him? What?

Michael Moore looks past the surface appearance of "civilians just going about their lives" to the meaning of that uncritical, uncaring acceptance of The Way Things Are. "The right of Nike to sell sneakers" is that deeper meaning. The right of Nike to sell sneakers, the right of the wealthy to ignore the votes of the poor in Florida, the right of the few to exploit the many. And if Charles Taylor doesn't like hearing it from Moore, I'd urge him to do a Web search on "racketeer for capitalism" and try to impeach the character of that speaker.

Will enough of us ever think about the implications of our being "civilians just going about [our] lives"?

-- Dismayed in Boston

I found Charles Taylor's article on the narratives of death around Oklahoma City very interesting. However, I think I have the word that Charles could not locate when referring to the civilian workers murdered at Oklahoma City, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. It is true that they are not "heroes." Heroes make a choice to face death. The firefighters and police officers and soldiers and men who wrestled that plane to the ground in Pennsylvania are heroes. They saw the possibilities of their deaths and made their choices to serve their country in the face of those possibilities.

The civilian workers didn't have that choice. They never saw their deaths coming. Those people are properly referred to as "martyrs." One of the meanings that my Merriam-Webster's dictionary lists for martyr is "a great or constant sufferer." The people who died in that building and on the planes were certainly "great sufferers." In addition, martyr carries a connotation of someone who dies for their identity or for their ideology. While these folks, unlike Christian martyrs, did not voluntarily choose their deaths, they have suffered greatly simply because they are Americans or living in America.

-- Dawn Kamadulski O'Leary

Read "Recipe For Boredom."

Surely you jest.

Granted, cookbooks don't overflow with poetry these days. They're technical manuals. When I'm in the kitchen with an enormous salmon, up to my earlobes in citrus trying to get the perfect gravalax, I'm not interested in literary value.

-- Kathleen Donohue

I have to disagree with Laura Calder's somewhat elitist critique of modern cookbooks. Some of us simply don't know how to cook, and aren't, frankly, all that interested in learning. We just want to make something that's nutritious and tasty. For us, it's comforting and useful to have a recipe clearly spelled out in a step-by-step way. After working nine hours, commuting for one, taking care of household chores and doing the grocery shopping, I don't have the luxury of time to experiment. So, boring as it may be, bring on the "recipe executioners"!

-- Suzanne Fischer

It's true that most modern cookbooks are obsessed with exact measurements and declarative sentences. I can't say it bothers me, though, until I start outrunning my spoon and cup measuring devices and then all I can think about is the tedium that awaits when it's time to wash them all.

Meanwhile, when I need to remind myself that great food, great cooking and great literature can come together to produce what is truly great in life, I turn to the inimitable Jack Butler and his "Jack's Skillet: Plain Talk and Some Recipes From a Guy in the Kitchen." He may not clarify the morning dew, but his iron skillet Southern cooking is as real and satisfying as his writing. Should Ms. Calder care to sample the work of a modern master, Jack is her man.

-- Elena Lester

Yes to Laura Calder!

I'm with her 100 percent, especially in her praise of Elizabeth David. While David is best known for her cookbooks and food writing, she was actually an artist who hung about with people like Lawrence Durrell and had a real life: an incredible woman.

Thus her recipes are literature, unlike those of the clog-footed graduates from the modern hotel school. They generally aim only to publish books, get a TV show and retire on the cookware.

-- Fortune Elkins

This article truly piqued my curiosity and motivated me to locate my over-30-year-old copy of the two-volume "The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking Through the Ages" (c. 1968). I had not stained the pages of the accompanying menu and recipes book for far too long. It opened to an article titled, "The Open Door and the Butter Stinkers." Thanks to Laura, I have returned to an old, long-forgotten favorite. Inside, I found memories of making Borschok (delicious and simple with clear friendly directions), risotto (I made this frequently in the '70s ... imagine), pommes de terre soufflés (explains how these were "born" -- made by a French railroad chef who refried potatoes when guests were late for the opening ceremonies of a new rail line) and Salade Olivier (a favorite zakuski of Czar Nicholas II named for his French chef who, by the way, "escaped the fate of his employer and lived out his life as a prosperous restaurateur in Berlin"). There were many wonderful recipes and recollections. I think Laura Calder is on to to something. I like her quirky but down-to-earth sense of humor and she's a good writer on an overwritten topic.

-- Irene Miller

I can't agree more with Laura Calder's assessment of the state of the contemporary cookbook. In my lifetime I have witnessed the late stages of the demise of the American cookbook. It has been reduced from the Practical Household Companion it was in the 1940s to the Lavish Picturebook of the Culinary Arts at the end of the 20th century. Today, it is sometimes impossible to tell a cookbook from a travel book. Both are coffee-table-size, both contain more pictures than words and both seem to push a subtext of snobbish, middle-class social posturing. In an anthropological sense, this demise seems to mirror a long-term shift in the values of our culture-at-large. Compared with earlier decades in our history, we seem to place a much higher "worth" on the measurable and concrete, rather than on that which tends to the ethereal, or to the transcendent.

At its essence, cooking is alchemy. It is concerned with the transformation of matter employing methods that verge on the mystical. The methods we employ reflect our view of ourselves and our relationship with the world in which we live. They also reflect, with great clarity, images of our ever-evolving perceptions and collective psyche; hence the picturebooks we find today.

I found this odd cultural relic woven into a recipe for white sauce in a very formal American cookbook from the early 1900s: "Add one quarter teaspoon of onion juice, if liked." It seems that the author considered onions to be a rather primal, eccentric delight that must be used sparingly, if at all.

In our late 20th century zeal to have "the best of everything," we seem to have lost the soulful essence of the kitchen entirely.

-- Robert Barth

By Letters to the Editor

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