January 16, 2008

The stir-fry/BBQ index

David Brooks on last night's Democratic presidential debate in Michigan ("Republicans Brawl, Democrats Yawn", NYT, 1/15/2008):

The Democratic debate has been a love fest. The candidates have all (for very good reasons) decided to pull back from the mutual kamikaze tone of the past few days. Their discussion constituted a repudiation of the old Boss Daley of Chicago, who famously said that politics ain't beanbag. Apparently politics is beanbag, because that's all the Democrats threw at each other tonight. I've seen more conflict at a pacifists' stir-fry. [emphasis added]

I've never been at a pacifists' stir-fry, myself, and frankly, I doubt that David Brooks has either. In any case, my general experience with pacifists has been that they're more argumentative than average, not less.

All the same, Brooks' little rhetorical gesture made me wonder about the nature of the conventional association that he's evoking, which I guess depends on ideas like pacifists tend to be vegetarians, and a stir-fry is a characteristic dish for a party of vegetarians; pacifists tend to be cosmopolitan, and stir-frying is outside the bounds of traditional American cooking. But here's a bit of independent evidence from Google web-search counts:

  stir-fry BBQ BBQ/stir-fry ratio
154 .4

However, linguists and lawyers are even lower than pacifists on the BBQ/stir-fry scale, and no one who has ever spent much time with members of either group is likely to accuse them of conversational disarmament:

  stir-fry BBQ BBQ/stir-fry ratio

So score one for Brooks on skillful choice of stereotypical associations (his strong point in general), but deduct points for factual accuracy and logical argumentation (areas where he is traditionally weaker).

In fact, Brooks has a history of making stuff up about the sociology of food in order to create effective rhetoric. Sasha Issenberg, "Boo-Boos in Paradise", Philadelphia Magazine, April 2004, documented some interesting examples in detail. The thread of Issenberg's argument in one case:

To see the vast nation whose condition he diagnosed, Brooks compared two counties: Maryland's Montgomery (Blue), where he himself lives, and Pennsylvania's Franklin (a Red county in a Blue state). "I went to Franklin County because I wanted to get a sense of how deep the divide really is," Brooks wrote of his leisurely northward drive to see the other America across "the Meatloaf Line; from here on there will be a lot fewer sun-dried-tomato concoctions on restaurant menus and a lot more meatloaf platters." [...]

Brooks, an agile and engaging writer, was doing what he does best, bringing sweeping social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called "status detail," those telling symbols -- the Weber Grill, the open-toed sandals with advanced polymer soles -- that immediately fix a person in place, time and class. [...]

There's just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false. [...]

As I made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home. "On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu -- steak au jus, 'slippery beef pot pie,' or whatever -- I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most-expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee's," he wrote. "I'd scan the menu and realize that I'd been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and 'seafood delight' trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it."

Taking Brooks's cue, I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The "Steak and Lobster" combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75. "Most of our checks are over $20," said Becka, my waitress. "There are a lot of ways to spend over $20."

The easiest way to spend over $20 on a meal in Franklin County is to visit the Mercersburg Inn, which boasts "turn-of-the-century elegance." I had a $50 prix-fixe dinner, with an entrée of veal medallions, served with a lump-crab and artichoke tower, wild-rice pilaf and a sage-caper-cream sauce.

Read the whole thing -- food isn't the only area where Brooks' pop-anthropology "status details" turn out to have been invented, or perhaps I should say, chosen skillfully from among the available stereotypes.

My own stereotype is that a remarkable percentage of what I read in newspapers and magazines is the result of a similar style of "research". This may be false, but it turns out to be true often enough to make me suspicious of the rest -- and I'm not the only one.

[Update -- Empty Pockets writes:

I enjoyed your post this morning. I'd like to add that along with inventing facts, Brooks may have invented a concept: the stir-fry as social gathering.

I can find plenty of google hits for "at a barbecue," meaning at a social gathering where food is being barbecued, but none for "at a stir-fry" in that sense.

Even broadening the search using "at a * stir-fry" doesn't pull in anything like Brooks's sense in the top few pages of hits.

Disparage Brooks as you like, but clearly he's aware of an entire category of parties that the rest of us are not getting invited to!

This excellent point hadn't occurred to me. Besides BBQs, there are a number of other conventional gatherings named for comestibles and/or food preparation methods: clambakes, pig roasts, fish fries, ice-cream socials, cocktail parties, and so on. But I've never seen an invitation to a stir-fry, nor a report about one after the fact. ]

[Matthew Hoberg comes to David Brooks' rescue, at least with respect to the question of stir-fry-related social occasions:

A bit of Google sleuthing revealed that "stir fry" is not so different from barbecue, cocktail party, etc- though it is uncommon in that sense. The expression in favor seems to be "stir fry party." That term is found on a bunch of restaurant sites, in the sense of "come pick out your ingredients, our chef stir fries it for you"-- but it is also used to describe social stir fray gatherings at people's homes, at camps, etc. I found these sites by googling "stir fry party." You get less than a hundred hits with that phrase in quotes, so perhaps these parties are uncommon-- but they are out there.

For the first sense:
"It's a stir fry party, as they call it, where you get to pick from 2 different kinds of rice or 3 different kinds of noodles, vegetables, meats...."

For the second sense (which David Brooks uses):
"It's fun to have a stir-fry party and get friends together," she added. "Everybody's in the kitchen playing a role in that, the chopping and the dicing."
"For those of you who like holding dinner parties, why not hold a stir-fry party."
"When I worked with a bunch of people who got together frequently to socialize, we would do stir-fry parties."
"cape cod June 8th Annual stir fry party"
"Try a new meal out on company. Perhaps a stir-fry party, where every one can help."

OK. But Brooks didn't write about "a pacificists' stir-fry party", it was "a pacifists' stir-fry".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 16, 2008 07:59 AM