Both the TV and the viewer exclaim, "I Love It!"
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During a protracted period on the couch with a stomach virus a few months ago, I found the only thing I could keep down was HGTV. The voices on these shows were so soothing and nonjudgmental, and the hardwood floors, finished cabinetry, coordinated backsplash, and designer-rustic farm sinks so aesthetically pleasing that I was lulled back to health before I knew it. I came away with a deep appreciation for how this programming functions in our culture.

To begin, it is useful to observe what these shows are not about. They are not about self-improvement. To be sure, they focus on improvement — i.e. on the production of a nicer envelope for living. But no effort is made to improve the health, wealth, or moral fiber of the clients being served. This, quite frankly, is a relief. We have passed through the cultural interlude in which we were bullied relentlessly about eating better, exercising more, and brightening up our personalities (not to mention our teeth). This, I believe, has made us acutely aware of how lazy and inherently imperfect we are, creating anxiety and anger as the eventual byproduct. Our current political situation can be understood as a backlash against that wearisome imperative that we be better than what we are inclined to be.  More… “Our HGTV Moment”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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When I was growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1960s, my parents would announce periodically that we would be going to go out to dinner. When the announcement was made, the evening was imbued with a festive air. We dressed up — I have a recollection of patent leather shoes and crinolines. Eating out was an occasion; it happened rarely and felt like an extravagance.

I don’t think my family was unique in this. Most people of that era — unless they worked in advertising — rarely ate out.

No longer. Now, everyone eats out all the time.
More… “The Eating Out Habit”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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From social commentary to commodity, Janette Beckman’s career is in many ways a classic model of the popular memory of punk rock. As a young photographer who documented London’s youth cultures in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, she found success and opportunity earning commissions from magazines and record labels. Like Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, Beckman sold her creative labor, just as thousands of artists and musicians have done for generations. Whether or not punk “sold out” is an oddly recurring but nonetheless pointless question: it was embedded from the beginning in contemporary commercial culture — in the ideas, languages, icons, objects, exchanges, and processes of consumption. It was always about selling, in one way or another. More… “Clash or Credit”

Josh White is a doctoral student at University College London and researches, among other things, the history of punk in the US and UK. He is also a writer and journalist for The Times.

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More than forty years ago, on the eighth floor of an auditorium in Dayton’s department store in Minneapolis, the artist Red Grooms created a unique installation. He called it The Discount Store (1970). The work was commissioned by the Walker Art Center, which was still in the process of building its now-famous permanent home in Minneapolis. With great foresight, The Walker Center also commissioned a documentary film (by Al Kraning) on Grooms’ project. Watching the film gives some idea of what it must have been like to experience the artwork.

Grooms constructed The Discount Store after visiting a Target Discount store in Crystal, MN. He created huge, ten-foot tall wooden cut-out figures to represent the various costumers in the store. He painted the walls to look like aisles filled with an abundance of cheap goods — everything from toys, to soap, to guns (Target used to sell guns… More…

In the same way that America’s fast food purveyors pack their menus with cheap, empty calories, the country’s home builders pack their houses with cheap, empty space. On a cost-per-square-foot basis, the typical McMansion may seem like a good deal — but like a Big Mac, what sort of nourishment does it truly deliver? Gorge yourself on cathedral ceilings, three-car garages, and all the tasteless architectural condiments you can stomach (gables, turrets, etc.) and you’ll only end up as queasy and unsatisfied as the Joneses next door.

 

Like tiny medallions of herb-encrusted, farm-to-table lamb loin at your local fancy restaurant, smaller homes — sustainably grown, artfully assembled, a little bit pricey — represent an obvious alternative to such fare. But how to convince America’s real estate gluttons that this approach can apply equally to dining rooms as well… More…

If Shanghai isn’t really China (as I was repeatedly told by Shanghainese), and the Expo isn’t really Shanghai (in but not of the metropolis, they also insisted), then I really have no clue where I spent 10 days last month. I ate Swiss fondue, bought a Kyrgyz felt hat, and had my passport stamped “Trinidad” by a young Chinese woman who never looked up from her text messaging. It was thrilling to visit North Korea and pretend the guard watching me was compiling a surveillance report on “the American with straw hat and a digital camera.” I think he really was. The replica of the Trojan Horse was undeniably creepy, hovering in the ominous blue light of a well-sacked mock-Troy. There was a parade every night and lines all day and the staff drilled and marched in military display. I was encouraged to consider the universality of 21st-century urban life… More…

Many complaints have been written about the pancake-wrapped sausage on a stick, and its kid brother, the Pancake & Sausage Minis. There is, first of all, the look of them: a reviewer on the Impulsive Buy blog describes the minis as “tiny, diseased Russet potatoes.” And that’s just on the outside. When I look at the cut-in-half example on the front of the Minis’ packaging, I can’t help but think that I am looking at something dirty, like the poor Pancake & Sausage Mini forgot to close its curtains when changing at night and I happened to look up and catch the thing’s…well, sausage hanging out. Chow’s Supertaster describes the actual taste of the Pancakes & Sausage Minis as “solidly bad-bad,” noting that “[t]he mealy, greasy sausage is real enough, but the pancake coating is pretty fictional – it’s far more like breading than a soft, absorbent, fluffy breakfast delight.” Even… More…

 

 

How would you describe the smell and taste of a fresh white truffle? Meg and I asked each other this very question as we navigated the streets of Alba, lost on our way to Pio Cesare winery. We debated this because we were in possession of a tiny truffle that filled our tiny Lancia with its odor. And odor seems the right term — I definitely would not call it a fragrance or a scent. Like most people experiencing the white truffle firsthand, we’d been throwing out the usual descriptors: earthy, pungent, woody, rooty, garlicky, cheesy. We were also still laughing about the unfortunate description of its taste by food writer Corby Kummer, published in Gourmet some years ago: “It tasted of parts of the body I urgently wanted to know better.”

“It’s like a regular mushroom… More…

 

One day, out of the blue, my husband decided that we needed a new television. We had until then been a minimalist TV family. We had one small set on the third floor of the house that had an indistinct static-y picture from which the color capriciously came and went. It was the kind of set on which the opening ceremonies of the Olympics looked a lot like Mardi Gras.

But things were about to change, big time. First, my husband went off to Circuit City and didn’t return for several hours. When he finally arrived home, he had a “television consultant” in tow. Said consultant, provided courtesy of Circuit City, looked to be around 15 years old. He went with us up to the third floor, looked around, and announced that “it could work.”

“What could work?”… More…

 

The meringue of a woman, floating down an aisle lined with flowers in her signature colors. The groom in his tuxedo, waiting for her with tears in his eyes. The photographer, capturing those special moments to be treasured forever. From the engagement ring to the honeymoon, every nut and bolt used to construct that magical day comes with a hefty price tag. The American bride is being swindled, all in the name of “tradition.” But most of what we consider tradition is actually just marketing or a misunderstanding. Two recent books try to break through the fog that surrounds these rites and bring a dose of reality to the whole idea of living happily ever after.

According to reality television programming, it’s the bride that has gotten out of control. Watch the Bridezilla as she spends the equivalent… More…