Now that “major media” has had its say through end-of-year superlatives lists, here’s what you’ve really been waiting for: Matters of Taste presents Nine Notables from the year that has passed. (Please note, that if we indulge in any kind of end-of-decade list making, it will actually be at the actual end of the decade, i.e., December 2010—but we will probably be busy baking, and that list won’t happen—but if we did, we would remember to count the years as our mothers taught us to count our fingers when we were three, starting with one and ending with ten.) Like the blog that hosts it, this list is a mix of observations that range from the personal to the universal: specific to its author’s experiences living in a smallish city outside of Chicago but relevant to (and no doubt of endless interest to) everyone, everywhere, forevermore. Behold, some superlatives from 2009:
1. most important centennial anniversaries (events in high, low and middling taste)
Everyone has anniversaries like births and weddings to celebrate annually, but centennials are something special. There were lots of them in 2009, which marked 100 years of: Bakelite (an early plastic, used in all kinds of products from machine guns, dominoes, radio cases and jewelry); the Lincoln Penny (one of the world’s most-enduring coins, its famous “head” designed by Victor David Brenner); the Banker Desk Lamp (you know it—with the brass foot and green shade; patent was presented to Harrison D. McFaddin); Mothers Day (first recognized by South Dakota). A century has passed since: the completion of the Santa Monica Pier and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the debut of Russian ballet in the West by way of the travelling Ballets Russes, the preservation of the Rome home of Keats and Shelley and its role as a memorial to those poets, undergraduate T. E. Lawrence’s departure from Oxford for his first trip to the Arab world (his experiences later the groundwork for Lawrence of Arabia, 1962) and Tokyo’s announcement of a gift of cherry trees for the Tidal Basin in Washington. 2009 was also the centennial of two publications that have had huge importance for the design of buildings and cities: Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago (4 July), and the “Futurist Manifesto” by Filippo Marinetti (20 February). Not quite diametrically opposed, they certainly suggest the kind of wagon-circling that was going on in the start of the century as Traditionalist and Modernist camps were being defined, launching arguments that have yet to be resolved. But that’s probably another post for another day.
2. best use of an outdoor place in the U.S.
The plan of Washington DC was grossly over-scaled in its original design by Pierre-Charles L’Enfant for any use that could be expected of the swampy, wannabe city in 1791. Such remained true for most of its history: it took over a century for the grand design to be filled out anywhere near to the extents drawn up by the French engineer. The National Mall remains a grossly under-utilized space, filled only in the case of rare holiday festivals and other occasions. It is fittingly large for the huge buildings that were slowly built along its great length, but on any average day, even a healthy number of tourists and locals make a puny impression as they scutter along its edges. Such was not the case during the presidential inauguration on January 20, when the National Mall became much more than a huge, sweeping stage for a massive campus of museum and government buildings. It was a jam-packed manifestation of the democratic system and display of the general sense of optimism for which Americans are known around the world; and indeed, the whole world turned its eyes to the National Mall as a beacon that day (for photo see urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot; for more great photos of the day, see this site).
3. best animal
Note: cat people may want to skip this one.
The best pets are dogs, and the best dogs are rescue dogs. No matter how you look at it–environmentally, financially, humanitarianly, aesthetically–adopting a shelter dog is a better choice than dealing with a breeder, let alone going through a puppy mill pet store. Granted, a rescue dog sometimes will require greater diligence and care, depending on its former situation–but people who are unwilling to tend to “special-needs” dogs probably don’t have the focus and energy for any dog, and are advised to stick to houseplants or fish in the first place. Given greater awareness through celebrity rescue-dog owners (I am reluctantly looking at you, Rachael Ray), cable tv shows, a great big spread on a huge rescue undertaking in Time (read it here), and even a stamp being brought out by Royal Mail in 2010, hopefully the future is brightening for these good pups.
4. most fun at the movies
What a fun summer it was. We were pleased as popcorn with three long-anticipated movies, and in the midst of zooming space ships, wild wizard duels and boeuf bourguignon action, a trifecta of heroes arose: the young cool Spock (even with no real background in the franchise, and not a Trekkie among us, the Matters of Taste staff loved the recent Star Trek movie), the always-delicious Snape (as usual, we could have used more of him in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but even a little Snape is good Snape [or is he. . . ?]), and Meryl Streep’s merveilleux turn as Julia (too bad Julie had to show up for so much of that movie). And then–and then!—Sam Raimi came along with a bonus, old-school grody hair-raiser that had us jumping out of our seats, covering our eyes and dying to see what comes next. We’ll never look at office supplies the same way.
5. best time in front of the television
Three things we really enjoyed on the tube: (1) Satire. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert continue to earn our loyalty by making the medicine go down with, well, not a spoon full of sugar, but something that burns and makes us cough from time to time, but accomplishes the task none the less, as do the crew at Infomania–with the latter gaining ground, if for no other reason, for taking far fewer vacations. (2) Creativity In Action. “Reality TV” lives up to its potential in a few programs that showcase people with actual talent, especially the ones who can do worthwhile things like make halter tops out of seat belts and bake deconstructed macaroni and cheese. Occasionally, Top Chef and Project Runway suffer from some mission drift when their producers push the soapy drama that is the bread and butter of most “reality” shows, but that does not detract from the good parts that simply allow the creative process to be front and center (and if the chefs get a few more Americans to cook dinner at home, so much the better). Can it really be that long before we see a new Bravo program featuring Tim Gunn and Tom Colicchio sharing the small screen? Make it work! (3) Loopy Teachers. We can’t help reveling in the bad taste exercised by two new and notable characters this year who dominate every scene in which they appear: Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch on Glee—a show that would be so much improved if they’d quit with all that singing) and Señor Chang (Ken Jeong on Community). Sharing many gifts, these two differ in the fact that Sue Sylvester is a coach, and as such, a motivated, driven force of nature: a category 5 hurricane in a track suit. Señor Chang is a community college professor, perhaps tenured or otherwise protected in his job, and is as ambivalent about the success of his students as Sue is demanding of it. Although Sue has had superior lines (what could best “destination: HORROR!”?) and more screen time, Señor Chang gives even greater voice to the realities of frustration felt by college professors. Their performances are cathartic, as well as hilarious, and perhaps allow teachers to be a little more civil in the classroom. Perhaps.
6. most important local architecture news: good, bad and indifferent
On the bright side, the latest addition to the Art Institute, the Modern Wing designed by Renzo Piano, is open. It’s an elegant and engaging bit of Modernism, happier than most of the art it houses. Its completion has done good things for the rest of the museum too, which now enjoys an expansion of formerly-neglected collections like architectural drawings and Islamic art. There is no upside to the blow dealt to the architecture community by the closing of the Prairie Avenue Bookstore in early autumn. As an architecture bookstore it was unparalleled, but its demise also indicates the further decline of book culture, and not just in Chicago (it’s not only your arugula that you should purchase locally, people). Lastly, Chicago lost its bid for the Olympics in 2016, and with it some opportunities to expand its architectural depth and richness in the near future (with the note that, if Beijing is any example, we could have expected some bad development and a few notable buildings, but, t’wasn’t meant to be).
7. best travel
Almost any travel is good travel, for the double-benefit of learning about a new place and seeing your home front differently upon your return. The Best Splash-Out Voyage is a big fat European capital of culture: this year it was spring break in Paris. As wonderful as such big adventures are, we have grown more and more dedicated to local travel too, and the intellectual and cultural reasons for staying closer to home certainly fits the bill (literally) given the present economy. The Best Thrifty Trips are to quirky places of local historical interest. The latter takes more brain power and broader perspective than heading for the City of Lights, but putting both in action lead the Matters of Taste staff to some great weekends in Iowa (specifically for a great exhibition, “Regionalism, Modernism & the Midwest” at the Des Moines Art Center) and Illinois (especially nineteenth-century Swedish settlement at Bishop Hill and the twentieth-century Modernist John Deere headquarters building by Saarinen in Moline). Paris might provide the bigger bang for the (more numerous) bucks, but there’s a lot to be said for understanding your place in the world better.
8. best food
Because we see cooking as not merely a means of sustenance but instead an opportunity to keep an eye on the quality of food that we ingest, explore cultures around the world, flex creative muscles, and do so with the immediate payoff of good eats, the best food is adventuresome home cooking. Every few months we like to pick up a new cookbook in the hopes of investigating a cuisine and maybe mastering a dish or two; the choices are usually based on upcoming travel opportunities (The Cuisines of Spain: Exploring Regional Home Cooking by Teresa Barrenechea and Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking are not just recipe books but also cultural guides and historical studies) or some effort to get in touch with family heritage (thus the prominence of The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice A. Ojakangas in our Christmas preparations). Then, sometimes, you just find a beautiful book on the sale table at Williams Sonoma (Tartine by Elisabeth Prueitt), and within weeks start to wonder about chucking your present career to become a pastry chef.
9. best “new to me”
A few things that came out earlier in the ‘00s and that we only discovered in the last twelve months constitute the Better Late Than Never section of our list, which has three categories this year. (1) Best New To Me Book is The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Maria Roasa Menocal, 2002)–beautifully written, immensely inspiring. (2) Best New To Me Television includes the all-too-few and all-too-short episodes of parody cooking show Posh Nosh, “bringing extraordinary food to ordinary people” (BBC, 2004); do yourself a favor and learn to make Architect’s Fish and Chips. (3) Best New To Me Record is Arular (M.I.A., 2005), a delicious blend of sweet beats and stinging politics. Like Señor Chang, it will bite your face off.
Lastly, and at the risk of being self-congratulatory and self-serving (then again, what blog isn’t?), we will note (although not in the midst of the prestigious “nine notables” above) the launch of this very blog, which we see as a very significant part of 2009, and if you have made it through the posts and to the end of this one, clearly it is very significant to you as well. Keep checking back for more Matters of Taste in 2010. You’re welcome!