Forget about going to hell in a handbasket. We don't have time for the handbasket.
Twelve Easy Pieces
By JON MOOALLEM
Apples to Apples
For years, suspicion has been growing in the orchards of the Wenatchee Valley in Washington State and in the food industry at large that fruit, nature's original hand-held convenience food, is simply too poorly designed for today's busy eater. The apple, for instance: whatever it has meant to Americans over the years — from mom's pie to the little red schoolhouse — getting our mouths around one has also apparently meant some unspoken aggravation. Next to a banana or a grape, it's a daunting strongbox of a fruit, prohibitively so for anyone with braces or dentures; and even if you can break in, there's no guarantee a given apple will eat as sweet as it looks.
Nearly half of Americans now consume most of their meals away from home or on the go, utilizing an expedient fleet of Go-Gurts, drinkable soups and cereal bars, while bags of prewashed salad and baby carrots await us at home. Given how many foods we've been able to tweak or outright reinvent to fit into our harried lives, who could take seriously the Granny Smith — which, not unlike the bayonet or the daguerreotype, is by contemporary standards a cumbersome and unreliable technology? What appeal could an apple have left but nostalgia, the kind of thing you'd find at Restoration Hardware beside a galvanized watering can?
"A bowl of apples is like a piece of art," says Tony Freytag, marketing director at Crunch Pak, an apple-processing company. "It's display. People won't touch it. But you put out a tray of cut-up apples — that's food."
Since helping found Crunch Pak in 2000, Freytag has become one pioneer in a rapidly growing industry: packaging bags of ordinary-looking, fresh slices of apples that, bathed in an all-natural flavorless sealant, won't turn brown or lose their crisp for up to three weeks. Last year, McDonald's stocked 54 million pounds of presliced apples, to sell with caramel dip or in salads, and this increased visibility boosted enthusiasm for them in school cafeterias and among time-strapped, health-conscious parents nationwide. Crunch Pak now slices and packs apples under its own name for Wal-Mart and nearly a dozen other chains, under the in-house brand at Whole Foods and for the organic bagged-salad giant Earthbound Farm. In loose one-pound bags (about $2.99), eight-packs of two-ounce snack pouches (about $3.99) or six-ounce cupholder-ready canisters (about $1.99), they have slipped onto refrigerated shelves among packages of herbs and cantaloupe cubes.
What's astounding is how little these apples ask of us, particularly the nearly two-thirds of us who claim we'd eat more fruit if it didn't go bad "too soon" — meaning, presumably, before we wished it would. Now open your fridge after 17, 18, 21 days of neglect, and you will find the pre-sliced modern apple abiding: a bag of pristine white crescents, still smiling. In short, these are the most utilitarian apples mankind has ever built.
Not since the canneries of the early 20th century have food processors sought merely to preserve perishables. Processing foods now means redesigning them, making them easier to eat for a population that is steadily less willing to go to any trouble at all. Given the childhood obesity epidemic and the longstanding economic troubles of America's apple growers, boosting the apple's performance so that it could, as an industry observer explained, "stand up to ordinary use," was a doubly urgent project. By making a healthful, fresh fruit that looks and acts more like a bag of chips, a handful of companies like Crunch Pak may have finally figured out a way to compete with the hassle-free junk foods that blazed into this era of hyperconvenience. Some marketers say that the reformation of our venerable apple — and the sense that this improvement was necessary — suggest that we may soon buy most of our produce this way. Presliced plums, celery, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, mangoes and star fruits are all in production.
Crunch Pak was one of the first companies that labored to bring the new apple on line. Each found early on that what can be done casually at home — slicing an apple and squeezing lemon juice on it — is maddeningly difficult to pull off in a factory. The anti-browning bath is only one movement in a grand symphony of technologies at work. For nearly two decades, teams of food scientists, engineers and can-do businessmen struggled to pin down the apple, while the apple skirted and ducked them at every turn. They zigged, the apple zagged. Clearing one hurdle only brought more into view, and even now the particulars of production must be reassessed and rejiggered daily. The apple, Freytag told me when we first met, "is a moving target."
Freytag, a 54-year-old, broad-shouldered Texan, stepped out into the central Washington heat last August from Crunch Pak's refrigerated packing facility, an expressionless gray concrete hangar just off the town of Cashmere's American-flag-lined thoroughfare. He had made an unlikely transition into fruit after years of product-development work for retailers like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. He likes to build things, to solve things, and he often talks about slicing apples as an "equation" — a matrix of "variables" and "commonalities" that may never be fully controlled but, with enough persistence, can be made adequately algorithmic.
Throughout the Wenatchee Valley behind us, the first apples, Galas, were rioting into ripeness. Soon they'd arrive at Crunch Pak, and immediately, their vital signs would be taken: sugars, starches, internal pressure in pounds per square inch. The company must understand each crop's singular specifications in the same way a prizefighter studies the height, weight and reach of his opponent. The apple's wildness, so to speak, must be thoroughly assessed before the faintly Rube Goldbergian machinery goes about transforming it into something more sophisticated — an apple in 12 slices, with a compelling, albeit elusive, advantage.
But what precisely makes cutting up a piece of fruit worth the tremendous saga that preceded it? Why, after thousands of years of eating apples, are we losing our patience for them, and where, if not at the apple, will it stop? Strangely, this is one puzzle that the characteristically industrious Freytag seemed uninterested or unable to solve.
"I had a real problem in the beginning, as a consumer, paying $3 for a bag of lettuce when I knew that lettuce cost 89 cents a head," he told me, seeming to venture an explanation. "And yet we all did it," he said, and left it at that.
As soon as you slice into an apple, the apple mobilizes against you, swiftly and on many fronts. Chemical signals are broadcast, ramping up its production of the hormone ethylene, which encourages ripening, and increasing the rate at which the apple absorbs oxygen and gives off carbon dioxide — just as a human's breath will quicken when a person is injured.
The knife edge has meanwhile ruptured the architecture of countless cells. Substances normally compartmentalized within the fruit suddenly spill out and intermingle. Freed enzymes seep into cell walls, softening them. Little by little, like moisture in the walls of a house, this enfeebles the entire apple. Phytochemicals called phenols, the wealth of which make apples so good for us, are also loosed. So is an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase. Inevitably the two meet. Their reaction begets others, producing a chain of acids that clump together and coagulate into other acids called polyphenols. The polyphenols are brown and unappetizing. Rapidly, they occupy more and more of the flesh. The apple, left absent-mindedly on the counter when the phone rang or the baby started crying, has now efficiently disfigured itself. It is spectacularly good at this.
With no way to tame this mayhem — to stop a wounded apple from "turning its artillery on itself," as James Gorny, a food scientist, put it recently — the apple industry was unable to get in on the baby-carrot and bagged-lettuce booms of the mid-90's. Most anti-browning treatments left sliced apples with a sour taste or had names like "4-hexyl resorcinol," which would muddy the fruit's biggest selling point, its wholesome image.
"We studied this at the Apple Commission in the 80's," says Steve Lutz, a second-generation apple man who headed the Washington Apple Commission until 2000. "At the time, it was sort of like the Holy Grail: if we could just figure out how to slice these goddarn things."
Throughout the last century, food makers have used convenience, or at least its appearance, to add value to small-margin commodities like apples. In the 1960's, new processing plants in Washington State made frozen juice concentrate from the boxcars of unmarketable fruits that growers had dumped in the Columbia River each year. Such "value-added products" were right in line with the postwar bounty of timesaving foodstuffs emblematized by the TV dinner.
But with the fracturing of the family meal, innovations now center on ease of use, not ease of preparation. True convenience now means being eaten with one hand, no utensils, outside the home and alone. Glass jars of applesauce gave way to single-serving snack packs; more recently, as with Mott's "Fruit Blasters" and Birds Eye "Squeezle-Sauz," to applesauce pressed like epoxy from tubes.
Industry insiders now talk about elevating a food's "snackability," which, in short, means engineering it with enough convenience that picking up a piece and putting it in your mouth becomes an almost perfunctory transaction. A snackable food is crumbless and fussless. It is most likely broken into bite-size pieces, encouraging us to eat more. If the food's form itself doesn't imply a portion size — the way, say, one apple or one cupcake does — there's no obvious signal to stop. This triggers what one marketer, Barb Stuckey, calls "mindless munching" — the hand's almost hypnotic back and forth between bag and mouth. Stuckey also explains that plucking at individualized little pieces of something is just "more fun" than dealing with a chunkier whole. So pretzels are cut down into stumpy pretzel bits, doughnuts broken into doughnut holes and regular-size carrots scrubbed and lathed into several "baby" ones. Even the Kit Kat — a candy bar designed to be easily handled in the first place — is now available as a bag of smaller Kit Kat Bites.
Still, in light of the incident in Eden, the proposition that a whole apple isn't a particularly tempting item to reach for and bite into may sound absurd. It is not. Research done by the Washington Apple Commission and Mantrose-Haueser, the company that eventually solved the browning issue, sought to establish, empirically, just this. One study showed Florida school students eating slices twice as often as whole apples. In Nevada, elementary-school kids ate nearly triple the fruit when offered apple slices over whole — and this study even measured how much of each ended up in the garbage, since a whole apple might be tossed after a few bites.
"This all started with children," Freytag says. "I think what parents saw is, here's some piece of fruit my child will actually eat." Every parent seems to understand his or her small-mouthed, small-handed child won't get very far with a craggy Red Delicious, and Lutz says that everyone knew that "if it came down to the consumer standing there, cutting it up themselves, putting some lemon juice on it and putting it in a Ziploc bag, they're just not going to do it." More troubling still, research suggests that unless kids develop a taste for apples early, roughly between the ages of 2 and 11, they may never. But children with baby teeth may have trouble eating a whole apple. And with the American Association of Orthodontists recommending that kids get their first consultation by age 7, that all-important window in which to hook people for life was being truncated at both ends.
The dream of a presliced apple gained particular urgency during the economic free fall of the 1998-99 crop year. The crop from 1998 was the largest to date, up about 15 percent to 277 million bushels. Yet overall U.S. consumption of apples had been flat for a generation. (Americans eat less than half as many pounds of apples yearly as Europeans do.) Export markets were drying up, and cheaper Chinese apples were coming in to compete. Meanwhile, new exotic-seeming varieties like Braeburns and Galas were driving Red Delicious prices down. They were also refining tastes. A 1999 Associated Press article cited complaints that "the Red Delicious apple — the symbol of Washington's apple industry — too often is about as delicious as a wad of cotton."
Even without a way to solve the browning issue, Lutz pitched the Subway sandwich chain on slices served with caramel dip, just like the Apple Dippers that McDonald's sells today. He called them Submersibles and proposed, naïvely, shipping Subway boxes of whole apples and installing a wall-mounted slicer in each franchise — burdening the kid behind the counter with cutting them. "We lost out to cookies," he says.
The commission also introduced a campaign featuring a scooter-riding superhero, Apple Guy, who in one TV commercial delivered energizing apples to a weary father and daughter at a zoo. Apple Guy struggled to convince a demographic that the commission dubbed "Stressed Moms" that the apple — as is — was in fact a convenient, snackable snack. He failed.
Clearly all fruit was now competing with processed snacks that, over time, had swayed people's expectations. No matter how convenient the old apple was, it wasn't branded correctly or sending the right signals. No one had done anything to it, vouched for it or made it just for you.
"You're being outspent 100 to 1 by items that are prepackaged, easy to eat and also totally consistent," Lutz says. (According to one study, in 2000, apples, bananas and oranges together accounted for less than 6 percent of the $80 billion snack-food market.) "I mean, with apples, you're growing them on a tree. You can only put out what Mother Nature gives you." He adds that the path from orchard to eater is fraught with potential stresses. Washington growers have to pick all their apples in late summer and fall. They hold them in oxygen-depleted storage rooms and then trickle them, via various distribution centers, into supermarkets throughout the rest of the year. There's no way for anyone to know how a particular apple has weathered all of this without biting into it. And a bright red apple that greets the teeth like a sponge amounts to a kind of betrayal.
"People were quite discriminating and quite punitive," says Desmond O'Rourke, an economist who has studied apple marketing for four decades, describing consumer studies done at the time. "If they got an apple they didn't like, they wouldn't buy apples again" for some time. It seemed one bad apple really could spoil the whole bunch. No one, after all, walks down the chip-and-cracker aisle squeezing bags of Fritos to see which one is best.
Making the Cut
A few mornings after Christmas, Freytag and I looked up at the hulking assemblage of chutes, belts, flumes and fast-moving parts that take up a fourth of Crunch Pak's slicing room. Men and women in purple coats, hard hats and masks were positioned at the opposite end, sorting apple pieces.
It wasn't until we climbed a ladder onto a little platform that I could see them: a slow, thick traffic of apples entering the room through a stainless-steel canal of frigid water, 10 feet off the ground. They were hefty and red-speckled, their tops bobbing in a tight phalanx. The odd one sported a few leaves.
These were Galas, which, along with Pink Ladies, Crunch Pak sells simply as "Sweet." (Granny Smiths are labeled "Tart.") They'd been picked around the time of my last visit in August and sealed in storage ever since. This had slowed, but not completely halted, their ripening.
The apple spends its entire life ripening, slowly converting its starches into sugars and making its solids soluble. The exact chemistry inside even apples of the same variety will be different on every day of the season. And once picked, Freytag explained, "that apple is still a living, breathing thing. Everything from the cellular structure, to the sugars, the starches — when you store it, nothing in that apple will stay the same."
All this variability makes it extremely tough to convert those thousands of idiosyncratic fruits into baggies of uniform, ultrareliable snacks. Over the years, Crunch Pak has been building a sweeping apple database. As the company constantly monitors and tweaks everything in the slicing room — the anti-browning treatments, water temperature, air temperature — it correlates those variables to the condition of the slices churned out. Entering any bag's 11-digit code gives a snapshot of how the processing floor was configured at the time it was sealed. The company is laboring, like a cryptographer, to decode the apple and predict with greater and greater confidence how any given one will react.
"It's all part of the equation," Freytag told me, shouting over the din of rushing water and the machinery's thwacks. "We look at the apples and have to figure out, what are the physiological issues inside that apple? And what are we going to have to do to sustain and accommodate them?" Among other things, an apple's specific chemistry dictates the optimal concentration of NatureSeal, the blend of vitamin C and calcium that finally made the nonbrowning apple slice a practicable proposition.
Though it may sound like glorified lemon juice, NatureSeal is the product of a decade of U.S.D.A. and private research. It's a flavorless white powder that, mixed with water, penetrates a few millimeters beneath the surface of a cut apple. (According to Crunch Pak, the sliced apples don't lose any nutritional value and in fact NatureSeal ends up fortifying each apple with 200 percent of the daily requirement of Vitamin C.) The ascorbic acid in NatureSeal searches out and bonds to the loose phenols, blocking them off from the polyphenol oxidase enzyme and interrupting the browning reaction. The calcium salts work like cement to stiffen the fruit's softening cell walls. All of this happens inside the apple, so the solution leaves no perceptible layer or shell on the surface — unlike, say, the high-sheen shellac on Goobers, or the substrate on time-released pain relievers, both of which NatureSeal's producer, Mantrose-Haueser, also makes. Freytag first heard about NatureSeal while trying to figure out a way to slice pears for a packer in Oregon. When he received a sample at his house, the first thing he did was stick his finger in the powder and lick it. Surprisingly, there was no taste. Eventually, he sliced and treated some apples in his kitchen, then stuck them in the refrigerator in his garage to see how long they'd last.
"My son was 20-something, and he wasn't living with us," he remembered. "He'd just come over to eat. And I found that the apples were disappearing. He ate some at one point that were, like, 30 days old. So I said, 'How were the apples?"' Here Freytag affected a slightly stoned-sounding obliviousness: "'Great, Dad. No problem."'
Soon enough, with the brown stuff out of the way, would-be processors could peer inside the split-open apple and see other problems awaiting them. Crunch Pak initially set up shop in a plant also used to slice onions, not realizing a cut apple soaks up odor like a sponge. The facility Freytag and I were now standing in was the company's third successively larger one since going into production in 2001.
The only precedent for nearly everything being done to the apples in the busy room was slicing apples for pie filling. Ugliness is of no consequence inside a pie, and the existing machinery wasn't averse to browbeating apples to cheaply and quickly dispatch them into the world's ovens.
Gradually each fresh-cut company had to retrofit or build from scratch a kinder network of apparatuses to coddle the apple: water flumes replaced conveyor belts, for example, and the drop height on the bagging equipment — originally used to bag lettuce — was reduced. Because competitors often work independently with equipment makers to address problems, the whole industry is now rife with stubbornly guarded secrets. It took four months and a nondisclosure agreement before Freytag would even let me see Crunch Pak cut some fruit.
He now reached to a bulky furnacelike compartment of the slicing machine and forcefully pulled its two panels apart. Inside, pistons fired and, centered in this confusion, six shining apples atop six separate cylinders spun furiously on their axes while the entire mechanism supporting them rotated. The whole thing resembled some science-fiction rib cage, as if the small, whirling apples inside were the organic parts powering the entire machine.
We were watching Galas be cored, but it was happening so rapidly that I had to take Freytag's word for it. Slices and stray seed-cell divots fell from a chute on our left in quick batches. Each was an apple, sliced in 12 segments, the optimum width to sustain crispness longer. Each of the six machines sheers roughly 90 fruits per minute, 16 hours a day, six days a week, and feeds them to tanks of NatureSeal at the end of the line.
A lot is at stake in the split second the apple is sliced. A ragged cut rips open more cells and leads to more browning. Few producers slice Red Delicious, since the irregular humps on its blossom end prevent the machine from clutching it snugly. "A nice Granny Smith, or a Gala or Fuji," Ben Zamore, a sales manager at Atlas Pacific, the company that manufactures the slicing machines, says, "those are beautiful, well-shaped fruits." Meanwhile, much has been done, clandestinely, to hone the blade edges. Atlas regularly tests the efficiency of its blades at a lab at Colorado State University. Freytag wouldn't tell me anything about Crunch Pak's blades.
Cleaving an apple open obliterates its natural safeguard against contamination — its skin — and exposes the moist, absorptive surfaces inside. Since a cut apple browns to kill a layer of itself and shield the rest, NatureSeal similarly weakens its natural defenses.
"Once you've cut that apple open, you are challenging the integrity of the fruit," explains Richard Olsen of Tree Top, the nation's largest apple processor and the company supplying McDonald's with its slices. (Crunch Pak early on turned down a contract with McDonald's, wary in part of growing too fast. The company now dices apples for Arby's.) Anyone who slices the apple must therefore take responsibility for it — become the apple's immune system. Air in Crunch Pak's slicing room must be purified and pressurized. Everyone wears latex and plastic, and even I had to walk across a funny platform of spinning yellow shoe brushes before entering. With apples skating through a production line and intermixing, an infectious agent like listeria in one could put an entire day's output at risk.
Freytag likes to say: "When we first got into this business, what we were told is: 'O.K., an apple is an apple is an apple. And you take this solution, and you put an apple in it, and — Bingo! You've got sliced apples that don't turn brown.' If we knew then what we know now, we might not be in this business." Clearly this is more a boast than a confession.
Freytag conducted Crunch Pak's first market research at Little League games. After dispensing samples, he would ask parents why they would pay extra for what effectively boils down to an apple-chopping service. He claims that the answer he heard most often was "Because I'd rather be here at the game watching my son play baseball than at home slicing apples."
Oddly, apple slicing was being denigrated as an unthinkably oppressive undertaking, a kind of punitive kitchen duty, evoking the G.I. obscured behind mounds of to-be-peeled potatoes.
"You look at the number of meals being eaten in automobiles," Steve Lutz says (research by John Nihoff, a Culinary Institute of America food historian, estimates that 19 percent of all meals or snacks in this country are eaten there), "and you'd think the apple is convenient already. But when you finish it, you have a core to deal with. You have waste. Plus, once you've started an apple, you're sort of committed to eating the whole thing."
"I don't think consumers are very comfortable leaving a half-eaten apple lying around their car or their house," Lutz adds. "I don't know of a single instance, and I can't imagine a single instance where a mother has said to her child, 'I know you can't eat this whole apple, but take two bites and we'll take the rest home and put it in your lunch for tomorrow."'
This is a peculiar phenomenon of the food industry's escalating arms race of snackability: that once the minor hassles of a given food are eliminated, its original version can feel positively insufferable. "I call it the Starbucks effect," Lutz says. "Once you get used to Starbucks, you can't go back to Folgers. Even though you might have fond memories of Folgers."
Stranger still, I found, if we've become less willing to put up with the old apple, we may also be slightly less willing to stomach it.
Paul Rozin is a cultural psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and, though he may not introduce himself this way at parties, an authority on disgust. In even our brief phone conversation not long ago, Rozin assured me repeatedly that he personally enjoys biting into a big apple. He enjoys it very much, in fact. But he immediately intuited why others wouldn't and why, after snacking, we're increasingly more comfortable holding a spent plastic bag than an apple core.
"Because the bag doesn't have any of you in it!" he shot out, as though it were obvious. "The core is an extension of your tongue and your mouth, and the bag is not." We, it turns out, are the thing we find most disgusting.
"As the world gets more and more cleaned up of these things, and as you get highly sensitive to disgust, a bitten piece of food in your hand is not too nice," he posited. An eater of the whole apple must, with each bite, readdress his mouth to "the unsavoriness of the bitten edge in front of you." But eating apple slices means treating yourself to a clean, unspoiled, appealingly geometric shape every few seconds.
Apples do not feature prominently in the literature of disgust — not yet, at least. Meat is generally considered the most potentially disgusting food, since turning a dead carcass into an unthreatening, appetizing meal involves a nuanced psychological maneuver. ("No one who went into a supermarket would know that beef is from a cow," Rozin elaborated. "We've completely sanitized it.")
Analyzing a group of studies in the 1940's, the seminal disgust-psychologist Andras Angyal noted that, with the exception of a few slimy things, "no plant product was reported as disgusting." But given the metropolis of slickly packaged, processed foods we've built up around the apple, perhaps even a fruit might now seem crude in the same way as a raw pork tenderloin. Might the idyllic apple, too, need sanitizing, civilizing?
"That would be the next step," Rozin assented, later adding, "We all breathe each other's air. But if there were a way not to, I'm sure people would avoid doing it."
"It takes a savage or wild taste to appreciate a wild fruit," Henry David Thoreau wrote. In "Wild Apples," he went so far as to claim that a crabby, uncultivated apple can be enjoyed only if it's eaten outdoors. It will actually taste different indoors. "What is sour in the house," he wrote, "a bracing walk makes sweet."
We, like Thoreau, are used to eating while walking, though getting up and changing locations to accommodate a piece of fruit is laughably antithetical to the way we snack now. We process our food so we don't have to adapt to its eccentricities. We wedge foods into our lifestyles, and as they get crowded out or accelerated past, we give them the tools to catch us on the fly. But while a cookie or a Cheez Doodle can be reined in without much argument, an apple — like most healthful alternatives — has a will of its own.
"An apple is like us," Crunch Pak's general manager, Craig Carson, explained after my tour. "It's alive. If we don't handle it correctly, we can kill it."
Carson is a slim and serious-looking man who has been growing apples in the Wenatchee Valley for 25 years. He doesn't expect sliced apples to dominate in nearly the same way bagged salad has overtaken the lettuce business, he said. Cutting apples is simply one way to help growers, to make a healthy food more versatile, more likely to be eaten. Talking with him, I began to wonder if processing apples is not so unlike growing them. After all, Thoreau was offended that orchardists cultivated only a few varieties from nature's virtually infinite stock. And growers have long thinned out their boughs to promote fewer, bigger apples rather than the many, smaller ones more advantageous to the plant species.
This is to say that our integrity and the apple's have always been at odds, and historically, we haven't been the ones to budge. As our tastes skew in more unexpected directions, we expect more from our apples and must retrofit them accordingly or transform them. As a man named Welcome Sauer, who ran the Apple Commission's consumer research, remembers realizing: "What we were selling with the fresh-cut apple slice was not an apple anymore. What we were selling was a guilt-free snack food." It may be that companies like Crunch Pak are simply furthering the domestication of the apple, just more assertively and invasively than anyone has before.
Around the time of my visit in December, a new Nielsen report showed Crunch Pak controlling more than half of the presliced-apple market and the whole category vaulting up 300 percent from the previous year.
"When you see numbers like that," Freytag had told me, "I think back to when people would look at me like I was from Mars and say: 'Why would I want a sliced apple? I've got a whole apple' — and those were their exact words."
It was clear they'd come around as bagged apple slices smoothly exited the cutting room on a conveyor belt through the wall. There, more purple-clad employees stood waiting to box them up. Sufficiently enhanced, the apples were now bound for places like Costco and Albertsons and out into what — standing in the contraption-filled clean room on the opposite side of that wall — Freytag had maybe generously called "the normal world."
Jon Mooallem is a writer living in San Francisco. He has written for Harper's, The New Yorker and The Believer.
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company