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Saturday, July 11, 2020
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Suggestions for your senses,
every Saturday at 9 a.m.
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Good morning.

This week, we ask author and anthropologist Gina Rae La Cerva about her media diet, consider the return of letter writing, stock our pantries with conservas, attend a few virtual literary talks and book readings, and ponder body odor in the time of quarantine.

On our At a Distance podcast, we talk with author Jeremy Lent, The Climate Mobilization’s director Margaret Klein Salamon, and architect and urban planner Mitchell Joachim.

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See
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Into the Wild
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Photo: Shauna Hovden
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Geographer and environmental anthropologist Gina Rae La Cerva spent three years journeying around the world in search of undomesticated food for her new book, Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food (Greystone Books). We recently caught up with La Cerva, currently stationed in Santa Fe, to ask about her media diet. (For more with La Cerva, check out Ep. 39 of At a Distance.)

Do you have any morning routines to kick off your day?

I am not a morning person, and I’ve really been trying to get into a better morning routine. I try to keep my phone out of my bedroom, but then the first thing that I do when I get up is go into the other room, get it, get back into bed, and read the news, and look at email and Instagram. I’ve been finding that’s not the right way to start the day. [Laughs] The goal is to wake up and drink coffee outside instead of jumping to look at my phone, just to give myself a moment before inundating myself with all the crazy in the world.

What are some of your go-to, indispensable daily reads and/or listens?

I tend to look over The New York Times and NPR in the morning, on my phone. For a while, I was good about listening to NPR’s Morning Edition regularly, and earlier this year, I also really appreciated BBC podcasts for giving a global perspective on the pandemic.

Any favorite writers or reporters that you’re following?

I’ve been loving the work coming out of Civil Eats and also recently discovered Whetstone magazine, which is wonderful. Right now, one of the books on my list is Michael Twiggy’s The Cooking Gene, which is sort of an anthropological look at his own identity through food as a Black, gay, Jewish man.

What do you make of the ongoing media reckoning, particularly in food media? 

It’s obviously way past due. Women, and particularly women of color, have been the keepers of so much food knowledge for so long, and not getting credit for it. I compare it to crop diversity. We’ve basically all been eating the same kind of, let’s say, Granny Smith apple for a long time now. And really, we’d be doing much better to be eating lots of different varieties of apples, and there are so many kinds of apples—some that are good for baking, or making jam, or sauce. Elevating certain voices doesn’t mean we don’t want the Granny Smith; it means we have that diversity of flavor, and nutrition, and information. With social media, even if you attempt to diversify your media consumption, it’s very easy to get siloed into just hearing the same kinds of voices. 

For your own work, where do you look for inspiration and research? 

Inspiration can come from totally unexpected places. For example, I recently read an article about Barcelona’s opera house holding a concert for an audience of nearly 2,300 houseplants! I also love looking at historical material, so anything on archive.org, or the open-access section of Project MUSE. I’m such a history nerd and love reading these old-timey adventure and natural-history accounts of places and people and things.

Any outlets you still prefer to read in print?

I always love to read stuff on paper, but I recently moved, so I haven’t gotten any of my subscriptions back in place quite yet. I recently found an old copy of Utne Reader from 1995, and a bunch of other magazines when I went through my storage unit. It’s fascinating to see what was happening back then, and how close we still are to so many things—like, there was a book review for Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information. Well, we did not do a good job resisting that! I also read the local news, the Santa Fe Reporter. But it’s been hard for me to read these days. I just want to watch bad TV right now.

Okay, maybe enough news talk. What are you watching or reading for pleasure?

I’ve been watching Killing Eve and reading [Gabriel García Márquez’s] Love in the Time of Cholera. Sometimes I’ll watch Avatar, which is a cartoon for children—a friend of mine recommended it, and at first I thought, This is not for me. What is this? Then, Ed Yong did an interview in The Atlantic and said he was watching it, so I thought, Okay, if Ed Yong likes it, I’ll give it a try.

Speaking of food, what’s on your actual plate these days? Cooking anything in particular?

My grandpa passed away about a year ago, and I recently got gifted this enormous book of Italian recipes—his family’s from Sicily—and it’s literally a foot-and-a-half thick. I’ve been getting a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture delivery] and avoiding the grocery store as much as possible these days, and sometimes it’ll include items I don’t usually cook, like zucchini, so I’ve been looking into the book for ideas and was able to adapt one of the recipes for that. It’s been a nice way to connect to him. I’ve also just got some kefir starter from someone in town, so I’m excited to experiment with thinking about the microbiome, making some kimchi and other fermented things. I tried sourdough and it was an absolute fail, so I decided to move on to other foods.

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Touch
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Note Worthy
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Photo: Chloe Crane-Leroux
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People have been bemoaning the decline of penmanship since the earliest days of typewriters, the once-newfangled, speedy writing machines seen as the cause of increasing illegibility among adults’ handwriting. And yet, even in today’s tech-heavy world, that skill is defying obsolescence, as the lost art of letter writing finds new footing in the current generation of snail-mailers, now stuck at home and probably sick of screens. These elegant note card and stationery sets from the Canadian startup Maurèle add an artful, personal touch to the analog communiqué, with a range of customizable designs and distinctive typefaces to choose from, each inspired by the personal letterhead of a famous cultural figure, from Hannah Arendt to Leonard Cohen. In this era of social distancing, a handwritten note can feel infinitely more intimate than a knee-jerk text—and the delayed gratification of sending and receiving a letter in the post offers a small antidote for these extremely online times. Siri, add classy stationery to the wish list of “sparks joy” indulgences.

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Taste
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Canned Culture
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Courtesy José Gourmet
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The idea of “pantry cooking” connotes a sense of resourcefulness—the humble term focused on the shelf lives of whatever ingredients are around, more than their quality or taste—but as Esquire food and drinks editor Jeff Gordinier told us on Ep. 10 of At a Distance, canned food can be every bit as delicious as the fresh stuff, if not exceedingly so. Conservas, tinned seafood products from Spain and Portugal, can last for months, if not years, in the cupboard, but that seems to be secondary to the range of ingredients and flavors you can find: from delicacies like octopus in Galician sauce, to sweet roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with bonito tuna. Chicken of the Sea, these are not. Fortunately, you can browse and find all sorts of conservas online from grocers such as La Tienda and Chicago’s Wixter Market, and fuel those wanderlust dreams of a trip to the Iberian coast. “The other day I tried zamburiñas,” Gordinier told us on the podcast, with excitement. “Have you heard of that? See, this is interesting. I'm still seeking out adventure with my freaking pantry!”

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Hear
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Talks of the Town
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Courtesy City Arts & Lectures
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Festivals are canceled for the year, and online dance parties now a bit played out, several months into the pandemic—restlessness is high. Luckily for the indoors kids and bookworms, there are plenty of online readings, workshops, and talks to give your eyes a rest and make the solitary act of reading a little less so, even if only virtually. House Party, a digital performance and semiweekly publication series from The Poetry Project (not to be confused with the social media app of the same name), launched this March as a way to share readings, songs, dances, and new and older works alike—“from the hearts and living rooms and bathtubs of our collective digital church,” in the organization’s words, along with a regularly updated list of emergency grants and resources for writers and artists. Over at the Center for Fiction, book talks with authors, such as one taking place on July 31 titled “The Long View: New Fiction from Edmund White and Yiyun Li,” are continuing online, as are various workshops, including a communal writing experience, along with a meditation for the hands led by a Jivamukti yoga teacher. Another can’t-miss is the ongoing digital series at San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures, home to a trove of previously recorded conversations and upcoming talks that will be webcast and later available to the public with a suggested donation. We highly recommend taking the time to watch this recent webcast between author Rebecca Solnit and actor and screenwriter Brit Marling (pictured above).

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Smell
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Body Check
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Photo: Andrew Zuckerman
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Short of a vaccine, masks and social distancing measures are here to stay, for the foreseeable future, anyway—and your nostrils may have picked up on some of the sudden lifestyle changes connected to this new normal. As the spaces and people we come into contact with are kept to a minimum, so has the everyday sample set that our extensive “microbiological auras” were once normally exposed to, in actively out-and-about, pre-pandemic times. Our bodies, hosts to a community of microbiomes that contribute to their odors, may be reaching a level of bacterial stasis, as a result, and depending on where you live and with whom, you’re likely taking on the scent and microbial makeup of your surroundings. 

You might detect the change of smells underarm, sure, but also from your belly button. As biologist Rob Dunn recently explained to us on Ep. 49 of At a Distance, both areas have apocrine glands, which produce the bacteria responsible for your personal funk: “It appears that the only reason those glands evolved was to feed those microbes and produce those aromas, so there’s this other thing of like, ‘Wait a minute, our belly buttons and our armpits are specifically feeding special stinky microbes? What’s going on there?’” Imagining ourselves as landscapes of microbial environments, festering in the recesses of our belly buttons, and how they might smell—let’s just say this all gives new dimension to the term “navel-gazing.”

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Until next week...

Today’s email was written by Aileen Kwun.

Editor: Spencer Bailey
Creative Director: Andrew Zuckerman
Producer: Mike Lala
Copy Editor: Mimi Hannon

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