The magazine Lapham’s Quarterly’s new issue is about food, sure, and you might think that it’s this trendy thing or this intellectual collection of essays or whatever. But listen up, because I’m gonna tell you why, if you care about food, you will want to know about this magazine with hundreds of essays, snippets, vignettes, illustrations, charticles, photos and randomly strewn quotations (“I will not eat oysters. They’re alive when you eat them. I want my food dead — not sick, not wounded — dead.” — Woody Allen).
Lewis Lapham is an editor in his late 70s, a guy whose New York City office is filled with books and framed scribbled notes from geniuses, whose desk is devoid of a computer but not of an ashtray (shhh, don’t tell the Mayor). About 20 years ago, Lapham had transformed Harper’s magazine into something that now looks like the model for The Huffington Post or maybe the entire Internet (minus the porn). It had a since-much-imitated Index that featured seemingly disconnected statistics that sometimes told a subtle story (“Estimated farm income in 1986: $27,000,000,000); it had carefully curated selections from other magazines and news sources; and it had feature reporting and the occasional odd piece like a 60-something-page rant by David Foster Wallace about how awful pleasure cruises actually are (“I just love the way Foster Wallace wrote,” Lapham says matter-of-factly of the author, whose “Consider the Lobster” is excerpted in the Food Issue).
Lapham transitioned to the Quarterly in 2007, and the single-theme issues are assembled by a team of editors and an editorial board, drawing from history and whittling down thousands of sources into a mostly cohesive collection. The Food issue lists some familiar contributors from the current food writing canon (Ruth Reichl and Michael “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” Pollan, who was once Lapham’s executive editor at Harper’s) as well as classical literary heroes (Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Orwell), unknown historical figures and even a few troublemakers (Anthony Bourdain, Patton Oswalt). It’s a feast for the eyes, as befits a Food Issue, and we’re psyched that Lapham discussed it, and his career — including a trip to India with The Beatles — with Food Republic.
First of all, let’s start with the cover. Why a single strawberry?
Our cover is a convention; if you know the Quarterly, it covers one object as opposed to a painting or a photograph. We’ve had statues, compasses; we’ve had light boxes, abacuses, and so on. We went through a choice of maybe 10 or 12 possibilities, from an ear of corn, various shots of wheat, an egg — I can’t remember all the other ones. But we do this every quarter and the strawberry seemed to be the summer. It’s a luscious fruit and I thought it might encourage people to pick it up at a newsstand or a Barnes & Noble.
Food couldn’t be hotter right now. How long was this issue in the works? Were you planning on it hitting at such an appropriate time?
Well we knew it was a hot topic and usually plan a year ahead in issues, so we knew by the end of last year what issues we were going to do for the next year. The next issue is going to be “the future,” which is also a hot topic, but a more difficult one to approach than food because it isn’t as tangible… All of these subjects are floating around under the news and sometimes we get lucky. The one before “food” was “work,” and unemployment was the number one issue in the United States as far as I’m concerned. But yeah, we try to bring them out when it’s a subject of conversation.
In the introductory essay, you talk about an experience you had as a young journalist, when you interviewed Julia Child. What was that like?
I did, yeah, I did. I was a contract writer for the [Saturday Evening] Post in the ’60s and when Julia Child’s TV program, The French Chef, came out in the early ’60s, it was a big success. She was a very lively presence, so the Post got interested and sent me to spend a couple of days in Cambridge, Massachusetts with Julia. I would be sent on those kinds of things. In 1968, I was sent to spend three weeks with The Beatles in Rishikesh, India.
You must have eaten some good food during that trip.
No, I didn’t like the food because it was in an ashram and the Maharishi didn’t want to have any spicy food because he felt that it would arouse the sexual impulses — the idea was to quiet the soul or at least to suppress physical desire. So the food was very bland: vegetables, rice, no sauces of any kind, no meat. It was served [outdoors] under trees at the top of the ashram and it would be available almost 24 hours a day. People would be meditating in their various huts or under the trees and whenever it occurred to them to get something to eat, they’d wonder off to the “reflectory,” I guess they called it. There were a lot of monkeys around, very beautiful little white monkeys, but I had one as a pet because the monkey figured out, very early in our acquaintance, that I didn’t really like what was being served. I would give him my potato and my turnip or whatever. He was a devoted friend for about two weeks.
How complex is it to put together a collection of food writing that ranges from almost the beginning of time to today?
It takes about three months to assemble and during the third week, we have a conference here in New York and a dinner [with the editorial board]. Then I have a truly brilliant staff of young people, three interns and three editors, and we begin reading. We’re now presented with maybe as many as 400-500 texts, and we start reading, and then the thing is to be able to organize them with some form of juxtaposition. We may have four wonderful pieces from the United States in the 1970s and ’80s but you can only really take one or two them because you want to be able to keep a sense of time, different voices in time, coming from the classical world in the Middle Ages, and you also want to have as much as possible writing from other cultures: China, India, Latin America. So it’s a balancing act.
In the process of doing this, what have you learned about food that has surprised you?
First of all, what I learned was that there’s a lot of good writing about it from different angles. I also learned about the connection, the communal feast/harvest, the hunter; it’s the beginning of social organization and the beginning of the idea of distributive justice. It’s the bread of life; it’s what sustains us all….
Did you go into this thinking that it has to touch on all the different topics that surround food?
I’m not a gourmet, as you know, but on the other hand it’s an enormous subject and it has so many different angles. The idea was that if we could touch as many of those angles as we could that it would be good. Not in a definitive way, but just to give people an acquaintance with the range of the subject. I mean, history to me is our inheritance. There’s a line that says “He who cannot draw upon 3,000 years is living hand to mouth” — in other words, the human journey over the millennia, we’ve saved things that we’ve found to be useful, beautiful or true… Whether that’s sculpture, or scraps of papyrus, or songs or recipes, or learning to cook sous vide… it’s our common inheritance. So I’m in no way an expert. But it’s to introduce people to things…. It’s the same as when I was at Harper’s magazine, my impulse was to say to the reader, “Here, look at this. This is wonderful.”
Want to know where to buy a copy? Head on over to the Lapham’s Quarterly website.