Category Archives: writer

Week 3: Sauerkraut

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What follows is a sample of my Writer’s Diary, which I currently email out every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your inbox, subscribe here.

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Hello—and a good Memorial Day to you!
This is coming a day late, but isn’t the Monday of a three-day weekend really, on a spiritual level, a Sunday?

My whole life I’ve thought of Memorial Day as the “unofficial beginning of summer.” Somewhere along the line I also learned that it’s the date after which it’s “okay” to wear white. A good weekend to barbecue!

Yesterday it hit me more than it has before that our cheery little day off is, to take it at its word, supposed to be a day to memorialize the soldiers—humans, mostly men, mostly about my age or younger—who lost their “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver put it, working for Team U.S.A. in the bloody ritual sacrifice by which our species has often resolved its disputes. It’s so intense. I’m not un-grateful for the sacrifice of these men and women. They were brave. I’m especially glad they beat the slavers and the Nazis. The British Empire, too. But more than anything, I wish they hadn’t had to die.

The idea of a memorial has so much power in it. Memory is a fragile thing. It needs preserving—and celebrating.

The physical memorial that inspires the most feelings in me has to be the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. A depression in the National Mall, filled with a vast horizontal monolith. When you get up close you can see the name of every single young man who died in that war, etched on the black stone. Phonebook-thick catalogs are available to locate a particular name from the 58,220: the name of a brother, uncle, father, son, friend. Maya Lin’s design famously captures both the vastness of the loss and the particular tragedy of each missing life.

We need more memorials. A gun violence memorial. A covid-19 memorial. We need to remember. We need to give ourselves space and time to grieve—and to work collectively towards the goal that these stupidities never happen again.

That’s what I’m thinking this Memorial Day.

After writing the preceding paragraph, I found this Sunday’s New York Times at the grocery store. In a small but beautiful way, it actually does this. The first four pages of the paper memorialize 1,000 of those killed by the pandemic. I recommend taking the time to read some of these names—and the brief descriptions that run alongside them, spare silhouettes that gesture at the full lives we have lost.

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I’m honored to have you reading my writer’s diary for a third week now! I’m trying not to dwell too much on the pandemic, as I figure you spend enough time thinking of that without my help. Instead, I continue to be excited to talk to you about my food and the writing life.

This week, I have been full of thoughts about storytelling. Telling a story is so human, so universal. What kid hasn’t found themselves, after an unusually momentous day at school, suddenly excited to answer the eternal question, ‘How was school today, honey?’

‘Mom, you wouldn’t believe it…’

Yet when you call yourself a writer and try to tell a good story, it can seem suddenly, damnably hard. It’s a mystery. I’ve tried to solve this mystery by reading books about the craft of writing. (Some are really quite useful!) I’ve attended lectures, spent mornings deep in writing workshops, and acquired an MFA. I’ve even tried out one of those Hollywood plot formulas called a ‘Beat Sheet.’

But the best way, bar none, that I’ve found to learn about storytelling is to pay attention to the great stories I encounter out in the wild. Some are in the form of novels, movies, magazine articles, histories, podcasts, parables. Others are the stories friends tell—the ones that have me sitting on the edge of my seat, laughing along, asking ‘Then what happened?’

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Here’s a story: When I was three, maybe four, my parents took me on a trip from our home in rural Northern California down to Los Angeles to visit my grandma Mimi, who lived in a condo in North Hollywood. I remember very little about this trip, except for one event—and I remember this event because my grandma never let me forget it.

Mimi was born Mary Anne Morar in Canton, Ohio in 1924. Her parents were each freshly naturalized American citizens. They had separately left Romania to seek their fortunes in the U.S., where they met, married and spent the rest of their lives together. So Mimi grew up in an ethnic enclave of first- and second-generation Romanian immigrants based around the Romanian Byzantine Catholic cathedral there. While Mimi was as American as April in Arizona (in Nabokov’s phrase)—even serving heroically in the Second World War—she always spoke Romanian with her parents, she briefly imported a handsome young Romanian man to be her second husband, and when she passed away last February, at 95 years old, she left behind a small family foundation dedicated to the study of Romanian culture.

Mimi was an excellent Romanian cook, a master of mamaliga, cornulete, and, especially, sarmale—the Romanian version of Pigs in a Blanket. This is where our story truly begins. Because, you see, even as a young child I was a vegetarian. Were a few morsels of salmon to be placed in a dish in front of my high chair, I would cast it to the ground. When my dad dangled a choice bit of flank steak in front of my mouth, I pressed my lips firmly together until he laughed and gave up. I steadfastly refused to take even a single bit of meat. By all accounts I was a pretty easygoing kid, but when it came to meat I was as willful as they come. I have always struggled to articulate the root cause of this inborn vegetarianism, but from birth I basically forced my parents to accomodate it.

This was all well and fine with my generous parents, but when we visited my grandmother and took our meals at her table, it was hard for her to understand it. How would I grow up to be a proper Romanian if I couldn’t eat most Romanian food? (Like so many diasporic communities, ours was within two generations reduced mostly to a cuisine.) She encouraged me to at least try sarmale. She was sure that I would discover it was delicious. The flavor of ground pork, rice, and herbs, all wrapped in a big, pickled cabbage leaf and baked till the flavors mingled into a thing of beauty—what Romanian boy would turn his nose up at that?

I understood how important it was to my grandma that I try this dish, and I really wanted to make her happy. At the same time, I found myself haunted by this phrase, ‘Pigs in a Blanket,’ that everyone kept using to describe the sarmale. It was terrible to think of eating a cozily snoozing animal. I spent a long time thinking about it, and then one evening before dinner I told Grandma that I wanted to try her sarmale.

She was delighted. I remember that very clearly.

For an hour we could both believe that I was going to fulfill her wishes. But then we were all seated at her table, under the chandelier. The sarmale was served. There it was on my plate. The pickled cabbage wrapping was greenish and slightly translucent, a few wisps of steam betraying that it had just come out of the oven. It smelled of cooked cabbage, of brine, and of the umami of browned meat. It smelled good.

I tried, I really did. I picked at it. I sawed off a sliver of cabbage and ate it. I unwrapped till I got to the meat, and then I tried to get my nerve up to eat it. I couldn’t eat it. I wanted to have eaten it. I avoided my grandma’s hungry eyes and pushed the meat around with my fork. I took another little bite of the sour cabbage. How could I get the meat to go away? How could I get myself to eat it?

Finally Mimi couldn’t help herself. She said, ‘Jasper, are you going to eat your sarmale?’

‘Yes, Grandma,’ I said. ‘I am eating it…’ Here I apparently paused for dramatic effect. Then I said, ‘Methodically.’

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Do I really remember saying this? My grandma probably told me the story fifty times. She loved it. I think somehow that the improbable precociousness of a four-year-old dodging his pushy grandma with the perfect $10 word must have so tickled her funny bone that it made up for the sorrow that I refused to eat her prize dish. She was a kindergarten teacher who loved telling stories and dreamed of one day writing her own novel. It was enough that young Jasper loved words.

I do remember sitting there and looking at the wrapped meat dumpling on my plate, feeling nauseous. I remember the chandelier. Maybe most of all I remember the smell of the cooking sarmale, the rich cabbage and pork smell, the smell of grandma’s house before her famous Romanian dinners.

Why did it work as a story when Grandma told it? Well, it had a good punch line. It was somewhat unusual, had different particulars than other stories. But I think the best part was the joy that she took in telling it. She savored how uncomfortable I had been. It was delicious to her how much she had wanted this thing from me. The pathos of it were so intense, the way she told it. And then they were resolved in such an unlikely way. Listening to her tell the story—that’s where so much of the pleasure was. It was in the telling. It was in her joy.

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In the last years of her life, my grandma Mimi lost most of her memories. It was the gradual, inexorable progress of Alzheimer’s disease—every month that went by left her a little more childlike. The body, a vessel filled by nine decades of experience, became empty once more. By the end, most of what remained was her glinting soul, and it was a blessing that Mimi was quick to smile and easy to get laughing, even when she was disoriented and swimming in a sea of confusion.

In the logic of ‘first in, last out,’ many of the memories that lasted the longest were those of childhood. Mimi would talk about her father’s backyard garden and his barrel of sauerkraut in the basement, next to the illicit, treasured barrel of wine. (Prohibition was still in effect.) She would describe the big feasts put on by the Romanian church, and how there would be dancing afterwards.

Around the time last year that Grandma passed away—with all her progeny at her bedside—my dad became very interested in making his own sauerkraut. Just like great-grandpa Vasile, Dad had his own cabbage patch. Now all he needed was to send off to Ohio Stoneware for a pair of three-gallon crocks and he could, in more than one sense, keep the old culture alive.

After his first batch, he gave me an enormous glass jar packed with fermented cabbage to take home with me. Lisa and I ate it all. It was delicious.

A few months later, I was visiting him and noticed a big box of cabbages from the farmer’s market. They had been purchased to make more kraut, but my dad felt like he’d missed the window of opportunity. The cabbages were too old now.

‘What?’ I said. ‘That’s ridiculous. Why don’t I take the cabbages and one of your crocks, I’ll ferment them, and then I’ll give you a big jar of kraut ready to eat?’

This is how I acquired my prize crock: highway robbery. It’s also how I learned to make saurkraut, Romanian style.

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ROMANIAN-STYLE SAUERKRAUT

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This sauerkraut, properly known as varza murata, differs from the classic German-style sauerkraut in one major way: the cabbage is not shredded before fermentation. Instead, it is kept whole (or halved or quartered), so that the leaves may be used later as the wrapper for sarmale. This means that the juices of the cabbage cannot provide, on their own, enough liquid to cover the cabbage. You have to add brine.

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Equipment

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A Really Big Wide-Mouth Jar or Small Crock
A Weight to Hold the Cabbage Down – (the simplest version is a plate slightly narrower than the jar, weighted with a river stone that has been boiled and scrubbed)

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Ingredients

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Cabbage – 4 medium heads, cored
Kosher Salt – 1/2 cup (do NOT use iodized salt)
Water – 16 cups
Whole Black Peppercorns – 2 tablespoons
Garlic Cloves – 4-8, cut in half
Bay Leaves – 2
Fresh Dill – a small bunch (optional)
Fresh Horseradish – two inches, split into sticks (otional)

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Steps

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1. Boil the water and salt, stirring till the salt dissolves. Allow to cool.
2. Pack the jar with the cored cabbage and other ingredients. If you want to, you can halve or quarter the cabbages so they fit more tightly.
3. Pour the brine to cover all the cabbage with about an inch of brine.
4. Place the weight on top, making sure that all of the cabbage is submerged.
5. Cover with cheesecloth and place in a dark corner of your home. The crock should ideally stay around room temperature, but if it’s in a cool place it will just ferment more slowly.
6. Wait four weeks, regularly checking to make sure everything is submerged, adding more brine if need be. You can also ensure that no molds are forming.
7. Around week three, begin tasting your kraut. It should get more and more sour. At a certain moment, it will be perfectly sour for you. This is the time to radically slow down fermentation by transferring the kraut to a jar with a lid and putting it in the fridge. It is ready to eat!

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Serving Suggestions

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Cut into narrow strips, it makes a delicious small salad.
As a sour addition to crunchy salads.
On top of nachos.
On top of a fully dressed baked potato
In breakfast tacos that are also filled with scrambled eggs. (Surprisingly delicous.)
Beside pierogis or latkes, along with sour cream and apple sauce.
With vodka.
With sausages, vegan or otherwise.
As the wrapper for a mystical vegetan version of your grandmother’s sarmale. (I still need to try this one.)

I’m afraid I don’t actually have a picture of my or my father’s Romanian-style sauerkraut. We’ll have to make do with this picture of the 3-gallon crock I stole from my dad. In the picture it had just released a deliciously sour batch of more German-style kraut—a scrumptious pink from the blend of red and green cabbage. This one I mixed up following the recipe in Sandor Ellix Katz’s book Wild Fermentation. If you are interested in fermenting some food of your own, GET AHOLD OF THIS BOOK. Here’s his bio: ‘Author Sandor Ellix Katz is a self-described ‘fermentation fetishist.’ His explorations in fermentation developed out of overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition, and gardening. A long-term HIV/AIDS survivor, Katz considers fermented foods to be an important part of his healing. A native of New York City, the author is a resident steward of Short Mountain Sanctuary, a queer intentional community in the wooded hills of Tennessee.’ How terrible it would be not to have this encouraging, non-prescriptivist fermentation fanatic guiding us on our journeys!

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One of the very best movies I’ve seen this year is The Florida Project. (It streams for ‘free’ on Netflix.) Like Mimi’s story I think this film’s excellence has something to do with the joy of its telling. It is a hectic, harrowing story of what it’s like to be a little kid in difficult circumstances: your young mom is sometimes turning to sex work, there’s no dad in the picture, you’re being raised in a long-term hotel in the shadow of Florida’s Disney World, and the most responsible adult you know is the delapidated hotel you live at’s manager, an overworked and precariously employed man (played by Willem Dafoe). The hotel manager knows what she doesn’t—that her innocence won’t last forever. He and the girl’s mother, flawed people, do what they can, in a society that relentlessly exploits and punishes its weakest members, to protect her precarious childishness. Watch it!

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(& if you enjoy The Florida Project, consider reading “The Magic Kingdom,” a long essay in The Baffler about the film, and Disney World, and the American imagination.)

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The other night, around midnight, Lisa already asleep, I was doing the dishes by the wide open window, through which a soft, warm breeze was blowing, when a powerful feeling came over me. It had wrapped up in it longing, possibility, being-in-nature, and contentment. It washed through my bones.

Though the moon was a waxing crescent, the way I felt I can only call Warm Night Full Moon Feeling. I have felt it before, sitting outside, all alone, under the summer stars. It feels like nature is on your side and you on its. Like everything is possible, everything is just a story. Like the air is there for breathing and you can feel the moonlight on your skin. Like the night will never end.

I hope that this summer you get some Warm Night Full Moon Feeling, too.

Till next week,

Jasper
May 25, 2020

Week 2: the Great Sandwich

What follows is a sample of my Writer’s Diary, which I currently email out every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your inbox, subscribe here.

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Hello! I’m glad to have you again for another installment of this, what I’m calling a writer’s diary. Though to be honest, when I’m really writing in my private diary, it’s not with you guys in mind. Sorry. This here is a diary more in the sense of a video game development diary—a genre often ignored but that offers real pleasures.

The best word for what this is, this lump of words and pictures and personality that has come to rest in your inbox, might really be a “blog post.” I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I love and miss the Golden Age of Blogs (1999-2008; RIP).

What was so great about the blog was that everyone had one and some people had interesting ones. It didn’t hurt that the underlying software was open source and operated according to clearly understandable rules: if you published a new post, everyone subscribed to your RSS would get it in their feed. But what your website looked like, how you wrote, how often you posted—that was entirely up to you.

This open format has since been replaced by the ‘walled gardens’ of Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, etc. They are walled because they don’t let outside programs or websites operate within their bounds, nor do they permit users to see outside content except in very curated ‘previews.’ They are gardens because team of algorithmic and human gardeners go around snipping off non-conforming content, keeping things tidy, and deciding what gets shown to whom. There is none of the strobing type of Myspace, none of the happy hyperlinking of Blogspot. On the anarchy <—> totalitarianism spectrum, they tend strongly to the right.

It’s funny that ‘walled garden’ is the operative metaphor for contemporary social media. Our word ‘paradise’ comes, etymologically, from the Avestan pairidaeza by way of Greek –> Latin –> French. And pairidaeza means ‘An enclosure, a park.’ Like the OG paradise, Eden. A walled garden.

In this last sense, today’s social media giants can each be described as an attempt at paradise.

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Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Eden anymore.

That’s right—we’re in E-mail! Strange enough, email is among the last true frontiers of the internet. (Funny that it was one of the first, too.) This social medium operates entirely over open protocols. Anyone can make an email client. Anyone can send an email. It’s a chaotic, anarchic place. You have to dodge spam, continuously unsubscribe from the deluge of corporate newsletters, and ignore the chain letters of your relations. And yet, I think some of the utopian promise of the internet remains here.

Thanks for meeting me here, beyond the walls, where we can be free.

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When I told Lisa what I’d realized—that my food-themed email diaries were really a sort of blog—she said she agreed. Then she laughed and told me that it reminded her of the Cheese Sandwich Blog.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘The term comes from back when blogs were a thing,’ she said. ‘People were critical of the way that bloggers would be like, ‘Today I had a cheese sandwich, and, uh, I watched some TV.’’ These blogs were ridiculed, she explained, because their authors had nothing to say and yet they wanted to have a blog, too, just like everyone else. What’s funny looking back is that today’s most popular social media app, Instagram, is basically a distillation of the Cheese Sandwich Blog, with the words removed. Maybe the Cheese Sandwich Blog was the only type of blog people ever needed…

Nonetheless, I felt a little embarrassed that my unique, special snowflake, gold star email diary had at its core this warmed-over concept, one that the blognoscenti had begun mocking a full half-my-lifetime ago. Did anybody really want to read about my cheese sandwich?

After spending a while feeling sad for myself, I baked some olive bread, craved a sandwich, and realized there was nothing for it but to make a Great Sandwich—and write all about it.

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I know it may seem a little highfalutin’ to call this a “Great Sandwich,” but that really is what this sandwich has been called for my whole life. It is the trademark dish of my aunt MaryEllen. I first had it when I was three and she and her kids—my older, cooler cousins Jessica and Zach—came to housesit and stay with me while my mom and dad traveled to a nearby hospital where they hoped to give birth to my younger brother. It was an enchanted visit, largely because a giant gray whale had recently washed up on Bowling Ball Beach—the most interesting thing that had ever happened—and MaryEllen regularly took me to go visit it. It was also exciting because my aunt regularly made the most delicious sandwiches. I would beg her, ‘Will you please make one of your Great Sandwiches?’ She did almost every day. They were so good.

Eventually my parents returned, now with a little baby who I begged to be allowed to hold. (They let me hold him only with serious supervision.) MaryEllen left, but I never forgot her great innovation. For years afterwards, I would ask my mom to ‘please make one of MaryEllen’s Great Sandwiches?’ Later we dropped her name and just called them what they were: Great Sandwiches.

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Are traditional recipes, with their lists of ingredients and their conveniently numbered steps really the best way to communicate cooking knowledge? I’m not convinced. Not for all situations, at least. Sometimes I want to share not a rigid recipe but more a way of thinking about a dish. Ramen, really, is an idea, and so is minestrone, so are crunchy tacos. There’s not one right way to make them, but there are certain characteristics that most good preparations share.

In trying to think of a way to write down my approach to the Great Sandwich, I thought of the book A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et. al. This book tries to outline an approach to building buildings that is less tied up in formal architecture and more based around the processes by which humans have traditionally made their homes. What’s actually revolutionary about the book, though, is not its focus on vernacular architecture but its format: it tries to express its ideas in a ‘pattern language.’ The authors aim to capture the patterns that occur over and over in comfortable dwellings (like having a main entrance or giving its occupants a ‘room of one’s own’) and turn them into components of a language, sort of like words. The interconnections between patterns—like a ‘South Facing Outdoors’ which might include a ‘Garden Seat’ in the form of a ‘Sitting Wall’—form the language’s grammar. In the mind of someone familiar with the pattern language, different patterns can combine to express different buildings.

I could write a treatise on this book. I have read it many times, and it has helped me improve as a designer, a builder, and also as a thinker, I think. But maybe it’s better just to share a pattern language of my own conception.

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NOTES TOWARDS A PATTERN LANGUAGE
OF THE GREAT SANDWICH

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2 Bread Slices + Greens + Cheese + Tomato + Mayo + Mustard

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This is the most essential pattern of the Great Sandwich. In a pinch, you can do without the tomato or the mayo, though it’s not advised. Other ingredients allow you to work with what’s in season and exercise creativity: red onion, pepperoncinis, pickled jalapeños, sauerkraut, avocado, olives, meat (?!), sweet peppers, parsley, hot giardiniera, etc.

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Improvise the order of ingredients

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The chief creative act of the sandwich-maker is to choose the ingredients—and to choose the order in which the ingredients are laid down. The best sandwiches lay their delicious ingredients in an order that makes sense. However this order is not a fixed thing. Rather it is in the hands of the sandwich-maker to improvise the most elegant solution to the ingredients they have chosen.

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Put the fats (mayo, cheese) near what’s bitter and sour (greens, onion, pickled things)

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The marriage of fat and bitter foods is at the heart of much good cooking. This is why a good caeser salad is so good. It is why saag paneer tastes so nourishing. I think it also helps explain the unlikely deliciousness of polenta and broccoli sauce, the food of my childhood.

In the case of the Great Sandwich, it’s generally best to put the greens directly against the mayo-slathered bread, then to put the cheese atop this. On the other side of the cheese I generally put red onion and pepperoncini.

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Slice everything just thick enough

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A quick way to make a great sandwich fail is to so fill it with ingredients that nobody can bite the whole thing. Maybe this is a virtue in something like the club sandwich (why is their height considered a good thing??). In a Great Sandwich, excess thickness is always a sin. This is about eating, not about showing off.

For this reason, be careful not to slice the bread, tomatoes, or cheese too thick. Years of sandwich-making will yield a sure instinct for the correct width.

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Salt the tomato slices

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Good slicing tomatoes are a wonderful part of a sandwich. But they get even better if you lightly sprinkle them with salt. Did I read somewhere that this frees up their glutamates—the same scrumptious compound behind MSG? It indisputably increases their succulence.

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Put slippery ingredients against the bread

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Some ingredients—avocado, cherry tomatoes—have a tendency to squirt out of the sandwich. Therefore, place them as near to the stabilizing bread as possible.

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Cut the sandwich in half

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This is not optional. Sandwiches really do taste better when sliced in half. This is because much of what makes a Great Sandwich delicious is textural, and the texture of the bread crust is best encountered later in a bite. Cutting the sandwich in half means that you can start each bite with your tongue pressed against the soft interior of the sandwich. If you get some crust in your bite, your tongue will only encounter it while chewing, meaning that your saliva will have already begun moistening it. A sandwich that has not been cut in half will, during those first few bites, have a tendency to dry out your tongue, seriously diminishing your pleasure.

I’m sorry if you found this description of the process of chewing to be gross, but I believe that to become better cooks we have to really imagine how we eat.

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Toasting is 100% optional

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Toasting the bread can make a good sandwich better, but it won’t make a mediocre sandwich good. It is truly optional.

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Serve with chips

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So much of eating is cultural! I have always enjoyed the chips that sandwich joints often give you with your sub, but I never thought too much about it. Then one day my dad one day mentioned that if you eat a few chips between bites, you get to enjoy some crunch to counter the softness of the sandwich. This is true but also weird—many culinary traditions have no time for crisp foods. People from these cultures often find the sensation of crunching on something to be kind of unpleasant on the teeth. Textures, as much as flavors, are matters of taste and largely determined by culture.

I’m a good California boy, and you can take my corn chips from my cold dead hands. Though when it comes to Great Sandwiches, the ultimate accompaniment is a small hill of potato chips.

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This week has been busier than most. It turns out I kind of have a new job. This is good—making a living as a writer requires hustle. Most non-rich writers I know have to supplement their writing income with something: teaching, editing, copywriting, technical writing, bookshop work, scientisting, pharmacisting, etc. ‘Developing a Good Side Hustle’ should be a course taught in every MFA in the country.

My new hustle is writing articles for the Antioch University website. It’s interesting work: it turns out that it’s fun to call up professors and students around a university, reporting on their projects and picking their brains about issues within their fields.

My favorite kind of article to write, so far, is the profile. I learn a student or alum’s story and then tell it as well as I can. The most fun part is when I get them on the phone and start asking questions. It turns out—who knew?—that most people are pretty interesting when they talk about their lives. Furthermore, they’re delighted to be asked.

People are so interesting, and as a culture we spend so much time writing (memos, emails, reviews, etc.), but we really don’t spend that much time writing thoughtfully about each other. Think about the ten most interesting people that you know. If you googled each of them, would you be able to find a profile of any of them? Or would you at best find a concise bio that they probably wrote themselves, which maybe lists what schools they went to but leaves out the fascinating parts? I suspect the latter.

I wish there were more people out there writing profiles. People are interesting! There should be a record of their lives! I for one don’t want to wait for the obituary.

Would it be too crazy for us to come together as a society and pool our resources to make this much more widespread? I think this would knit our society more closely together while having the side benefit of giving gainful employment to some struggling writers, thereby freeing up their parents’ basements and maybe casually subsidizing some great art along the way. But humans are probably just incapable of collective action like this, right?

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I didn’t realize when I sent out last week’s installment just how many dear old friends would reach out. Your reasons were plenty: Just to say hi. To revel in our newly-revealed shared love of huevos rancheros. To report that you’d made my salsa recipe! To say that you were living in LA too. Or to share that you too have enjoyed ice in your beer. Jock even reports that ‘in France, biere panachee (beer with lemon juice added) is often served with ice.’ I tried this last night and it was ?.

To say this has all been a pleasure would be an understatement. It has been more like a revelation. Because I don’t have social media, the ways I stay in touch with friends and family are email, text, and phone calls. This means I’m in less regular touch with many of you than I might otherwise be. I know I sometimes get a little high and mighty about this—you know, ‘Wake up sheeple!’—but despite my love of email email I sometimes feel a little jealous of those of you who can use Facebook or Instagram or Twitter without losing yourselves in aphasic trances of self-loathing and obsession. It must be nice to remain in a sort of loose web of updates and photos, of likes and little exchanges of comments. When you move to a new city, I imagine you blast out a simple status: ‘Yo, LA, I’m here. Hit me up already!’

Oh well. I can’t get back on the apps, just like I can’t start smoking again. No matter how much I crave it.

And this newsletter is, I think, a sort of social media. It doesn’t have an algorithm or an app, in fact it lacks all of the compulsive calibration the big Silicon Valley apps have. It is a little, idiosyncratic letter from one kitchen table in California. And when it elicits a response, it’s relatively unmediated. We’re just emailing, or on the phone. Sooner or later, we’ll be in person. I’m looking forward to that.

Till then I’ll be in your magic inbox. I promise next week to try and practice greater concision.

Jasper
17 May 2020

This writer’s diary is in fact directly inspired by a video game development diary, Robin Sloan’s ongoing Perils of the Overworld game diary/newsletter, which I heartily recommend you subscribe to and read. He is a novelist building a text-based video game. His emails are decidedly superior to mine because they also contain “sound snacks”—samples from the sound track a musician is developing for the game. He also describes experiments using AI to generate fantasy settings, theorizes about why video game text is so often annoying, and rhapsodizes about obscure typography. For a certain type of nerd—my type—this is all catnip. Give it a try.

Week 1: Salsa Ranchera

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What follows is a sample of my Writer’s Diary, which I currently email out every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your inbox, subscribe here.

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Hello! And Happy Mother’s Day!
Also, welcome back. It’s been a while since I’ve sent out this email diary. If you’ve enjoyed it in the past, I apologize for the long hiatus. And if you’ve not enjoyed it, I’m sorry to again bombard you with free content. (There’s an unsubscribe button somewhere down there.) The truth is that I’ve missed sending this out. I’m hungry to talk about myself, about what I’m doing and thinking. So I’m re-starting this list. Buckle your seatbelts. I’m going to send out more emails.

In its prior incarnation, this was a travelogue. I narrated, sometimes at great length, what was happening as I traveled in Tibet, China, and Thailand. But today the airplanes are flying three-quarters-empty, the border guards are bored, and pleasure travel is the exclusive province of sociopaths and the mega-rich (but I repeat myself).

The other night, Lisa and I spent half an hour watching a video someone took a few years back of a simple night walk around Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. We peeked in little bars that only seat five at a time. We admired elegant billboards and looked curiously at businesses with English-language names like Peg and BigBang and Bon’s Old Fashioned American Style Pub. Most of all, we jealously ogled pedestrians who were out on the town, faces uncovered, physically undistanced, residing in the normal world that is no more.

Has any time ever made us hungrier for connection? And for that matter, has any time ever made us hungrier? I miss street life, restaurants, jam-packed farmer’s markets, and big dinner parties. Those are things that nourish.

I am going to try to send a copy of this email diary out every Sunday. Like my travelogue, this version of my newsletter won’t last forever. I’m thinking of sending twelve or eighteen installments—if I’m having too much fun, I’ll choose the bigger number. They will be open diaries, letting you know a bit of what I’m doing and thinking, how I am touching the world—the sort of thing I might tell you about if you came over for brunch. And I will include a recipe. Not because I expect you to cook it. More like, it’s fun when you visit someone to watch them cook, and to hear them talk about what they’re making as they make it.

I’ll do my best to keep it brief. Though I’m bad at brevity. I’m sorry.

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These are the huevos rancheros from Cafe One, a little diner on the north end of Fort Bragg. They are, to my mind, the perfect breakfast. You eat them with a fork and knife, and each bite can be perfect in its own way.

The essential equation here is eggs + salsa + beans + tortilla. The flavors fit together so nicely. Rich custardy yellow yolks contrast with tart salsa. Corn-forward tortillas plays off the softly round black beans. Sour cream, avocado, and egg yolk are all fats, but each brings something special: the cream is tart, the avocado is sweet and green, and the yolk is a rich, sinshiney liquid that flows and coats. All the components are fresh and good on their own, but as a dish they become even better. Especially if you drizzle some Tapatio over the top. And did I mention they come with breakfast potatoes and a tiny wedge of watermelon?

I have thought a lot about this dish—mostly about how much I want to eat it, but also about how I could make it on my own. Eventually, I realized that the main thing standing in my way was having a really good salsa ranchera. (The canned stuff is, for this purpose, just not up to snuff.) The need to find a good salsa ranchera became more urgent in January, when we moved to L.A.

 

This is the week that the jacaranda trees decided to reach maximum purple petal. It’s also the week that the carpenters building the luxury condo complex across the street decided to enclose it in a pale yellow sheathing product that every four feet proclaims itself to be “DensGlass.” I find the two colors—one organic, the other manufactured—to be unexpectedly lovely, together like this.

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I’m a tremendous fan of John Thorne, the cookbook writer. His book Mouth Wide Open did that rare thing that Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat also did: it changed the way I cook. Both books gave me permission to deviate, often wildly, from written recipes. But while Nosrat’s book gave me a framework for understanding the elemental components of good cooking, Thorne helped me think about cookbooks in a new way. Before, I thought that you read cookbooks mostly to look for dishes to make. You might idly page through one, and if something caught your eye you could flag it with a sticky note. But that’s not the only way to read a cookbook. You can also read it more like a novel: enjoying the language, getting familiar with the peculiarities of the narrator, and letting the waking dream of a different world assemble itself in your mind. In the case of a cookbook, the world you visit is mostly a kitchen, and the eyes you see through are those of someone who loves cooking.

Now I mostly read cookbooks while laying in bed. I love it when their authors talk about different techniques, how they came to learn something, and what they were thinking when they formulated a dish. In this way I have spent time with the minds of patissiers, Chinese-American cooks, Persian-American cooks, bread bakers, and even that guy who started Blue Bottle Coffee. (He’s very intense about his coffee.) I cannot recommend pleasure reading good cookbooks enough.

But John Thorne also taught me that when you want to cook a specific dish, the opposite approach is best: take down every cookbook that you can think of that might have a recipe for that dish. Read all of the different approaches. Then come up with your own.

So, excited to make salsa ranchera, did just that. I took down Rick Bayless’s Mexican Everyday (with its bizarre emphasis on yoga, of all things), The El Paso Chile Company Cookbook, and one of my favorite books ever, Secrets of Salsa.

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Secrets of Salsa
was first published
in 2001 by the Anderson Valley Adult School, and it collects the salsa recipes and stories of the women in their English as a Second Language classes. Everything in the book is presented bilingually, in facing translations. The book design is beautiful, the salsa recipes are excellent, and all of the proceeds benefit adult literacy in Anderson Valley. According to the seventh edition’s introduction, Secrets of Salsa has sold more than 27,000 copies. If you account that mine cost $14.95 new at Matson Mercantile in Elk, that must be a lot of money raised. Beyond its incredible value as a fundraising tool, it is a powerful proof of the work they are doing in those classes. I think of the pride of these women in seeing their ancestral knowledge and personal genius collected and valued in such a tangible way—it makes my heart sing.

So I compared Bertha Mendoza’s recipe for Salsa Ranchera to those from my other cookbooks. The El Paso Chile Company suggested fresh jalapeños where Bertha used pickled ones, and I thought that made sense—especially with what I had in the fridge. I also looked at a few recipes I found online. I liked the idea of adding some broth to both thin the salsa and make it richer.

Eventually, I turned the broiler on and made my own version. This salsa is rich with flavors, moderately tart, and a little spicy. It gets better over a few days in the fridge, and in my experience it can keep for up to two weeks. (As with all refrigerated foods you have to use and trust your senses.) Lisa and I have enjoyed it over huevos rancheros, in burritos, and on baked potatoes.

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Jasper’s Salsa Ranchera

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10-12 roma tomatoes
3-5 jalapeño peppers
1/4 of an onion
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1/4 cup strong vegetable broth
juice of 1 lime
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1. Halve the tomatoes and peppers. Array them face down, round side up on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, along with the onion and unpeeled garlic. Roast for ten minutes in the broiler—until the tomato skins are crackly but not burnt.
2. After removing from the oven, pull the skins off the tomatos and jalapeños (if possible). Also peel the garlic.
3. Throw everything in a blender. Blend. Salt to taste.
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Serve alone or as a topping. Store in the refrigerator. If you have more than you can reasonably eat within the next week or two, give some away or freeze it.

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Just put some ice in your beer already.
I don’t get why people are so precious about this salubrious liquid. In Thailand, everybody does this. And why not? It makes your beer cold. Then it keeps your beer cold. And, best of all, it slowly dilutes it! Learn to love your cold, watery beer.

I’ll see you next week

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Jasper

 

A White Male Writer

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The literary journal Your Impossible Voice has just published my story, “A White Male Writer,” which I hope that you’ll read either on its website or in the print edition. Here are its opening lines:

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He was a white male writer, and—despite having kissed a few boys at a Halloween party last year, even letting one stroke his bare chest, despite the occasional fantasy in which other boys featured — he knew he was for all practical and self-image purposes straight. So there it was: he was a man with light complexion and heterosexual leanings who wrote fiction, and he often expressed this in the cultural language of his day. Straight / White / Male he wrote in the margin of his notebook during class. Then he added, Unwanted.

Of course he wasn’t really unwanted. If he wrote something genuinely good, beautiful, and interesting, others would read and enjoy it, and he would eventually find a way of getting it published. Likely his path to print would even be easier than most. But his writing wasn’t genuinely good, beautiful, or interesting. He wrote a winking parable about a vendor at a gun show, a venomous parody about two lovers at the Student Center’s Tuesday Karaoke Night. He wrote a thinly veiled piece of autofiction about an unpleasable boy who had sex with the same girl as he had last year, in the same bed covered in stuffed animals. They were bad stories; unequivocally they were bad. Some of his professors thought they saw here and there the germ of good writing, perhaps in his ear for the names of fictitious groups like “Sudsy Studs Carwash,” “The Union of Back-Up Singers for The Tone-Deaf,” and “Melancholy Celibates Anonymous.” It’s more likely, however, that they were searching for something nice to say, some morsel of praise to cantilever their very constructive criticism. He noticed that his creative writing teachers, resolute in their practice of crossing out every last intensifier on his drafts, nonetheless used them in great quantity when prevaricating about what they liked in his stories. “It’s a very, very believable scene.” “I’m extremely impressed by the name of this group, really.” (Click here to keep reading)

The Body Is an Object

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I’m happy to announce that Juked has published my story, “The Body Is an Object.” Here are its opening lines:

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We grow marijuana in the summer and smoke it in the winter. It turns out it’s a lot of work to grow good pot, but we offset the difficulty of harvesting by hiring friends to come up from the city and help. They like the extra money, and we enjoy their company, seeing their tents out the window over the sink, if only for a few weeks.

Some nights I stand outside the cabin, staring at the stars. It’s lonely out here. I know that Venus has set. I think that that one orange-twinkling star might be Mars. There are only a handful of rocky chunks circling our sun, each impossible to reach. The distance to the next sun is unfathomable. How big the universe is, with its trillions of stars in their little clusters. How big the world itself, and us all spread across the surface. Why are Annie and me a couple? Fate seems cruelly deterministic right about now, and I dig my bare feet into the cool soil.

I want to fuck Carolina. She’s Jasper’s friend; I’m not sure if they were a couple at some point. I don’t know why, but it’s just been burning through my head since they came up to trim for us. Her round cheeks, wide hips, big butt, her belly. I edge around her in the kitchen, and I feel her life force right there up against me. Nothing happens, but I smell her fruity cologne and she is a whole other world. I get turned on, making my toast as she washes out her mate cup next to me, and I have to take myself into the bathroom, splash cold water on my face. (Click here to keep reading.)

Cat Poem

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This poem was originally published alongside many student poems in the Mendocino Poets in the Schools
2016 County Anthology. This Spring I was teaching rhyme to a class of fourth graders when one student raised her hand and said, “Why don’t we read your cat poem?” It turns out the kids like it, which is about as high a compliment as a poem can get.

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Cat Gone Two Weeks

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by Jasper Henderson
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Cat be nimble           Cat be quick
Cat sleep on window   And then get sick
Cat be happy            Cat be sad
Cat bites ankle          Cat is mad
Cat be bored            Cat be aware
Cat hear noise           Cat get scared
Cat be fat                Cat be in love
Master’s home           Time for a rub
Cat be hungry           Cat meows
Food bowl refilled       Cat chows
Cat in the hat            Cat in a box
Cat in a fight            Sounds like a fox
Cat is tired              Cat takes a nap
Cat wins a job           The better mouse trap
Cat on a fence           Cat in a hole
Cat in hiding place      Where did cat go?
Cat has gone out        Cat is due back
Where could cat be?     Alas and alack!
Cat has gone missing    Cat just flat gone
Cat left no clue          Cat left no song
Cat was so mean        Cat did us wrong
Cat gone two weeks     Cat gone too long
Cat came back!          Just yesterday
Cat sauntered in         We said hoo-ray!
Cat is the best           Cat is my friend
Cat needs a rest         So this is the end

The Blood-Sex Iconostasis

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I’m thrilled to announce that my story “The Blood-Sex Iconostasis” was published today in Joyland San Francisco. Here are its opening lines:

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Night falls over town. The fog doesn’t recede. Sodium lights flicker to life. Some hold steady; others strobe on and off in lugubrious, neurotic cycles. The sky takes on the sickly orange glare of their light. The parking lot at Safeway empties. Cats are fed and dogs put inside for the night.

Benjamin lowers the blinds and wanders from room to room with a candle on a drip pan. Beneath a bag of tealights in a box he packed before college, he finds his compass. It still has lead in it. He reaches deeper into the dark square and feels the triangular prism of an engineer’s ruler, pinches a stiff parallelogram of eraser, pushes away the flimsy plastic cylinder of a cheap kaleidoscope. He pulls the ruler and eraser out, then finds his old clamshell phone masking-taped to its charger. He plugs the phone in and swipes his smartphone off. After almost a minute the ancient one flares on, screen glowing blue against the dark.

He sits cross-legged on his one nice rug and constructs a heptagram. (Click here to continue reading.)

Vote For Jill Stein? Six Arguments For, Deflated

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Dear Friends and Family —
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         I know that many of us are looking towards the coming election with dread. Any semblances of reason and hope seem to be missing. Our political system seems broken. And so, naturally, we look for a third option. And there is someone on the left who would happily take your vote: Green Party candidate Jill Stein. But to vote for Stein is in fact to use faulty reasoning. In essence, it means voting against your best interests. In the following essay I address — and deflate — six arguments in favor of voting for Jill Stein. I hope that you’ll read it, and I pray that you will vote with your and my best interests in mind.

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With love,
Jasper Henderson
Emeryville, California
12 September, 2016

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Argument 1: “Hillary and Donald Are The Same.”

 

  • Is this really true? The last time we heard this line was back in 2000. But think of all the things George Bush did that Al Gore almost certainly would not have:
    • Started the Iraq War.
    • Passed the PATRIOT Act.
    • Enacted vast tax cuts for the rich.
    • Allowed the Assault Weapons Ban to lapse.
    • Appointed Samuel Alito and John Roberts to the Supreme Court
      • which led directly to the Citizens United ruling.
    • Passed No Child Left Behind.
    • Gutted the EPA.
    • Significantly worsened climate change through inaction and environmentally hostile policy.
    • Policies led directly to the Great Recession.
  • Let’s be clear: the presidency of George W. Bush was a pretty much unmitigated disaster.
  • If Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, had not taken 2.7% of the vote on the left, it is certain that Gore would have won, and the terrible list above would not exist.
  • We know that there are upcoming similar decisions that the next president will make:
    • Filling at least one vacancy on the Supreme Court.
    • Deciding whether to fix or destroy Obamacare.
    • Commanding the military in relation to Syria, Iran, Russia, and China.
    • Setting climate change policy (staying in the Paris Agreement).
  • Can you with a straight face claim that Clinton and Trump would act identically on these issues? Their stated stances on each of the above items clearly indicate otherwise. Do you remember when this argument was made in 2000?

 

Argument 2: “I’m Not Voting For Trump.”

 

  • In a two-party or “winner-takes-all” system, as we have in the U.S.A., to abstain or to vote for a third-party candidate is a guarantee of voting against your best interest. Unlike in, say, a parliamentary system where your faction can gain seats with even a minority of votes and possibly use those seats to join a coalition, in the U.S.A. only the highest vote-getter wins any power — and they win all the power. Think: if two leftist parties split their voters 30% and 30% and the rightist candidate took the remainder of the vote (40%), the rightist would take all of the power. This is why in our system we have to form coalitions BEFORE we vote in general elections.
  • If you vote for a candidate guaranteed to lose, or you don’t vote — rather than voting for the candidate most closely aligned with your interests with a real shot at winning — then in a real sense you are voting (or abstaining) against your best interest. You are cutting off your hand to spite your foot.

 

Argument 3: “I Feel Like I’ll Never Get to Vote For Someone I Like.”

 

  • This is probably not true: most on the left both liked and voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
  • Maybe you mean, “I’ll never get to vote for a socialist.” Again, though, this is untrue: almost all Jill Stein supporters voted for Bernie Sanders in the last year.
  • This is how our system works: you vote for your very favorite candidate in the primary — and then win or lose you vote for the major-party candidate whose positions most align with your interests in the general. Work hard for your candidate in the major-party primary, and hopefully they’ll make the general!
  • Also, as a side note, you shouldn’t like Jill Stein. She is a licensed physician who nevertheless has made numerous statements suggesting that vaccines cause autism. This conspiracy theory is blatantly false and is damaging our country and our children. To pander to a fringe constituency on this issue shows a lack of character that I find disqualifying. But even if you really like Stein, voting for someone with no chance of winning the presidency is extremely foolish.

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Popular vote tally from 2000 presidential election. Bush won Florida, and the election, by 537 votes.

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Vote tallies from 1932 election in Germany, the last before Hitler became dictator. If the Socialists and Communists had banded together, they might likely have prevented the Nazis from seizing power.

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A list of current polls, showing Clinton either just behind or just ahead of Trump, with Jill Stein playing the spoiler.


Argument 4: “The System Is Broken. I Won’t Participate.”

 

  • In spirit I agree with the first part, that our system of elections and politics in general has many, many problems. However, when your car is having issues, you try to fix it — you don’t just abandon it in a pull-out or heavens to Betsy torch it.
  • The best way to fix our system is from within That’s how we ended slavery, passed the Civil Rights Act, created Social Security, ended the Vietnam War, ended Prohibition, enacted the free public education system, and got women the right to vote. None of these struggles was easy, nor was any won by not voting, or voting for doomed candidates.
  • Not participating does not qualify as action. Real action — action that can lead to change — is civil disobedience, armed insurrection, or community organizing. Pick your poison and get to work. But don’t lie to yourself that the act of voting against your best interests will in any way lead to systemic change. Much more likely the opposite.

 

Argument 5: “But the Green Party Is So Great!”

 

  • The Green Party, at the presidential level, is a once-every-four-years pageant for some misguided leftist to feel important and claim there’s zero difference between Republicans and Democrats.
  • If the Green Party is serious about building a movement and achieving real change, it should focus on local elections and build from the ground up. Its efforts in this department can be generously described as just getting going, and more honestly described as effectively nonexistent. The Green Party has only 130 elected officials in the whole country. This, out of more than 511,000 elected offices in the U.S. Do the math to figure out what percentage of offices Greens hold: .03%. If you round up. One in every 3,930 elected officials is a Green.
  • The real opportunities for change exist inside the Democratic Party. Activists are making real progress, and Bernie Sanders’s campaign went a long ways in pushing Hillary Clinton and the Democrats’ platform to the left. But she has to win for any of these accomplishments to mean anything.

 

Argument 6: “But Hillary Will Win No Matter What.”

 

  • Want to wager your life on that one? Want to wager someone else’s?

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Number of votes by which Bush beat Gore in Florida: 537

Number of votes cast for Ralph Nader in Florida: 97,488

Number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq War: 4,424

Number of U.S. soldiers wounded in action in Iraq War: 31,952

Number of Iraqi civilians killed in Iraq War: between 100,000 and 650,000