Giving Good Weight By John McPhee


This was feeling like a three-star McPhee to me as I wound my way through it. When you have favorite authors, and read everything of theirs, you inevitably face moments of realization; this might be my least favorite book of my favorite author. Bittersweet.

But, the last piece in this book 'Brigade Du Cuisine' won me over and brought the book safely up into the middle realms of his body of work. Nonfiction, Outdoors Nature, Science He and I had an equipment shootout, which he seemed to think he was winning. He put up his new tent, an ice-blue JanSport with glass wands and a three-quarter length fly, the whole affair a subtle compromisein breathing and impermeable nylonsbetween the statistical probabilities of incoming water and air. Round, repulsive, mychophane, it appeared to be a model of the Houston Astrodome, its ceiling four feet high. 

The first of what could be a whole lot of McPhee for me (thanks, Morgan!). Not a word out of place; still lively and vivid: I heard a truck backfire in New York City, I tasted strange things in a secret restaurant, I heard a river do a thing I didn’t even know rivers could do. If there’s a problem with reading little journeys like these it’s that it threatens to substitute, too well, for taking (much less writing) my own. 

Nonfiction, Outdoors Nature, Science Read only Brigade de Cuisine and the story about pinball (read through half of Giving Good Weight before giving up), and the 4 stars rating apply only to these 2 essays. McPhee's writing is great, but his essays tend to be a tag draggy. He has this writing technique where he recites a long string of nouns to convey the magnitude of items being discussed, and this technique is repeated to the point of being irritating - especially when I don't really understand the jargon he uses (e.g. the names of french dishes in Brigade de Cuisine). As much as I liked Brigade de Cuisine, I felt it could be half the length, so that one could reasonably expect to finish it in one sitting. Still, I found it a remarkably effective piece of writing, in that it achieved its goal of documenting the process of creating food of superlative quality and unfathomable complexity, as well as exploring the chef's motivations as an artist and idealist. A thoroughly memorable piece of work. Nonfiction, Outdoors Nature, Science It was a mixed bag.

As with many McPhee's, this was a collection of shorter writings.

We've got McPhee working on farms and at farmer's market's around NYC - entertaining; we've got New Jersey thinking about building floating nuclear power stations - quite fascinating; we've got a story about pinball -which, honestly, was what I was most looking forward to, but turned out to be utterly forgettable; we've got, yet another, story about McPhee canoeing (and I already have a thing about canoing), so I was dreading this one, but it was the most enjoyable canoe writing yet; and we end with an obscure restaurant near NYC - it sounds like a French haute cuisine version of Shopsin's - which makes you want to pack up and leave tonight, and eat there for every meal tomorrow - until you realize the book was written in 1975, and there is no restaurant to go to :(

Overall, hooray for McPhee - but it isn't one I would start people with, but I'm considering colored flagging some of the stories to loan out. Nonfiction, Outdoors Nature, Science The title of the book refers to the first story, about the New York green market, or farmer's market. McPhee works the booth of one of the farmers and captures the energy of the market through dialogue, descriptions of the clientele and time spent on the farm harvesting crops, touring the land and talking with the families. The dialogue at the market is especially effective at conveying the essence of working a booth.

Other stories in the book cover a plan to build a series of nuclear power plants off the coast of New Jersey, a canoe trip down the St. John's River in Maine, pinball philosophy and an extended story about a gourmet restaurant outside New York City. His range of interests and his curiosity drive each of the stories. I highly recommend this book. It is a quick read. Nonfiction, Outdoors Nature, Science

Only John McPhee can make everything from cutting wood in the forests of the northeast to green markets in NYC to a floating nuclear reactor into an absorbing read. There's also a memorable description of an extraordinary chef preparing a a fresh octopus for dinner at his restaurant. I'll say no more. Nonfiction, Outdoors Nature, Science Giving Good Weight by John McPhee

This collection is composed of four non-fiction stories that are about fifty pages each. There is also a ten page story called Pinball Philosophy that’s not really long enough to evaluate.

1. Giving Good Weight - this is the title essay. It is largely about working at the farmers market on Manhattan’s east side. McPhee had to weigh a lot of vegetables for customers. And one customer was surprised that McPhee wasn’t trying to rip her off saying you give good weight. McPhee also gets to visit some of the source farms - an egg farm and an onion farm. I had no idea how dense these chicken farms are. One of the most insightful stories about New York City that I’ve ever read. Just brilliant. 5 stars.

2. The Atlantic Generating Station. In the early 1970’s a plan is laid out by the New Jersey Public Works to build a floating nuclear power plant in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast! The projected cost is $375 million. We learn that in the past on a few occasions when coastal cities were stricken with long term power outages, ships were used as electrical power generators so getting the conduits to shore would be no problem. But they would have to build a breakwater around the plant. They also used a ship in the Panama Canal to help power the locks when the water levels were low during the summer and not enough electricity was produced. As far as the feasibility studies, we know that the ocean is “the world’s best heat sink”. We also learn that New Jersey has had four recorded earthquakes in the past two centuries but this is a floating plant so it would be a tsunami that might be more of a problem. In its recorded history the largest tsunami to hit the New Jersey coast was less than a foot high. So no problems there after all. But alas by the late 70’s - perhaps unsurprisingly - the proposed project is scrapped due to inflation and other cost projections. 5 stars.

3. In the Keel of Lake Dickey we follow a group of canoeists in four canoes as they paddle down a hundred mile section of the lengthy St. John river in Maine. This river as it reaches the ocean even reverses flow. Samuel de Champlain discovered the river in 1604 some sixteen years prior to the Mayflower’s arrival. We learn other random facts like fiddleheads - the tips of ferns - can be quite tasty. We learn about the paddling techniques in anticipation of the dangerous Big Rapids some one hundred miles down river. A canoe capsizes but the men are rescued and the trip abruptly ends a few hours later at Dickey. Dickey was a proposed dam site that was scrapped based on environmentalist protests and cost run ups. There are however three other dams located on the 418 mile long river. 4 stars.

4. The last book is Brigade de Cuisine. The author gets to know some Latvian chefs in New York City and explores their lives and their story of fleeing the Nazi’s when they were children. 3 stars.

4.5 stars overall. Very few authors can write non-fiction as consistently well as John McPhee. Nonfiction, Outdoors Nature, Science John McPhee has me questioning a lot of my life choices right now. How have I made it this far without ever tasting truffles? Why don't I treat myself to a proper feast, perhaps some grilled eel (a personal weakness, but it's been forever), some smoked shad-roe pâté mousse, or some good ol' stuffed clams, dammit. I made the mistake of reading his journalistic essay, Brigade de Cuisine, after tossing together a flopped experimental supper inspired by the vegetables rotting in my fridge, and I lay in bed with my mouth watering at the creations of the unnamed chef he observed on and off for a year. On the weekend I read a section aloud to a friend, describing rendered beef fat and pounding a pork loin with a wooden mallet, and he just stared at me: Why am I reading this, exactly? My usual reaction to red meat is revulsion (which I have ample opportunity to display; the cook at work's favourite hobby is shoving raw meat in my face), but John McPhee describes everything so tenderly that I would hunt down this chef if the essay wasn't written in the 1970's.

I recommend his essays on green markets in New York City and a canoe trip through Northern Maine with equal verve. You get the sense that McPhee really inhabits a place, marinates in its essence for months in order to write about it. The other two essays here were of less interest to me, but it's a well-rounded introduction to a keen mind.

I reserve my highest praise, however, for his chef d'oeuvre Annals of the Former World. I will visit this restaurant again. Nonfiction, Outdoors Nature, Science I don't think I'd read this one before. Five old New Yorker articles from the mid-70s. Great stuff, and really hasn't dated. No surprises there: I'm a serious John McPhee fanboy. You should be, too.

1. New York's Greenmarket, a big farmer's market, is the title article, back when farmer's markets were new. McPhee talks to the farmers/vendors, mostly, and works for a couple of them for awhile. The farmers generally liked the black people best as customers, finding them less fussy. Then the Spanish, and the wealthy whites are the least popular: fussy and rude. The farmers like getting paid much more than wholesale, and the customers like good produce at reasonable prices. Win-win, and 4 stars. 73 pp.

2. New Jersey Public Service had a serious proposal to build a large, floating nuclear power plant 3 miles offshore, in the early 70s. McPhee talked to the engineers, the biologists, and the oceanographers studying the proposal. The utility seemed to be doing a careful and methodical job , and the scientists appreciated the work. The biologists were more dubious about the project, the oceanographers more supportive. No fatal technical issues were found -- the design was tested for a simulated million-year storm (a super-hurricane) and a simultaneous shipwreck of a supertanker on the enclosing breakwater. Citizen opposition had begun, but no permits had been granted when the project was put on indefinite hold in 1978. 5 stars 44 pp.

3. McPhee meets one New York's 2 pinball wizards, tries out his favorite Bally machine, then the two wizards meet at the Circus Circus off Times Square. Short, sweet, very entertaining. I was never very good at pinball. McPhee's piece makes me want to play a game or three. 4 stars, 12 pp.

4. A canoe trip down Maine's St. John River, in Aroostook County, almost to Canada. McPhee's companions include a Saltonstall, a Cabot from Boston, and a Byrd, a descendant of the polar explorer. At the time, there was an active proposal to build Lake Dickey, a large hydropower pool, but the Maine river remains largely a wilderness waterway today. 3.5+ stars, 47 pp.

5. Brigade de Cuisine is a article about a chef-owner and his wife, the pastry chef, who operated a restaurant in the wilds of upstate NY, and insisted on anonymity for both themselves and their restaurant, which was about to move anyway. Otto, trained in Switzerland, grew up in Spain and worked there again later, where he met Anne, his wife. McPhee spent considerable time with them, much of it in the kitchen, listening and eating -- McPhee says that the 20 0r 30 best meals in his life were at the couple's rural restaurant. There might be more lists of ingredients and dishes here than I really needed to know, but this is also the most entertaining essay in the book. Here's Anne, who's served a Chivas to a customer, who accuses her of serving something cheaper (it was Chivas): You get out of here and you *never* come back! The woman ran for her car. 4 stars, 60 pp. Nonfiction, Outdoors Nature, Science Thinning my book shelves I got sidetracked re-reading a book I read many years ago. I still enjoyed most of it though I've grown a bit less patient with some of the detail. The title essay Giving Good Weight, about an early farmer's market in 1970's NYC is still my favorite. At the time of first reading I worked in at the Pike Place Market here so it resonated deeply with me.
My other favorite Brigade to Cuisine was still interesting though my fantasy of having such a restaurant as described has long faded. Too much work! Nonfiction, Outdoors Nature, Science

You people come into the market—the Greenmarket, in the open air under the down pouring sun—and you slit the tomatoes with your fingernails. With your thumbs, you excavate the cheese. You choose your stringbeans one at a time. You pulp the nectarines and rape the sweet corn. You are something wonderful, you are—people of the city—and we, who are almost without exception strangers here, are as absorbed with you as you seem to be with the numbers on our hanging scales. So opens the title piece in this collection of John McPhee's classic essays, grouped here with four others, including Brigade de Cuisine, a profile of an artistic and extraordinary chef; The Keel of Lake Dickey, in which a journey down the whitewater of a wild river ends in the shadow of a huge projected dam; a report on plans for the construction of nuclear power plants that would float in the ocean; and a pinball shoot-out between two prizewinning journalists. Giving Good Weight

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