Thursday, March 12, 2015

Journalism (and Knishes)

If you're ever interviewed by the press, or if you're intimately familiar with a topic covered by the press, odds are you'll be grievously disappointed with the results. I've seen this from both ends, having worked as a journalist and also been an interview subject many, many times. From the journalist's perspective, no subject is ever happy unless they've been showered with unmitigated praise. And even highly-praised subjects might hate the results. One of the first restaurants I reviewed - extremely favorably - tried to poison me.

I'd raved mightily about them, and they managed to figure out who I was. When I returned a few weeks after publication, I found the place uncharacteristically mobbed, and the owner solicitous and thankful. But he did point out, with poorly concealed pique, an error in the driving directions included within my article. What's more, I'd noted that they hadn't drawn the crowd they amply deserved (the owner had previously told me he was on the verge of closing down). "You made us look pathetic," he seethed. On my next visit, I queued up for takeout while the owner pretended to be immersed in his work. I waved to get his attention, just to say hello, and he growled, without looking up, "I'm busy here, Jim, and I really can't give any customer special VIP priority." Stupidly, I made the mistake of returning a third time (hey, their food was great). I kept my head down, hoping for a smooth purchase and exit. When I got my order home, I noticed that (obviously) rotten food had been tossed into my sandwich.

That was in my first year as a writer, and while I didn't fully understand it at the time, I eventually learned it wasn't a fluke. The only thing people hate more than obscurity is press. Go figure.

But there are reasons:

1. Reporters are scavengers. They zoom in, they write, and they're off to the next story. They can't absorb more than a superficial acquaintance; the goal is sufficient savvy to inform readers, not to impress you, the insider, with the deep faithfulness of their account. They're sketchers, not portrait painters.

2. No one ever views you as you see yourself. In everyday life, one is shielded from this disjoint, because politeness precludes friends and family from showering you with feedback as to how you appear to them and how they interpret your words and deeds. Reporters break these boundaries, and when their view of you fails to line up with your own view of yourself - as it unavoidably must - that's a serious wound (and a gallingly public one, given the masses reading along).

Those two explain the piqued restaurateur. The erroneous directions, due to #1, drove him crazy (how could I botch something so important to him?), and "under-appreciated" wasn't an image he enjoyed seeing in the mirror I'd held up, per #2. But the biggest disjoint, which makes a great many newsworthy folks hate (or at least mistrust) the press, stems from compression. You are saying thousands of words to a journalist who only reports dozens of them. The winnowing amounts to a sort of co-speaking; you've chosen which words to speak, and the journalist chooses for you, as well. That's some awfully close, clammy collaboration! One hears countless complaints about "out of context" quoting, but all quotes are out of context. Whenever many words are spoken but only a few are conveyed, context is inherently lost. Perfect synopsis is impossible.

I offer, as a recent example, an article on knishes I was interviewed for. The writer did a good job; I have no serious complaints. But I thought you might enjoy seeing how the sausage is made. Below is the entirety of our dialog (interesting if you're curious about knishes, specifically, or food history and culture, generally). The completed article is here, but I'd suggest reading through the following first. You'll see how co-speaking happens (via journalist's choices) and how perfect synopsis is impossible. Again, I'm not complaining. The writer did a good job; my point is that these issues are intrinsic to journalism.

The following is very lightly edited:


I'm working on an article about knishes and, in my research, read an NYT article from 2003~ that quoted you on the dismal quality of street knishes.

Was wondering if we could talk some more about those feelings?


Sure, Chris.

I consider it a homonym situation. There are two things called “knish”, both spelled and pronounced the same way, that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. There’s the knishes made for centuries in Eastern Europe (lets call them, for convenience, ur-knishes), and there’s a product - an object - created by a company called Gabila that has nothing to do with those, and which they happened to brand as a “knish”. Since ur-knishes hadn’t penetrated American mainstream consciousness to any serious extent, it was easy for most people to link the name to the Gabilla objects.

Nothing wrong with that. And if they were delicious, you’d hear no objections from me. But they’re not delicious. They’ve a convenience item invented by some dude trying to move product, not by an innovative chef creating “a new wrinkle on an old tradition” or anything like that. But delicious or not, something that does not belong to a class of things can’t be magically made to inhabit that class simply by naming it so. Branding is powerful, but it can’t achieve that. Nowadays, culinary historians (and just regular avid eaters) will tell you there are two varieties of knishes. It’s not the case. A very slight tail wags a very substantial dog.

Consider: if I took supermarket corn-toaster-cakes and dusted them with powdered cheddar and shelf stabilized them and used marketing muscle to sell them under the name “Pupusa”, we couldn’t say that from that moment on there are now two varieties of pupusas…..even if lots of people bought my shitty creation. Foodways morph and transform and branch, yes, but it’s an organic process. Some corporate meshuginah in Brooklyn doesn't make it happen via a penstroke. Gabila just copped the name, nothing more. This did not create a fork in the road of a rich culinary tradition.

Just because somebody sold chocolate under the name “vanilla", it would take a thoroughly silly taxonomist to expand vanilla’s definition/classification to accommodate this.

The interesting about knishes is that they are a rare “land bridge” between ashkenazic and sephardic cultures. If you follow the gastro-geography from Poland/Ukraine to India, you see that samosa-like objects start appearing early in that journey. The “samsas” of Uzbekistan progress through the sambosas of Afghanistan/Tajikistan and eventually wend their way into the familiar South Asian item. A potato knish, dowdy and eastern-european though it appears, is just the northernmost outcropping of an Asia Minor foodway.


This might be stretching it, but do you have any thoughts on why the ur-knish didn't penetrate mainstream American consciousness? It's certainly an object of great affection, longing, and meaning for New York Jews but it never really achieved the crossover appeal of the bagel or, less so, the bialy.

I do feel like the pervasiveness of the Gabila's square knish probably turned a lot of people off to the food and the possibility that knishes could be good. There has to be an explanation for why knishes didn't quite make it, because of how important they were and, well, the appeal of a good one is pretty obvious and it's not an unusual food. Everybody eats dough wrapped around something.


This might be stretching it, but do you have any thoughts on why the ur-knish didn't penetrate mainstream American consciousness? It's certainly an object of great affection, longing, and meaning for New York Jews but it never really achieved the crossover appeal of the bagel or, less so, the bialy.

It’s a peculiar question. Is there an expectation that foreign traditions ought to permeate our culture? Why have Celtic music, Iranian film, Argentinian tango - all completely accessible and lovable - not grown omnipresent in American consciousness?

It’s because it’s a big world, and different places stress different things. That’s why we travel. That’s why we explore. It’s a delight, not a problem, that the world has not homogenized.

When something does make that jump - bagels, sushi, anime - that’s the exception rather than the rule. But it’s not like football play-offs; the worthiest don’t make the cut via a series of trials. Stuff just sneaks in. Borders are porous. It’s an organic process. One can trace why tacos did make it, but there’s no explaining why knishes didn’t. Yes, they’re delicious (when right), but a great many things are delicious when right. What, for example, is more delicious than Chinese Zongzi? Yet how many Americans have even heard of them?

That said, the presence of a disgusting, highly-commercialized item bearing the same name absolutely confused the development of brand awareness. So I’m with you on that. Markets are easily confused (hence trademark law), and Gabilla certainly poisoned that well.

But there are no trade groups for basic foodways. It’s not an angle anyone “works”. Stuff seeps in via osmosis or it doesn’t. Usually it doesn’t (and, again, that’s a feature, not a bug).

But you know what? I had a decent knish (round and proper) from an Italian deli in Putnam County yesterday. That may not represent the apotheosis of prevalence, but the place wasn’t selling pupusas or mamaliga or zongzi or Burmese thousand layer pancake or any of ten million other foodways Americans would instantly cotton to.

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