October 25, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Graphic novelist Richard Sala cures the zombie apocalypse malaise with a new book that takes the basic set-up of those tales and turns it into an artsy, comical, downright weird exercise in terror that brings together several slices of the horror genre for one onslaught. Something weird has happened to the world — there’s a full-scale slaughter being enacted by monstrous creeps who are tearing apart the cities and leaving trails of bodies. One mysterious man flees the scene and is found much later, practically catatonic in a cave. His rescuers, Tom and Colleen, embark on a quest for safety with him and, along the way, encounter more nightmarish tales of what is going on in the world, as well as the secrets of why it is happening.
Sala initially introduces a world beset by zombie creatures, but he brings in elements of vampires and, most importantly, Frankenstein, for a wellrounded horror tale that blends these three traditional horror elements into something modern and surprising.
Equally, Sala’s art style helps the story ride high — his dark cartoons manage to suck you into the narrative while still highlighting the meta quality of the story. This is a story about horror as much as it is a horror story, examining the themes that draw us into these stories as much as they are utilized by authors to comment on the real world. Somewhere between those two intentions lies “The Hidden,” a modernist horror tale that acts like the zombies it evokes, cannibalizing the genres from which it sprang and spewing out something new from those entrails.
October 25, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Performer John Kelly reaches back more than 20 years for “Find My Way Home” and finds it even more relevant in 2011.
Kelly’s new production will be performed at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Oct. 15, at 8 p.m.
“Find My Way Home” is a revival of 1988 multi-media musical based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, recast in the Great Depression with Orpheus as a famous radio crooner. Kelly — an actor, singer and dancer — utilized opera, dance and video, and his show won a number of awards, including a Bessie.
Kelly brought the show back in 1998 for performances in Miami, Portland and Seattle, but it never made it to New York, as Kelly had hoped.
“It always remained in my mind as a sore spot, a rupture,” he said.
The show remained on the shelf for more than a decade, but Kelly applied for an NEA American Masterpieces Grant and received two, which allowed him to also do two revivals, one last December and the current one.
When deciding to revive the show, Kelly mulled over whether he could actually still play the character of Orpheus. He knew Orpheus could be any age, but had to honestly ask himself if he still had the hunger to inhabit the character after 13 years.
“It was one of the most ambitious projects I had done,” Kelly said. “So there was a practical thing of ‘OK, I have the grant, and I have to do it and I can do it,’ but beyond that it was ‘Can I care enough about it to redo it?’ The answer to that was ‘Yes, I still care enormously about it.’ ” More challenging were the issues of the physical production.
“It was a question of me getting hold of all the old physical production, recasting it partially, revisiting it, and retooling it as need be,” Kelly said. “I’m attempting to keep it as close to the last production as possible, but there are some adjustments and some improvements.”
Kelly had some trouble with the storage space that kept sets, props and other materials required for the physical production, and still hasn’t been able to recover everything. This has necessitated the recreation of the original stage backdrop.
“My two main collaborators az- my set designer and my costume designer — are both dead,” Kelly said. “My set designer died of AIDS in 1993, and my costume designer died of an AIDS-related heart attack sometime in 1999.”
Three of the original six performers also died, and Kelly has had to recast those three roles.
“I had an enormous love for the collaborators who died — three of my dancers died — so there was a bit of a reverence around the idea of doing it again,” he said.
In 1988, the piece functioned as Kelly’s very personal response to the AIDS epidemic, filtered through his love of Greek mythology and the 1930s. His first AIDS death, a mentor, was in 1982, and the grief did not stop there — instead it snowballed.
“By 1988, I had lost a number of friends already, including a very close singer friend of mine, so this was me essentially being an AIDS activist on the stage,” said Kelly.
Taking to the streets just didn’t feel right to Kelly, and he felt he could better address his concerns and mount his protests on the stage in a performance. It was, after all, the world he came from — his career began with performances in night clubs on the Lower East side of New York, legendary early 1980s spots like the Mud Club and the Pyramid Club, where he would perform as Maria Callas.
It was also in these venues that he began using film and video in his performances, now an integral part of his productions. “I had been working with a filmmaker since 1983 because I wanted to be on film,” Kelly said. “I wanted to use film as a part of my dance vocabulary because I didn’t study theater, I came from dance and visual arts.”
Kelly started out utilizing Super 8 film, then 16 mm and now, even with digital video, he finds a screen with visuals still has the same power in a live performance — and they still help take “Find My Way Home” to another level.
“Those sequences augment the narrative, they provide a different texture,” Kelly said. “I find modern audiences are riveted by media in performance. I know it’s chic and hot, but I’ve always felt that modern audiences are riveted by the TV or whatever, the movie screen, because it’s both menacing and alluring and it doesn’t change but what’s within it can change as if they’ve never seen it before. It’s a nice thing to have onstage with live bodies. It’s another dimension.”
Kelly integrates film sequences during Orpheus’ suicide — here he recreates a scene from Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” — as well as in a hospital scene, a poker scene where the Underworld unfolds and at the point when Orpheus gets his sight back and he can see Eurydice once again.
“It’s a way of relaying that information to the audience by providing another dimension, another texture, and without using spoken word,” Kelly said. Kelly uses the aesthetic of period black-and-white films to bring the story alive “I know most of it from black-and-white films, so for me, in my brain, the palette is the very desaturated urban landscape,” he said. “And it was a fairly desaturated palette in terms of the presence of metal and black, white, gray, silver, shiny, reflective, shiny, new technology as opposed to the 20s, which is all about color and a different type of life.”
That changes when the story shifts to the Underworld and a new aesthetic takes over.
“I decide to set the piece in the early ‘30s, which is also just a benchmark moment, 1932,” Kelly said, “with Hitler coming to power and the Hollywood code going into effect and the Depression, it really was a very loaded few years. When Orpheus is able to charm the Furies with his singing voice and make his way into the Underworld, we basically go back in time a bit to go to the Underworld, into the ‘20s. It’s full-color.”
It was not lost on Kelly the similarities between events now and in the era he had placed his story, and he also triangulated these circumstances when considering the time that he wrote the piece.
“The divide between wealth and gentrification, with affordable areas for outsiders, artists and like-minded spirits, quickly diminished, and the diminishing began in the early 1980s in New York in the East Village where I lived,” he said. Kelly can still recall the Wall Street crash of the ’80s and the East Village bohemia that found itself overtaken, though complicit in their own invasion — low-income creativity began to welcome the cash being brought in by rich people looking to slum for the night.
“There was a huge influx of yuppies into the East Village who would come to party and make a mess,” said Kelly, “and we were very happy to have their money although we knew that it was the beginning of the end. That game has always been going on and culturally the divide between rich and poor seems to always be present, although there are points where it’s more present and to me, it was very present in the ’80s and it’s so much more present now.”
Kelly sees this occupation of Manhattan’s own hip Underworld of the ‘80s as the end of an era and the beginning of another that has a direct line to 2011, and which his piece stands as a time piece with a relevance that crosses the temporal barriers with its outlook.
“There is no physical bohemia left in Manhattan,” Kelly said. “It no longer exists, even though the visual Muzak of the culture is hip, is what artists used to look like, is tattoos and piercings and a two-day growth on your face and an attitude, a slacker attitude. That’s all affectation and all of that stuff came out of genuine petrie dish culture of affordable rent and artists creating culture.”
“With the stuff going down on Wall Street now, it’s a perfectly viable thing to be lingering on.”
October 25, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Whenever I see a sign with Ron Boucher’s slogan “Back to basics,” I am reminded that ever since I was 15, there have been loads of politicians and those seeking election demanding that I go back, and that everyone in my generation goes back. And each generation of high-schoolers after me has been asked the same. We’ve only just started, we think, why do we have to turn around?
It’s a mixed message for people of that age. As we begin to be politically aware, as we start to figure out what the world is all about and we formulate what we want to do with our lives, our future, it’s strange to have someone tell you that you should accept that you’ve run up against a wall.
This is not a criticism of any of Mr. Boucher’s specific ideas. This is, instead, a lament for a particular brand of sloganeering that casually implies no progression is necessary.
It was the message of Ronald Reagan — we apparently were supposed to return to traditional American family values back then. By the definition of many, that seemed to mean 1950s social norms. But it seems to me that was only the criteria because that was Reagan’s hey day, and the same for so many pushing this idea.
Each time someone suggest reaching back, embracing old values, it is inevitably a time that the person feels is the best time they had. Bible thumpers routinely go back anywhere from 50 to 5,000 years in their evocation of what era was so perfect that we have to move back to it. Reagan might have liked the 1950s, but I have a feeling that by 1959, there were a lot of conservative people who were pining for 1941, when there weren’t so many out of control teens and Communist radicals and black people on their televisions. Or even televisions.
So ethereal is the concept of going back or reaching back or looking back, that when I see a sign that says something like “Back to basics,” I have to ask when those basics were that we are going back to. Two years ago? Twenty years ago? Fifty years ago? What basics? And whose? Who decides what is basic to a community?
Does basics mean no frills? What are considered frills certainly change over time. What people considered a solid education in 1945 was different from what people considered the same in 1975. What was considered a great career in 1921 was long gone by 1995. And still, we can look back to 1995 and say that things should be more like they were in the Clinton era. Lots of liberals have, but liberals are as likely to wear rose-colored glasses as anyone else.
I’ve often thought that the reason so many conservatives are opposed to the fact of evolution has nothing to do with the actual science versus religious aspects, it has to do with the idea that evolution validates change as a natural process.
Change happens, nature does not look back, nature has no basics. And if evolution upsets conservatives, please don’t tell them about entropy, that will make them blow a gasket.
On second thought, do. Teach entropy in schools. It’ll drive the tea party crazy.
The only way looking back does any good is to teach a lesson about what used to be and how we can either avoid that happening again or improve on what was done. Going back is not only the worst plan in any situation, but a cruel thing to teach 15-year-olds to do.
Teenagers, don’t listen to your elders. Keep your eyes on where you’re going, not where we’ve been.
October 25, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Local painters Joshua Field and Melissa Lillie have taken their technical talents to Wall Street in order to dress the occupiers in custom T-shirts that get their message out.
The idea started small, with Field deciding to make some Tshirts for protesters and somehow get them down to Wall Street. He based the designs on actual signs that he had seen being used in the Wall Street protests.
“I’d been planning to screen print a few T-shirts locally for Occupy Wall Street after learning that the protesters’ cardboard signs had been largely ruined by the rain,” Field said. Field raised money to purchase T-shirts and other materials on the website Indiegogo, and also noted that a gallery in Brooklyn had planned to do a screen printing and sign-making project at the same time. The idea of making shirts there stuck in his head, but the process began here.
“Melissa and I scrambled to make a first batch of T-shirts to take down to the event, thinking that we might make a few more when we got there,” said Field.
“When we finally got to the protest site, the line to get shirts printed by Brooklynite Gallery was already down theblock and Bushwick Print Lab had also joined in the printing effort, so we jumped in and started printing shirts.”
Helping to pick up the slack for the other printers, Field and Lillie did their printing for free and quickly ran out of shirts to give out. Some donations helped them get more and they managed to produce several hundred before night fell. The next day, they had a training session in order to get some help with the effort.
“We recruited some additional protesters at the park, as well as people who were waiting in line to get a shirt,” Field said, “including a 13-year old girl who had done some printing at school and wanted to give it a whirl! She had a blast.” The next two days saw the effort churn out about 1,200 prints and collect 33 volunteers, most of whom take to the printing lab when they get out of work or school.
“They are some of the friendliest, hardest working folks I’ve had the pleasure to meet,” said Field. “It is amazing to work with a group of people, who, rather than sitting on their duffs and complaining, roll up their sleeves and get their hand dirty for something that they believe in.”
Thanks to the volunteer staff headed by Lisa Guido, Field and Lillie have been able to ensure that the printing lab is running almost every day of the week, although they haven’t backed away from the operations. The two artists still take part in the printing and have now set their sights beyond lower Manhattan.
“We are working on setting up kits to send to other Occupy cities, so that they can set up print labs as well,” Field said.
October 25, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Photographer Ben Ripley is fascinated by the moment and what that means in context of photography — in a new work, he attempts to make the moment he captures more inclusive of the time it slices out.
Ripley’s show “Photo of this Undescribed” opens on Thursday, Oct. 27, with a reception at 5 p.m., at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ Gallery 51.
Among the works Ripley will show is a 75-foot photograph that Ripley created by mounting a camera packed with equal size negative film on a boat and exposing the film manually as the boat moved.
The boat — two kayaks and a platform mounted to it — was created this summer during the nautical art group Mare Liberum’s appearance at the Bureau For Open Culture at Mass MoCA. It was loaned to Ripley specifically for this project and will return to the group after its appearance in the gallery for the show.
Ripley pulled from the past in order to get the job done.
“It’s a technology that’s pretty old,” he said. “It’s a camera from the early 20th century that was used to record horse races, to stream it along and then they’d be able to see exactly which horse was crossing the line first, instead of having a picture to just get that exact moment.”
“There’s a lens and the negative is moving behind it. The full frame is only a tiny slit of exposure at any given time on the negative. It’s kind of like painting an image as the negative moves.”
The mechanism is very similar to that of a scanner used on computers, just requiring negative film rather than a digital process. There is an iPhone App that does a similar thing with that computer, which Ripley had considered using for tests last spring before opting for a different camera setup. The image created by such a process features moments of coherency with other moments of waviness.
“I tested it using a 35mm camera,” Ripley said. “I took a beer can and made a little screen in the back with a slit out of it and built a model that was maybe a foot in each dimension and figured that out and then made the full sized version.”
Ripley built the full-sized camera from plywood and made use of a 19th-century brass lens used originally for taking 16×20 portraits.
He didn’t require any instructions, improvising his own design based on cameras that were being used in the 1920s.
The image is created through several motions at the same time the paces of these have a direct effect the final product.
“On the boat, you’re cranking as the boat moves,” said Ripley, “so it’s including the motion of the boat and the motion of the operator, so if the operator bobs or weaves in, it might lighten or darken the photograph.”
Ripley required a long roll of negative film to accomplish this task, and tracked down some Swiss-made film on eBay that he believes is from the 1980s, so technically considered expired film and requiring a raise in temperature when developing. From there, Ripley had to expose the negative onto photographic paper. For this, he had to rig up another mechanism, as well as find a roll of 75-foot photographic paper and the space in which to accomplish the processing.
“I teach at Buxton School and we just finished this really nice fine art complex and the new dark room is something I got to design three years ago and it was just built,” Ripley said. “It’s huge. I was able to build the mechanism into that, but the mechanism for developing the film that prints is huge, it’s ridiculous — windshield wipers and hair dryers and glass rods.”
Ripley modeled his contraption around film developing machines that they used to have in drug stores. This system is not hand-cranked — Ripley has the pace of the motor and spools fairly wellregulated “I try to make it as consistent as possible,” he said. “It’s not too bad,” The idea for this work came out of a previous project Ripley had been working on that was based in language, exploring the idea that a singular word is like an act of violence against the continuity of the stream of language. If a sentence is the whole being, then a word is body part ripped from it.
“Every time you choose a word, you’re removing something from its context and destroying the actual thing you’re communicating,” said Ripley. “That kind of thing is what I have been thinking about and then I’ve been thinking about what you can do with photography and take it further. Those two ideas linked up.”
In context of a photo, the work is obviously about time, but Ripley points out that it is also about space — photography is partly the art of editing through framing the visual, even as the image eventually exists as a slice from the continuum.
“When you’re taking a picture with a regular camera, the shutter opens and cuts off a moment and then closes,” said Ripley. “It also cuts off space, too. It cuts off everything to the left and right, it cuts off everything on the top and the bottom and it defines a perspective. So it’s about time in that it freezes and it does the same thing with space, too, which I think is pretty cool.”
Ripley does have plans to further the project by extending the negative indefinitely, making the photographed moment as unknowable in length as the moment it portrays.
“I’ve found that negative material is usually packaged in 50-foot spools, so I have to connect two of those,” he said. “Photographic printing paper often sells in the 100-foot length, though I don’t know that too many people would expose the entire thing. Then they have some that are 100inch thick. If you splice together two negatives it is possible to get a good, continuous photo.”
The project is not without its practical considerations, though, and Ripley is thinking about those now even as he prepares for his conceptual future.
“I think what it would have to be is around 100 feet and not too much further, although it wouldn’t fit in the gallery,” said Ripley. “This one is already going all along the wall and around the corners.”
October 25, 2011 § Leave a Comment
USA Today reported this week that student loans have doubled in the last decade, expected to top off at a trillion dollars this year.
The newspaper revealed that this debt burden causes students to delay their “life cycle” and warns the biggest generation of debt slaves ever is coming — if they can actually find jobs.
Meanwhile, the Huffington Post has reported that Goldman Sachs has such a high stake in for profit places like University of Phoenix that government student loans practically translate into corporate welfare.
Add to that the practice of predatory recruiting that rivals similar mortgage lending practices that destroyed the economy, and the great bank swindle continues.
Where exactly has the American Dream gone if average citizens are institutionally prevented from attempting to achieve it? And what does that mean for the rest of us?
The need to pay back the average college loan slashes away the personal freedom to thrive. Real creativity, regardless of your vocation, thrives on chance-taking, and no one does that when saddled with nightmarish bills at age 22.
Debtors don’t opt for innovation — they opt for security. That’s a recipe for personal unhappiness — worse than not living up to your potential is not even having the opportunity to try. When entering adulthood with huge debt, the gambles leading to brilliance aren’t your first choice — or your second or third.
I’m reminded of Paypal owner Peter Thiel and the winners of his fellowship award of $100,000 given to 20 entrepreneurs under 20 in order to fuel their innovation with an odd twist — they need to skip college in order toqualify.
The accepted wisdom is that without a college degree, you’re nothing. Plenty of people now dispute that, strengthened by each encounter with someone trying to pay off college loans but not working in the field of their study. You meet those people all the time — the members of America’s modern indentured servant class.
If you’re very lucky, you get out of debt before you’re 40, but don’t count on it. And if you spent your time in college focusing on the hot major du jour — in the 1990s it was communication, now I think it’s marketing — don’t be surprised if you end up in a menial office job just scraping by.
It’s a swindle, really.
In too many instances, four years in college is creating a class of Americans who are slaves to their debt before they are really grown-ups, and that is hurting all of us collectively and personally.
Thiel’s point admittedly isn’t that everyone should skip college, but that our process creates a burden that squashes the future. It could be the process of higher learning itself or the financial burden, but either conspire to distract energy that would otherwise be spent on crucial experience and experimentation. By stifling innovation at the time when it’s supposed to be reckless and capable, we cut off the strides that the United States might have made, while other countries go full speed ahead in science, technology, business and the arts.
I agree with Thiel’s point, but also believe that skipping school is something many people can realistically opt for.
Certain jobs require degrees, but others don’t, and many an economist has lately suggested that your money is better spent elsewhere — on travel, on investment in your own talent and capabilities. Write a book, open a business, see the world, get some experience, develop your ideas. Live and learn.
One thing is for certain — if we don’t solve the problem of the cost of future education as well as those already educated, the necessary ingredients to build a strong economy and culture — dynamic ideas from dynamic young people — aren’t going to be there. They’re going to be wage slaves for Goldman Sachs.
October 13, 2011 § Leave a Comment
With this new release, clever tropical funkster Kid Creole — a.k.a. August Darnell, the man in the zoot suit, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band co-founder, the guy with three blond showgirls constantly at his side — returns with confidence.
Back in his hey day in the 1980s, Darnell met with acclaim by some and confusion from others. His tongue in- cheek stage presence, his clever and raunchy wordplay that told stories of sexual politics and banana republics, his music that was an energetic but precise mix of funk, reggae, salsa, big band, ‘70s disco and a splash of Broadway. None of this was easy to peg down in the 1980s. Audiences understood Prince, but Kid Creole? Was he a novelty act? No, and Darnell stuck around, though, basing himself in Europe and continuously touring, along with occasional releases, the last of which, 1999’s “Too Cool To Conga” was a straightforward and stripped down swing band effort that sadly slipped through the cracks.
This new release, “I Wake Up Screaming,” is a return to traditional form for Darnell, now 61 years old and infected with the same sly multi-ethnic energy.
“I’m the one who put the gritty in New York City,” Darnell growls on “Blow My Horn,” reaching back to his early times as a Manhattan mainstay on Ze Records, the strangest bird in the No Wave. A lot of the album looks back, most notably the chipper opener “Stony and Cory,” which pays tribute to his old Dr. Buzzard co-horts.
Darnell also defers to the past from lifting a couple treasures from The Coconuts’ “solo” album in the 1980s — written and produced by Darnell, of course — by reworking their “Ticket To The Tropics” as “I Wake Up Screaming” and infectious “The Glory That Was Eden” as “Verily, Verily, Verily.”
And as he tosses out reminders of his history, he also embraces the multicultural melange he helped pioneer, adding in cabaret torch songs like “Tudor-Jones” and upping his delightful and raunchy Louis Jordan style personality — and sometimes delivery — on songs like “Somebody’s Got To Lose” and “Attitude,” while still managing to retain his sweetness in efforts like “Just Because I Love You.”
The past 15 years saw Darnell experimenting with styles, but here he returns to what he does best — being his own unique self.
October 13, 2011 § Leave a Comment
The roots of “The Devil’s Dictionary” began in Ambrose Bierce’s mind in the mid-1800s when, after purchasing the brand-spanking-new Webster’s Dictionary, it occurred to him that creating a satirical dictionary might be just the thing to do.
Over a career as a newspaper columnist, he began writing the components of his work, which premiered in book form in 1906. It contained such passages as “Conservative: A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” Martin Olson has taken the core of this idea and transformed it into a literal expression of the title that is seasoned by a back-story that unfolds in the form of extraneous notes and culminates in one final, extremely philosophical examination of the natures of good and evil, God and the Devil and man’s place in the universe. It’s an entirely secular exercise that embraces spirituality in literary terms that can be applied to the human experience.
The set-up for the book is that Satan is planning a mass invasion of the Earth by demons, but this involves making sure a time paradox does not take place. It seems humans — putrid, stupid, good-for-nothing-but-demon-food humans — are really the early form of demons not yet evolved, so to invade the Earth and eat the humans means that the demons are actually planning to eat their own ancestors.
In preparation, Satan has commissioned several demons to compile this encyclopedia as “ an invasion manual for demons concerning the planet Earth and the human race which infests it.” It’s in these reference portions of the book that the spirit of Bierce runs rampant. Economics is defined as “the science of disguising the amount of money being hoarded by billionaires,” need as “that which destroys human relationships” and trees as “that which provides a natural setting for a hanging.”
Interspersed, though, are letters from editor Zyk of Asimoth to publisher Mortimer Ponce that recount not only behind-the-scenes demon conspiracies and Satan’s raging management decisions, but also Zyk’s time-traveling research trips and his love affair with a human. These are as offensively outrageous as they are hilarious, and let’s just say the highlight features a madcap sex romp between the demon, Adolf Hitler and a nun.
Following the calamity, darkness and sheer grossness, the book somehow manages to wind down on a tender, philosophical note, as God’s plan for the whole universe — and how this encyclopedia is but one part of it — is revealed.
Olson has spent the book mixing up scientific ideas with magical religious iconography, and wrapped it all around a sarcastic and coarse kind of secularism, only to reveal that all the ingredients combine into something unexpectedly profound. It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of boiling pus, but if you’re adventurous, you’re bound to find several points of deep thought and laughter spread within.
October 13, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In “How Carrots Won The Trojan War” from Storey Publishing, author Rebecca Rupp tackles the totality of everything through the topical springboard of vegetables — even that potato on your plate has several tales to tell.
Rupp is a prolific author, with numerous titles and subjects ranging from homeschooling to meteorology to neuroscience, peppered with a number of well-regard novels for kids. Her background is in cell biology and bio chemistry, and she lives in Northern Vermont.
For her new book, Rupp investigates cabbage, eggplant, pumpkins, radishes and more. She started out with an alphabetical listing of all the vegetables she wanted to cover — and she got to do most of them, only cutting out a couple for space reasons.
“We lost okra,” she said.
For Rupp, it was an education in not only in science and history, but in psychology, especially when it comes to man’s drive to survive despite having to take in some of the nastiest … “One of the things that kept striking me as I was researching this book was how we didn’t starve to death before we got out of the Stone Age,” said Rupp. “Some of the stuff we initially cultivated was so unappealing. The earliest corn cobs were like the sides of pencil erasers. Cucumbers were ghastly little things, little tiny bitter with spines like porcupines. I can’t believe it occurred to anybody to eat this.”
Some vegetables offered a dearth of information — some less, but the actual facts packed a wallop that made them worth including. Most offered a nice mix that gave Rupp the opportunity to tackle the unexpected along with the more obvious investigations.
“Take onions — certainly you want to talk about why onions make you cry, why onions have that battery of nasty chemicals and whatnot — but every once in awhile there’s just a tidbit, there’s not much to it, but it’s just such a clever little factoid that I couldn’t resist keeping it. Roman gladiators were massaged with onion juice.”
One of the joys of writing the book for Rupp was discovering things that she didn’t already know, and some of that knowledge could get unusual, as in her discovery of the link between corn and vampirism.
“A couple of British scientists published this paper where they hypothesized that pellagra — that is a deficiency disease caused when too much of your diet depends on corn, in Europe might have something to do with the appearance of the European vampire legends,” said Rupp. “Pellagra has all of the symptoms that appear vampiric. People become very light sensitive, it’s a wasting disease, so you’re pale and you’re fading and you only come out at night. Vampires sprang to their minds. It made sense to me. Nobody knows if it’s true and Dracula just needed a niacin pill, but it’s something to think about.”
Rupp also unearthed various misconceptions about certain vegetables, facts that went opposite the accepted wisdom. How many times have you been told that cooking vegetables washes away all the nutrients?
“There’s a perception that raw is better, fresh out of the garden is the best, and then I had all that science that some vegetables have to be cooked before you get the full benefit of all the nutrients,” she said. “Like you get more nutrients out of tomatoes in tomato paste than you do a raw tomato.”
This is also the case for carrots, which, Rupp reveals, releases only 3 percent of their beta-carotene when raw, as compared to a whopping 40 percent when cooked.
Spinach is legendary — thanks to Popeye, mostly — for being a great source for iron. Granted no one thinks they are going to pump bullet-shaped muscles into their arms, but the sailor’s comedic exploits have served to fuel this misconception. Rupp says that she also came across a rumor that the entire belief was due to a decimal point error on an early scientific paper. That turned out to be not true, and spinach is filled with iron — but the truth is complicated by science. “There is loads of iron in spinach, it’s just that we can’t digest it,” Rupp said. “It’s kind of pointless. Most of it is called non heme iron, it’s not associated with a little organic molecule so we can’t digest it. The bulk of iron in spinach is inaccessible to people. He probably should have been having spaghetti for energy.”
Equally, there are some foods that never get enough credit — why the eggplant isn’t pushed as hard as blueberries for antioxidants is probably obvious, but still unfortunate.
Rupp also spends plenty of time not dissecting the vegetables scientifically, but historically and socially, that goes far beyond our impression of them on our plates. There is the much-maligned beet, which few care to eat but finds a divergence in their history when a German chemist figures out a way to use them as a sweetener that would transform the world through industry.
Meanwhile, the innocent celery had the gruesome misfortune of being utilized in the ancient Greek phrase, “He now has need of nothing but celery,” which meant the fellow was about to die. Equally unfortunate is the fact that it is prominent with psoralens, a photocarcinogen with a potential for causing skin cancer. It’s at low enough levels so as not to hurt humans, but no one appreciates a failed poisoner any more than a successful one — or the sick ones. Celeries with microbes causing sickness tend to have more dangerous concentrations.
It’s a multidisciplinary approach to talking about food, a suggestion that whatever is on your plate is accompanied by centuries of history that give it power far beyond appearance, smell and taste. Food is a major part of the human story, but also something with narratives of its own, and Rupp’s hope has been that readers beyond the foodie sphere would embrace the book as a springboard to knowledge.
“I was hoping that it was a book that would appeal to quite an audience — history buffs, science buffs, gardeners, foodies, cooks and just the plain curious,“ she said.
A veteran homeschooler, Rupp appreciates the concept of exploration as an educational plan — and has a concurrent view that the book would probably function well as a curriculum of sorts, largely thanks to the uncovering of narrative that takes the facts outside the realm of dry learning and into the tradition of rich lore — it’s how we retain information and Rupp, who has written about the way the brain remembers things, took this into account when crafting the work.
“It’s got good stories, but the solid stuff too, very much in terms of homeschooling, the story is so important,” Rupp said. “That’s the memory clinch. What you remember are these great stories and then you put all the facts together.”
It’s also a revelation for how information works — everything links to everything else and no final answers are ever possible when it comes to information. There is always a side route, and Rupp is happy to take as many as she possibly can.
“I love all those historical, scientific interconnections,” she said. “The fractal nature of the whole thing fascinates me, but in researching it, you inevitably have a lot more than you put in, so I usually do a huge amount of research and pare it down. I would’ve liked it to have sprawled even more, the story behind the story behind the story.”