Salt Lake City: My food favorites

I arrived in SLC five years ago in a tumble of culinary sorrow. I’d been writing food for the LA Times during graduate school, and I had to give up that half of my life in order to stay on the academic track. (I’ve only regretted that particular decision for, say, forty percent of the rest of my life.) But it was intense – the culinary shock of going from the ethnic food wonderland of Los Angeles, to this godforsaken land-bound smog-infested, culinary wasteland…

Except, as it turns out, Salt Lake isn’t so bad. Salt Lake is kind of actually really great for its size. There’s more weird little ethnic neighborhoods and hidden communities entangled into the Utah Suburban Monolith than you might think. And every year I live here, the streets get a teeny bit more diverse, and the food scene gets a little bit better.

So, here’s my best of, as of right now:

 

Indian and Pakistani

Maybe my favorite restaurant in this whole town is Zaika Grill ‘N Kebab. Warning: it’s slow as hell, especially if you order anything besides the standard combo. But you should definitely order things that are not the standard combo. That’s because the whole show is run by a husband and wife team who actually cook things carefully and lovingly and painstakingly. This includes fresh naan, fresh roti, gorgeously weird Pakistani dishes that I’ve never had before (curried horseradish?). The seekh kebab is perfectly crumbly and dense and shot through with little crispy bits of green onion. It burns with life. Nihari is one of my very favorite dishes — kind of a densified intensified liquified meat essence that hangs right on the edge of soup and stew, full of the deep low tang of bone-extracted broth. If you’re feeling super adventurous, order the haleem, which is insanely great and almost impossible to find in these parts.  It’s a weird mysterious concoction of beef and pounded wheat or barley or something, and maybe some lentils. It’s hard to tell. It’s deeply and profoundly sticky, like Pakistani meat mochi. Definitely freaks out some people, though. Also, the kitchen can be vegan friendly if you need. A lot of the best stuff isn’t on the little printed menu. Sometimes it’s on the chalkboard. Sometimes it’s not, and you just have to have a long and rambling conversation with the owners about what you like and what ingredients they happen to have today, and then it occurs to them to offer you this or that special thing. These days I just go, wave my hand, and say, “I trust you,” and the kitchen brings forth wonders, eventually.

 

Imagine my total mind-melted surprise when I found out that the greater SLC area actually has a genuinely great chaat shop. It’s Pastries ‘n Chaat. Chaat, if you don’t know, is Indian street food – gorgeous little lovelinesses like pani puri, which are little shells of fried bread that you fill with chickpeas and potatoes and cold spicy mint water and throw in your mouth and let it explode. There are great many variations on a theme of little crispy things covered with yogurt and tamarind and bits of other, differently crispy things. All the chaat here is absurdly good – fresh and vivid, like little spikes of clean brilliant freshnesses shooting through your skull. Also: great biryani.

 

Chinese

Alas, Hot Dynasty, I loved you well. You had godlike Sichuan. I was perceptually shocked that you managed to exist in Utah. Turns out, you were too good for this world. Now you’re dead, and we’ll have to content ourselves with merely quite good Sichuan: Sweet Ginger. It’s legit, though, numb-tingly flavors and all. Order your heart out – it’s all good, and way better than you’d think Utah capable of in the Sichuan department. All the fish boiled in hot chili oil and the masses of chicken in pickled pepper and dried chiles and fresh chiles and more piles of chiles. Definitely hit the cold tray for all the weirdo Sichuan cold snacks, like husband-and-wife slices and seaweed. (WARNING: Comment from Stuart, below, indicates that the good chef might have left. I will check soon. Please hold.)

There’s a lot of good Taiwanese in this town. Best choice: Mom’s Kitchen. It’s even better since they made, like, a real picture menu for all us non-Chinese speakers. It’s stuffed with all the Taiwanese comfort food favorites. The beef roll is, like, jellied sweet beef rolled in an onion scallion pancake with plenty of raw cilantro and crispy green onion. Dumplings are fantastic, boiled or fried. Freshly made noodles in all the soups – I particularly like the subtle, rich sourness of the sour mustard and ground pork soup. The leek pancake turnover thing is a wonder – the soft leeks and the wiggly vermicelli and that lovely near-crumbly texture of finely chopped filling inside a crispy, crispy, chewy, crispy shell. Eat this and think of what a pathetic thing the Hot Pocket is, that tried to be this leek turnover and failed.

Also: super-special Taiwanese bonus: Sasa Kitchen! A tiny menu, but they’re specialists! Most important thing: the “shaved noodles”, which are fresh made, sliced thick and full of chaw, and have just that right mouth-filling heft. Noodles this good would be like $30 if you were in an Italian place, but since it’s Chinese, it’s like $8. My personal favorite: the clean, subtle, fragrant, warming lamb and shaved noodle soup. Also, get the hot and sour dumpling soup if they have it.

Also: best dim sum is probably Red Maple House. Definitely go when it’s busy for freshness – Saturday and Sunday brunch time. They nail those gossamer-bouncy textures.

 

Peruvian

The whole Wasatch area has freakishly great Peruvian all over the place. I’m not going to list them all – just go and try any you can find. They’re everywhere, and they’re mostly all great. The fanciest and finest is Del Mar al Lago, which is another “WTF is this doing in UTAH?” kind of place. High end, pretty, immaculate Peruvian. Beautiful and zippy ceviche, excellent piles of fried seafood, and all that stuff. Definitely the more future-facing, more inventive, and more respectable place. It’s fantastic.

But if I had to be honest, in my heart of hearts, my absolute favorite Peruvian out here is the Bountiful branch of El Rocoto. It’s just more heart-felt. I never know exactly what that means, and why certain food feels merely clinically perfect, but other food feels full of love and life. But El Rocoto has that mysterious perfect hunk o’ soul. The stuff all feels just the right amount of chunky, hearty, and chewy; all the flavors are full-throated. Things to try: the platter of fried seafood. The ceviche. Lomo saltado, that glorious Peruvian stir-fry of french fries and beef in red wine, soy sauce, garlic, and tomato. Pretty much anything.

 

Ethopian

There were once two utterly fantastic Ethiopian places in SLC. They both closed. Sad face. I have some new possibilities though. Watch this space.

 

Coffee

Probably the most important Hipster Culinary Experience in SLC is Cafe D’Bolla, which is one of the very few genuinely world-class culinary experiences in Utah. It’s a coffee bar. I mean, let me say this again, it is a Motherfucking Coffee Bar where you are going to go and pay a lot of money for a Coffee Motherfucking Experience. It has extremely good espresso at a decent price. But the thing you’re really here for is to have the hands of the master make you an earth-shatteringly superb cup of vacuum press siphon coffee, for which you will pay a modestly princely sum. I mean, like, $8-$12 or something. (Though it perpetually irritates me that people will slap down that much for a glass of wine without even thinking about it, but then proceed to loose their collective gourds over the idea of paying that much for a cup of coffee.)

It’s worth it. He knows what the fuck he is doing. He will do you a full process and ritual with explanation. Perhaps too much explanation. He roasts all his own coffee to spec (and he thinks that it’s crucial, if you’re brewing at SLC elevations, to roast with that in mind.) He gets weird coffee rarities. He brews them superbly. He will also, unless you ask firmly, loom over you and shout at you all the tasting notes that you’re supposed to be tasting. He also won’t let you sip the hot cup of coffee because he’s going to tell you that it’s much better after 5 minutes of cooling – and it turns out he’s COMPLETELY RIGHT. He also serves his coffee in these very specific antique Japanese tea cups that he decided give the best aromatic experience and, once again, he is COMPLETELY RIGHT.

So: it’s weird. Also only for the kind of fanatics who like light roast, high acid, very sculpted coffee profile. But if you are, this is totally a pilgrimage worth making. Taste at the feet of a true master.

 

Other White People Stuff

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here because my favorites are well-known and well-covered elsewhere. Tulie has impeccable croissants and other Euro pastries. If there’s a criticism of them though, it’s that they’re a little cold in their version of impeccable, professionally crafted, and perfectly French-correct bakery arts. My deepest affections have lately shifted to the new Amour Cafe, from those people that brought you that shockingly good jam you bought in the farmer’s market. Homey, deeply felt, subtle and soul-punchingly good baked goods. Among the best scones I’ve had in the States. Also, sometimes, they have the most magical thing: a beet walnut cake, which is basically like a red velvet cake, but profound.

Most expensive and also best place for super-boutique groceries is Liberty Heights Fresh. Most importantly, they are home of the best cheese counter in town. (Caputo’s is also very good, but they’ve lately gotten really into their ultra-funkifying cheese cave thing. I suspect they’re beginning to proceed down the More Funky Than Thou path which reminds me, worryingly, of the Late Stage Craft Beer Quadruple IPA Bitter Fuck You Manly Arms Race of Doom.)

Salt Lake is also, importantly, home to like the second best butcher and charcuterie in all of America, as far as I know: Beltex Meats. Ungodly good classic cuts and oddball cuts and all kinds of glorious in-house pates and charcuteries and headcheeses and blood sausages, all with that deep profound modulated wild funk that I crave. This place is a treasure, and when I have friends coming back to visit me from the culinary hotspots of the world, what they demand, perpetually, is to gorge themselves on Beltex shit. (My very favorite charcuterie maker in America is Fatted Calf in SF, and it turns out some of the Beltex gang trained there.)

Best tea selection in town: Tea Zaanti. Nice places to spend medium to large amounts of money on conventionally nice food in a setting with real “service”: Manoli’s, Provision, Veneto’s.

There are two excellent cocktail bars in SLC: Water Witch and The Rest. Water Witch is the kind of place where they’ll chat you up and make you a cocktail to your weirdo requests, and they’ll nail it. The Rest is a speakeasy hidden oh-so-adorably underneath The Bodega, where you have to, like, call ahead and speak the secret words and be lead to a secret passageway in the back. The Rest is fancy and very I-dream-of-New-York and has quite good food. The Water Witch has a much more half-drunk bartenders ranting about their lives and shout at the audience vibe. The Rest offends some people with it’s excessively twee preciousness (it does feel a little bit like somebody ordered an interior decorator to “Make me feel like I’m drinking in a Wes Anderson film!”). Water Witch offends some people for its hipster-bro man-ergy. I go to both, because I’m a terrible person, and I just like drinking. (For the true cocktail fiend, though, I give a definite edge in pure cocktail craftsmanship to Water Witch.)

 

Korean

There’s not a huge amount of Korean in this town, but what there is, is surprisingly great. Far and away my favorite is Jang Soo Jang. Superb homey-style Korean food that would hang with some of my favorites in LA’s Koreatown. Favorites: spicy squid, sundae gook (blood sausage soup with bits of offal, shockingly clean and deep), spicy goat soup, spicy rice cakes, Korean dumplings, kim chee pancake. Super spread of lovely homemade Korean pickles, brimming with fresh ferment-y life. But: if you go here and only order Korean BBQ because you think that’s the beginning and end of Korean food, I will personally hunt you down and shoot you in the head with a pickle.

Other good choices: Myung Ga is pretty good and more conventionally “nice” location, with a bigger menu with pretty good versions of all the standards. For some reason, the name It’s Tofu! subtly creeps me out on like five levels that I don’t fully understand, but they have a pretty nice dol soat bi bim bop – that’s bi bim bop in a hot stone bowl that you mix up and let crisp.

 

Mexican

For my first two or three years, I just mostly ate at the taco trucks – the two clustered around the Ocean City Market at State and 9th are probably still my favorites. I eventually found Victor’s Restaurant, the well-known tamale specialist inside Victor’s Tires. They’re awesome for many standards – their menudo and their chilaquiles are particular favorites).

But the real magical winner for Mexican in SLC is Mi Lindo Nayarit. It is a Nayarit specialist, and once again, HOW THE HELL DOES THIS EXIST IN UTAH? Nayarit is a region in the Central Pacific coast of Mexico. Nayarit food (and the food of neighbor Sinaloa) is completely distinctive, especially if you’re used to the kind of northern Mexican food that suffuses the American imagination. Nayarit food is seafood, in a thousand subtle variation, balanced right on the edge between crispness and hyper-complexity. Even in Los Angeles, Nayarit and Sinaloan places were rare finds. I have no idea why there’s one way out here in Utah. Things to try: the empanadas, which are stuffed with ground shrimp, deep-fried, and topped with an avocado. The dozen variations of shrimp, all delightful. The fish ceviche, which is unlike any other ceviche I know. It’s a mixture of citrus-soaked fish and finely shredded carrots and lots of other raw bits of veg, and it’s like a raw fish carrot slaw, and it’s totally awesome. (Beware: as with other raw fish, much depends on your relationship to market-day. I wouldn’t get this on a Sunday.) And the fish chicharron, which is small pieces of fish fried so deeply and intensely that they take on the heft, crunch, and chaw of fried pork rinds. Special bonus: they make the best michelada in town, which is kind of like a beer bloody mary served in an enormous stein rimmed with chile powder.

 

Vietnamese

There’s a huge Vietnamese population in SLC, and tons of great Vietnamese. A few favorites: Pho Thin for pho, with that radiant, subtly sour clean-quiet tang of a really well-executed beef broth. Pho Tay Ho, set in just the kind of chilled out remodeled house that reminds me of Vietnamese joints from my San Jose childhood, for heart-warming pho with really nice noodles. Little Saigon for excellent Vietnamese sandwiches, vermicelli noodles, and bun bo hue, the heartier, beefier, spicier soup of central Vietnam.

And, from left-field, there’s an excellent Viet-Cajun crawfish boil place! It’s called Bucket o’ Crawfish. You can get all manner of seafood – including crawfish, clams, and crab legs – boiled in anything from the Vietnamese take on Cajun spice mix to Chinese black bean sauce. Don’t go and tell me it’s not genuinely Cajun. Because it isn’t, and it never claimed to be. It’s goddamn Viet-Cajun, and you’ll enjoy it for being the heartfelt representative of this new gorgeous melting pot world, you motherfuckers!

 

Japanese

Japanese in this town is currently suffering, ever since Naked Fish died. The best we have is probably a pair of tonkatsu ramen joints: Tosh’s and Jinya. If you haven’t had tonkatsu before, it’s nothing like the standard thin Tokyo-style ramen. It’s this mega-long cooked, ultra-rich bone-and-meat-fat, like, velvet or something. Both places are quite good, but I’m going to give a slight edge to Jinya, for getting just the right profound velvety-ness in that rich, rich, bone-mineral broth. I particularly like the ones that mix their pork broth with their chicken broth.

 

Salvadorean

I used to live in the Salvadorean part of East Hollywood, where I acquired an undying hunger for pupasas that can never be adequately quenched. I think I have tried every Salvadoran place in Salt Lake City. For me, there is only one choice: Fernando’s Cafe Guanaco. Everything else there has been great too, especially the beef soup.

 

Middle Eastern

Mazza. Groceries at Black Cherry. O Falafel is great at a lot of things, but, perversely, sucks at falafels. Look to the cooked entrees, like moussakka, chicken banana squash ,mughrabiya, and my very favorite, makshi – gorgeously soft eggplant in a yogurt tomato beef gravy sauce thing.

 

Best rotating stand to watch out for

Spice Kitchen Incubator is this great non-profit thing that helps immigrants start up restaurants. They have a stand at the farmer’s market that rotates through new start-up food gigs. Often, they’re fantastic. Best West African food I had was from one of their gigs. I’ve also had super nice Indonesian, and good Filipino. Always try whatever’s on offer.

 

 

The aesthetics of rock climbing

The pleasures of rock climbing and the pleasures of philosophy turn out to be strangely similar. Most non-climbers have the wrong idea about climbing – it is, in the popular imagination, a particularly thuggish way of courting death. Before I’d actually tried it, my mental image of climbing was some kind of vague blend of pull-ups, screaming and gargling Red Bull. But it turns out that rock climbing is a subtle, refined and often hyper-intellectual sport. It’s solving puzzles, with your body and mind. It’s about getting past cryptic sequences of rock, through a combination of grace, attunement, cleverness, and power.

Climbers dream of the perfect “project” – a climb that you work on, over days and weeks. At first, such a project might seem utterly impossible. The holds are too small, or in the wrong place, or impossibly far apart; the wall is too overhung, or too blank. But slowly, bit by bit, you figure out a sequence of moves that just might get you through. Place your left foot there, and balance over just so. Flip your left hand so you’re pushing down against that ridge of rock, leaning down on it like you’re in a yoga triangle pose. Then you can reach high with your right hand and take hold of a tiny pocket. Step high and then flip your hand in the pocket, so you can lean the other way. Through care and attention, the impossible slowly becomes possible. You learn the holds, you learn the moves, you learn where to throw in all-out effort and where to relax for a moment, you train your body, until one day it all comes together and you dance your way up that wall.

 

rock climbing aesthetics 2

Dana Le/Flickr

 

And dancing, I think, is exactly the right place to start to understand the aesthetic dimension of rock climbing. So let’s start there: climbing is something like dance – not just in skill, but in aesthetic reward. You can hear the similarity when you listen to some climbers talk about their climbs. They talk about climbs with nice movement, with good flow, with interesting moves. They’ll talk about ugly climbs, beautiful climbs, elegant climbs, gross climbs. At first you might think they are just talking about the rock itself and how it looks. And sometimes they are; every climber loves a clean crack up a blank face, or bold jutting fin to climb. But if you interrogate a climber, and watch as they explain where the beauty in the climb is – with arms out, legs in the air, imitating the odd precise movements of the climb – you’ll figure out that what so many of them care most about is the quality of the movement – about how it feels to go through the rock, about the glorious sensations in the body, and the subtle attention of the mind.

So let’s start with dance. Barbara Montero, a philosopher of dance, has made a convincing case that the central aesthetic experience of dance involves a dancer’s proprioceptive sense of moving through space and feeling that movement as beautiful. We don’t just appreciate dance visually; we can feel it in our muscles and neurons. As a consequence, she adds, the best people to understand the aesthetics of dance are the dancers themselves, and people in the audience who have danced – who can imagine their way more precisely into how it must feel to move that way. The beauty of dance is a beauty of embodied movement.

When I think back to my favourite climbing experiences, what I can remember most precisely is the feel of the movement, the sense of gracefulness, of being able to move with precision and economy and elegance. That movement quality is something I savour, that I daydream about, that calls me back. And sometimes that movement quality is embedded in something dramatic. It has a relationship with difficulty. Some of the most perfect climbing moments are those when I was exhausted, maybe bleeding a little, when my fingers were raw, but I forced my mind quiet and calmed my head and then pulled through, forced my trembling limbs to calm, and reached somewhere inside myself to find that elegance, that precision, that lovely movement.

So climbing is like dance, but not exactly like dance. Climbing is graceful movement that always serves a well-defined task-oriented purpose. You’re trying to get to the top, and often the harder that journey is, they better. And climbs don’t just allow graceful movement; they sometimes require it; they’ll punish you and throw you off the rock if you’re careless. The economical movement in climbing arises in response to a set of very specific demands. The rock (real or artificial) may force a sequence of movement out of me, but it doesn’t tell me what that sequence of movements is, unlike in dance, where a director often teaches a piece of set choreography. I invent it, in response to the problem. Sometimes I may watch somebody else and imitate their movements, but even then, I need to adapt those movements to my body. I ape their movements in general, and then adapt them, precisify their inner feeling, all guided by the difficulties set by the rock. By and large, climbing is a puzzle-and-solution oriented practice. My movements in climbing are always in response to the challenges set to me by the rock; the elegance that I sometimes grasp within myself is one forced on me by the necessities of economy, of preserving what little stamina I have.

Rock climbing is a game. And this is where philosophical work can help us again. Let’s turn to one of the most delightful, insightful, and under-appreciated books in recent philosophy – Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. You will recall the parable of the grasshopper and the ant – the grasshopper is idle all summer long, and the ant works hard. At the end, the grasshopper starves to death. Moral of the story: work hard or die, suckers. But Suits inverts the moral of the story. In his book, the grasshopper is the hero, a paragon of playfulness. The book opens in adorably pseudo-Socratic fashion. The Grasshopper – the great philosophical defender of play – is on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples. He is starving because he has refused, on principle, to work. His disciples are begging him: Please, let us feed you, let us work and bring you food. But the Grasshopper replies: No, for then you would be ants, and doubly so! I would rather die for my commitment to idleness!

So the Grasshopper gives his disciples a series of puzzles about play, and games, and then promptly dies. And the rest of the book is one in which the students work out those puzzles, and, along the way, provides a definition of the term “game”. This is explicitly intended as a reply to Wittgenstein’s challenge – that most terms in general, but “game” in particular, did not admit of rigorous definition. Suits offers his definition in versions of varying digestibility. Here’s the least technical one, which he calls the “portable” version:

“Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

This gives us a very broad notion of games, which includes board games, sports, rock climbing, and perhaps even certain academic disciplines. Suits’ definition has become rather famous, or infamous, around those corners of the academic world that study games.

In the full version of his definition, we learn, among other things, that playing games involve taking up artificial goals and imposing inefficient means on ourselves, because we want to create a new kind of activity. The point of basketball is not getting the ball through the hoop – that has no independent value in itself. If it did, we’d show up after hours to an empty court with a step-ladder, and pass that ball through to our heart’s content. Rather, we take up the artificial goal – passing the ball through the hoop – and barriers to that goal – opponents, the dribbling rule – in order to create the activity of playing basketball. Notice that what constitutes game-playing is not the physical movement, but the intentional state of the player towards that action. In short: in ordinary practical activity, we take the means for the sake of an independently valuable end. But in gaming activity, we can take up an artificial end for the sake of going through a particular means.

So let’s return to rock climbing. My chosen discipline is bouldering – conducted without a rope, on short boulders of usually no more than twenty feet, with fold-out gymnastics pads to fall on. Bouldering began as a way to train in safety for more adventurous climbs but quickly evolved into its own thing, pursued for its own sake. Boulderers actually refer to specific climbs as “boulder problems”; they are a clear kin to, say, chess problems. Boulder problems are often very short, exceedingly difficult, and the kind of thing you might fail at and fall on your ass a hundred times on the way to success. If those multi-day roped climbs up cliff-sides are the adventure marathons of rock climbing, than bouldering is the sprint trial.

Suits himself uses mountain climbing as an example of a game. The point is not simply to get to the top – after all, you could get to it by helicopter, in the case of Everest, or via the highway up the back, in the case of El Capitan. The point is to do it via a specific set of limited means. This is surely true of bouldering, as well. A regular occurrence for boulderers: we will be trying to climb up the hard overhung face, and a young child will run up the path on the backside of the rock and look down on us from above and gleefully and smugly inform us that we must have missed the easy way up. (Sometimes I have a desire to sit them down and explain the Suitsian theory to them, but usually, since it’s my one day off from grading and the academic slog, I’d just lie down and have a beer.)

So: climbing is a game, in the Suitsian sense. But it is a very interesting sort of game, for many people indulge in it for openly aesthetic reasons. If one looks at the recent history of the philosophy of sport, one will find the Suitsian analysis all over the place, but theorists have considered a fairly narrowed range of reasons for engaging in that Suitsian activity. Usually, it’s something like: we take up these unnecessary obstacles to become more excellent, or develop physical skills, or to win. But the Suitsian analysis allows any sort of reason for wanting to bring an activity into being, and if one listens to the talk of climbers, one will discover that those reasons are often aesthetic ones – and they are often proprioceptively aesthetic.

Let’s take one classic climb in Joe’s Valley, Utah: The Angler, one of the most beloved boulder problems in one of the most beloved bouldering regions in the world. As it turns out, it’s not that interesting to watch somebody climb it. First of all, non-climbers tend to like to watch really explosive and spectacular movement. During competitions on artificial rock, lay audiences will cheer for big jumps from one huge hold to another. The Angler has none of that; it’s slow, plodding, and careful. Experienced climbers tend to like watching subtle, intricate movement, but even then, it’s best when the movement is visible – when you can see the re-balancing, the yoga-like stretches, the interesting body postures. But none of the interesting stuff is visible in The Angler. It’s very gradual, delicate climb, with a slopey, slippery ridge for your hands, and tiny invisi-feet. The difference between success and failure depends on minuscule shifts of balance – it depends on maintaining your core tension, on controlling your centre of gravity and inching it around with painstaking care. And, when you do it right, it feels unbelievably good – it feels like you’re a thing made of pure precision, a scalpel of delicate movement, easing your way up the rock. But, to somebody watching from outside, it looks… like nothing. Even for an experienced climber, it’s pretty boring to watch somebody else climb this thing. I love The Anglerto death, but I’ll admit: I’ve sat with a beer by the river next to it and tried to watch people climbing it and gotten bored almost instantly. In this particular climb, all those fascinating internal movements are invisible to the external eye. The aesthetics of movement, here, are for the climber alone.

rock climbing aesthetics 1

Simon Li/Flickr

The Angler is an exemplar of a perfect boulder problem, to many a climber’s taste. It has everything. The rock itself is strikingly beautiful. More importantly, what climbers call the line is visually beautiful. That is, the feature on the rock that the climber follows is visually distinctive, and the path of the climb itself is clear and itself striking and lovely. The movement is wonderfully interesting. And best of all, these things match and fit in a pleasing way. In The Angler, the movement quality changes over the course of the problem. It’s intricate and subtle down below, but the movements become bigger and scarier as the line moves up and right. And, when the season’s right, you have to make the last few moves – which are bold but easy – over the river itself. The feel of the movement rises, as the line rises, from delicate to thrilling. Rock, line, and movement all have a wonderful consonance. And when you pull over the top, after all this pain and carefulness, with your nose crammed inches from the rock, staring down searching for the slightly better nubbins of friction – you stand up right into the mouth of a river canyon, running river all around you, wind in your hair and water burbling, and the sensation of victory bleeds into the sensation of wild, free, open nature.

I manage to be pretty focused in doing philosophy, but some of the most focused and attentive I’ve ever been in my life is on a hard climb – mind zeroed in on tiny ripples in the rock for my feet, exactly the angle of my ankle, whether I’m holding the most grippy part of the rock with my hand, the exact level of force I need to push with on my foot as I slide over to the next hold. One might be tempted to say here, if one were caught in a traditional aesthetic paradigm, that the climbing is just a technique, a trick to focus the mind on the really beautiful things – the rock itself, and nature. But I think this ignores what climbers are actually doing, feeling, and appreciating. They’re paying attention to themselves, to their own movements and appreciating how those movements solve the problem of the rock. The aesthetics of climbing is an aesthetics of the climber’s own motion, and an aesthetics of how that motion functions as a solution to a problem. There is, for the climber, a very special experience of harmony available – a harmony between one’s abilities and the challenges they meet.

I remember one afternoon I spent in the Buttermilks, a glorious collection of boulders in Bishop, California. I was trying my damnedest to solve a weird, tricky problem that involved a series of heel-hooks and toe-hooks and spending half-my time with my feet above my head, my ankle stuffed into a crack in the rock. Next to me, a far better climber was working a far harder problem on another part of the same boulder. We spent the whole afternoon at our respective tasks. He was totally, savagely into it – screaming his way up, cursing, stabbing at the rock. The critical move involved easing his way up to a bad, slopey hold for his right hand, high-stepping his left foot up almost to his crotch, and then squeezing himself up between his right hand and his left foot, popping himself between them like a wet watermelon seed, and stabbing with his left hand for a tiny set of pocket dimples. The move is typical of high-end bouldering – the hold you’re going for is so far out of reach that you need to fling yourself at it dynamically; you’ve got to jump. But that hold is also so faint that you can’t have any extra momentum when you hit it, or you’ll rip yourself right off the rock.

He’d been trying the same move for, like, three hours, with long rests between tries. He was cursing, frustrated, melting down. Then finally, in one great screaming effort, he did it – he had a little bit too much momentum, but he grabbed that next hold with extra force, muscles straining, yanking himself back into place, screaming. And he finished the problem.

He came down, staring at his fingers. One of them was bleeding.

“Nice job”, I said. I went to high five him, but he shook his head.

“That was ugly as hell”, he said, glumly. “Terrible style”. He wrapped up his finger in some climbing tape, rested himself for about twenty minutes, and then stepped up and did again. This time, it looked perfect – just a delicate little bump and step and he floated over and just dropped into place, like it was nothing.

He climbed down the back and jogged over to me, grinning hugely. “God, what a gorgeous problem!” he told me. “You’ve got to do it. That move is so beautiful. It’s just…” he mimed the move, and mimed it again. “Just fantastic! You’ve got to do it!”

Sadly, I told him, that problem was way too hard for me.

He jittered from foot to foot, grinning and trying to feel sorry for me. Then he went over and did it again.

(Originally published in The Philosopher’s Magazine, 78, 2017: 37-43)

A philosopher enters politics

Matt Johnson is the only philosopher I know who responded to the political shit-storm of 2016 by actually throwing down and running for public office. He’s doing it right now – somehow juggling finishing his PhD, teaching seven (!!) courses, serving as a human relations commissioner, and running for Lancaster city council all at the same damn time. And he wrote a goddamn musical.

His whole approach is so impossibly cool that  I had to interview him about what it was like. The whole interview is over here.

Things I learned:

  1. Matt actually starting teaching free rhetoric and argument courses to activists in a local pub.
  2. Matt thinks the joys of philosophy and the joys of public service are deeply similar – throwing yourself at profound and intractable problems – except sometimes, in public service, you actually, like, save somebody’s home.
  3. Best of all: Matt thinks that the skills he developed over in philosophy are incredibly useful for consensus building in political life. Which blows my goddamn mind, because in academic philosophy itself, everybody’s using their analytic skills to stab each other in the face. But it occurs to me: maybe that’s nothing about the skills of philosophy itself, but just the incentive structure of academia. As in: to publish, you have to prove you’re different. But in political life, the incentives switch: things happen when you build consensus.

Matt’s take is so thrilling and so invigorating that he almost convinced me to run for city council.

 

New paper: “The Uses of Aesthetic Testimony”

My new paper, The Uses of Aesthetic Testimony, is out in the British Journal of Aesthetics. (For those without institutional access, here’s an older draft for free.)

What it’s about, technical version: There’s this debate about the seeming “asymmetry” between aesthetic and empirical testimony. We’re allowed to acquire beliefs based solely on testimony for empirical stuff (doctor’s advice, mechanic’s advice), but we’re not allowed to uptake judgments about how, say, the beauty and brilliance of Van Gogh’s Irises based solely on testimony. I say: yeah, yeah, but look over here: there’s an even more interesting second asymmetry within the aesthetic itself. There are all sorts of things I’m entirely permitted to do from aesthetic testimony: I can take restaurant recommendations, I can choose a travel destination, I can choose an art school, all from testimony. The uses of aesthetic testimony are rich and varied. There’s only this one very particular thing I can’t do from testimony, which is acquire a belief wholesale. The real mystery is how to explain the way our intuitions change between different uses of aesthetic testimony.

You might think, then, that this all just turns on speech acts vs. practical action. But consider the following case: when I’m picking out a painting to hang in my own bedroom, it would be totally weird to defer to the word of an expert and not engage my own taste. But if I were a museum director, I could totally defer to the word of an expert in choosing my acquisitions. No speech, all action, same asymmetry.

I then try to show that, if you take seriously all these intuitions about the uses of aesthetic testimony, it points us towards a moderately cognitive theory of aesthetic judgment.

What it’s really about: We act like aesthetics is all about autonomous judgment. But the really interesting thing that people don’t study is how much we profoundly trust others everywhere in our aesthetic lives.

New Paper: “Competition as Cooperation”

Here’s my new paper, Competition as Cooperation, coming out soon in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. It contains:

1. My view that games are a sort of moral technology for converting competition into cooperation.

2. Exhaustive technical detail on the motivational structures that human beings must have in order to use this technology properly.

3. The fun part: me having a go at the dominant position in the philosophy of sport – that the purpose of sports is developing or displaying human excellence. I think the social conversion stuff just as important. The coolest part of the paper is about whether the paradigmatic case of sports are Olympics/professional sports, or, like, flag football with your family.

It’s probably my… most ambitious paper? And, if you follow my wife’s “Thi Scale of Papers”, in which the more completely goofy and inane examples a paper has, the more Thi it is, then this is the most Thi paper I’ve ever written. There’s even a bit where a shitty asshole houseguest shows up at my house and I save the evening by deploying a board game that converts their dickheadery into something useful for everybody else.

This paper is deeply connected to the Good Violence, Bad Violence paper I wrote with Jose Zagal. “Competition as Cooperation” has got way more technical detail on Suits and the nature of game consent and the purpose of game-playing; “Good Violence, Bad Violence” has way more discussion of juicy online stuff like spawn-camping and trash-talking/harassment, the formation of online communities, and all the cool stuff that comes from the fact that Jose is an actual, you know, game designer.

New paper: “Good Violence, Bad Violence: The Ethics of Competition in Multiplayer Games”

Jose Zagal just presented our co-authored paper, “Good Violence, Bad Violence: The Ethics of Competition on Multiplayer Games” at the DiGRA-FDG 2016 conference. It’s coming out in the conference proceedings soon, but, if you just can’t wait, you can get your hot little hands on the final version right here.

There’s a more formal abstract, but here’s a quickie version:

There’s a whole set of fascinating questions about the ethics of competition. Some kinds of competition seem healthy and transformative – they take our hostile impulses and turn them into something positive for all involved. Other kinds of competition seem problematic, including, perhaps, trash-talking, spawn-camping, and ganking. But where’s the line, and how do we draw it? The paper argues against certain standing accounts that provide a simple, unidimensional answer. One target is the view, from the philosophy of sports, that all that matters is player consent. Instead, we use a magical sprinkle of Bernard Suits’ work to argue that morally good competition requires a whole host of factors in alignment, including player consent, successful game design, and psychological fit. Many older views tend to locate all the moral lifting in the intentions of the players. Our view distributes that responsibility between the players, the game designers, and the structure of the player community.

(This paper is the first published tip of a massive and sprawling project that I thought was just one quick idea, but has metastasized into multiple distinct papers on various aspects of the morality of game competition. Turns out: it’s a complex topic.)

 

Food assembly and the idea of a dish

The Korean dish of bibimbap comes as a bunch of distinct little piles of veggies and meat, on a bowl of rice. You pour out a little splat of hot sauce, and mix all it up yourself.

Yukkwe Bi Bim Bap - Buga

My friend Kathy Shin told me that mixing it up yourself was part of the very meaning of bibimbap. When I asked her what would happen if they brought it to you pre-mixed, she jumped out of her seat and actually smacked me. “It wouldn’t be bibimbap! You’d be eating something, but it sure wouldn’t be bibimbap.” When I pointed out that the (non-Korean) patrons at the next table over were eating their bibimbap without mixing it up at all, she recoiled it almost moral outrage. “I don’t know what they’re eating, but it’s definitely not bibimbap either.”

Her horror and semi-comic outrage might map onto how an American might react, say, if they saw somebody carefully disassemble a sandwich and eat the bits daintily and separately, with chopsticks: they’re eating something, but it sure ain’t a sandwich.

All of this makes me wonder how culturally complicated the idea of a particular dish is. Is our idea of “sandwich” or “bibimbap” or “egg roll” made of, not just the ingredients, but how we how we assemble them for ourselves? Does the idea of a particular dish include a very specific idea of the eater’s role in assembly or disassembly?

Hsian Ju Lin, in Chinese Gastronomy, comments that, though Westerners often view the chopsticks of the East as comically uncivilized (“look at ’em, eatin’ with a bunch of sticks”), to the Chinese watcher, Western eating traditions are unbearably barbaric. European eating culture involves bringing tiny little tridents and tiny little knives to the table, for God’s sake. It’s one step away from Vikings in the long hall, eating with their hunting knives and throwing the rest to their dogs. Whereas in high Chinese cuisine, everything comes to the table perfectly bite-sized and ready, all the violence confined, out of sight, to the kitchen.

In fact, it becomes curiously evident that a lot of Asian culinary traditions involve building the final dish-entity at the table. In a Vietnamese restaurant, when you order egg rolls, you’re brought the egg rolls with a plate of fresh green herbs, and you’re supposed to wrap the egg rolls in a bit of lettuce with a few bits of fresh herbs, and eat the whole thing, glorying in the contrast between the hot crispy roll and the cool crispy lettuce. There’s the various forms of beijing duck (a.k.a. Peking duck) where you assemble just the right amount of crispy skin and soft wrapper and sweet sauce, just to your precise desire.

And there’s my beloved pani puri, the mint hand-grenades of Indian street-food culture, where you take a little tiny crispy fried hollow bread puff the size of a golf-ball, and carefully tap-tap-tap a hole in the top, and fill it with bits of chickpea, bits of potato, a little drizzle of sauce, and the fill it to the brim with cold spicy mint water and – quickly now! – throw it your mouth and bite down and feel the whole thing explode cold mint water and crispy shards of bread all over the inside of your mouth.

DSC_2597

And then think of the Western traditions: carving the chicken at the table. Carving the ham at the table. Carving the roast at the table.

And here, I was so goddamn excited about the clarity of this contrast, that I was pounding on the steering wheel and shouting to Melissa: “Don’t you see? The Asian traditions are all about creation at the table, and the Western traditions are all about destruction at the table, and of course it must seem so goddamn uncivilized! You’ve got to kill the thing outside, and then symbolically kill it again at the table!”

But, of course, she brought me down to earth. Western culinary tradition is full of assembly-dishes, too. Most preciously: the Thanksgiving dinner. Think of the horror if you were to come to a Thanksgiving dinner, and were presented with a pre-assembled plate. No no! The right thing, the only thing, is to make your plate yourself, to assemble just the right balance of turkey and ham and stuffing and potato and gravy, placed with just the right amount of overlap – mashed potatoes just barely spilling over the turkey, maybe – arranged on the plate to by yourself to please nothing but your very own gut. The notion of self-assembly is so deep in our soul-concept of Thanksgiving dinner, that you probably don’t even see it, until somebody breaks it.

So inane cultural reductionism doesn’t work here. Maybe there’s a practical explanation for some of this stuff – for the lettuce-wrapped egg-rolls, for the pani-puri, you have to assemble it at the last moment. Otherwise, you couldn’t get the temperature contrast, the crisp-wet contrast. But that doesn’t explain all the cases. It doesn’t explain bibimbap; it doesn’t explain Thanksgiving.

I need more examples.

The philosophy writing workshop sequence

Most undergraduates who come into my classroom seem to have no idea what it’s like to work on a paper with other human beings, or work on a paper in stages. They just sort of crap out a paper in one long go and throw it at you, starting with an empty screen and making it up as they went along. So I started forcing them to do what most serious writers do: write down their ideas at every stage, show them to other human beings, and get feedback. I tried to gather as many of the different methodologies I knew about for paper-writing, and turn them into a set of exercises. I’ve been fine-tuning it for about eight years.

The biggest thing is to break apart writing into a conceptual stage, and a communication stage. I mean doing an outline first, settling what you want to say, and then starting to actually write prose only after most of the conceptual work is settled. Most students, I think, start writing by opening up their word-processor, with no idea of where they’re going, and just start writing.  (I polled a class of thirty philosophy majors once about how many did at outline first, or anything like that, before starting to put prose to page. The answer: one.) I emphasize that separating the stages makes it easier: you don’t have to worry about communication when you’re figuring out your arguments, and when you’re writing, you can focus on the task of clearly presenting your ideas.

Most importantly, this introduces a low-cost stage where students are willing to change and revise their ideas.  I used to comment on rough drafts, but my students were almost never do any deep surgery when they’d already written a draft. It’s just too easy to get too attached to your own prose, and the sunk effort. But if you get the criticism in at the outline level, it’s so much emotionally easier to pivot. The moment I started doing outline-level work, the quality of argument in the final papers took a major jump up.

Students often hate it at first. And then they love it. Usually, they get frustrated and ego-wrecked for the first few sections. By the end of the term they’ve come to terms with it. And then so many of them come back to me in a year or two and tell me that they think this is how they actually learned to write, that they’ve been using this style of thing forever paper since, that this workshop sequence was one of the most valuable things they’d gone through.

There are many variations. Below is how I run it in a standard upper-division philosophy class. It’s designed for maximum impact for minimum in-class time expenditure. Here’s how it goes:

First Paper Outline Workshop

The first paper in the class involves a single workshop. First, I have students write a one to two page outline of their future paper, based on several provided essay prompts. It helps to be very explicit about the fact that I’m asking them to separate the conceptual stage from the communication stage. When they’re thinking about their arguments, they only think about their arguments. And by the time they’re actually writing a paper, they’re supposed to already know what they want to say, and only have to worry about how they’re going to say it. I say, for the outline, to not worry at all about reading clarity, and just to worry about their arguments.

They come into class with copies of their outline. I break them into groups of four or five. Each students takes about twenty minutes to stand up in front of their group, and present their thoughts. I tell them to do it in two stages: first stage, present the argument, where the audience only asks clarificatory questions. Second stage: the audience raises challenges, look for gaps in the argument. I emphasize that the goal in the second stage not to be antagonistic, or to crush the presenter, but to help them locate weaknesses in the paper, and to think together about how the paper might be improved. The goal is for each student to use their fellow students to locate weaknesses in their paper, so that they might be improved. And, more importantly, to figure out which criticisms are deepest and will lead to the most interesting dialogue.

I also tell the students not to be too attached to where they originally thought their paper was going. It’s easy for students to get broken-hearted if their original line of argument seems to fall apart. But if you tell them that the goal of this session is not to defend their original argument, but to search for the most interesting version of their paper possible – if you tell them it’s OK to modulate, or restrict, or even switch directions for their conclusion – things go a lot better.

I give them colored markers and white-board space and usually make them sketch out their arguments in some sort of logical flow-chart. Usually, students resist doing this at first, but it seems to really help a lot of the groups talk about the structure of the argument.

I usually give them about 1.5 to 2 weeks to generate their first paper from this workshop, which is submitted to me without further workshopping.

Second Paper Outline Workshop

The path to the second, and final, paper in my class involves two workshops. First, we do an outline workshop much like the first, but I provide no essay prompts. Typically, students struggle with choosing topics of appropriate size. Thus, the second paper outline workshop often forces students to focus their topic, refine their thesis, and clarify their direction of argument.

It’s really important here that students have a sense of ownership over their ideas. Having to present an original idea in front of their peers seems to force students towards coherency, and towards actually thinking about the motivations for taking on a particular topic. Without this, papers often have an automatic quality, as if the students are simply filling out a template passed down from on high. There’s a sense I often have that students have been taught this thing, this essay form that they plug through, which is completely disconnected from any sense of communication. But by doing peer presentations of their own ideas, the students suddenly seem to start viewing themselves as actually communicating, and their natural sense of clarity and order emerges.

Second Paper Draft Workshop

A week after the second paper outline workshop, the students bring a draft of the paper into class. I break them into groups of four or five, and circulate their papers, reading and commenting on them. I tell them that, though they’re free to raise criticisms, the primary goal of this session is to focus on writing clarity. I tell the students that they are not editors today – they don’t need to provide fixes. They are simply reporting their reading experience. They’ll write down where they become confused, what words they don’t understand, what questions they had, where they got lost about the structure. I say: “It’s often so hard to see your own writing, because you often don’t actually see what you put on the page – you just fill in what you wanted to say, from your own head. But a lot of times, the most important thing is so obvious to you that you don’t put it on the page. So now, as a reader, your job is to communicate to the writer what the experience of reading was like for you, where you stumbled or got lost, so the writer knows what got through into the writing, and what was left out.”

I have a theory here that most important thing here is being on the reading end of this exercise. Of course, getting feedback is great. But having to trudge through all these other students’ papers for an hour or more is the heart of it. They see: how easy it is to get lost, how important structural transitions are. They see how, over and over again, little tiny vaguenesses in grammar or simple pronoun ambiguity accumulate and destroy communication. They see how hard it is to understand argumentative material when it is anything less than absolutely lucid. And usually, in a batch of papers, there’s one or two that are much more clearly written, and it suddenly becomes clear to them how much work the little transitional and structural details are doing, to help the reader.

They usually end up in a state of misery and nausea, and a lot of the times what I hear is, “How the hell do YOU manage to read papers like this without shooting yourself?” And then they get their own papers back, covered with marks from their peers about the very same problems – the ambiguities, the confusions. And it’s so much easier to understand what’s missing in their paper when they’ve just been in the confused-reader role on their peers’ papers.

Peer-commentary is also, I think, more emotionally convincing. A lot of students are, I think, ready to dismiss their professor’s comments as coming from some weird, nit-picky, ivory-tower sort of place, but willing to accept their peers’ comments about unclarity or incomprehensibility.

The final drafts I get after this work are so, so, so much clearer.

Feel free to use these ideas in your own class. One request: if you do, let me know how it goes, and let me know any tweaks or improvements you come up with.