The Ortolan and the Omnivore: A Tale of Gluttony

France’s League for the Protection of Birds has, in recent years, been more or less successful in making French authorities toe the line on an EU ban against trapping the endangered ortolan (emberiza hortulana), a tiny bobolink-like songbird coveted by gastronomes of the French persuasion as an exquisite delicacy, all the more enticing because its taking is forbidden.

Now, we are advised by the Daily Telegraph, a cabal of grands chefs, including Alain DuCasse, is pressuring the Élysée Palace to relax the ban for one day each month.

Traditionally, ortolans are eaten with one’s head covered by a napkin because: [1.] (sensual) the exotic aroma is thereby captured, concentrated and savored, and/or, [2.] (spiritual) God cannot see you engaging in such egregious gluttony, one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Ortolans have often figured in the culinary history of La Belle France (cf: Mitterrand, François: Last meal of) and at least once in America as an object of the appetite of the late New York Times food critic, Craig Claiborne.

In 1975, Claiborne bid $300 at a charity auction and, having won, got his pick of a restaurant meal for two anywhere in the world, with no limit on the cost. He chose to eat — along with his friend, the chef Pierre Franey — at the Parisian establishment, Chez Denis. Their 31-course dinner took five hours to consume and included copious quantities of legendary-label wines. Claiborne wrote about the meal in The New York Times of November 14, 1975 under the title, Just a Quiet Dinner for Two in Paris: 31 Dishes, Nine Wines, a $4000 check; a paean to conspicuous consumption seldom equaled in the annals of gastronomy.

Ortolan – need I note — was a featured course.

The article ran on the Times’ front page and created an instant international sensation, the gist of which was best summed up by Pope Paul VI, who pronounced it “scandalous.” But the best (for me) was yet to come when, four days later, Times columnist Russell Baker wrote a scathing send-up of Claiborne called “Francs and Beans”. It remains to this day near the top my all time, all time list of favorite parodies.

So funny was it, that the morning I read it, I was on a breakfast flight from LaGuardia to Toronto, absorbed in the Times, as was my wont. Two sentences into Baker’s column I was laughing so hard I was choking on my croissant with tears in my eyes, much to the puzzlement of the other suits on board who were unused to seeing anyone so overcome with delight at anything in the “old gray lady”…especially at 7am..




Annals of Communications

When Johannes Gutenberg peeled the first broadsheet off the first printing press and began to read it, he reportedly cried out, “Whoa…! This article is far too wordy; the syntax is awkward, the grammar is atrocious and the whole thing makes no sense.” Thus was born the first editor.

The craft of editing had failed to flourish in earlier times because cuneiform was notoriously difficult to correct once chiseled in stone, and papyrus easily damaged by erasure and strike-overs (cf: Scrolls, Dead Sea).

Five centuries after Gutenberg, publishing had morphed into a massive global industry known as Mass Communications, and it was at that point that Albert Arnold Gore, Jr., a rising young American politico, invented the Information Superhighway, a.k.a., the Internet.

Encouraged by this breakthrough development, countless millions of people decided to become writer-editors, launching more uncurated verbiage onto the World Wide Web than had been written since the start of recorded history, ca. 3200 BC. Missing in much of this was the guiding hand of The Editor, a woefully diminished breed, few of whom had survived the recent near-death experience of the legacy media.

What this fractured history lesson is meant to convey is that in a world wherein everybody—left to his own devices—is destined to become a spontaneous news and information provider, and/or will be seeking employment in a business environment where exceptional communications skill will be ever-more in demand, we’re going to have to learn to do it better. At premium will be the sort of skills aspiring journalists learn in journalism school.

Enter Jan Schaffer, executive director of the J-lab at American University, graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern U., and Pulitzer-winning veteran of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Writing in MediaShift, she posits that “It’s time to think about trumpeting a Journalism degree as the ultimate Gateway Degree, one that can get you a job almost anywhere…”.

Journalism schools would have to articulate a new value program, fleshing out their traditional journalism curricula by adding more liberal arts courses overlaid by instruction in digital competence and social media skills.

Importantly, the practice of journalism per se isn’t going away, it’s merely going through a massive platform shift, albeit a stunningly painful one.The market for news and information is, if anything, on the increase; it simply has to be better audited.

In my opinion, Schaffer’s idea offers a promising scenario. It could re-invigorate our schools of journalism (now suffering from under-enrollment); re-focus the study of journalism as a profession; provide a gateway degree to the college-bound seeking a rewarding career: provide employers with articulate workers trained to be persuasive, persistent, and media-savvy; and give the rest of us a decidedly more informative, reliable, and enjoyable media experience. Best of all, it would put all those beached editors back to work.

Tempest in a Treetop

SANDWICH – The town was abuzz this week with word from usually reliable Washington sources that the White House was about to issue an executive order barring the construction of a zip line at Heritage Museums and Gardens.

Described as an “aerial adventure park”, the project has been the subject of considerable local controversy since it was first announced, but the matter had seemed to have been put to bed by the recent go-ahead ruling by the zoning board of appeals..

Simeon Snively, president of Tarzan Lives!, the video game company contracted to design and construct the project, said, “This is typical of big-government fun-police interfering in the free exercise of constitutional property rights by those who got there first. Of course this attraction will create traffic jams in the summer, that’s why it’s called an attraction! We believe that such minor inconveniences are more than offset by the creation of the one full-time and 11 part-time jobs being generated by the project. Furthermore, we have tenders from fifteen fast-food franchises anxious to occupy the food court we’ll be bringing to Heritage once the adventure park is in place.”

Queried about this unprecedented outreach into a local issue by the federal government, the White House declined to comment.