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Of geeks and French fries

It’s a tsunami.

A wave of geeks surges down the broad hallway. The geeks are shoulder to shoulder, few of them watching where they’re going; some are texting, heads down, others are talking to their neighbors, their conversations heated, all consuming.

The geeks are “writers.” Ask them, they’ll tell you.

I am standing in a second-floor hall at the Hynes Center, in Boston. Kathy and I are attending the American Writers and Writers Programs Conference, two of 12,000 participants at a three-day, ain’t-literature-wonderful extravaganza.

Joining us are Nobel Prize winners and suburbanites working on a third children’s book; National Book Award winners and university professors who can’t eke out a living with their writing; starry-eyed MFA students, imagining that someday they will be revered, that their novel, poetry, collection of essays will inspire awe at an American Writers Conference. Or that they will become teachers who cannot earn a living with their writing.

I am in Boston to eat (it is a great restaurant town) and at the conference on the off chance I’ll connect with a publisher who likes narratives that eventually centers on food.

My kind of “literature.”

We booked into The Taj — a classic hotel near The Common. Kathy is ecstatic: there are robes, slippers and mints.

But, there’s a problem: Winter Storm Saturn (yes, they’re naming them now). A blizzard. It hits just after we arrive. The wind pushes houses into the Atlantic and pushes us into ankle-deep slush at intersections. Welcome to Boston.

We walk ten blocks to the Hynes Center, register and set off in search of food. We end up at Coda Bar, a gastropub on Columbus, behind the Back Bay Station. The paintings on the wall are awful, the food is great: steak frites, with double cooked fries. The marinated hanger steak is grilled as ordered, the fries are first class and, with a glass (or two) of a pleasant Shiraz, the meal is a comfort. I make a mental note: rip off a batch of double-cooked fries when you get home. For dessert, a simple concoction: pudding made with vanilla bean is plopped in a tall glass, filling it halfway, and a soft vanilla cookie is set atop the pudding. More pudding fills the glass. Blueberries are scattered atop the trifle-like production and whipped cream (and another cookie on the side) completes the dessert.

The next morning, it’s off to Geek-A-Rama.

But, not before breakfast.

We slog snowbedeviled to the vicinity of the Hynes Center and there it sits, across the street: The Pour House. A clumsily scrawled sign in the window includes the word “Breakfast.”

Inside, The Pour House is about a hundred feet long, twenty feet wide. A bar occupies two-thirds of one side of the length of the space. Every stool at the bar is occupied, with each occupant drinking a brew for breakfast. Several booths crowd the rear of the space. My kind of place.

After we eat, we cross the street to Geekville. Since I am a journalist, I am not a “writer.” My task is to observe, learn and yearn.

The day’s schedule consists of hour-plus sessions from morning to evening, maybe thirty per time slot, each with a different topic. In a session, a panel of “experts” sits at the front of a room. The experts bloviate and act important. Audience members wait until it is time for questions in order to bloviate and act important.

There are few sessions that interest me, but I make a point of attending “Food Writing.” The room is packed and things look promising: most of the audience  members are seriously overweight. A guy and gal at the front take up five chairs. But, things go downhill quickly. An expert, a sparky gal who teaches at a college I’ve never heard of, reads a pretentious, Dickensian knockoff that begins with a section detailing a ride across the Imperial Valley in a pickup truck with a migrant worker and his kids. One of the kids is wrapped in a torn Scooby Doo blanket. The expert ends her reading by pausing, looking skyward with tears in her eyes, sighing and claiming, “We now have a different relationship with our food.”

Really?

My colleagues in the audience furiously scribble notes during the session. There is a young woman (MFA) sitting on the floor in front of me. She has gnawed the lip off her paper coffee cup, nervous, no doubt, about getting a teaching job. More nervous now that she knows the Scooby Doo bit has been used by someone else.

It is obvious the panelists, all of whom are teachers, do not make their livings writing about food.

This leads me to a clear conclusion: I’m hungry.

Kathy and I meet in the hall at the noon hour (I have since been ousted from the Lesbians in Literature Caucus, as well as the Post-Colonial Black Poets session) and we trek to a Legal Seafood restaurant and enjoy … seafood: a true crab cake, scant fillers, big lumps of sweet crab, subtle seasoning, a rich aioli spattered on the plate.

Following lunch, we go our separate ways again, Kathy in search of contacts for a novel she is finishing, me ducking at random into sessions, listening for a couple minutes at each, then moving on to another.

What do I learn?

1. I do not have or want an MFA and, thus, I am a pariah.

2. I am not sufficiently earnest.

3. I do not wear a writer’s costume. Real “writers” need an outfit. I catalogue some of the prominent ones.

The Seasoned Academic: sportcoat, khakis, collared shirt, comfy shoes. Facial hair? Sometimes, but always well trimmed (at least on the males). An air of superiority is required, even when one occupies an adjunct position at a community college.

The Would-be Professor: Secondhand sportcoat, jeans, comfy shoes, threadbare, collared shirt. Full beard, well trimmed (at least on the men). Diligently practicing above noted air of superiority.

Neo Punk/Hip: Black clothing, odd footwear, tattoos. Affected grooming. Notebook open, poetry flowing from a pen like poop from a newborn.  Disinterested demeanor. Nothing, after all, is more engaging in a post post-modern world than one’s own self

Dazzling nonconformist. My favorite is a dinky Anglo fellow with reddish dreadlocks down to his waist. He wears a pale, pink suit, black patent leather shoes, a striped shirt with green bowtie and circus clown eyeglasses.

The Sarah Lawrence Look: Long hair (can be caught up in a careless bun), gauzy dress with uneven hemline, colored tights, snazzy shoes or knee-length boots. Bright eyes, scent indicating privilege.

Frump/outsider: Mismatched outfit gathered at thrift store, incautious appearance. Borderline overweight, fingernails bitten to the quick, an air of desperation.

Insane: Defined more by odor and agitated behavior than costume, though, for the crazy person, clothing functions as an outward sign of inner distress — for example, trash sack as winter wear. Tics help, as does talking loudly to an imaginary friend.

Clad as I am in my Jerk costume, I am out of place.

We return to the center each evening for a “conversation” involving two literary luminaries and a moderator. The conversations take place in a huge auditorium and prove to be the highlights of the conference. Night one: two Nobel laureates — the poet Seamus Heaney and the poet and artist Derek Walcott. On the second day, Don DeLillo and Dana Spiotta, as well as Amy Bloom and Richard Russo. The final night — Augusten Burroughs and Cheryl Strayed. Not a costume to be seen on stage, and probably not many MFAs among the luminaries.

On the last day of the conference, after enduring a discussion about the future of anime scriptwriting, I stumble on a session devoted to journalism, which “writers” call “uncreative nonfiction.”

A show of hands reveals two of us in the audience are working journalists. The rest are teachers and MFA students who want to write for Rolling Stone and Atlantic before they get a teaching job. The panelists are ex journalists and each, like me, wears a Jerk outfit. One of the panelists utters the only thing I hear during three days that rings true.

“I’m a teacher now, at a university, in the company of ‘writers’ and students of ‘writing,’ and all I want to do is hang around a newsroom again, with journalists who have to get the story right, and get it done on a deadline. I miss that crazy, adrenalin-drenched, ‘Write it or you’re fired’ atmosphere. That’s where a lot of great writers learned their chops, and that’s where I’d really like to be. But … those days are gone.”

Alas, yes, those days are gone, or soon gone, killed by the Internet and the abbreviated digi-dreck produced in an online world with few gatekeepers — by a “news” process that provides questionable content to an audience of barely literate feebs unable to digest more than two hundred words at a time, incapable of checking what they read for things like verifiable fact and a minimal imprint of self-interest.

The next morning it’s goodbye to the conference, to The Taj, to Boston.

One more meal. We walk to Charles Street on the east side of the park and The Common to a joint Kathy finds: The Paramount. As with most places Kathy finds, it seems a disaster in the making: the place is tiny, narrow, and food is flung to trays as a line of customers moves past a counter and a frantic grill staff. You can’t reserve a table and there doesn’t seem to be seating for even a third of the people who patiently line up at the door.

“Oh, my god. What have you done? This can’t possibly work.”

“I read that this is one of the best places in town for breakfast. Oooh, look: waffles with strawberries.”

“But, there’s nowhere to sit. This place is a madhouse. I’m getting claustrophobic and sweaty. I should have used the bathroom before we checked out of the hotel.”

“Shut up and stay in line. Oooh, look: bacon.”

“We’re doomed. We’re going to die here.”

“Oooh, look: they have real butter.”

As with most joints Kathy finds that initially portend doom, The Paramount is great. They know how to  make it work. It’s a fine way to end our stay.

Now, I’m back in Siberia With a View, with two goals.

First: Work up a batch of double-cooked French fries to go with grilled, marinated hanger steak. As soon as my pal BFD fully recovers from recent surgery, I’m making the meal for him, GB, Kathy and me.

I’ll peel the russets (I prefer fries without skin) and hand-cut the fries.

Two deep pans will go on the burners, each a third full of peanut oil (olive oil has too low a smoke point) or, if I can manage it, one with oil, one with duck fat. The oil will be heated to 325; the duck fat brought to 375. A batch of fries goes in the peanut oil and the potatoes cook for about five minutes. They are taken out and put on paper toweling while the next batch is cooked.

When the first stage is complete, a batch of the precooked fries will go into the duck fat, until the spuds get puffy and golden brown — seven to eight minutes. As each batch comes out of the oil, the fries go on to toweling. They are immediately salted and consumed.

My second goal should be just as easy: become a “writer.”

It’s never too late.

I wonder where I can find a pink suit?

This story was posted on April 4, 2013.