Today in Tedium: This week, this unbearable week. For the first time in the history of running this newsletter, I felt like I might have nothing to say. I just felt lost after seeing the destruction and willful idiocy that happened at the U.S. Capitol this week. (It wasn’t far from the neighborhood where I used to live.) The last couple of days have left me feeling a bit messed up and not sure what to say next, but a realization came over me recently: This is the finale of something, and not just the current American president, who for the first time in years is seeing many of his allies peel off. Culturally, this is a point of reset and renewal, as we close one stage and enter another. While things are broken, they will will get repaired. Things will begin anew. In that spirit, today’s Tedium is a general grab bag around the idea of renewal, and why, sometimes, you have to start over. — Ernie @ Tedium
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“The ultimate test of a great power is its ability to renew its power.”
— Samuel P. Huntington, a political scientist who spent decades at Harvard University, in “The U.S.—Decline or Renewal?,” a 1988 essay for the magazine Foreign Policy. The piece, discussing the challenge that faces the United States as it tries to maintain its position in the world. While written for another time—the Soviet Union is mentioned more than two dozen times in the piece, for one thing—but the key points touched upon by Huntington still carry a lot of weight today.
Perpetual stews: Why leaving something cooking forever sounds better than it actually is
For some reason, perhaps because I was attempting to cook soup as I started writing this piece, I started thinking about the idea of a stew that could continue cooking forever—an idea I’ve been familiar with forever, but seemed specifically relevant to this moment.
The idea kind of works like this: Basically, if you run a kitchen or inn of some kind, you take the extras from whatever you’re making—meat scraps, random veggies, you name it—and just keep throwing them in the stew, which is just going in a low boil for hours, days, months on end.
Eventually, all those parts melt together texturally, leaving a slurry of randomness that carries a fascinating flavor profile if done right.
Now, to be clear, a perpetual stew is a real thing, and real restaurants have done it. For example, Louro, a Portuguese-American restaurant in New York City during the first half of the 2010s, had won foodie attention for keeping a pot on the boil at all times—well, until the restaurant closed in 2015.
“Wait, all times,” you ask? “Isn’t that a health code violation waiting to happen?”
Well, here’s the thing. If something is always cooking, the bacteria that might usually form from something being out is unable to form, allowing the food to keep consistently evolving. Louro made a point of straining out the extra veggies and meats that appeared in the concoction, and then using that element for the basis of an ingredient used in its many foods.
Some restaurants have taken this fascinating idea and run with it. The Bangkok restaurant Wattana Panich has had a perpetual stew going for more than 45 years. And the recipe is honestly just a guess!
“Since my grandfather's time, we've never really had a set recipe about how much of each ingredient to put in,” third-generation soup creator Nattapong Kaweeantawong told NPR. “So the person making the soup will constantly have to taste it to know what needs to be added.”
This sounds cool! So what’s the problem? Well, there is a bit of history that is driving the phenomenon, and that history seems to be on somewhat shaky ground, notes the online men’s magazine MEL, noting that most histories of the “perpetual stew” seem to land on the same 1970s-era book. The article talks to historians who imply the legend of the pot always on the boil is akin to “fakelore,” and that the flavor and financial benefits of keeping a stew cooking forever are nonexistent.
Because this is Tedium, we will spend a little bit of time trying to confirm these details by diving into the internet to see if any history surfaces. And one way we can do so is by highlighting the fact that the term “perpetual stew” appears to have been in use—as an idiom, to describe people overly fixated on something—as far back as the 19th century.
But not entirely. For example, a British captain named William Bourchier wrote an 1834 travelogue about his journey from Bombay to England in which the concept of a perpetual stew is mentioned:
The evening being far advanced when we reached Kroceko, we had some difficulty in getting the Effendi to make his appearance; but at lasts little withered and wizard-looking old man, with sore eyes, became visible, and, after no inconsiderable demur, gave us leave to room for the night with the pigeons at the top of his house. He kept hundreds of these binds, which are very common all along the bank, of the Nile. To make some distinction, however, a mat was spread for us, a luxury which it did not appear the pigeons enjoyed; and thus we were sumptuously accommodated for the night. Nor was it long before supper arrived in the form of the universal and perpetual stew. This time it should have been better than usual, by containing more meat than won customary. But all excited expectations, even from the beauty of a beauty, down to the savour of an African stew, seem raised to be disappointed, and on it happened with us. But, to make amends, a Turk furnished us with some date brandy, for which we were very thankful; and we then laid ourselves down to sleep, with feelings of greater comfort and security than we had yet felt in Africa.
(Other forms of terminology, including “hunter’s stew” and “eternal pot,” do predate the 1970s, and describe the same general concept—a cooking pot in which random stuff is thrown inside a pot and continued as needed, not necessarily with an eternal flame assisting.)
A more recent document that seems to have set the concept of the perpetual stew ablaze is a 1981 New York Times article from the writer Arthur Prager, who seems to have uncovered 300-year-old examples of a cooking pot that constantly cooks down … without necessarily sourcing where said stew pot was. (Prager, meanwhile, had a claim on a 20-something-year-old eternal pot, according to him, which was based on an Alexandre Dumas recipe.)
The perpetual stew, whether or not it is something with a long history or just a concept that has gained recent prominence, nonetheless strikes one as a perfect metaphor for our times: Keeping something going forever sounds perfectly fascinating and romantic, but you probably wouldn’t want to do it yourself.
Why Con Air is the perfect movie to describe the waning moments of the Trump administration
After spending time in prison for accidentally killing a drunken man who picked a fight with him, Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) is moments away from a fresh start with a life he hasn’t been able to live for years.
The problem is, he has to survive the final plane trip home before he’s released, and that plane is filled with chaos agents who are obsessed with disrupting the system they feel has held them down.
The disruption is full of spectacle, the kind you can’t look away from, and while the police and military are there, they somehow seem completely ineffective in the face of this threat, which is led by someone with an extremely charismatic screen presence—Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich). Soon enough, the inmates have taken over—even for the folks, like Poe, who would prefer not to have any additional disruptions to their routines.
This is a lot to take in, but Poe is motivated to do the right thing and get home, so he takes steps to undermine what’s happening on the plane. There is a huge cast of characters, some silly, some scary, some that feel like cult figures working in bigger productions than usual. But they seem to dominate the movie.
A lot more happens—just as in real life, Dave Chappelle makes a memorable appearance early on—but it culminates in a dramatic scene that seems like it was pulled out of a screenwriter’s brain. People get hurt, some killed. It’s nonstop chaos and nobody seems to know what they’re doing. People keep screwing one another over. And you can’t look away. Like a plane landing on the Las Vegas strip, the insurrection at the Capitol disrupted everything this week.
That’s around the point where we’re at in the story, just before John Malkovich meets his maker. But it’s important to remember what happened next: Cameron Poe was reunited with his wife and daughter—presumably, able to return to a sense of normalcy after a plane ride in which nothing seemed to go right.
The last four years have been extremely tough on our cultural psyche, but just remember: We are all Cameron Poe in this story, and the plane eventually lands.
This is the story of Con Air, the greatest big-budget popcorn movie of the last quarter century. But it is also, in its own way, the story of the last four years.
“I have argued that failure is central to player enjoyment of games. This is not that surprising, given conventional wisdom that a game should be balanced to match the skills of players. However, it is notable that failure is more than a contrast to winning—rather failure is central to the experience of depth in a game, to the experience of improving skills.”
— Jesper Juul, a Danish game designer and researcher, discussing the role that failure plays in the enjoyment of video games in a 2009 essay on the topic. In many ways, games are not just about winning and losing, but gaining a sense of understanding over time about how to succeed, even after lots of failure. In other words, tension is essential to enjoying the game.
Over the holiday break, I did something I have been doing less and less in recent years—I started playing video games. Modern ones, rather than the retro junk I usually play. I needed a mental health break, and games were just the trick for it.
This was a side effect of giving Stadia a shot, as it was a great introduction into gaming without, say, having to invest in a Switch or a PS5. And while it is by no means perfect—for one thing, it can sometimes struggle with keeping things looking good on WiFi—it’s great for dipping your toes in.
One Stadia game that I found myself playing a lot during the time away was Celeste, a retro-tinged platform game about a young woman who is trying to climb up a mountain. (The creator of the game recently revealed that the woman, named Madeline, is transgender, which is some pretty cool representation!)
The level designs are downright brutal, and you are guaranteed to die hundreds, thousands of times. (Not helping: The game includes strawberries that you can collect, which are not important to winning at all, but are put in places that ensure you will die even more.) It’s a game built for people who are willing to keep trying over and over—and you’re willing to try, because you want to see what happens next.
I knew of Celeste for years before I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I finally did. Even if I did find myself yelling at the screen a whole bunch. Eventually, I found the best way to move forward: Turn off the game for an hour, come back to it, and suddenly the level would be easier to beat.
In many ways, the current moment reflects this tension over success and failure. There was a lot of fighting, a lot of tension, a lot of anger. And that won’t go away tomorrow—there are some parts of the internet that are quite upset right now!
But part of the reason why this tension hasn’t gone away is that we haven’t been able to find a distance from it. By letting a change happen, dumping the old pot of stew out, it will give us the opportunity to breathe, and find another way forward.
This will not be a sudden transition. It won’t be like hitting a switch. All those pissed-off idiots at the Capitol on Wednesday will still be pissed off a month from now, possibly facing charges for the damage they caused and the threat they represented.
But the fact that the point of tension is going away will help us fight the real problems we face as a society—like, y’know, the still-blistering spread of the coronavirus—with a clear head.
We shouldn’t be afraid to admit when we need to do a reset.
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