Saturday, March 26, 2011

Small Bites

In an article in New York Magazine in 1985, Gael Green wrote that, "Yuppies do not eat... they graze." A dozen years later in The New York Times, Kim Seversen went even further: "The entrée, long the undisputed centerpiece of an American restaurant, is dead." She goes on to talk about the "tapafication of American menus," wherein you see small plates taking top billing at more and more meals. As an early adopter whose wedding more than a quarter of a century ago featured nothing but hors d'oeuvres, (in the belief that what people really want to eat is appetizers, especially if there are pigs-in-blankets), it's a trend of which I wholeheartedly approve.

Even leaving aside the legitimacy of the descriptor (which admittedly was a finalist in 2007 for "Word of the Year" by the American Dialect Society), it's a movement that has moved beyond edibles. In almost every arena, we seem to prefer to consume in small bites. The drivers are varied: limited time, limited attention span to be sure, but also the insatiable need for nearly constant stimulation and gratification. Or in culinary terms, why have the spring rolls alone when you can have the entire pupu platter?

Certainly we see it in food. Personally speaking, when we go out to eat, we favor restaurants where we can share a bunch of dishes. Thai and Chinese are easiest, but Russian, Indian and even Italian fit the bill. We'll order a bunch of appetizers to get us going, then pool our taste buds and order a variety of dishes to share. Our biggest problem is finding enough space on the table to handle all the bowls, plates and platters that show up. We snack around, having a little of this, a little of that, with each of us favoring certain flavors or textures. And it seems to suit us: it's almost embarrassing how each dish at the end looks as if it's been licked clean by a puppy.

But look at any number of the books that have made a splash this year, and you see the same kind of segmentation. Jennifer Eagan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad" just won the National Book Critics Circle award. While described as a novel, it's more like a series of connected short stories or character studies. Likewise Tom Rachman's debut book "The Imperfectionists," and "The Illumination" by Kevin Brockmeister. In each case, the individual chapters virtually stand on their own. In fact, if you them put them down and pick them up later without refreshing yourself as to the most recent goings-on, you might be hard pressed to consider them as a whole.

The same thing happens with TV viewing these days. I don't remember the last time I looked at the clock and said, "Wow, it's 8PM... I better go turn on ‘CSI: Wichita Behavioral Anatomy Unit' or I'll miss it!" Everything I watch is Tivo'd or DVR'd or Hulu'd or whatever. Even then I only watch it in bitesized chunks. The opening 8 minutes of John Stewart, the first skit on Saturday Night Live, Sean Hannity's first yellfest with his "Great American Panel," to name a few. That's at least 3 hours of boob tube cherry picked to under 30 minutes of content... and even then I'm just as likely to hit the clicker or mouse and look for something else if it sags for a second.

Movies are about the only thing that I consume in their entirety anymore. Maybe because it's dark, and I can't find my way to the exit. Maybe it's because I hate to climb over people in the row next to me. Maybe it's because my wife likes films, and so I go whether I want to see it or not. In any case, it's a kind of self-kidnapping: I only watch movies at the theater for the very reason that it's hard to escape. I don't remember the last time I watched a flick at home, where my tolerance to sit for two hours in one place is practically non-existent.

And there's more. We don't talk, we email. We don't email, we text. We don't buy albums, we download singles. We don't read papers, we read articles online. In almost every area, we slice and dice, taking only the parts we want, not only discarding the rest, but never even looking at what we're passing over. Aristotle may have noted that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but these days those parts are what make up the whole enchilada.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to have the time to read the paper cover to cover, finding things he never would online. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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