Archive for the ‘food’ Tag

California notebook: New highs, new lows

dojeradicationSan Francisco’s Tom Ammiano, a former city supervisor turned state assemblyman, wants to go green to help bail out the state from fiscal crisis. His plan would boost weed farms not wind farms. He introduced a bill Monday to legalize recreational marijuana and regulate it in a manner similar to alcohol, with a potential tax windfall of more than $1 billion. (The fragrant green stuff is thought to be a $14 billion cash crop in the state. Then there’s the potential savings in law enforcement costs in the hundreds of millions.) Not likely to fly, despite California’s reputation for cutting-edge policy and a devastating $42 billion deficit. But credit the San Francisco maverick for thinking creatively in a time of crisis. And credit the political opposition with the Most Mangled Cliché Award — said Calvina Fay, executive director of Save Our Society From Drugs, in the LA Times: “This would open another door in Pandora’s box.” (What’s she been smokin’?)

It’s been raining in the Bay Area for almost a week straight, happy news after a bone-dry January. But 2009 is on track for a third straight year of drought in California, with reservoirs still sitting at alarmingly low levels. It’s not just the prospect of shorter showers and less lush front lawns. As Jesse McKinley reported on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times, the twin calamity of recession and drought is hitting the Central Valley, the nation’s biggest agricultural engine, hard. Even as your income may be headed south, you’ll soon be paying more if you want almonds and avocados.

The once venerable San Francisco Chronicle may be the next casualty of the besieged newpaper industry. The paper lost more than $50 million in 2008 and is on pace to fare worse this year. Its owner, the Hearst Corporation, is demanding deeper cuts among an already downsized staff. If that doesn’t stem the tide of red ink, Hearst execs say, “we will have no choice but to quickly seek a buyer for The Chronicle, and, should a buyer not be found, to shut down the newspaper.” As with many others the publication’s reporting capacity has been shriveling as it struggles to survive the industry’s upheaval. But San Francisco without its oldest and largest newspaper? At the very least, another clarion call for digital journalism 3.0 to really get cranking.

Update: David Cay Johnston explains how the Chronicle, tellingly, failed to report adequately on its own serious situation.


Against the gratuitous cheeseburger

I’m a fan of cheeseburgers. I’m also a fan of the singer Neko Case. I haven’t the faintest idea, however, as to how the two are connected.

And yet, here they are, dished up together in the lead paragraph of a long profile of Case published in Sunday’s Times Magazine:

“I wish I had a tremolo,” Neko Case said. She looked at the Samburger she was wolfing down — Samburgers and Zinburgers being the specialties of a restaurant called Zinburger, in downtown Tucson, where Case lives, for now. With their maple bacon, American cheese and Thousand Island dressing, Samburgers are a cardiothoracic surgeon’s dream. Case had been talking about singers whose music and voices she admired — Iris DeMent and Roy Orbison prominent among them. She now banged her hand on the table, flounced her bright-red hair, leaned over and said, “I want a tremolo!” Then she looked up and laughed at herself.

Why do so many journalists insist on reporting what their subjects (or they themselves) were eating at the time of an interview? What do such cheeseburgers, delectable as they sound, have to do with the price of peanuts in Paducah? (Note that the reference to cardiothoracic surgery lends no real relevance to the cheeseburger, as the article gives no reason to think Case has suffered physical impediments to her singing.) What follows is a serviceable if somewhat overwrought 4,300-word portrait of the indie rock vocalist from the Pacific Northwest.

The above cheeseburger moment exemplifies one of the laziest tics in journalism, about as ubiquitous as In-N-Out Burger is along the California interstate. This may seem an esoteric criticism of the writer-editor sort, but I bring it up foremost in defense of the attentive reader. Describe to me the details of a cheeseburger, particularly at the outset, and I’m inclined to think that’s one rather important cheeseburger. Until I’m left only half-wondering, “Can I get some fries with that?”


Veteran journalist and author Sam Freedman contends with the problem in his incisive book, Letters to a Young Journalist. If an article begins with an appropriate anecdotal scene, he writes, it should lead inexorably into the broader themes and content. “I’ve read far too many leads over the years that described someone sitting back in a chair and taking a pensive drag on a cigarette. That scene only matters if you’re writing about lung cancer or tobacco litigation.”

Great journalism can be drizzled with evocative details. But its essence is still focused and lean. It gets to the point. Anything else in the mix is just indulgent calories, perhaps tasteful only to the person who served them up.