Rebels and Rogues. Mill town youths.
Nottingham audacity circa 1959.
I'm rereading these brassy short stories by Alan Sillitoe.
Kintsukuroi is the ancient Japanese art of fixing broken or cracked pottery with a lacquer dusted or mixed powdered gold. Inspired by this Japanese practice of ceramic repair, Sussman has taken to the streets to complete cracked pavement by infilling its fractured lines with gold pigment. Her studies comprise photographs that have been hand-painted with enamel and metallic dust, while in-ground installations are made with tree sap-based resin and a combination of bronze and 23.5 carat gold dust. Her project brings attention to the imperceptible changes that take place over time in the world around us. via
A billowy, inky graphic visualizes facts about world airline routes and popular destinations. Interesting companion info:
- Every country in the world, no matter how small or poor, has at least one airline
- Some of these airlines, particularly in Africa, have only one or two planes, often second or third hand 737s
- Any country with a plane big enough has a flight to New York City
- There are more airlines in Europe than anywhere else on earth
With my shop now closed, I find myself returning to a favorite book, The Comfort of Things by British anthropologist Daniel Miller. He speaks of the retail buyer's capacity to become a craftsman.
It’s a pity, really, that the word ‘craft’ has become so conservative, mainly, curiously, as a result of the influence of radicals. It was figures such as William Morris who have bequeathed us a certain romantic notion of craft; for him it designated the activity of artisans, working with their hands so that design and texture, patience and artistry were forged in sensual, imaginative and creative relation to the material: wood, metal, stained glass and stone. Not many people today can afford to be involved in this kind of labour.
The unintended long-term result of this romantic repositioning of craft, through the arts and craft movement, is that today we find it extremely difficult to grant any of this same positive or romantic credence to the work most people actually have to do.
A retail buyer has the capacity to become a craftsman, because he occupies a critical position, with responsibility to find the best possible fit between two complex processes: that represented in production and that in consumption. They have to imagine what continuities they wish to retain and what would satisfy their desire for change and distinction.
Then, having made those considerations, they have to turn and face in the opposite direction and consult with designers, factories and the vast edifice of capitalist manufacture and distribution. Somehow these two have to be fitted together, the potential of the work of design and production meshed with the taste and concern of the world of consumption.
Yet a retail buyer’s job is precisely the kind of labour we hardly see at all….a retail buyer is practically invisible. They are the lynchpins, the determinants of what actually exists out there, in the commercial world we encounter.
I came across this letter, and many others, while in California researching the start of various food processing industries in Sonoma County. This witty and charming letter was a keeper and somehow feels right in The Wilderness of Wish both as an ode to siblings and as grounding while I begin to prepare a talk that touches on the Granger Movement.
One of the Movement's hallmark pieces of legislation was the commencement of rural free mail delivery. It saddens me to think of how the US Postal Service has been systematically dismantled over the past several decades.
I wonder how Mr. Wise's winery turned out and if a boom ever found its way to him. Hope so.
Aug 12, 1878
My dear Lotte,
I'm the poorest correspondent in the World I think, for it must be a coon's age, and an old one at that since I wrote, but I work hard all day sometimes with my hands sometimes with my brain - and when I've had dinner I want to smoke and read the paper. Man is a selfish brute at best and everything is sacrificed to his comfort.
Latterly I've been building a stone winery and am now started as one of California's wine makers. I have spent nearly all the money I possess, but we are in a state of speculation and look for a boom in everything. If I don't get a boom I will bust, and then I will go to work for somebody and with nothing to bother me but Marion, be tolerably happy. As it is I am a nervous, bony, irritable piece of humanity, and am never happy except when I am asleep.
I was very much interested in the papers you sent me and I have them carefully saved to send back. The photograph of the children was lovely. My Godson is a beaut. and they are both a credit to you Mrs. Hopkins. How much I would like to see you all. Your letter made me as homesick as a child, and I am only waiting for the Boom to go East.
The whole business about Etta is tough, but I think she is as weak as skimmed pump water - to use a rural phrase - not to take a stand and fire him. Blue the Divorce Court! I would fit it up as a sitting room, and keep getting married and divorced until I got a husband to suit me. Storrow's behind the age. It's the swell thing to do here, to get a divorce.
I suppose Kate and her whole convey are blooming like a green bay tree. She never writes to me, but I never write to anybody. Give her my love and to Etta too.
If any of you people get real rich, so that the money bulges out your pockets and spoils the fit of your clothes, just remember that you have a brother out here struggling along the rough uneven path of a Farmers life, or better still if you know any Tenderfeet, who are positive that Ranching in California is the vocation, send them out and I will satisfy their longing.
Your affectionate Brother,
2015 has been designated by the United Nations as The International Year of Light.
For Nathalie Rozot, Phototect, former director of L'Observatoire International, and founding director of the lighting think-tank, PhoScope, this means an opportunity to phostruct a new language about light and lighting technology.
I'm part of the international jury and we invite everyone to contribute to phoslocution. To spread knowledge about phocy and phototecture. Perhaps you'll trouble the lack of light in refugee camps, or detail how light effects a plant you're cultivating or a child you're teaching. Or, maybe you need to describe your dream photodom.
All winning entries will become part of the PhosWords dictionary, published by PhoScope.
Here are a few stills from a new film project I'm working on with Related Parts, LLC. It's called The After Party.
I've practiced joomchi for over a year now. It's a Korean fabric making technique using hanji --the fibrous inner bark of the mulberry tree. The final result of joomchi's long, hand-agitating process is much like leather. It can be molded into almost any shape and the texture is sensational.
I was trained by artist Jiyoung Chung who is a RISD alum and also teaches there. Jiyoung introduced me to Kaki-Shibu, the green persimmon juice that is used to waterproof and insect-proof joomchi. The thin, caramel-colored liquid has preserved jackets, satchels, umbrellas and containers for centuries. It's also been a common natural building material in Korea for the better part of a thousand years. It is still manufactured by a few companies for traditional builders.
Since I'm actively working on the "Food Peripheries" project, I've included kaki-shibu on the master list - a list that is part material science, part economic botany, and part foodways.
The Periphery of Persimmons
Cultivated from the wild species Diospyros roxburghii, D. kaki is indigenous to East Asia and has been grown in China and Japan for centuries. We primarily eat two D. kaki cultivars - the jewel-toned, Fuya, which can be eaten while firm (and tastes like sticky toffee pudding) and the heart-shaped, date and melon-flavored Hachiya, which must be eaten mushy-soft to avoid an unforgettably astringent, desiccating, tongue-furring experience. It's this fruit's unripe, tannin-rich pulp and leaves that are put to industrial use preventing "the growth of bacteria.... When crushed and their juices fermented, [the pulp produces] kaki-shibu. a liquid used to waterproof, insect proof, strengthen and dye paper.” - via
The unripe persimmons used to make kaki-shibu go through a milling process similar to that of wine grapes. And, like balsamic vinegar or wine, it takes years for kaki-shibu to age once it is milled. Interestingly, during the fermentation process butyric acid builds up imparting a characteristic smell that you'll recognize in Parmesan cheese and some goat and sheep milk products though the butyric acid smell is most pronounced in human vomit. Thankfully there are manufacturing secrets that defuse the stink so the tidy silver packets of kaki-shibu for sale are, mercifully, odorless.
It’s hard to hear in sugar mills.
Several stories high, sugar mills are built to sustain the 24-hour, 100-day annual autumnal campaign of making sugar. The fragility of the fresh Saccharum officinarum plant belies its future as a preservative—cane harvesting and processing must happen quickly and continuously. “In Louisiana, that means from the week of October 5th through the first week in January, with several mills finishing during the last week of December,” says John Constant, of the American Sugar Cane League. Titanic sugar-making machines: crushers, choppers, heaters, bubblers, burners, whirlers, droppers—each rumble and ring at a steady, simultaneous and deafening clip. People are quiet. They move and act from memory. They communicate physically.
It’s hard to see in sugar mills.
Sugar mill air is steamed and cloudy with the fiber particulates of millions of cane stalks. It is an aromatic and enchanting microclimate. The steamy, sugary air coats everyone and everything in the mill. Immediately upon entering, cameras and notebooks get packed away and your attention turns completely, instinctually, to survival. It is slippery. You must not slip. The machines will not stop.
It was in this bewildering, blaring, implausible hive of mechanical and digital machinery that I learned about the silent, motionless tripod magnifier. It is a vital, tried-and-true tool nestled imperceptibly in the colossal operation of sugar making.
Peter Patout, member of a long line of Louisiana sugar barons (his family has run M.A. Patout Enterprise Plantation since 1825) introduced me to this unassuming tool of food craft - the tripod magnifier. With a deftness that comes from having worked in the mill since he was a boy, he shepherded me through one of the world's most treacherous food processing operations. En route, he paused near a towering silver cylinder containing a plate-sized porthole through which chestnut-colored sludge was undulating. He pointed to it (it's too loud to talk) and then to a clipboard containing a log. Then, he lifted up a palm-sized magnifier and yelled out “The person that uses this has the highest paid job in the mill.” He signaled that we would wait in the area until it was time to evaluate the strike so I could observe what made this activity so valuable. On schedule, the millworker pulled a sample from the porthole, mounted it on a glass slide and peered into it using the tripod magnifier.
What the millworker was doing was assessing the crystal structure of sucrose which, “because it is a combination of a glucose and fructose molecule, has a very specific way of packing together to form a solid.” Each sucrose crystal has two ends, or terminations. Once trained, a millworker can see the interfacial angles, determine the quality of the strike being boiled and make the call to release the strike to the centrifugals. Millions of dollars are at stake.
“Given how important sucrose is to our diets, and how much money is made from sugar, finding its crystal structure was a very important question of early crystallography. One of the challenges to finding its structure was the fact that it is composed entirely of: ‘light elements’ only carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. The first [sugar] structure was [illustrated and] published in 1952 by Beevers et al. after they collected the data in 1944 from a crystal provided by UK syrup manufacturers Tate and Lyle [think of emerald and brass tins of treacly Lyle’s Golden Syrup used to make ANZAC cookies]. (via Crystallography 365)
Because sugar making is sequential, each section of processing must be accurately completed before progressing. There are acceptable margins of error along the way, but none so tight as in the evaluation of the strike. Have the sucrose crystals properly formed so that they can withstand the spinning in the centrifugals? If not, the entire strike is cut, or adjusted, which often means an additional sprinkling of sugar dust, which initiates crystal formation.
During a conversation with Anatole, “Toddy” Newchurch, the Chief Chemist and Product Manager at Lula-Westfield Sugar Mill in Acadiana’s Assumption Parish, he explained the enduring value of the tripod magnifier. “It’s a simple tool that our industry has used for many, many years. At one time, this is all the sugar boilers had to determine the quality of the strike and know when to release that pan to the centrifugals.” The tool remains accurate, and it remains $15.95 which is several hundred thousand dollars - and ninety-five cents cheaper than contemporary digital magnifiers and strike assessors.
With low margins, high capital equipment expenses and an en famille, vertically-integrated business trajectory developed over centuries, it is perhaps not surprising that the largest contemporary sugar plantations and mills preserve some small, analog tool. For most, it is the tripod magnifier.
It would be hard to find workers who miss the pre-industrial physicality of sugar cane sugar harvesting and milling. It was unromantic, dangerous and grueling work, at best. Industrial innovations have literally saved lives. What is remarkable is that in this machine-and computer-driven environment, there remains a tool that captures the elemental nature of sugar as we know it. A tool that recognizes the finest optical and computing device we’ve yet discovered, the human eye and brain.
A (VERY) QUICK PRIMER ON SUGAR MILLING
Extract Juice. Once harvested (a storied process), cane is quickly sent to the mill which is typically located close to the fields. The first order of mill business is to extracted juice from the chopped cane. Juice is extracted through multiple crushings through a series of rollers. At the end of this process nothing but dry cane fiber, called bagasse, remains. The bagasse is carried to the mill’s kiln where it is used as fuel for the mill’s syrup boilers.
Filter Juice. Next, the cane juice isolated filtered - cleaned of any remaining soil and small plant fibers. Juice from the first and second crushes are typically the sweetest.
Reduce Juice. Cane juice is thickened into a syrup. Water is boiled off until the conditions are right for sugar crystals to grow. The right syrup condition is referred to, charmingly, as Mother Liquor. It lives in what’s called massecuite.
The massecuite is then transferred into a very large pan where even more water is boiled off to encourage the growth of sucrose crystals. There are different grades of massecuites. Once optimal crystal structures have grown, the massecuite is called a strike - a completed boiling and it can be discharged from the pan into centrifuge machines, simply referred to as centrifugals.
Isolate the Sugar Crystals. In the centrifugals, sucrose crystals are isolated from molasses. We now have familiar sugar crystals.
Move Sugar Crystals to Dryers. The sugar crystals are then moved to dryers to end the process and ensure good flow/nice pour.
SUGAR MILL VOCAB
- MOTHER LIQUOR is the optimized syrup in which the sugar crystals can grow.
- MASSECUITE (Fr masse + cuite “cooked mass”) is the sugary slurry of Mother Liquor and developing crystals.
- STRIKE is perfect massecuite. If you don’t have a strike, you can CUT A PAN, which describes releasing some massecuite and adding a bit of sugar dust or mother liquor to encourage sucrose crystal growth.
- When you achieve a strike, you DROP A PAN, which is to say you discharge all of the massecuite from a pan to centrifugals. This is also referred to as STRIKING A PAN.
Photos: Makalé Cullen. I've been holding on to these photos for a year now - they were part of another studio project. I took them during fieldwork last fall in Louisiana, documenting sugar mills. Specifically, M.A. Patout & Son, Ltd. - the oldest sugar company in the United States still owned and operated by the original family—Patout. It was founded in 1825. Many thanks to Peter Patout for his hospitality and to Poppy Tooker of Louisiana Eats for introducing me to Peter and his family's heritage mill.
“I remember only one odd scrap. I think Katy, or Lizzie, was describing a holiday on Malta where, she said, the Maltese, with death-defying insouciance quite beyond comprehension, drove neither on the left nor on the right, but always on the shady side of the road.”
— W.G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn (p18)
I met Phillipino artist, Riel Hilario at Governor’s Island last Sunday - he was a studio mate of two friends in residency there. Riel is the nephew of a traditional Phillipino santo maker and the influence is palpable. Impressive works. Riel is currently a fellow at the Asian Cultural Council here in NYC. See more of his work.
It's been a busy spring! I've just returned from New Orleans. I was a speaker at The Historic New Orleans Collection's biannual foodways symposium which, this year, was all about coffee.
I spoke about coffee biggins, material culture, memory and the professionalization of the home coffee service. Here are just a few of the five dozen biggins we read for narratives of place, material, identity, labor, family, gender...
Organized by Jessica B. Harris, the deep, super caffeinated dive into America's morning narrative included wonderful presentations by Mark Pendergrast (author of Uncommon Grounds), Patrick Dunne (proprietor of Lucullus), the senior historian and educator from The Collection as well as roasters and green coffee importers.
Please look for my article in the forthcoming issue of the new art and applied sociology journal, LIMN, out of UCLA. Issue No. 4 analyzes food infrastructures and addresses scale in food production, provision and consumption.
I take readers on a fantastical journey beginning in West Africa’s palm plantations and ending in Liverpool’s tin can factories. Condensed milk lovers and refried bean enthusiasts are especially welcome.
Makalé Faber-Cullen ends our issue with a beautiful reflection on what connects the oil palm tree, the tin can, and colonialism.