Amidst numerous disappointments for me in the redesign of the New York Times Magazine, there is one thing the new editors got very, very right, this being the presentation of Mark Bittman’s wonderful Eat column. If you’ve been exposed to Bittman through his Minimalist column, or his myriad cookbooks, you know that he stands for beautifully real food, simply prepared. He is a voice for restoring the place of cooking among the palette of basic skills possessed by all adults, and his adroitness at balancing elegance with ease in his recipes makes his body of work an important entry point for those “too busy to cook.” His philosophy of approximate measures, devotion to high quality ingredients, and embrace of the seasonal and sustainable have inspired me on more than one occasion, and so it’s a joy to see his recipes matched by visuals convey their exuberance.
Bittman’s organizing principle is theme and variation. The theme is of the moment: heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, pasta primavera, lobster. It is a carpe diem call, an urging to revel in an evanescent largess of some kind. It is rooted in abundance, a perennial theme of Aesthetics of Joy, and this is what we see brought to the forefront in the visuals. The theme unfolds in variations, typically four movements, that burst with color and possibility. It has become a weekend ritual for me to eagerly anticipate the column, tearing through the magazine to find this page, and add it to the collection on my fridge door. (It’s worth noting that it is nearly as lovely in the online version – in some ways more so, with more emphasis on the food.)
I find these arrays irresistible, and I can’t overstate what a victory I believe this is for real food. In the modern age of mass production, comestible abundance has been claimed by Big Food, by double cheeseburgers and all-you-can-eat buffets, by the Big Gulp and the Venti latte. Aesthetics of abundance are especially prominent in confectionary. It’s the “taste the rainbow” of Skittles, which overflow their boundaries in the ads, an industrial bumper crop. It’s the giddy experience Willy Wonka, vivid M&Ms, everlasting gobstobbers, and Mr. Softee with hundreds and thousands. The association between sugar and joy and abundance is primal – it derives from harvests, and our genetic predisposition to take advantage of excess while we have access to it. Waste not, want not.
But the ecstatic sugar-high has overshadowed the natural abundance available from real food, the kind that comes from a farm, not a factory. It excites me to see an aesthetic treatment that imbues real food with this feeling of plenty. After all, we eat with our eyes as much as our mouths, and for all our best intentions, there is an unconscious craving for muchness.
If there is thing I hope people take away from this blog, it’s that things are easier to change than people. And changing things often leads to changes in people. It may seem trivial, but I see the Eat column as an example of design used to outsmart our cravings, to realign our desires with the needs of our bodies in a contemporary context. I hope this is just the beginning of Aesthetics of Joy in the food revolution.
Now go make yourself some corn and blueberry crisp and savor these last days of summer!
Images: Heirloom tomatoes Yunhee Kim for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Deborah Williams. Layout from Margaret & Joy’s gorgeous food blog. Asparagus Yunhee Kim for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Deborah Williams. Fruit desserts Yunhee Kim for The New York Times. Food stylist: Megan Schlow. Prop stylist: Deborah Williams.