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.
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This open format has since been replaced by the ‘walled gardens’ of Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, etc.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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
NOTES TOWARDS A PATTERN LANGUAGE
OF THE GREAT SANDWICH
2 Bread Slices + Greens + Cheese + Tomato + Mayo + Mustard
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.
Improvise the order of ingredients
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.
Put the fats (mayo, cheese) near what’s bitter and sour (greens, onion, pickled things)
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.
Slice everything just thick enough
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.
Salt the tomato slices
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.
Put slippery ingredients against the bread
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.
Cut the sandwich in half
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.
Toasting is 100% optional
Toasting the bread can make a good sandwich better, but it won’t make a mediocre sandwich good. It is truly optional.
Serve with chips
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.
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?
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.
17 May 2020