First — a head’s up to another one of my internet-radio conversations. Tomorrow at 6 p.m EST I’ll be talking (live!) to David George Haskell. David is a biologist teaching at the University of the South. He blogs here, but the proximate reason for the interview is the publication of his book, The Forest Unseen.
The Forest Unseen is simply one of the best natural history cum science books I’ve read in years. David’s concept — in less adept hands it would have been a conceit — was to take a single meter-in-diameter patch of old growth forest and visit it over the course of a year.
From those visits to what he called “the mandala” he drew essay after essay, pretty much all of them built on the idea of making a practice out of observation. Most of the chapters in the book begin with a single point of entry into the life of the mandala, and then Haskell’s writing flows and leaps as he finds his veins of connection. Along the way, quite gently, he leads his readers into an increasingly sophisticated understanding both of natural history side of things: what’s there, what’s happening in that patch of forest (and through that one little scrap of land into the beyond, of course); and of the science involved, ideas from biology and ecology. You learn a lot — I did — and it’s not until much later that you (I) realize just what a rich lode of fact and concept we’ve just taken on.
In all, a really worthwhile book — not a bad choice, if I dare say it, to stick in somebody’s stocking in a few days. (BTW — for more on the project, check out Jim Gorman’s article from October, published in the Grey Lady.)
Now to the kitchen goodness. Fair warning: what follows is a plug for something a good friend of mine is trying to do. If you aren’t into knives, kitchens, or cooking, and/or don’t want to read about what is at bottom (and top, actually) an attempt at business, then please, get off the bus now.
So, back at the dawn of time, my friend Adam — Adam Simha — graduated from MIT rather at loose ends. He found himself more interested in craft than formal science or engineering. He bounced around some kitchens in town, and then found himself really looking at the tools chefs use, and then figuring out that he might have some skills and knowledge and sheer desire to see what he could do in that arena.
The result has been a number of years developing himself into an exceptional knife maker. You can see what he does here — check out the custom knives he’s made for chef-clients, and see also the ready-made line for the rest of us. After some years of nerving myself up to it, I finally bought one of the latter — the 10″ chefs’ knife with the black rubber (Pedro) handle. It is, simply, the best knife I’ve ever owned, by far.
How better? It starts sharper than the decent knives I’ve used for decades; it holds its edge longer; it sharpens more easily, and being made of better steel than any other knife I own (a Wursthof and a Sabatier for chef’s knives), it is thinner, harder, and is easier in my hands to manipulate than any big knife has a right to be.
And yeah, it costs a fair amount. Not an utterly crazy number for something that, properly cared for, should outlast me — Adam’s prices for his ready-mades fall in the middle of what a yuppie cooking store charges for its cutlery. And hell, I’ve been promising myself a really good knife since we first elected Obama, and finally I just decided that this purchase was going to be my victory cigar for the re-election celebration.
An aside: I’m not a great person with my hands, but I purely love the knowledge and history built into any good tool — plus the fact that better tools make the jobs they’re designed for easier to do.
I learned this first when I started working with good camera-people when I was just getting going as a documentary film-maker. One of those DPs, an older guy (Bob Elfstrom,* for those of you in the business), took me aside and made sure I understood how and why he used each of the bits and pieces he needed to make his images. Great training! Throughout he drummed into me the necessity, the almost religious obligation, to use the best tools to do a job one could possibly acquire. And he was right, at least in my experience. It’s because of him that I would hire or buy really good optics when I needed to — leaving me fewer options on location than I would have liked, sometimes, but better, in ways I could see on screen. And as I started to cook I found I didn’t like gadgets very much, but I truly valued a good knife. Those of you who cook (and that’s most of us, I guess) know what it’s like when you get one that fits and balances and that takes and holds an edge without fighting you for it. That’s the context in which I’ve come to Adam’s knives, and that’s why I am posting this to try and help him realize an ambition.
What Adam’s doing now is to take what he’s developed as he’s built knives for his custom clients to come up with versionss for a larger audience. There are a fair number of costs that go with that ambition, mostly for a build out of his shop, and he’s launched an Indigogo campaign to try to raise the necessary. He’s got a video up there that explains what he’s trying to do better than I can.
I’m a little diffident about putting this up. A buddy of mine is trying to get a new business off the ground, and I’m using this community platform to spread the word. But I guess the usual answer applies. Don’t bother with all this stuff if you aren’t interested.
But even if you have no time to cook, no money for what is indeed a luxury, or just own every last bit of kitchen gear you, your kids and their kids will ever use, still, if you’d like to get just a sense of what a wonderful obsessive does when unleashed on metal-working shop, check the stuff out; if nothing else it’s fine kitchen porn.
*Among much else, Elfstrom directed and appeared as Jesus in Johnny Cash’s rarely-seen feature film Gospel Road, and he was one of the Maysles brothers’ cameramen at Altamont. Hell of a guy to take out on the road for one’s very first film. I’m deeply grateful to him and to John Else (my other first-cameraman) for the generosity with which they made sure I didn’t do anything irrecoverably stupid — all the while teaching me a whole lot of stuff they don’t necessarily cover in film school. I will say, though that even some jobs later it still came as something of a shock when Al Maysles showed up (unannounced) at the end of a day’s shooting in New York. It had been a long day, and something of a fraught one, and it was literally the last set up on the final shoot for that particular film. I was seriously ready for the bar. But there he was, Mr. Maysles — who, it must be said, understood exactly the state I was in (had been there once or twice himself, I reckon). In the event, he was gentle, encouraging and blessedly brief in his hellos.
Images: Paul Cezanne, Interior of a Forest, before 1890.
Totoya Hokkei, Still Life with Fish, Scallions and Large Knife, c. 1830