The Digest

The Appetites of Phantom Thread & Other News

28th January 2018

Words: James Hansen

In this week’s round-up of the best online food writing: the myth of quick-browning onions, feeding 10 billion people, and the voice of America’s food culture

Helen Rosner reveals the truth behind Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Phantom Thread. It’s a food film. Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) has the finickiest of appetites, a misophonic aversion to the scrape of butter on toast, and uses his wilful, “suffocating precision” to exert power over everyone in his life. Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), who turns the power games of the kitchen to her advantage, subverting the power that Woodcock seeks to exert in owning her wardrobe. As Rosner outlines with typical precision: “Taking on the responsibility of feeding someone, or affecting the way he feeds himself, can be warfare, a game of power and control.” Pair with a piece referenced in Rosner’s: John Reed tells a story of love and food and sickness at Vice.

Tom Scocca interrogates the lies that lie behind recipes at Slate in a piece from 2012 that resurfaced this week. “Soft, dark brown onions in five minutes. That is a lie. Fully caramelized onions in five minutes more. Also a lie. There is no other word for it. Onions do not caramelize in five or 10 minutes. They never have, they never will—yet recipe writers have never stopped pretending that they will.” Behind the myth are the competing forces that go into making recipes: tasty food, ease of use, and, in this case, inaccessible speed.


Michaele Weissman interviews Francis Lam, host of The Spendid Table podcast and food editor at large. “Like other children of immigrants, Lam had two identities. He was an American kid in love with pop culture, music and football. He was also a Chinese American son with a profound sense of familial obligation. As he matured, his awareness of his parents’ sense of dislocation grew, and he understood that he was both like them and different from them.” This perspective is traced through the profile, which covers Lam’s measured approach to “authenticity”, his crescendoing laugh, and his key philosophy: “‘It’s important,’ he says, ‘not to yuck on anybody’s yum.'”

Charles Mann asks questions of the planet’s food future in The Atlantic. Two competing philosophies claim they can save the world: apocalyptic environmentalism, which advocates cutting back, and techno-optimism, which says that advances in science and technology will keep things alive. This schism has marked the conversations about the future that have grown more urgent year on year; “the disagreement at bottom is about the nature of agriculture—and, with it, the best form of society.” While Mann’s analysis is thorough, his conclusion is frightening: the two arguments are so skewed against each other that a joined-up solution still appears to be a pipe dream. There’s an intriguing intersection this week: David Barber, brother of Blue Hill chef Dan, has created a tech fund for solving these problems.

Image: Phantom Thread/Focus Features

Posted 28th January 2018

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

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