May 22, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
How the Chicken Conquered the World: The epic begins 10,000 years ago in an Asian jungle and ends today in kitchens all over the world
May 22, 2012
The chickens that saved Western civilization were discovered, according to legend, by the side of a road in Greece in the first decade of the fifth century B.C. The Athenian general Themistocles, on his way to confront the invading Persian forces, stopped to watch two cocks fighting and summoned his troops, saying: “Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.” The tale does not describe what happened to the loser, nor explain why the soldiers found this display of instinctive aggression inspirational rather than pointless and depressing. But history records that the Greeks, thus heartened, went on to repel the invaders, preserving the civilization that today honors those same creatures by breading, frying and dipping them into one’s choice of sauce. The descendants of those roosters might well think—if they were capable of such profound thought—that their ancient forebears have a lot to answer for.
Chicken is the ubiquitous food of our era, crossing multiple cultural boundaries with ease. With its mild taste and uniform texture, chicken presents an intriguingly blank canvas for the flavor palette of almost any cuisine. A generation of Britons is coming of age in the belief that chicken tikka masala is the national dish, and the same thing is happening in China with Kentucky Fried Chicken. Long after the time when most families had a few hens running around the yard that could be grabbed and turned into dinner, chicken remains a nostalgic, evocative dish for most Americans. When author Jack Canfield was looking for a metaphor for psychological comfort, he didn’t call it “Clam Chowder for the Soul.”
How did the chicken achieve such cultural and culinary dominance? It is all the more surprising in light of the belief by many archaeologists that chickens were first domesticated not for eating but for cockfighting. Until the advent of large-scale industrial production in the 20th century, the economic and nutritional contribution of chickens was modest. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond listed chickens among the “small domestic mammals and domestic birds and insects” that have been useful to humanity but unlike the horse or the ox did little—outside of legends—to change the course of history. Nonetheless, the chicken has inspired contributions to culture, art, cuisine, science and religion over the millennia. Chickens were, and still are, a sacred animal in some cultures. The prodigious and ever-watchful hen was a worldwide symbol of nurturance and fertility. Eggs hung in Egyptian temples to ensure a bountiful river flood. The lusty rooster (a.k.a. cock) was a universal signifier of virility—but also, in the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, a benign spirit that crowed at dawn to herald a turning point in the cosmic struggle between darkness and light. For the Romans, the chicken’s killer app was fortunetelling, especially during wartime. Chickens accompanied Roman armies, and their behavior was carefully observed before battle; a good appetite meant victory was likely. According to the writings of Cicero, when one contingent of birds refused to eat before a sea battle in 249 B.C., an angry consul threw them overboard. History records that he was defeated.
But one major religious tradition—ironically, the one that gave rise to matzo-ball soup and the Sunday chicken dinner—failed to imbue chickens with much religious significance. The Old Testament passages concerning ritual sacrifice reveal a distinct preference on the part of Yahweh for red meat over poultry. In Leviticus 5:7, a guilt offering of two turtledoves or pigeons is acceptable if the sinner in question is unable to afford a lamb, but in no instance does the Lord request a chicken. Matthew 23:37 contains a passage in which Jesus likens his care for the people of Jerusalem to a hen caring for her brood. This image, had it caught on, could have completely changed the course of Christian iconography, which has been dominated instead by depictions of the Good Shepherd. The rooster plays a small but crucial role in the Gospels in helping to fulfill the prophecy that Peter would deny Jesus “before the cock crows.” (In the ninth century, Pope Nicholas I decreed that a figure of a rooster should be placed atop every church as a reminder of the incident—which is why many churches still have cockerel-shaped weather vanes.) There is no implication that the rooster did anything but mark the passage of the hours, but even this secondhand association with betrayal probably didn’t advance the cause of the chicken in Western culture. In contemporary American usage, the associations of “chicken” are with cowardice, neurotic anxiety (“The sky is falling!”) and ineffectual panic (“running around like a chicken without a head”)…
May 22, 2012
Lodge 141 of the Fraternal Order of Police is housed, along with 446 jail cells, inside the Mahoning County Justice Center, a forbidding brick and steel hulk at the edge of the frayed downtown of Youngstown, Ohio. It’s a humble office, but its proprietors have embellished it with a number of rather pointed political decorations. There is a spoof of Shepard Fairey’s iconic Barack Obama poster, with the face of Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, in place of the president’s and the word “DOUCHE” written across the bottom instead of “HOPE.” There is a newspaper clip describing protests by police officers last year in Columbus, the state capital. And there is a quotation from Martin Luther King decrying “right-to-work” laws, which limit the power of unions.
The decorations commemorate a series of events that began early in 2011, when Kasich—having been swept to power in the Republican wave of 2010—pushed for a bill that would have severely curtailed the collective-bargaining rights of public employees, including police officers. Known as Senate Bill 5, or SB5, the measure passed the state legislature in March, but not before sparking angry protests from organized labor and its allies. By June, opponents of the bill had gathered enough signatures to force the issue onto a statewide ballot. And, on November 8, Ohio voters delivered a sharp rebuke to Kasich, overturning SB5 by a margin of 62 to 38 percent. Exit polls showed a majority of independents and even a sizable minority of Republicans joining Democrats in opposition. Overall, 313,000 more people voted against the bill than had voted for Kasich a year earlier.
Lodge 141’s president, Sergeant T.J. Assion, told me that he was leaving the memorabilia on the wall for a reason: The battle over the legislation had a lasting impact on him and many other members of the union who generally leaned Republican. “We keep it up there to remind ourselves,” said Assion, a Marine veteran. “I myself have been a registered Republican my entire life, but that changed this time.” By undermining public-employee collective-bargaining rights, the legislation “was going to strip away every single thing we hold dear,” he said. “You start saying, ‘Working men and women don’t have a voice at the table.’”
I offered the case for SB5: that the public sector had grown over-indulged and inefficient. This set Assion off. “To say it’s to increase our job productivity is ludicrous. There’s not one person in my department who said, ‘I want to start off as a sheriff’s deputy making eleven dollars an hour in one of the most dangerous cities in America, because that’s my path to being a millionaire.’ We don’t get into this to be rich.” Kasich’s party would pay this November, Assion said, not least because Mitt Romney had come out in favor of SB5. “Some of my members have flat-out said, ‘I will never again vote for someone who has an R next to their name because of what John Kasich did.’ I will not be voting for Mitt Romney, because he was with the Senate Bill Five people, congratulating them, and has the belief that America should be a right-to-work country. In my opinion, he has no respect for the working man, and, for that alone, I will not vote for him.”
Every four years, around this time, Americans begin reacquainting themselves with Ohio, the state that is once again poised to decide a close presidential race. (No Republican has managed to win the White House without it.) This year, it isn’t just the presidential election that makes Ohio worth watching: With a fiercely contested Senate seat up for grabs and a sharply redrawn congressional map, the state could go a long way toward determining which party has the upper hand on Capitol Hill, too.
But what makes Ohio especially intriguing in 2012 is that some Democrats believe the politics of the state have fundamentally changed since the last election cycle. For liberals, what took place in Ohio last fall was essentially a long-deferred dream come true. Democrats have spent decades lamenting the drift of white, working-class voters to the Republican column despite evidence that the GOP does not serve their economic interests. If, in the wake of the SB5 vote, those voters were to return to the Democratic fold, it would dramatically alter the state’s political landscape. And a number of Ohio Democrats think that’s exactly what is now happening. “We’ll have an opportunity in 2012 to have a conversation we weren’t able to have in 2008, largely because of the attack on collective bargaining,” says a top Obama campaign official in Ohio.
Not everyone, however, is quite so optimistic. And they have good reason to be skeptical. On the same day last November when 62 percent of voters stood up for collective bargaining, an even larger number—66 percent—backed a referendum item that was widely seen as a symbolic rebuke to Obamacare. “I’m not convinced that we permanently shifted the base or the foundation of politics of this state with what we did” on SB5, said Joe Rugola, the former head of the state AFL-CIO and now director of the state’s 37,000-member association of non-teaching school employees. He pointed to a recent internal union poll showing that some Republican members were already drifting back to their roots. “Will that memory” of 2011, he asked, “that particular set of experiences, hold and will it become a permanent part of people’s thinking?” In other words, just how much have the politics of this all-important state really changed?…
At 7 pm on the evening of 12th April in Chicago, about 20 people were gathered inside the Gold Star Sardine Bar, a tiny, dimly lit cabaret tucked away at the end of a corridor on the ground floor of 680 North Lake Shore Drive. After 59 years in Chicago, Playboy Enterprises was moving its operation to Los Angeles. The magazine, which had operated on the 15th and 16th floors since 1989, was hosting a party to bid farewell to the city where it had begun.
North Lake Shore Drive is in the smart Streeterville neighbourhood in downtown Chicago. From the Playboy offices—which will be occupied shortly by the Children’s Memorial Hospital—you can see Lake Michigan and much of the city.
The pastel-coloured invitation to the party showed a rocket, with the iconic Playboy bunny symbol on its side, steaming into the sky. It requested “proper attire.” Several men were dressed up. Jimmy Jellinek, the magazine’s baby-faced editorial director, served drinks from behind the bar in a white suit and black t-shirt. Most of the women wore sweaters and jeans. There were no bunnies. No one was naked.
Conceived as a homage to the 1940s, the Gold Star Sardine Bar, which had been shuttered since 1997, was specially opened for the evening. Looming over the bar was a portrait (framed by pink neon) of the cabaret singer and pianist Bobby Short, who had played there to much acclaim. Hanging diagonally opposite, a monitor looped black and white video clips of the original Playboy Clubs which had opened in 1960 and which closed long ago.
Pungent smoke filled the room, ballooning down the hall and into the building’s foyer. Bottles of Scotch and wine kept appearing on the bar. Right next to me was a large glass bowl filled with red, pink, and aqua-coloured M&Ms with the bunny head on them. The magazine’s reclusive founder Hugh Hefner was not present, but this was no surprise—he traded his hometown of Chicago for the City of Angels over three decades ago and these days he rarely leaves his LA mansion. Still, the party was lively enough, considering the occasion. People kept telling me the stories of how they wound up working for Playboy for decades, which, even at this late date seemed to surprise them. Or they ruminated on the sad state of print media in Chicago.
Weeks earlier, Leopold Froehlich, currently managing editor and de facto literary editor, who has worked at Playboy since 1991, and who is one of eight people from the magazine’s Chicago office going to LA, said, “The magazine started out with four people and it looks like that’s what it will wind up with.”
Playboy has been struggling for some time. Circulation has been dropping since the 1970s; in 2009, the last year for which numbers are available, the magazine reduced the number of readers it promises advertisers from 2.6 million to 1.5 million. According to the Publishers Information Bureau, in the third quarter of 2009 advertising revenue fell by 44 per cent. In 1999Playboy stock was $36 a share; in 2009 it was $3. “It speaks to the increasing irrelevance of magazines that Playboy will end its time in Chicago with only a murmur,” said Froehlich.
There is nothing like Playboy and there never will be again. When Hef founded it in 1953, men’s magazines contained grainy black and white pictures of semi-naked strippers and articles in which men conquered wild animals and bad guys. Sex was shameful. The word smut comes to mind. But Hef, who had grown up on the west side of Chicago in the 1920s and 30s, pursued a different vision. Having graduated from the University of Illinois and worked at magazines, including Esquire (then still in Chicago), he imagined a lifestyle monthly which would attract urban men with a mix of nice clothes, nice cars, culture, and colour photographs of the girl next door, naked.
Luck sided with Hef. In a famous coup, having read that the rights to some nude colour photographs of Marilyn Monroe—then already a movie star—were owned by a calendar company in Chicago, he convinced the owner to sell him the images. He ran the photos, which show Marilyn writhing on red velvet, in the first issue, December 1953. It sold 54,000 copies. In that issue, Hef defined Playboy, sincerely, with what now reads like a send-up of a Rat Pack mission statement: “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex…”
Playboy emerged in the right place at the right time. In America, conspicuous consumption and personal fulfilment were replacing older, more ascetic ideals and by 1959 the magazine was selling a million copies an issue. In the early 1970s it sold around 7 million copies each month. By that time, Playboy had become a global brand under attack on several different fronts. It has been variously described as misogynist, feminist, kitschy, and irrelevant. Above all, however, it is a magazine that presents The Good Life, including sex, as a man’s natural territory.
To read through Playboy today is to go back in time. Many of the magazine’s trademark features first appeared in the 1960s and have changed less than you might imagine. There are pages of photographs of Hef and his friends partying. The Playboy Advisor, a column first started in 1960, steers readers on how to dress, date, and consume. The Playboy Forum, begun in 1963 to raise issues of importance to the magazine, these days publishes short provocative essays and confessional pieces. The legendary Playboy interview, which in the old days gave thousands of words to heads of state and literary figures—Gabriel García Márquez, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jimmy Carter, Camille Paglia—is also intact (although shorter). New York Times columnist and Princeton professor Paul Krugman did one in the April issue.
Two of the hoariest features are the Party Jokes page, a page of witticisms and gags that seems to have been dredged up from before the sexual revolution, and the full-page cartoons. Here is a typical one: a woman is reclining on an analyst’s couch holding a vibrator. “Do you mind, it helps open me up,” she asks as the Freudian figure looks on. Asked about these pages, editors told me that readers liked them.
The “pictorials”—images of nearly nude women—have changed over the years. There are still movie stars, as there were from the first. But more recently, athletes and professional women (there was a “Women of Enron” pictorial after the company’s 2001 downfall) have joined them. If anything, the pictorials have done more nodding and winking recently, as in the November 2009 pictorial featuring… Marge Simpson.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about Playboy is how much journalism and fiction the magazine still contains. In 2010, for instance, Playboy ran an excerpt of Lydia Davis’s dazzling new translation of Madame Bovary, while in 2008 the magazine serialised Denis Johnson’s novella, Nobody Move—10,000 words at a time, in four consecutive issues.
“The literary stuff is the piano player in the whorehouse,” said Froehlich, complaining thatPlayboy was under-recognised by the industry. “The magazine should have won a National Magazine Award for the Denis Johnson serial, but it is always branded as the whore of Babylon. If Jesus Christ wrote an appreciation of his parents for Playboy, ASME [the American Society of Magazine Editors] would find a way to ignore it.”
One reason Playboy has never been accepted in those elite journalistic circles is the centrefolds, which have been the heart of the magazine since its birth. What was new about the centrefolds was that they showed real women—not strippers or showgirls—naked and in real-life situations. By today’s standards, the images are not pornographic. But critics have derided them for years. In a 2006 New Yorker essay, Joan Acocella pointed out that the girl next door’s fresh appearance was long ago replaced with “utter texturelessness.” Last year, attacking the short-lived Playboy Club TV show, the comedian Nora Ephron wrote in Newsweek that the purpose of Hef’s whole project was to relive the “golden moment just before the women’s movement came along and ruined everything.”
Despite these jabs, the tell-alls and exposés of the 20th century have given way to more sober studies crediting Playboy (and Hef, for it is impossible to talk about one without the other) for its role as social reformer. These studies focus on the magazine’s championing of civil rights, the sexual revolution, feminism, and abortion rights. In 1955, Playboy sued the United States Postal Service over its attempt to censor the magazine. And won.
But the 21st-century image of Playboy-as-social-reformer may never override Hef’s reputation as a roué. You might think that a man from the Midwest who used his hedonistic magazine to support some of the key liberal causes of the past 60 years (including Roe v Wade) could not be easily dismissed. But because this man, now 86, continues consorting with blondes who could be his great-grandchildren, he is still regarded more as a porno Peter Pan than a Martin Luther King…
May 22, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.