Why New Yorker Writer John McPhee Doesn’t Butter His Corn
I recently talked to John McPhee, the prolific New Yorker writer and one of my journalism heroes, about "Giving Good Weight," his remarkable 1977 essay that told the story of New York City's Greenmarkets through the farmers' eyes. I first encountered McPhee's story in 2006 as a restaurant cook, and the piece was top of mind again recently as we put together our annual Summer Cookbook. In the new June issue, we celebrate the nation's market culture with a bounty of juicy new recipes and tips for shopping and storing produce.
(Here's an edited version of my interview, in which McPhee talks about his reporting methods, the characters at the markets, and his favorite produce stand up the road from his house outside of Princeton, New Jersey. I've left it a little long for fellow fans. For those new to McPhee, go read "Giving Good Weight" first and then "Brigade de Cuisine.")
HL: What inspired you to write “Giving Good Weight” and sit on the other side of the market table with the farmers?
JM: I went with the intention of doing a one-day job, a “Talk of the Town” piece. Go in there and leave. It didn’t work out that way.
I had just finished a 3-year project about Alaska. It became a book called Coming into the Country. I finished all this in eight New Yorker magazines, not all at once, two, two, and four. They were over time. Started this in the summer of ’74, now it’s the summer of ’77. It was a hundred some thousand words long. I kept saying I’m never going to write again, if I ever finish this, I’m never going to write again. I finished it. Then Bob Lewis suggested the Greenmarket to me about a month later, and while I had sworn I was finished, I thought well, I could go to New York and see what he’s talking about.
I went to New York and spent one day, and then I went back the next day to see some more. But the biggest factor was those 3 years working on the Alaska project, I really didn't feel like jumping right into anything right away again. And what happened was, this Greenmarket sort of drew me in. I just went there for the one day, then the two days, and then I met some of those farmers. I went back, and I put on an apron, and I started to sell beans for Rich Hodgson from Newburgh, New York. That beat the hell out of writing.
It got me away from writing, and so the thing is, I really wasn’t absorbed in the ultimate piece of writing that I was going to do. What I was doing was working in the Greenmarket, which I preferred. Of course I had a notebook in my pocket at all times. But Rich Hodgson let me come back and back and back. When I left the Greenmarket, there was snow on the ground. I first went there in July. So it’s unique among projects of mine in the ways I just described to you. I always had a notebook in my pocket, I was always intending to do a piece of writing. But I preferred the Greenmarket to writing. I wasn’t sort of trying to get the reporting done as fast as I could. Just the exact reverse.
I spent almost half a year there, and I was recovering from Coming into the Country. I had a wonderful time because that market went to the most amazing places. The Brooklyn Academy of Music parking lot, the center of Brooklyn with just the most incredible flow of humanity going past you and 137th Street and Adam Clayton Powell up in black Harlem. We were also in Spanish Harlem another day. There was a different place every day. I commuted. I got on a train from Princeton where I live and went to New York every day, put on the apron, and then came home. That’s the story.
HL: Is there anything to the way that your day worked, or the way that your interactions with the customers worked, where it was more cut and dry? You could start something and finish it at the market versus writing, which can sometimes seem interminable. Is that what you were feeling at the time? That it was sort of a fresh thing to do? You had purpose, and you could start and finish it?
JM: Yeah, start and finish not so much. I didn’t think I was going to finish anything there. The point is that I was distracted. I was engaged in something that involved an immense, varied array of people. In terms of writing, I guess, it was R&R. I was totally caught up in it.
I went to their farms also during that time. I didn’t go to the market every day. I went to Labanowski’s onion farm up here in the mucklands, and I went to Rich Hodgson’s farm and Alvina Frey’s farm, and so on. Mostly those people were, they were all people that were selling at the market.
HL: Did you keep up with Rich Hodgson after the story came out?
JM: I did for a while, but this was 1977. I’m not in touch with him now. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in touch with anyone who was there that summer.
HL: You told me you had a notebook in your pocket.
JM: As I always do. It’s a 4 x 6–inch notebook. I’ve always got that with me because I’m scribbling all the time.
HL: What kind of pencil or pen?
JM: Pencil. At the Greenmarket, the thing wouldn’t come out very often. Somebody would come out and say something really amusing, some customer, you know? Including “you gave me good weight,” so she gave me the title of my piece. Whenever something like that would happen, I would pull a notebook out from under my apron and write it down, but I wasn’t hunting for that stuff.
That’s the thing. This was not going to be a very long piece. I spent five and a half months at it. I never had any experiences quite like this. I think the piece in its density shows that. If you look at it, you see that there’s a lot of time in that piece.
HL: I was really taken by the different snippets of dialogue and how you use it coming from different people. You were telling the story of who these people were and where they were from or how hurried they were, but I could tell that this wasn’t just one day.
JM: Yeah, you mean both customers and farmers?
JM: In terms of the farmers, I did as I said. That was more like my usual work. To go to someone’s place, spend a day and interview them. When I had the portraits of the farmers on the farms like Labanowski and his onions, there’s very much like a standard interview where I’m working at it all day long, scribbling notes and doing everything. Whereas the customers were more out of the blue when they would buy or say something. There were tens of thousands of people [walking] past in that one summer.
HL: You’ve written about a lot of different people in a lot of different industries. What makes the farmers that you talked to different from a boat captain, say, or truck driver?
JM: The fact that they have farms and not boats and so forth [laughs]. They don’t stand out as highly varied people because of their professions. And within the profession, there were so many different types. That was one of the things about the Greenmarket. There were a whole lot of different characters as farmers in those markets. They had their rivalries, their suspicions, their affections, and so on and so forth. Some of that comes out in the piece.
HL: In terms of the almost 40 years since you wrote the piece, we’ve seen this proliferation of farmers’ markets across the country. Can you talk about what you saw then versus what you see now, even in your hometown? About this change and the way that we buy vegetables?
JL: I have a very specific story. There’s a farm stand up the road from me, 3 miles. I live out in the relative country, northwest of Princeton. This place is not in the town. Last summer, I took a book over there inscribed to them. It was Giving Good Weight, because they are the greatest. I was so taken by them. A little place called Kerr’s. It’s all their farm. Everything they’ve got there, well almost everything is grown by them, except tomatoes, bell peppers, and such. Above all the corn, this wonderful corn, is coming right out of their field. It’s just a great place. It’s very small. Cars buzz in and out of there all day long.
HL: How does that differ from shopping for vegetables at a supermarket?
JM: The corn just came out of the field. It comes in, and they hand you a dozen. That’s the appeal of the corn. The vegetable markets around here and the grocery stores aren’t bad. Obviously the appeal is in the freshness and the homegrown [nature] of it. I go there all the time, all summer long for that corn. The New Jersey corn and tomatoes, that’s what we eat all summer. So that’s what it’s about.
I’m not attracted to buying corn at the supermarket because of the time it takes [the corn] to get there [from the field]. And the fact that Kerr’s is right up the road here and it’s a no-brainer. Otherwise, I wouldn’t denigrate the vegetable part of several markets around here. They’re not bad.
HL: How do you take your corn?
JM: I boil it. Corn has become like everything else. The corn of 2015 doesn't seem to be the corn of 1975 or whatever in that it’s much sweeter generally. Depends on what kind of corn you’re using and everything else. What I’m getting at is that you don’t need anything on it. To slather butter on it is redundant. It’s delicious as it is. And so forth. It’s plenty tasty and tender and good the way it is. I don’t think corn with that sugar content existed way back when I was born.