Photo by: LuciusKWok

The Countryfication of New York City

New York City Travel
by Philip Johnson Apr 12, 2012
This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

PERCHED ON A BATTERED SUITCASE, his flat cap pulled rakishly over one eye, he yowls through his stubble while his fingers slide along the banjo. One foot taps a tambourine, the other stamps on a bass drum pedal that thuds against the empty case.

Between verses he closes his eyes and sighs into a harmonica.

Whenever he turns up at an L train station, the subway troubadour draws an appreciative crowd. A waifish girl with suede boots, a flowing skirt, and tangled hair leans up against the billboard beside him, swooning to herself. Headphones are pulled from ears, eyes are drawn away from iPads. Heads nod and half-smiles appear beneath jaunty moustaches and Walt Whitman beards.

I’d been warned that this was irony, and that although these people acted like hillbillies, they were in fact both wealthy and educated, and thus that I should proceed with caution, for fear of appearing ignorant.

On my circuitous route from Australia to New York, living in South America and then Mexico, I’d heard about all the weird hipster antics up north. I’d seen the deadpan photos of people with moustaches drinking PBR and posing beneath stuffed deer heads. I’d been warned that this was irony, and that although these people acted like hillbillies, they were in fact both wealthy and educated, and thus that I should proceed with caution, for fear of appearing ignorant.

At Lorimer St. station on a Saturday night I couldn’t find the irony. The troubadour is far too earnest, too intent upon his banjo. The crowd matches his raggedy, straight-faced style. From woollen hats to canvas bags to flannel shirts to denim jackets to suede boots, everything is carefully textured. In contrast to the smooth, polished, supposedly gleaming metropolis above them, these guys seem set on a coarse, homespun, natural aesthetic. If I got close enough to smell them, I’m sure I’d smell damp wool, musty leather, pine needles, and mothballs.

I’ve got no idea what the troubadour is actually singing, but what I’m hearing is a whole lot of yearning.

Although he’s been playing these subway stations for months, his image — and that of the entire crowd — suggests a kind of Huck Finn vagrancy, just passing through. His songs ought to be played at a Mississippi Delta crossroads, or by a campfire, or on the porch of a log cabin in the days of yore.

He evokes a distant time and place, but he inhabits a subterranean world of cold lights, dripping pipes, and scurrying rats. He may be yearning for a transient lifestyle, but he’s settled in New York City. The crowd has probably chosen to move to New York too, but the way they dress and the way they respond to the music declares that they are also yearning. Exactly what they are yearning for isn’t clear; the important thing is that it is removed from all the hipster irony, from the disposable cosmopolitanism, from the bustle and heave of city life. They are yearning for wherever the authenticity, the transcendence can be found. As long as they can get there without changing trains again.

At a Mississippi crossroads you might encounter the devil himself, but the only crossroads here is the intersection of the L train and the G; on a midnight subway you’ll find only dour-faced shift workers and the stink of fresh hobo piss.

* * *

“This song is about all the North Carolina hipsters moving into Brooklyn, taking our barista jobs, playing in our roots bands, and buying up all our suspenders and bandanas.”

With that the Defibulators launch into their next song. Fiddle, banjo, double bass, and harmonica intertwine as the frontman howls into the vintage mic. The crowd is nodding in appreciation; a few people kick up their heels and begin to dosey-do. Everyone cheers as, with a rattle and a clatter, the washboardist staggers to the front of the stage and begins to improvise.

This is Brooklyn’s Chili Pepper Fiesta, one of a host of autumn festivals in New York. While the Defibulators warm up the crowd at one end of the pavilion, at the other end steaming bowls of chili are being ladled out to eager foodies. Outside, kids run around on the grass slick with rain, or drag their parents away from the microbrew taps to the distant cluster of spicy hot chocolate tents.

The band is based in Brooklyn, but they could easily be mistaken for another mob of Southern hipsters come to steal the local style. Between their roaring, twanging style, their antique instruments, their beards, boots, and suspenders, and the bright red long johns of the washboardist, this is a group that sounds like a product of the ’50s and looks like a product of the nineteenth century. The washboardist usually wears a one-piece union suit, but because this is an all ages event he’s put some jeans on.

I’d come to New York expecting to find a kind of hyper-cosmopolitanism that took exotic cultures and cannibalised them into new trends long before the rest of the world could even locate them on a map. There’s plenty of exotic, foreign stuff at the Chili Pepper Fiesta — coarse Oaxacan chocolate, Korean kimchi, Guyanese hot sauce — but it just isn’t getting that much attention. People seem more interested in home-grown flavors and sounds — the kind of corny Americana that is exotic to me, but which New York has long rejected as flyover culture.

Really, the fiesta feels more like an old-fashioned hootenanny. People are eating fairground food — pulled pork sliders and pickles on sticks — and listening to a weave of bluegrass and rockabilly (I think that’s what you’d call it). The whole event is a grab bag of references to the past, to the countryside, to the South — a lot of things usually excluded from the metropolis. Less an authentic, old-fashioned hootenanny, then, and more of a pastiche of jumbled references to other times and places. In its hunger for novelty, New York seems finally to have turned to its own backyard for fresh culture to cannibalise.

The best escape from hipster irony might be a parody so convincing that no one can tell where the earnestness stops and the irony begins.

This isn’t some distant, new culture that can be mastered with a few carefully pronounced menu items, though. The American hinterland is too familiar to be treated with such aloof curiosity; a stronger response seems to be in order. The dancers by the stage caper about in goofy abandon. Couples hold each other and sway to the music in displays of public affection usually frowned upon in the neurotic, noncommittal city. In embracing square, awkward Americana, the hip young things of Brooklyn may have found the perfect excuse to be spectacularly, earnestly, awkwardly square. The best escape from hipster irony might be a parody so convincing that no one can tell where the earnestness stops and the irony begins.

* * *

Jammed into a row of houses opposite a seemingly forgotten construction site, Jimmy’s Diner has just about the worst location in Williamsburg. That might count in its favour, judging by how hard it is to get a Sunday morning table. The only landmark by which I’m ever able to find the place is the shuffling crowd of hopeful brunchers waiting at its door.

The eating area of Jimmy’s is about the size of an average living room. A few worn tables are clustered on one side of the room, each with as many people as possible pressed in around them. On the other side of the room, the serious brunchers are sitting at the bar, with better access to the coffee and cocktails. Loud chatter comes from the tables; those at the bar are more subdued, studying their food or their iPhones. There is no room for flourish or decoration; a few vintage signs fill the scant wall space. By the large windows, plants are growing out of rusted tin cans.

One of my housemates is pouring drinks behind the bar; the other is sitting at a table adjacent to ours with a group of her friends. This isn’t a planned convergence, but it’s not really surprising to find us all here. Jimmy’s is very much a word-of-mouth kind of place. We are a small part of a growing crowd of regulars. Even though there isn’t much nearby, here on the dusty outskirts of Williamsburg, there is an intimate, neighbourhoody vibe.

Menus and heavy mugs of coffee are set before us. The brunch menu is full of weird American stuff that I don’t fully understand — cornbread, biscuits, grits. None of these sound like things people should be seeking out for a Brooklyn brunch, but the three people I’m sitting with coo over the options, reminisce about old family cornbread recipes, debate the perfect biscuit shape and consistency. To me it mostly sounds like empty carbs getting in the way of tastier things. They prefer to think of it as comfort food.

Still, I need to know what all the fuss is about. My housemate the waitress takes our orders, refills our coffee, and absolutely won’t let me call her darlin’, even though I was sure that was the correct form of address in a diner. When it comes, the food is served in solid ceramic bowls, without decoration and usually with a bit of cheese spilling over the lip. Despite the no-frills appearance, each bowl — cornbread with scrambled eggs and tomato, tater tots with guacamole and grilled onions, French fries with baked beans and cheddar — is carefully composed to achieve the optimal greasy, comforting effect.

I pause, watching for cues, unsure of whether I am expected to pour ketchup and hot sauce on everything or not. Ketchup, I feel sure, should be a part of any traditional American meal, but no one touches it. Having determined that there is nothing sacrilegious about hot sauce, I am none the less careful not to spill any on the cornbread. This is not just bread, I keep telling myself; this is the soft, sweet gold of childhood memories.

Our plates are cleared, our mugs are filled again, and our conversation meanders on, oblivious to the cheque that has been discreetly left on our table. After a while my housemate comes over, apologises, and then informs us that we are being kicked out. They’ve got tables to turn and we’ve been nursing our bottomless mugs of coffee for far too long. Either we need to order some real drinks, or else we should vacate the table.

We leave Jimmy’s; people take our place. We wander into Williamsburg in the thick of the brunch rush. The largest clusters of people are waiting outside the joints with the most innovative takes on comfort food: buttermilk biscuits; grass-fed steak and free-range eggs; duck fat-fried, Yukon gold tater-tot poutine with mushroom gravy. The more adjectives on the menu, the more customers clamouring at the door.

Inside all these places look the same: scuffed wood floors, exposed brick, antique junk strategically placed in every corner, antlers hanging over the bar. A carefully contrived, heavily textured, down-home vibe.

People file in and out of these brunch joints, scowling waitstaff fling menus to the new arrivals as they pocket tips from those on their way out. Tables turn constantly. It’s a drive-thru approach to comfort food.

New York might be yearning for the comfort of grandma’s old family recipes — prepared by hand from memory in a cosy kitchen as autumn leaves curl and crisp on the branches outside — but the city is just as frantic, just as entrepreneurial, just as cannibalistic as ever. Comfort food makes a handy symbol of nostalgia, of dissatisfaction with all the broken promises of metropolitan life; the new wave of cold comfort food, however, is also a sign that really New York wouldn’t have things any other way.

* * *

On a cold Friday night I press the buzzer at the door of an immense old warehouse in a forgotten corner of Brooklyn. The front of the building is covered in scaffolding and boards; torn fliers cling to the metal. The streets are deserted. I’ve got a sleeping bag under one arm, a sixpack of Tecate under the other, and I’m hoping this all isn’t completely futile.

The door buzzes open and I climb up to the fifth floor, passing heavy iron doors and windows covered in thick, dust-encrusted grates. A few stencilled animal silhouettes lurk in the corners of the stairwell. Thomas is waiting for me on the fifth floor; this is his studio. Tonight we’re going to be camping on his rooftop.

Throughout the summer Thomas has been inviting people to share his rooftop campground with him. It’s his latest artistic project; he has five tents, each able to sleep two people comfortably, as well as a much larger common tent. These are not lightweight, snap-together tents; he has designed and built them himself out of rough timber and treated canvas, modelling them on lean-tos. Layers of carpet padding protect against the cold of the concrete roof. Despite being surrounded by vents, bricks, and cables, the whole campsite has a rustic, rough-around-the-edges feel to it.

Over the last few months many people have shared the common tent, cooking on its gas burners or playing cards on its long table of lashed-together beams. On this particular chilly Friday, though, it’s just Thomas and I at the table, knocking back Tecates.

I’d half-expected to find Thomas wearing flannel and skinny jeans, hiking boots and crampons — an Urban Outfitters lumberjack. When I’d heard about his project, I’d imagined a bunch of strategically scruffy folk taking congratulatory photos of each other with their brilliantly contrived new juxtaposition: a wilderness scene — tents and sleeping bags — arranged in the shadows of spent smokestacks. I’d arrived prepared to ask a few questions and then make some excuse to leave. Thomas is, however, wearing a plain black pullover and matching knit cap. He speaks earnestly and openly, happy to field my questions, explaining that this project was born out of a desire to get to know new people.

His guests are always surprised, he says, by how quickly they fall into the natural rhythms of the campsite, early to bed and early to rise.

Thomas is fascinated by the transcendence of the wilderness. He’s done other projects in places like Joshua Tree National Park; projects that involve stepping out of daily routines and getting back to nature. This time he’s taking an overlooked urban space and investing it with a little more meaning. His goal is re-create the atmosphere within the campsite; a place where everyone pitches in, where you do whatever needs doing, not whatever you feel like doing. It is a place for slowing down and appreciating company. I shelve the escape plan and decide to spend a night on the rooftop.

Overhead I spy a pair of antlers fixed to the common tent.

We take down the Tecates and when I start stifling yawns Thomas laughs. His guests are always surprised, he says, by how quickly they fall into the natural rhythms of the campsite, early to bed and early to rise.

It’s only about 10 o’clock when we eventually retire to our tents. Sickly light emanates from the buildings around us; the silhouettes of old chimneys stand out stark against the charcoal sky. I crawl into my tent and tie the canvas door closed, shutting out the wind and the murmur of distant traffic.

The wind rises and slaps against the tent in the night. It whips through the seams and under the edges of the canvas and chills any exposed skin. I’m fully awake before the sun has risen. The air outside of the tent is even colder; the sky and all of the smokestacks and warehouses and even the toxic sludge of Newton Creek are a hazy blue in the morning light. Beyond the dark shapes of the city a warm glow precedes the rising sun.

I’m cold and tired and hungry and pretty desperate to get off of this roof, but force myself to linger a moment. As forlorn as the city looks at this hour, in the camaraderie of the night before and in the loneliness of the morning there is some vague glimmer of the transcendence of the wilds, brought within the city limits.

* * *

In my own kitchen in a Brooklyn loft I’m initiated into the arcane lore of traditional American cooking. Under the tutelage of my housemates — one from the Northeast and one from the South — I’m learning the secrets of dairy-heavy comfort foods. While I’m discovering the staples, one of my housemates (the one who visits but doesn’t work at Jimmy’s) is teaching herself to home-make everything. She kneads her own bread, curdles her own cheese, grows her own sprouts and chilies, pickles her own carrots, infuses her own olive oils, whips her own mayonnaise. She bakes pies and crumbles, and as it gets colder she bakes everything else too. A stock bag of cheese rinds, eggshells, and various vegetable offcuts swells in the freezer, ready to be made into soup. She has fermented her own cider and tried her hand at kombucha. One day she is thrilled to bring home a tin of steel-cut oats, which are a pain in the ass to cook up, but a delight to say, the syllables tripping over the tongue, full of texture. There is talk of her doing a jam-making apprenticeship.

This is the luxury of this nostalgia; the childhood you’re yearning for doesn’t have to be your own.

One night, after a round of pizza-making — the table streaked with flour, smears of wine in the bottom of our glasses — my housemate the baking virtuoso presses me, as she always does, for my outsider’s perspective on weird American habits. As she does so, she casually breaks up a block of dark chocolate and dips a chunk into a jar of peanut butter. I tell her I’m having a weird American food moment right now; homemade pizza topped with homemade cheese for dinner, and a pot of peanut butter for dessert. She and the guests can’t believe that I never peanut-buttered my chocolate as a child. I really doubt that many American children were regularly given a jar of peanut butter, a block of bitter, organic chocolate, and carte blanche to do as they would with these. This is the luxury of this nostalgia; the childhood you’re yearning for doesn’t have to be your own.

We get to talking about my housemate’s mania for the homemade. The cheese hasn’t turned out quite the way she wanted, but the guests are still in love with the whole idea of producing your own food. We compare notes on the artisanal bread, cheese, pickle, and pretzel stalls at the Union Square Greenmarket. I mention a volunteer-run rooftop farm that I’ve just visited. My housemate mentions a guy who leads foraging tours through the public parks of the city.

Ever eager to play the Australian card, I suggest that to me this is another weird American habit. Surely guided foraging in Prospect Park is a poor parody of foraging in real forests. Why, I ask, are people so determined to replicate the country within the city? It seems like they’d have a far more worthwhile experience by actually getting out into the country.

My housemate is grinning; she’s heard all this before. One of the guests isn’t so comfortable with my analysis of her lifestyle, though. “I’m just doing what my parents did in the ’60s,” she interjects. I wait a moment, to see if some ironic smirk will ripple across her face. It does not appear. She is, apparently, quite serious about this. I can’t help but wonder when it became cool for liberal arts students to do exactly what their parents did, and I can’t see how much of what is happening in our kitchen is really invoking the spirit of those times. Her nostalgia, like much of the yearning going on in New York, is highly selective. It is a yearning that demands nothing, and that extends only to that which is easy to appropriate into the city. Instead of going back to nature, people are bringing nature — or some stylised version of nature — to them. Instead of checking out of square American society, they’re getting in touch with its roots.

The problem with selectively appropriating the past — or the countryside, or small-town American, or the wild places — is that the urbanised, cannibalised version ends up looking nothing like the original. By the time it is made self-aware and chic and edgy, there is nothing authentic left. The rebellion of the ’60s becomes lip service to following in your parents’ footsteps. A log cabin in the forest becomes a pair of antlers hung over a masturbatory Brooklyn bar. Mac and cheese just like grandma used to make becomes wholegrain mac and gourmet gruyere.

* * *

There were barrels of pickles at the Chili Pepper Fiesta. There were jars of carrots pickling in our fridge. There were pickle chips on the menu at Jimmy’s Diner and there were pickle brine chasers served with whisky in the bars full of taxidermy and tattooed forearms.

Growing up in Australia, pickles were those things you picked off your cheeseburgers. I had no idea they could be so adored, and I’d definitely never countenanced the idea of organic green beans pickled in orange and jalapeño brine.

All of New York’s major pickle players turn out for the Peck Slip Pickle Fest at the New Amsterdam Market. Every conceivable form of pickle is represented: traditional kosher dills, Texan chili pickles, kimchi mixes you can smell before you can see, sombre sauerkrauts, watermelon radish pickled in Japanese rice wine.

Many of the picklers are from somewhere else. Whether it is a distant flyover state or down the road in Connecticut, they’d originally come to New York for distinctly non-culinary reasons, but they’ve always been closet picklers. One guy from Chicago, sporting a trim beard and rakish faux-combover, speaks of a long history of putting up jars of pickles for the winter and of gifting the fancier mixes to friends; until recently pickles had been a part of his family lore, but now they are becoming big business. Another guy, wearing a trilby and thick glasses, and with tattoos showing beneath his pinned-up sleeves, confidently declares that he’s found “the kimchi of 2015” – Thai pickle salad flavoured with mustard, sesame, and pomegranate seeds. I wonder if his business plan extends to 2016.

None of them saw New York’s pickle obsession coming. None of them can figure out what is behind it. The Chicagoan guy has never heard of anything like this back home. Nor is he sure how long it will last, but he intends to ride the briney wave as far as it will take him. His operation now involves a team of people (all friends and family) and has moved out of his kitchen. From part-time pickler he’s become an entrepreneur; out of a family tradition he’s built a business.

Others are less cautious. A dapper, plaid-clad Brooklynite, his beanie pushed back on his head, speaks of going big with his pickle operation. They are moving out of the basement and into a huge old loft where they can fit extra staff and a much bigger operation. I know lofts are cool and all, but a whole converted warehouse full of pickles seems like a little too much of a good thing. He, however, plans to take over America.

I have reached my pickle limit. It’s one of the big, old-school kosher dills on a stick that pushes me over my threshold. I thread my way through the crowds, take refuge on the fringes of the market where the non-pickle stalls are set up. A girl in a thick woollen shawl offers me samples of local honey; every time she reaches across the stall her shawl drapes precariously close to the sticky pots arranged around her. From honey I move on to artisanal peanut butter and sourdough.

It looks like others are seeking reprieve from all the pickles too. The cluster of people by the grilled cheese truck is growing; the microbrew and cider stalls are being mobbed. As the crowds start to thin, I realise just how few of the products on display actually resemble traditional pickles. Safe to say that two generations ago few American families were putting up jars of beet caviar with horseradish for the winter. It may be that New York’s interest in actual pickles is already flagging, and that it has now moved on to exotic pickled things.

While the vendors work hard to promote their latest unlikely concoctions, they seem oblivious to the fact that it takes just one afternoon to sample and love everything, and then to feel all pickled out.

* * *

When I tell people that I’m going to Idaho they look confused. One or two inform me that I’m actually going to Iowa. A few tell me that they’ve heard it’s beautiful “out there.” When I add that I’ll be doing Thanksgiving with my girlfriend’s family there, people first express understanding; most of them are from flyover states and have to suffer the ritual holiday humiliation of returning home too. Then they become a bit confused; why am I opting into such an experience? They’ve come to New York to escape flyover life; why am I seeking it out?

I get weird looks from the moment I arrive in Idaho, too. My wardrobe has slowly been acquiring its own layers of texture; the kind of flannel and denim and canvas that is unassuming in New York but utterly garish in northern Idaho. The local wild men — the guys who spend weekends gathering their own firewood and catching their own food — all wear Gore-Tex North Face jackets because, obviously, they’re lighter, warmer, and more waterproof. My boots are far too clean for real Idaho boots. I realise that for all the carefully scuffed, folded-down boots on the streets of Brooklyn, I’ve never actually seen a pair of muddy boots.

Thanksgiving dinner takes place on my first day in Idaho, in a house that looks over an endless yellow field to distant mountains covered in stubbly pine forest. An immense elk head hangs over the staircase; the complete body, I am told, weighed about 600 pounds. Antiques and heirlooms are carefully arranged in the living room. One coffeetable is actually a dark leather trunk positioned atop a beautiful old sled. It’s an arrangement that would make any serious Brooklyn vintage shopper break down and weep tears of nostalgic appreciation. Every piece has a story behind it; none of it is bought, all of it inherited.

Two deer carcasses are hanging out to dry beneath the house; they’ve just been cleaned and gutted and had the heads sawn off.

As potatoes and pies bake around us in the kitchen, I find myself in conversation with a Christian minister with an easy smile and a good tan for this time of year. He and his sons have just completed a great hunting season. Two deer carcasses are hanging out to dry beneath the house; they’ve just been cleaned and gutted and had the heads sawn off. The eldest son shot a bear earlier in the season; its flesh is already in the deep freeze, and will be eaten during the winter. Its skull has been boiled clean and sits on the mantle.

I wonder how long it will take for some of these trophies to make their way across the country, to lose the story of the hunt — the preparation and the wait and the shot and the quartering and the dragging of the carcass in pieces back to the truck — and to end up as history-less curios hanging over a bar in Brooklyn.

The minister is a charming conversationalist, but we chat cautiously. He’s a Christian minister, a hunter and supporter of the Tea Party. I’ve been a vegetarian for about 15 years and have been dabbling with Occupy Wall Street.

Although he’s curious to hear about New York and Australia, we bond most easily over food. The kitchen is filled with his wife’s homemade jams, preserves, and maple pear apple butter; most of the fruit comes from neighbours’ trees. He uncorks bottles of apple and pear wine, brewed in his basement in batches of 100 bottles each year; enough to be gifted and sipped away over the following year until the next batch will be ready.

He is a self-taught vintner; from a few tentative experiments he’s now got the process down to an art. The wine we’re drinking has rested for over a year and tastes amazing.

When it’s time to carve, an immense turkey is hefted from the oven. It’s so heavy the minister can’t flip it over alone; he needs to enlist the help of his burly eldest son. The son heaves the bird about and smiles an immense smile as he points out that no organic turkey ever looked this good; nothing but hormones and steroids could get this kind of effect. I know he’s joking, but I can’t tell how much he’s joking.

Thanksgiving passes in a haze of heavy foods, and much debate about the best way to candy yams or prepare gravy. I siesta in a room decorated with animal skulls, knives, and a hunting bow.

Once the holiday has passed, I am eager to explore the area. The landscape is a bizarre mixture of cornfields, pumpkin patches, rust-red barns, creaking windmills, drive-thru coffee joints, endless parking lots, and strip malls. Every radio station but one plays some variation on country music.

There’s a Jimmy’s in Idaho too, in Coeur d’Alene, just back from the lake fringed by dark mountains. Like the Jimmy’s in Brooklyn, this place is at its busiest during the Sunday brunching hour, but whereas no one bats an eyelid when I saunter into Jimmy’s in Brooklyn, when I walk into Jimmy’s in Coeur d’Alene heads turn and necks crane to see the awkward, impractically dressed visitor.

Here, no one would dream of waiting outside in the cold for a table to free up; patrons come inside, greet the owner behind the till, and hug the waitresses. These waitresses are quite unlike the stylised, waifish mountain maids of Brooklyn. They are platinum blonde, with eyebrows severely plucked; they wear football jerseys and talk with a boisterous twang. They chat up the newcomers. When you don’t know their names, they pretend to stab you with a bread knife.

The menus of Jimmy’s in Brooklyn and Jimmy’s in Coeur d’Alene are very similar. Both offer biscuits and gravy, multi-egg omelettes, meat and cheese-laden breakfast sandwiches and burritos. In Brooklyn, though, patrons tend to order one of these, whereas in Coeur d’Alene any one dish would come with side orders of the others.

The famed pecan rolls — each one some 108 freshly baked cubic inches of butter and glaze — are an almost mandatory side dish. The tables in Coeur d’Alene are accordingly massive; sitting down, I feel like I have to shout to make myself heard on the other side of the table. People at the other tables take their time, smother everything in ketchup, stop to greet people as they arrive, have their coffees refilled and refilled, ask to have their mountains of leftovers wrapped up. I make the dreadful mistake, based on New York portions, of trying to eat everything on the many plates before me.

New York probably isn’t quite ready for Idaho. It likes its hair to be tangled and uncoloured, its boots to be clean, its meals to come in a single serving, its meat to be organic, and its antlers to come without the bloody carcass. While it’s embracing aspects of country America, it’s being pretty selective about what it welcomes in and what it prefers to leave on the farm or fairground. Sunday morning is for brunch, not church, and wilderness is for romanticising, not for exploring.

In some respects, though, New York is more hillbilly than the flyover states these days; there are more flannels and banjos in one Brooklyn subway station than in most of Idaho. If New York can learn to dress like the lumberjacks of yore, maybe it can also learn to enjoy its American heritage for what it is, rather than what it can be turned into. Maybe it can learn to bake comfort food that is actually comforting. Maybe it can even learn to slow down, to remember, to lose itself in the wilds, in search of transcendence.

[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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