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October 7th, 2014

Books, Covers, Etc.

BY Christian Ford

What things appear to be and what they really are have never been one in the same.  Sometimes, that can be a good thing.  And some times, it’s exactly what you were afraid it was.

  • Very occasionally, a spectacularly opulent cover hides a wonderfully modest text, and — even more occasionally — that’s just what you hope to find.  In Italy, on a site that was once a residence of Emperor Domitian, stands the Palazzo Apostolico di Castel Gandolfo — the Pope’s summer getaway palace.  It’s been a property of the Holy See for about 500 years, the palace was designed by one of the founding fathers of Baroque architecture, and it’s exactly as nice you think the Pope’s vacation home might be.  But it’s also a farm, feeding the Vatican.
  • The Amish have the cover problem in spades.  Whatever the reality of their culture, the picture on the book jacket is so iconic that we can never quite get past its retrograde charm and paradoxical suggestions of both religious repression and the freedom to pursue a better path.  The Atlantic neatly sidesteps all that in a piece about what is best described as the Amish implementation of agroecology — the fusion of traditional farming wisdom with hard-nosed science.  This is what it looks like when people with zero buy-in to the mainstream system decide that organic standards are the departure point, and not the goal.
  • Sometimes you really, really want the cover to be your guarantee of what you find inside and more often than not, that’s been the case with The New Yorker.  Harold Ross’ idiosyncratic creation has lasted through a Depression, a World War and the birth of the Internet, not least because of the sage and ruthless fact-checking department.  Alas, even that vaunted backstop has met its match in Michael Specter’s weirdly patronizing and falsely objective piece on Vanada Shiva (and therefore the case against GMO crops).  Raj Patel has graciously phoned in from reality with a response to Specter’s piece, which allows us to enjoy the spectacle of a wilderness of error disguised as reporting.
  • In Berlin, a market by the name of Unverpackt has discarded the cover completely and in so doing, created a kind of alternate-reality grocery store.  We’ve all been to the bulk aisle or crunched our way through co-ops with design sensibilities mired in 1968 Haight-Ashbury, but here we get a glimpse of what it would be like if a proper store simply had no packaging.  In comparison to the typical grocery store experience, it’s the visual silence — the only word, really — that most strikes me, the absence of the ceaseless hectoring, the aggressive, manipulative words and images, all of them shouting what to think and feel about products which are scrupulously hidden behind their cardboard covers.   It’s a little shocking, this nakedness of the food.  And so is the thought of what it would be like if the entire grocery store, end to end, was the same experience as picking out that perfect pear.
  • Finally, there are the covers which are intended to outright deceive.  The Consumer’s Union, the organization behind Consumer Reports, decided to see just what you find inside a variety of processed foods emblazoned “all natural.”  They analyzed 80 different products — from Froot Loops to Boca Vegan Veggie Burgers and (just to twist the knife) four different infant formulas —  and it turns out that virtually all of them include GMO ingredients as part of that naturalness.  Legal and Marketing at the different versions of MondoFood Corp will make the argument that anything with any DNA from anywhere counts as natural, but your interpretation may differ.


Amish Farmer by Cindy Cornett Seigle
New Yorker by John McQuaid
Castel Gandolfo by Harry D.
Boca Burger by Kelly Garbato
Original Unverpackt by Jendrik Schröder