Location, Location, Location

Hi, everyone. I’m at it again. Getting ready to release another novel, probably late this year. I’m a little nervous because it’s a genre I’ve never published in before—in the thriller family, a near-future dystopia. I’ll share more about it as we get closer, but I want to start with where some of the scenes are set. One in particular.

Whenever possible, I like to set the scenes of my stories in geographical locales where I’ve lived or visited. It makes me feel like I can write from a stronger place if I’ve walked the streets, breathed the air, absorbed the energy—which is not so easy to do when your book is set thirty years in the future and during a war. I can leave some location details generic, but where I can, I really want to show the world that the characters inhabit.

Most of The Kitchen Brigade takes place in New York’s Hudson Valley. A key scene occurs at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. (Yes, Franklin Roosevelt’s Hyde Park.) I live about forty minutes away, and I’ve been to what the locals call “The Culinary” several times. Usually, those trips have involved parking in the main lot, walking to one of their many wonderful restaurants, then going home…maybe after a stop at the bookstore. But I’ve never prowled the campus, walked the halls the way a student or a faculty member might. And that’s what I needed to do.

So last week, I got myself and my camera over to the CIA to do a little scouting. It was fun, and the employees and students were so helpful. I’m glad made the trip, because in my rediscovery, I found that I had a few important details wrong.

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Roth Hall, Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY

I remembered that the main building, Roth Hall, houses most of the kitchens, so that’s what I’d focused on when I wrote the early drafts of the manuscript. I had a vague recollection of a giant atrium in the center of the building, from which rose a huge, open staircase and a big balcony overlooking said space.

Not so much.

Here’s my “giant atrium”:

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Here’s my “balcony”:

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The building is beautiful, but I don’t know how I got the details so wrong! Fortunately, I didn’t need to completely tear the scene apart. It’s a historical building, so I didn’t expect that it would look appreciably different thirty years from now, but I presumed it might have upgraded kitchens and security features. Or at least it was convenient for me to add them.

Before I go, I wanted to show you one of my favorite spaces. I can just imagine sitting out on this courtyard with a cocktail while I’m waiting for my reservation.

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Or, maybe I’ll just wander around the halls.

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Table for two?

Thank you for reading.

The Fonts of Our Lives

Have you noticed a subtle shift in the use of typography in supermarkets lately? Probably not, because, like most people, you’re more concerned about what’s in the box rather than what’s on the box. Or, unlike me, you have not been indoctrinated by a career in graphic design into the habit of identifying every font that you see. This especially annoys people in movie theaters when I randomly call out, “Gill Sans,” or “Memphis Bold” when the opening and closing credits roll.

I’ve tried to stop doing that, even though I secretly wonder which is more annoying in theaters: hordes of people texting in the dark, errant ringing cell phones, or my typographical Tourette’s.

Let’s go back to the supermarket, shall we? Grab a cart. No, you may not have a candy bar. But take a look at that box of cereal, or crackers, or macaroni and cheese. We’re going sans serif. Serifs are the little “feet” that appear on the ends of the letters. Times Roman, for example, is a serif font. Helvetica is a sans serif font. Historically, and as measured by studies of ease of reading, sans serif fonts are often used for headlines and subheads while serif fonts are often used for body copy, as they have been judged more readable in blocks. Serif fonts are really cool, in my opinion. I love the grace note they put on a character, and how various shapes and flavors denote different periods of history.

But this is not a lesson in typography. I’ll save that for others who are currently working in the field, or for me, when I run out of ideas. This is more about what the Internet has been doing to our eyes, as well as our social discourse and our culture.

I’ve written before on what turns me off about people’s websites, and some of those reasons have to do with typographical choices. But I never thought that the Internet itself, and our reading habits, could change typography. For instance, when using white text on black background (which is a total bitch for anyone who no longer has twenty-year-old eyes), serifs tend to melt into the page and disappear. They also disappear on certain types of screens. Clever marketers, studying the various screens of our lives, have seen a pattern. Extrapolating into a two-hundred-slide PowerPoint presentation unveiled at a conference in an undisclosed location (Akron, Ohio), they have deemed sans serif fonts to be old-fashioned, frumpy, and altogether the domain of “losers” who still gather their information from words printed on dead-tree pulp and would not deign to purchase an electronic reading-type device unless the price dropped below a certain level or they received one as a gift. (Or so I’ve been told. Now that I’m out of the field, I’ve been blacklisted, and even had to return my pica pole and vow to erase the secret handshake from my memory.)

Therefore, packages of crackers and cookies are now devoid of serifs, those nasty, dated, printers’ nightmares, and now sport a clean, modern design, and what has been shown in focus groups to be a younger look. Never thought that buying a package of saltines can make you look younger, did you? Skip that four-hundred-dollar face cream and the Botox injections and just fill your grocery cart with Saltines and Oreos.

I feel younger already.

Food Fight on the Fourth

Every Independence Day since 1916, Nathan’s Famous has sponsored their International Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island. But don’t for a minute think these contestants are simply a bunch of big dudes who can pack away a lot of food. This is serious business. They call themselves “competitive eaters” (I only thought this referred to trying to get seconds on Thanksgiving before my (at the time) teenaged stepbrothers devoured the whole spread.) Most belong to an organization called Major League Eating, and membership is required if you want to belly up to the barbecue at the Coney Island gorge fest.

Reigning champion is Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, who once packed away sixty-eight hot dogs and buns in ten minutes. He is the perennial favorite in these competitions, and he doesn’t stop with frankfurters: he once ate over nine pounds of deep-fried asparagus spears in ten minutes, among other stomach-churning feats.

This year’s Coney Island culinary sprint, however, is going to be a little different. For the first time, women will have their own division. They claim that men have a competitive advantage by being larger, although some of these women, (including Sonya “Black Widow” Thomas, who once downed thirty-six dogs and buns) are no slouches when it comes to shoving food down their gullets. This gives women an opportunity to earn the competition’s coveted “Mustard Yellow International Belt” and prize money.

While part of me welcomes gender equality in competitions of wretched excess, the other part thinks this is ridiculous, dangerous, and another example of why certain people in certain parts of the world hate us. Especially the ones who are starving, and would probably do many immoral and illegal things for just one of those links. Especially because several of these contestants are from China, a place where a heck of a lot of people don’t get enough to eat. (Then again, maybe a childhood of deprivation is why they compete.)

I don’t think Nathan’s ever intended this contest to be anything more than a fun publicity grab, and don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of fun and don’t want to poop on anyone’s parade. But every year this deal seems to be in poorer and poorer taste. I would love to see the company donate the equivalent of the hot dogs consumed to any number of charities that help the hungry. It can still be fun, and the heavy hitters can earn their prize money (which they would undoubtedly spend on Pepto-Bismol, a sponsor of the League, and a good medical savings account for years down the road when their digestive systems explode.) And, Nathan’s can look like good guys doing it for charity.

Meanwhile, it’s like a seventeen-car pile up on the highway: hard to look at, but impossible to turn away.

(Note: no crotch-tweeting former legislators were gratuitously lampooned in the making of this post, even though the writer desperately wanted to.)