Culinary Phoenixes: The Glorious Reinvention of Bon Appétit

When homework threatens fiercely on the horizon, when the grey sky oppresses even your greatest ambitions, when you are feeling as if there is everything to do but want to do nothing: this is when you turn to Bon Appétit. Though its magazine has been in publication since 1956, Bon Appétit has seen increasing success in an entirely different medium. Rather than staying stolidly in print, the publication has expanded to the Internet space, creating a popular YouTube channel with vibrant personalities and truly delightful videos. What makes Bon Appétit most fascinating is how it has leveraged past mistakes and tactics to form something altogether new. In watching their videos, I am often reminded of where others have failed to adapt. Food Network, for instance, now increasingly favors format over personality. Robbed of charismatic presences, such as Emeril Lagasse, the cable channel has relied on competition shows, which lack vibrancy, even as they invent progressively more ridiculous tasks for assorted chefs to accomplish. Watching cooks running around a grocery store to shop for various jars of pickles can provide only a limited entertainment. Adding Guy Fieri as a vestigial commentator just seems excessive. His sole contributions are a few stale quips and a bottlebrush of bleached blond hair. And who wants staleness from a cooking show?

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The failure of their competitors puts Bon Appétit’s vivid resurrection in an even starker contrast. While their adversaries are barely breaking into the conversation, Bon Appétit’s videos regularly gain millions of views and have a genial cross-audience appeal. The Internet’s endless expanse has allowed them to reach a seeming endless number of admirers, all hungry to watch. It is genuinely impressive to watch a reinvention take place in real time. For, the online space also allows for a more flexible creativity. Often, I will read comments on their videos, only to see the requests of those commenters granted a few days later. The solicitation and eager acknowledgment of audience input is something entirely unique to the YouTube experience. There is a sincere respect for the viewers’ taste. There is an even more candid desire to fulfill their suggestions. It is not that Bon Appétit is the only channel on YouTube asking for audience advice. Indeed, it is almost a trope for YouTubers to fervently ask for subscribers’ commentary. Perhaps it feels so startling because Bon Appétit seems to be the first established company to truly conform to the changing times and recognize its advantages. Even better, their recognition of such trends has resulted in videos that are truly unique, blending the professionalism of a real test kitchen with the aspiring enthusiasm of viewers around the world. For those just discovering their channel, I would recommend the Gourmet Makes series, where in-house pastry chef, Claire Saffitz, attempts to recreate popular sweets. The ascent of channels such as Bon Appétit has made me realize that entertainment yesterday might be easily forgotten tomorrow. However, it is equally exciting to think of the new varieties of entertainment still to be discovered; mediums still unanticipated. The reinvention of Bon Appétit reassures me, though, that even these rapid transformations can result in something deliciously delightful.

Three A.M.

It is 3 am and my eyes are drooping as readily as my spirits. It is 3 am and most of my fellow students have been dreaming for hours. Maybe I have been dreaming, too. That would certainly explain how the mild ceiling lights flash like lightning with every blink. Maybe it is only in my delirious mind, soaked in a concentrated solution of caffeine, stress, and over-read notes. This night it is the latest economics problem set that has rendered my brain a useless instrument. I keep puffing, but the same tune keeps playing. Wrong answer. Wrong answer. There is no one to ask for help now. After all, it is 3 am.

The night is too quiet for my brain to keep up this frantic urgency. Everyone else is moving at a lethargic pace now, their dreams changing with the consistency of maple syrup. I want to be drowning with them. Theirs is a slow-developing paradise, mine is a never-ending purgatory. The sun will not raise his cheery, golden head for another few hours yet. With the lightening skies, comes a renewed confidence, one borne of a culminating desperation. One does not grow hopeful without dancing on the edge of the abyss. But even that dangerous hope is still far away; for now, the night remains stubbornly irresolute. Detail become lost and everything becomes shaded within indefinite lines. Even the music that pounds in my ears becomes a fuzz. What are they saying? It doesn’t matter anymore; all that matters is what I’m trying to say. Wrong answer. Wrong answer. Wrong answer.

I don’t know why I keep trying. Futile efforts wasting passing minutes until I must acknowledge that I haven’t been moving, probably haven’t shifted since at least 1 am. But this is the penance I pay for my incompetence earlier in the day. Avoiding responsibilities is easiest when you can see them. Why had I spent those precious hours browsing the web? In the depths of the night, these questions lack meaning. I can erase all the consequences of my careless distraction if only I can find the right answer. Right answer. Even that has begun to lack meaning. It is 3 am and there seems to be no journey and no end. No significance and no insignificance. Every action may have some unknown, weighted meaning. If only I could get some sleep, I might be able to divine it. But right now, I may as well grasp at the lengthening shadows.

It is 4 am and I am slipping into bed. Already, unconsciousness is sinking its soft claws into my consciousness. I will have to wake up soon, blinking away sleep in the blinding light. And then I will yearn for the grey quiet of 3 am once again.

The Loss

There was a collective pall hanging over the campus this Saturday after the devastation of the Michigan football team at the hands of Wisconsin. It was the loss of a hope, held carefully since the end of last season. Hope, perhaps, that this season would be the destined one, the championship one. Instead, we found ourselves treading a familiar path. Another loss and so early in the season. As fans, we are blind adherents to a faith that bids us to tear out our hearts for every down, every stoppage. We offer held breaths and exhausted screams. We offer our uncriticizing enthusiasm and our enthusiastic criticism. We offer our happiness and our grief. But we, as fans, cannot do much more than give this support. For, we cannot affect the results of games as the players do with their electrifying movements and their pure forces of will shoving aside any opposing force. We are helpless to call the right play, though we would swear that Jim Harbaugh should listen to us instead of consulting his laminated sheets. These actions unravel before us, without our consent. We watch, but alas, we cannot do.

It seems like a foolish thing to inflict fandom on ourselves. Especially after a loss. The grief of that loss, a loss that was fundamentally not our fault, still hurts and oppresses. We are fools to be so devoted, to display our desires so publicly where they can be easily crushed. Fools because we could have retreated to the quiet of uncaring. It is cool and cold there. Smooth and slick. If passion feels like a rolling, crushing wave, indifference is the undisturbed surface of a pond. But to affect indifference now would be as useful or as healing as rubbing an ice cube on a wound. It doesn’t stop the blood from pumping. What is done is done. Somewhere, somehow, we became fans or fools or all of the above. We have reached the point where there is no returning our season tickets and certainly no returning our allegiances.

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With the path back blocked, there is only the myriad ways forward. But doesn’t it seem like we’ve been here before? Is it just me or does that stagnant offense constantly turning over the ball seem vaguely familiar? And isn’t that depressed frustration the same feeling we had during the OSU game all those months ago? We are reverberating helplessly between past and future, doomed to repeat mistakes without solution. If we are so doomed though, at least we will still also have those moments of delirious, devouring happiness when we feel as if we are sprinting down the sideline, heart and body lunging for the endzone. We are as helpless against the euphoria as we are against the abject misery. And so, against any good sense, we will dive back into the fray for nine more regular season games. We will stand and stomp, cry and scream everything that we have and everything that we are. Being a fan is not easy, being a Michigan football fan even more so. But that is why we care. That is why we roll into the stadium, a hundred thousand strong, supporting each other as much as we support the team. Because if all this was so easy, there would be no point.

Senior Year Echoes

I am rumbling down the grey corridor that suctions the plane to the Detroit airport. I say rumbling because my stomach is empty and because my carry-on suitcase is far too full. So, they fuss in harmony as I make my way to the baggage claim. It is a ritual now, a process that almost happens outside of my mind entirely. For there is no mistaking the direction I am heading. One last year. Two last semesters. And at the end of the tunnel, a graduation with silly hats and sillier robes. These thoughts, too, exist without conscious prompting. They occur to me as flitting imaginings. Simultaneously as I walk towards Ann Arbor, I am walking away.

I am sitting in the bus, snugly tucked into a seat and an audio book. The man sitting next to me is thankfully engaged in talking to another. A younger man, his son perhaps, listens while fiddling with the edge of his Michigan Engineering t-shirt. The shirt fits well, I wonder if the degree suits him too. For me, at least, it is much too late. Decisions made years ago have snowballed into inevitabilities by now. Maybe that is why I feel so snug in my seat. There are no more choices to make. Instead, I roll forward with the bus, predestined by my previous decisions to choose a certain major, to choose a certain path.

Even my bedroom, when I finally find the energy to arrange it, settles into a familiar shape. The drawer is filled with the same melange of forgotten cables, packets of tea, and Tupperware. There are some informational pamphlets that have accompanied me all the way from Freshman Orientation. I have never read them, and I never will. Still, I find a place for them in the same folder. Everything in its place, including myself. Right now, my place is here at the University of Michigan. Next year, it simply won’t be. And after four years of doing slight, though definitely improving, variations on the same theme, I am not sure how it will feel.

I remember flying into Detroit alone for the very first time as a freshman. With no parents within questioning distance, I was set adrift in the airport, attempting desperately to find the bus to Ann Arbor. Even successfully boarding the bus did not entirely overcome my anxiety. I insisted on tracking our long, winding journey on Google Maps. I watched our moving blue dot to make sure that I was in the right place. Heading into senior year, there is much less doubt. Much less eager eyed anticipation too. Many things have become expected and predictable. Certainly, I can now point to the exact date in October where the ever-accumulating pile of homework will finally topple and crush me. It is comforting and nostalgic, all at once, to recognize these routines and habits. Picked up and collected, like so many little treasures, these are the experiences that have built up, experiences that have become harmonies. Each year as we complete these rituals, they resonate a little bit differently. Together, they form some sort of pattern, some sort of song.

Rennovating the Self

“All things just keep getting better”. This is the optimistic proclamation of the show, Queer Eye, whose third season was recently released on Netflix. It is an optimism that, at first, is a little hard to swallow. In each episode, the Fabulous Five, five uniquely talented gay men, endeavor to change someone’s life. In this way, each episode is a little bit different, but also comfortingly similar. The Fab Five blitz into a messy house, into a messy existence and find solutions within their disciplines. Jonathon cuts away at hair to reveal the inner beauty within. Tan emphasizes the need for one’s style to match one’s personality instead of the current trends. Each repainted cabinet, each tailored suit, each seemingly minute change reveals a life that could be perfect if only we willed it to be. It really is that easy.

Self-care is the oft-proffered advice and the show’s thematic core. Each transformation is drawn from the inside first and foremost. Certainly, the Five’s methods may seem a little intrusive at the beginning, but they do so with care for the subject. The person at the center is exposed, made vulnerable so that they can grow in more than a superficial way. And it is refreshing to ask why a young man may have left his closet overflow instead of rushing to judge him for the mess. Perhaps the best quality about the Fabulous Five is their adaptable curiosity. Like any human beings, they rush to judgement and speak in generalities. But they are also willing to listen and participate in a conversation of differing perspectives, educating themselves and others simultaneously.

But even as I have re-watched episodes, eagerly sought out the countless charismatic interviews with the Fabulous Five, I have had my nagging doubts. Maybe it’s the show’s obsession with intimacy clashes with the performative nature of television. I cannot help but feel the cameras, subtly offscreen, urging certain storylines forward. For example, visual transformations are always pronounced, with sweeping room changes and dramatic hair reveals. Change happens fast, too. With only one hour allotted per episode and one week of filming allotted per subject, there is no time for a slow gestation. Everyone is encouraged to change as fast as possible, as dramatically as possible. But real life doesn’t move at a quick pace. The stagnation of each day, one after another, is a looming threat behind every episode’s happy ending. It seems too easy to revert to old habits once the cameras are gone. The show’s belief in change is its constant, but you must believe it too.

Lazy Winter Days

Lazy winter days are blank and soft and grey. When spring comes along with its blossoming energy, these days are easy to dismiss and even easier to miss. For, lazy winter days are a comfort that we take advantage of, yet never appreciate fully. On these days, there are always reasons for doing less. It is always just cold enough for us to invent endless excuses to stay inside. It is always just gloomy enough to muddle our brains with imaginations of the summer to come. I can never focus on a lazy winter day. There is nothing to focus on. The hours pass by, unnoticed, each grey cloud replaced by an endless, identical sibling. Daylight grows and fades, a degree at a time, until it the day has become night again. I follow suit, barely shifting a few inches from the seat that has grown accustomed to me too. On these days, I have seemingly endless patience because I barely appreciate the movement of time. When we do work on lazy winter days, they encourage us to work on the things that don’t need doing. There are certainly far more important tasks to be completed, but instead, I find miniscule things to do. Maybe I finally get annoyed by the pile of unfolded laundry laying at the foot of my bed. Maybe I find a new way to rearrange my pencil pouch before it is almost instantly disrupted. But homework, real work, is reserved for another, more energetic time. Instead, I move imperceptibly like a glacier, gradually carving its path into the land.

It seems especially important to reflect on these days as we are about to reach the end of another unhurried February. Everyone will always complain about the bitter winds, the slippery pavements, the pile ever-growing melting slush. But it is also exactly those things that make us slow down. The world moves at a slower rhythm in the winter. Your heart doesn’t need to race the burning heat. Your brain feels content to move at a syrupy pace, at last released from the frenetic pace demanded by the animation of other seasons. Spring is all impulsive growth. Summer a never-ending sunshine-soaked revel. And autumn is transformative, from green to reds and oranges and yellows. But winter, has always been still. We are frozen in ice, awaiting the coming thaw when we must move again. Nothing grows in the winter. We just wait. And in the process of waiting, something is gained. For there is no loss in moving a little bit slower. No sacrifice in catching your breath. We are constant beings, always the same with slight shifts. We don’t believe it though. We try to defy it. Instant transformation is an impossibility that tortures us. It is a hope that is implicit in every New Year’s Resolution, in every career plan stretching for the next five years. And when there is the least bit of stagnation, the sting is sharper than a pounding needle. Winter demands a periodic stagnation. A time to recollect all the broken pieces of our change over the year. And maybe consider the cracked portrait of the past before inevitably moving on.