HUNGRY FOR THOUGHT AND THE MEANING OF LIFE

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It has a pretty face on its cover like so many magazines on the rack, but right away, you can tell that Gastronomica comes from a different part of the herd.

Instead of the latest publicity glossy, the shot of Laurence Fishburne is from Andres Serrano's 1984 "Meat Weapon," and he's clad in a red do-rag and wielding a leg of lamb as though it's a Tommy gun.
 
Inside, the differences become quickly apparent: There's Fred Chappell's rant that begins with his description of cold pasta salad as "gummy, tasteless squiggles of tough, damp bread dough," followed immediately by Charles Bukowski's poem, "dinner, 1933," and a discussion of Sandy Skoglund's Cheez Doodle surprise, "Cocktail Party" (1992).

But what best exemplifies Gastronomica's distinction comes with the story endings. There are ingredient lists, but instead of recipe parts, they're footnotes specifying sources. (This is less puzzling when you realize the magazine, a quarterly touted as a "journal of food and culture," is edited at Williams College and published by the University of California Press.)

Story topics range from the fish-and-rice dish called kedgeree to water toast (a distasteful dish that rises out of a delightful little tale by Ashley Shelby), but even when the subject is as routine as dieting, the take is out of right field, as revealed by the story's subhead: "The erotics of abstinence in American Christianity."

R. Marie Griffith reaches back to the time of Jesus to link Americans' obsession with body size with ancient rituals of fasting and notions of purification through food. Even weighted down by phrasing such as her reference to "a Foucauldian disciplinary apparatus," Griffith's story deepens the discussion of obesity, the nation's foremost public health issue.

It's vastly more valuable than, say, the lead in the January Reader's Digest, "LOSE WEIGHT And Still Eat What You Want" - wishful thinking reinforced by the story's photo of a thin woman eating a cookie the size of Uranus. The story's point, not quite as egregious as headline or photo, is that you can eat some fun foods in moderation, but even that's questionable, just like the ice cream pints that say they serve four.

Gastronomica may not suit everyone's taste, but for freshness and piquancy, the editors deserve four stars.

Worth saving

You've probably seen the slapdash tripe that publishers rushed to newsstands to capitalize on the national sorrow following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. From Somerville and the editors of DoubleTake magazine has come a worthy keepsake, a special edition that focuses on New York City (as if Washington never happened) but reaches into Afghanistan and history.

Like Gastronomica, DoubleTake can be a little stuffy, as evidenced by this passage from the frontispiece "Editors' Story" that explains their motivation: " . . . a magazine that aims to follow and pursue the documentary tradition of visual and verbal storytelling as a means of making a record (through watching and listening) of what seems memorably important. . . ."

But it is real, and of the highest quality. Photographers in the issue include Mary Ellen Mark and the fabulous Turnley boys, Peter from ground zero and David from Kabul, albeit from six years ago. Writers include Francine Prose and Bill McKibben, who brings alive the "Muslim Gandhi," Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who walked with the Mahatma in the '30s and beyond, when Afghanistan was a neighbor of the Raj.

But the most compelling piece is by Adam Mayblum, who lived to tell of his escape from the 87th floor of Tower 1. It's not long, but it is as thrilling, and harrowing, and wrenching as it would have to be.

There's a companion to Mayblum's tale in the January Esquire, by Michael Wright, a salesman who was six floors down, on 81, when the plane hit. His account is all that Mayblum's is, but adds greater depth and quality of expression, such as in his description of how the impact felt: "You ever been in a big old house when a gust of wind comes through and you hear all the posts creak? Picture that creaking being not a matter of inches but of feet. We all got knocked out of balance."

Wright also provides the gruesome details (if you're eating breakfast, skip this paragraph). Concluding, he writes: "But it's the smell that haunts me. Talk to anyone who was within ten blocks of it and they'll tell you that. I had vaporized people packed up my nose, in my mouth and ears. For weeks, I was picking stuff out of my ears."

Although the pinnacle in the comparison belongs to Esquire, DoubleTake maintains a dignity that Esquire does not even seek. Wright's piece is part of the lead package, "The Meaning of Life," which in the main is a series of interviews with famous achievers, most of whom have at least a few fascinating things to say: Edward Teller once wore sunscreen to a nuclear explosion; and Chuck Berry says, "Shakespeare did not rhyme most of the time, and that's why I do not like him."

With such "you-can't-make-up-stuff-like-that" material, you'd think Esquire would know to stop there. Instead, it undercuts the package by including interviews with God and Homer Simpson - two items it should have resisted making up.