The San Francisco-based publishing hub McSweeney’s has always liked packaging. A clever design sensibility characterizes the brand as much as its playful literary ethos. Issue #17 of the quarterly was a stack of mail. Half a year later, another (#19) came in a cigar box. Unleashed on December 8th, the latest installment (#33) assumes the guise of a daily newspaper — albeit a one-time only assemblage of 300-something pages of articles, cartoons, and full-color photographs — including a 112-page magazine, a 15″ by 22″ broadsheet, several pull-out posters, and nearly 100 pages of book reviews — with contributions by some of the most lauded writers, artists, and photographers in the game. Panorama, as the issue has been dubbed, was conceived as a vivid re-imagination of the printed newspaper, a medium that has seen much hardship in recent years — to the point where, as daily newspapers shed staff members and fold unceremoniously, some question the publication’s relevance as a provider of valuable and timely content. With its long procession of dazzling bylines (Stephen King, George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Miranda July, Art Spiegelman, and so on) and an immensely high production value, Panorama will not be confused with any flimsy new-stand rags of which you might be familiar. I supposed that’s part of what is amusing — and compelling — about the endeavor. Newspapers are disposable; with the exception of the Sunday New York Times, they’re bought for coins, skimmed, and left on bus seats to flutter, drift, and decompose. Elevating the form to lofty heights — even for one stand-alone issue — makes a statement. One thing is for certain: with a ticket price of $16, no one will be using Panorama to line a hamster’s cage.
This is, of course, a blog about food, and happily, Panorama’s food section is 16 pages long, with articles about Ryan Farr’s 58-step deconstruction of a helpless lamb carcass, a first-person from L.E. Leone on tackling roadkill, and a tutorial in homemade Andean spit-corn beer — which looks fairly disgusting. In general, mildly repellent facets of food preparations and pleasures both common and unfamiliar enjoy rare moments in the spotlight alongside more universally appealing subjects — like David Chang and Peter Meehan’s complex guide to formulating the perfect bowl of ramen, a delight anyone without a pork problem can get behind.
I’m not interested in reporting on what in the food-verse Panorama has seen fit to report — though that would be an suitably Internet-y concern. Anyone wanting to know the gritty and succulent details of the food section can just buy the newspaper, or read one of dozens of summaries floating around. What I am actually interested in is how Panorama’s food pages might potentially epitomize a new ideal for the framing of food stories, recipes, and related visual content in print, and how that could possibly trickle down to the under-funded and under-valued realm of real daily newspapers. In the online editions of daily papers, dining sections bubble over with instructional videos, picture galleries, and blogs. To use the New York Times as an example, last week’s Dining & Wine featured a slide-show on holiday cocktails, Bittman tossing together some turkey curry in a post-Thanksgiving-themed video, and in the Diner’s Journal blog, an entry discussing San Francisco’s newest tiki bar, Smuggler’s Cove — which incidentally looks like a place to avoid. Background context and opportunities for further research are mere clicks away courtesy of blue-hued hyperlinks speckling each swath of text. I can’t exactly remember the last time I read the print version of a food story from either the Chronicle or the New York Times, but as I recall, nothing about the content — fairly short articles, bullet points in boxes, a few color photographs, ads, and the odd graphic, laid out in columns — tends to speak dramatically to the particulars of the form — large folds of paper.
Online editions of newspapers post news of an event within seconds of it happening, and rich multimedia offerings can provide color and a breadth of information print cannot. However, that advantage is less clear when it comes to reporting food news, sharing traditions, and reviewing restaurants, for example. Yes, troves of easily accessible recipes online and visual guides demonstrating techniques have value, but they don’t render the print alternatives obsolete.
On the contrary, the ramen piece in Panorama presents a recipe uniquely, as only print could: the subject is broken down into a flow chart stretching across a fat canvas, a visual tour balancing technical advice with asides of cultural interest and plenty of lovely photos. The result is something I — though assuredly not everyone — would put on my fridge, or even consider preserving more permanently. Panorama is an extreme, a reaction in some sense to circumstances that have crippled the viability of newspapers, but borrowing the ideas it presents and applying them — something David Eggers himself encouraged in a November 24th Chronicle article I read online — could spawn practical possibilities for food journalism. What if recipes, for starters, came in the form of sumptuous full-page eye-feasts, perhaps just one every week? Initially, the cost might be prohibitive, but then it might catch on, and people might see such an evolution as both useful and aesthetically pleasing. Advertising might follow suit. Cooking is easier when you don’t have to squint or handle a mouse with butter-caked hands. Recipes shared like this could be things to collect and cherish.
In the article referenced above, Eggers sums up the mission:
“It is our unorthodox belief that the Web and the newspaper can coexist, but that physical forms of the written word need to offer a clear and different experience.”
In a blog-appropriate aside, Deborah Solomon interviewed Jeffrey Bezos, the Amazon.com bigwig, in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, and Bezos held forth at length on Kindle, the company’s best-selling electronic reader. Bezos described wrapping his own in a one-gallon zip-lock bag in order to read in the bathtub. As he pointed out, you can’t turn pages through a zip-lock bag. True, but can a Kindle (or a laptop for that matter) swat a mosquito or double as an umbrella in a pinch? I don’t think so.
Unlike a book, electronic or otherwise, a newspaper is not built to last more than a day or two — the lifespan of a mosquito, I’ve been told. When it’s finished, it’s recycled. Yet, when an issue contains something deemed worth saving — a story with personal or historical importance — a portion is clipped and set aside. Because most newspaper articles are archived online, this sort of active contribution to one’s memory of history happening is rarer now, but it still endures. Moms and dads at least have not forgotten how to use scissors and affix stamps to envelopes bulging with snipped articles. While I don’t imagine anyone will want to cut it up, Panorama still feels like a very big bow to that habit, like a gilded, gold-plated super-paper destined for a prime permanent spot on dusty bookshelves around the world — an artifact, evidence, something to last.
A little over a year ago, the morning after Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, vendors rapidly sold out of newspapers across the city. After work that day, I fished a rumpled, stained copy of the Examiner out of a BART station garbage bin. At home, I slid it into a manila envelope to stash away. On the walk home, as I saw rows of empty racks outside the corner stores I passed, I wondered: were people buying up newspapers to save for themselves and their families or to seal up in plastic and sell on Ebay for small profits decades down the line? Regardless of the intent, the fact newspapers were bought testifies not only to the significance of the occasion but to the persisting importance of the written word in, as Eggers put it, physical form. Recipes and explorations of culinary trends don’t have to be as powerful or valuable as the stories and pictures inseparable from that moment in history to still be worth saving. The form just needs to become more palatable. This is a blog. If these words were appearing in print, I would arrange this differently, maybe write better, certainly with more focus and greater attention to detail — ironically, with posterity in mind.
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Dave Eggers, author, founder and editor of McSweeney’s, co-editor of the Voice of Witness series and co-founder of 826 Valencia, a network of nonprofit writing and tutoring centers for young people
Oscar Villalon, publisher of McSweeney’s and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle