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All through December, we’ve been featuring Longreads’ Best of 2023. Today, we close out this year’s Best of Longreads package with a list of every story that was chosen as No. 5 in our weekly Top 5 email. Number five stories can be humorous and lighthearted or even poignant and unexpected—an antidote to the week that was. The entire Best of Longreads package is a labor of love that’s our gift to you, the reader. Enjoy this trove of great reads when you need distraction from those holiday get-togethers.


Fighting the Tree

Davon Loeb | The Sun | January 2, 2023 | 2,678 words

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been mired in home repairs that rank somewhere south of Serious DIY but somewhere north of I Can Do This Without YouTube. Every time I cut a machine screw so that a new switchplate would fit, or replaced a toilet’s fill valve, I thought about my dad. Specifically, I thought about being 8 or 9 years old and standing with my dad while he embarked on those same types of repairs — me holding a handful of screws or tools, just trying to be helpful while he worked on whatever it was he was working on. I lost him a decade ago this year, but those memories have retained the same poignancy they had when my grief was fresh, and they came roaring back all over again when I read Davon Loeb’s essay in the latest issue of The Sun. Fathers aren’t easy, and neither are sons; when the two are constitutionally different, it only compounds the difficulty. “Give Dad a pencil, a piece of paper, and a ruler, and he could design a house,” Loeb writes. “Give me a pencil, a piece of paper, and a ruler, and I could draw our family.” This misalignment sets the stage for an episode that embodies nearly every competing facet of the father-son dynamic: pride and shame, validation and disappointment, love and fear. Yet, Loeb doesn’t write this to twang some hidden heartstring in the reader. Instead, he sinks back into that moment from his own childhood in order to square the circle of fraught kinship: No matter how much we may clash, it’s the moments of peace that stay with us. —PR

Getting Lost in the World’s Largest Stack of Menus

Adam Reiner | Taste | January 1, 2023 | 2,243 words

“Menus provide a window into history, a vital connection to our foodways,” writes Adam Reiner in this fun read about restaurant menus. Frank E. Buttolph, a volunteer archivist at the New York Public Library, amassed 25,000 menus from around the world before she died in 1924. Today, the NYPL’s Buttolph Collection numbers 40,000, dating back to 1843, with most menus from between 1890 and 1910. What was served in the first Japanese and French restaurants in New York? What dishes were considered expensive or high-end or adventurous in the early 1900s? The collection’s menus, writes Reiner, are sources of inspiration for today’s chefs, researchers, and the simply (epi)curious. The scanned ones featured in his story are lovely to look at, and make you want to visit the NYPL yourself so you can pore over these pages. In our era of restaurant apps and QR codes, Reiner has also opened my eyes to the value of a physical, printed menu; I’ve always enjoyed reading the descriptions of dishes and cocktails, but after reading his piece, I realize how much a menu can also illuminate the historical and cultural context of the food they describe. —CLR

Jelly Is Ready for Its Redemption Arc

Bettina Makalintal | Eater | January 10, 2023 | 1,818 words

“I predict that we are on the threshold of a new aspic-forward aesthetic,” is something I would not have expected to read in my lifetime. I admit it. I’m a dessert fusspot. I have strong opinions: I love sticky toffee pudding and chocolate cake. The only acceptable pies are apple and pumpkin. Custard is bland. Tapioca is revolting. But Jell-O tops the many desserts on my “hard no” list. Way too squirmy! It’s always important to revisit your beliefs from time to time. (I guess.) Could Jell-O become a possibility for me? (Highly unlikely!) “I think that Jell-O, in a way, can be terrifying and delicious at the same time. There’s a little discussion in the book about the sublime: things that are really scary, but they kind of attract you anyway. It’s things that are in the liminal space between what’s acceptable and what’s really bizarre, and people find that fun from an aesthetic perspective.” —KS

For Humpbacks, Bubbles Can Be Tools

Doug Perrine | Hakai Magazine | December 20, 2022 | 1,500 words

It’s well known that many animals use tools to aid feeding and other tasks of life. Think: otters floating on their backs, cracking shells with rocks. You’d think it would be hard for whales to use tools, but as Doug Perrine reports at Hakai Magazine, humpbacks use what’s available to them — air and water — to form bubbles for a variety of activities. “I’m tempted to describe the air in a humpback’s lungs as a Swiss army knife because I’ve seen whales do so many different things with it,” he wrote. “It is not actually a tool collection though, but a storehouse of raw construction material with which the whale can fashion a variety of tools. Lacking free fingers and opposable thumbs, whales are unable to create and use tools in the same way as humans, but reveal their intelligence through the manner in which they utilize other body parts for tool production and use.” —KS


The Dirt on Pig-Pen

Elif Batuman | Astra Magazine | October 27, 2022 | 2,245 words

I’m still sad that Astra Magazine is no more. Maybe it’s because I’m seeing so much fervor for bot-written text lately (oh hi, ChatGPT) and I worry about its mind-boggling potential to pollute the internet with pap left unchecked, not to mention the repercussions of inevitable misuse. Thankfully Astra remains online for now, which allows you to read Elif Batuman’s terrific deep dive on the Peanuts character Pig-Pen. Through Pig-Pen, Batuman explores what Charles Schultz had to say about American values in the 1950s and beyond, most notably, commentary on the darker side of society and relationships. But, in wearing his messiness with pride, is Pig-Pen perhaps the most authentic Peanut of all? “Everyone, it turns out, has a Dirty version of themselves: mussed, unkempt, scribbled over. This feels true.” —KS

When Food is the Only Narrative We Consume

Angie Kang | Catapult | February 8, 2023 | 2,146 words

Food is an essential part of culture, and an accessible way into understanding it. (Exhibits A and B: See the Pixar animated short film Bao, or nearly any account of an Asian American child’s embarrassing “lunchbox moment” at school.) But Angie Kang urges storytellers to create more varied and nuanced stories about Chinese culture and the wider Asian American experience — like Fresh Off the Boat and Everything Everywhere All At Once — that reach beyond food. “We don’t stop living in between meals,” she writes. Kang’s resonant words and fantastic artwork combine in a delightful illustrated essay about narrative and representation. “I’m just hungry for something new,” she writes. I am as well, and with this fresh, inspired piece, she delivers. —CLR

Children of the Ice Age

April Nowell | Aeon | February 13, 2023 | 4,400 words

April Nowell opens this piece with a delightful story about a Palaeolithic family taking their kids and dogs to a cave to do some mud painting, which feels like the modern-day equivalent of exhausted parents taking their offspring to McDonald’s and handing them a coloring book. I was instantly entranced. Such stories are rare, partly because evidence of children (with their small, fragile bones) is tricky for archaeologists to locate, but also because of assumptions that children were insignificant to the narrative. Nowell explains how, with the help of new archaeological approaches, this is changing, and the children of the Ice Age are getting a voice. I am ready to listen, so bring on these tales of family excursions and novices struggling to learn the craft of tool sculpting (as Nowell explains, “each unskilled hit would leave material traces of their futile and increasingly frustrated attempts at flake removal”). A Palaeolithic archaeologist and professor of anthropology, Nowell is an expert in this topic, but her vivid writing and human-based approach makes her fascinating field accessible to all. —CW

The Battle for the Soul of Buy Nothing

Vauhini Vara | WIRED | February 23, 2023 | 7,267 words

It’s a worthy concept: hyper-local Facebook community groups connecting those in need of gently used items with their owners, a practice that offers environmental benefits in reducing waste with reuse, as well as a chance to thumb your nose at capitalism. But what happened to the Buy Nothing movement founded by Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller, which by 2022 had expanded to 6 million members in 60 countries? Vauhini Vara discovers that to be able to propagate your values, sometimes you need to accept the compromises of free community access at scale or risk the wrath of the community you created. “The truth was that turning Buy Nothing into a business had come with far more expenses than revenues,” Vara writes. “If Facebook profited from Buy Nothing members’ activities, it also covered many of their costs. With the launch of the app, the resources that came for free with Facebook — software development, computing power, visibility — were suddenly Clark and Rockefeller’s responsibility.” —KS

— March —

Can AI Perfect the IPA?

Tony Rehagen | Experience Magazine | February 15, 2023 | 1,267 words

Is AI fatigue a thing? Because I’ve felt it for some time. Yes, there are noteworthy AI stories worth reading right now, like Ted Chiang on blurry JPEGs or the piece on drumming that Peter had recommended. But there are only so many stories about ChatGPT and artificial intelligence that I can absorb, so I’ve started to tune out. But when I came upon this story’s headline earlier this week, I couldn’t help but laugh — and decided to dive in and just surrender to it all: A data-driven IPA brewed in Australia, fine-tuned using consumer feedback collected through QR codes on cans. Genetically modified hops in the drought-plagued U.S. Pacific Northwest. An AI company ridiculously (perfectly?) called Deep Liquid. In this ultimately fun and timely read, Tony Rehagen reports on the trend of craft breweries harnessing technology, data, and research to refine their recipes. Let’s raise a glass to hops and bots. —CLR

An Icelandic Town Goes All Out to Save Baby Puffins

Cheryl Katz | Smithsonian | February 14, 2023 | 3,125 words

Every year Bloomberg Businessweek publishes what it calls the Jealousy List, featuring articles that authors wish they’d written or that editors wish they’d assigned. If I were to have my own jealousy list for 2023, this piece by Cheryl Katz would be on it. I love it so much. Seriously, drop what you’re doing and read it. Katz’s story is about a village in Iceland where, every year, residents young and old work together to save baby puffins, also known as “pufflings.” The wee birds that look like they’re wearing tuxedos often get lost leaving their burrows and struggle to fly out to sea as they’re supposed to. Enter the Puffling Patrol, which cajoles the birds into boxes and carries them to a cliff where they can catch the wind they need to migrate.” Enter the Puffling Patrol, which cajoles the birds into boxes and carry them to a cliff where they can catch the wind they need to migrate. As climate change does its worst to the earth, ushering pufflings into the sky has never been more important. I’m jealous I didn’t get to write this story. Or maybe I’m just mad I’m not in the Puffling Patrol. They get to do good for the world by communing with adorable baby birds. How often is something so essential also so joyful? BRB, Googling flights to Iceland. —SD

‘It Changed the World’: 50 Years On, the Story of Pong’s Bay Area Origins

Charles Russo | SFGATE | March 9, 2023 | 2,809 words

Charles Russo tracks the beginnings of the modern video game industry, which has its roots in a “scrappy Silicon Valley startup” now known as Atari. Its founders, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, had previously created the world’s first coin-operated video game, a futuristic yellow machine called Computer Space. Under Atari, they developed Pong, a simple yet engrossing arcade game that became an instant hit with the American public when it was released in March 1973 — and is now a beloved classic. This is a delightful dive into the video game industry’s “big-bang moment,” accompanied by fun images from the ’70s. My favorite is a photograph of a massive retro Atari arcade game at the Powell Street BART station in downtown San Francisco, surrounded by people with bell-bottoms. —CLR

I Can Feel God’s Presence in This Portable Toilet

Harrison Scott Key | The Bitter Southerner | March 14, 2023 | 5,200 words

Last Friday night, I had two pints of Guinness and went home, content with a St. Patrick’s Day well celebrated. Apparently, I know nothing about how to observe the feast. Harrison Scott Key enlightened me in this delightful essay about the drunken debauchery that is the holiday’s annual parade in Savannah, Georgia. I loved his raucous account of trying to claim a spot for the parade: Akin to the Sacking of Constantinople, “insults and elbows and fits [are] thrown” until everyone settles into their position, dons a green feather boa, and makes merry. The prose is so vivid you can almost hear the noise, touch the sweaty crowds, and taste the booze. I could also feel the camaraderie — over the years of attending the parade, Scott Key finds lasting friendships. A transplant to Savannah, and initially lonely and unable to find his place in a new community, this annual tradition helps Scott Key to discover his people. After all, as he writes, “it’s easier to love people you’ve watched vomit into the hellmouth of a portable toilet at two in the morning.” —CW

America Doesn’t Know Tofu

George Stiffman | Asterisk Magazine | March 9, 2023 | 3,278 words

Having been vegetarian for the last couple of years, I have eaten many a chickpea and a lentil, but not much in the way of tofu. My efforts at cooking with it generally result in a sad, limp affair that has more than a passing resemblance to pond sludge. But this delightful essay has single-handedly turned my tofu thoughts around, with luscious descriptions that pour off the page and make you want to reach in and grab a piece of the joyfully named “exploding-juice tofu.” And if exploding juice is not your thing, fear not, for there are more than 20 other types of tofu in the world, all with “different mouthfeels.” I was as surprised as you. George Stiffman briefly touches on how the perceived value of vegetarian food differs between East and West — but for the most part, this essay is unashamedly just about how good this soybean curd can be, and is no poorer for it. (So good that Stiffman waits for a tofu teacher outside a Chinese brothel at 4 a.m. while “jotting down tofu goals.”) I have a new reverence for my pond sludge. —CW


How Cookie Jars Capture American Kitsch

Angela Burke | Eater | March 24, 2023 | 1,533 words

At an early age, I had mastered a critical skill in our house: lifting the lid on our humongous cookie jar to pilfer a treat, then replacing that lid in complete silence. As a cookie burglar, I was an apple that hadn’t fallen far from its tree. My Dad was always there first. And when my mom complained about dwindling stock, dad pointed the finger directly at me and my brother. (The nerve!) That cookie jar (a brown ceramic wooden stump with a creepy, grinning gray squirrel on top) sits on their kitchen counter to this day. At Eater, in this love letter to the kooky cookie jar, Angela Burke introduces us to artist and vintage ceramic cookie jar maker Hazy Mae. Her custom jars, in homage to Dolly Parton, Andy Warhol, Elvis, and Madonna (among others), can run $800 or more. That may feel steep, but can you really put a price on a vessel that could eventually contain fond memories, too? —KS

Dril Is Everyone. More Specifically, He’s a Guy Named Paul.

Nate Rogers | The Ringer | April 12, 2023 | 5,170 words

Despite being on Twitter for almost 15 years — a number that’s shameful for multiple reasons — I’ve never actually followed the shitposter extraordinaire known as Dril. I didn’t need to. His absurdism was retweeted into my feed nearly every day. Sometimes I’d laugh, sometimes I’d shake my head, but over time two things became clear. The first was that whoever was behind the blurry Jack Nicholson photo had created a wholly unique persona. The second was that this persona somehow distilled Twitter’s worst impulses into a single parodic voice: bombastic, utterly un-self-aware, and so in thrall to the Dunning-Kruger effect that you couldn’t help but marvel. Dril, in one anonymous form or another, has been written about before, but he’s never been truly profiled; that first falls to Nate Rogers, who managed both to score some face time with him and to use that as the foundation for a long, well-reported piece about the man and his legacy. Even if you’ve never heard of Dril (in which case I commend you, again for multiple reasons), Rogers’ piece functions as an incisive assessment of how we think about art and creativity, and perhaps even why so many of us have yet to fully divorce that godforsaken bird site. When a character as good as Dril exists, you don’t need the other 279. —PR

During a Pandemic, Walk

David Jenkins | High Country News | April 17, 2023 | 1,343 words

When I run or walk alone outdoors I almost always listen to music, a podcast, or an audiobook. In this thoughtful piece for High Country News, David Jenkins remarks upon passing a runner while on a 10-hour walk in western Colorado, the man’s ears “clogged with headphones.” The word clogged stopped me short. How true that even in solitary pursuits we compromise the peace we seek by inviting others’ words into our heads. “I puzzled over the need to listen to something other than wind and raven, the scuttle of a lizard, the skittering of small rocks underfoot,” he writes. Less is so much more, and while you’ll revel in soaking up every sight and sound the desert has to offer, the greatest beauty of Jenkins’ piece is that because he’s fully present during his walk, you can’t help but be, too. —KS

Inside Superiority Burger: The Buzziest Restaurant in America

Brett Martin | GQ | April 26, 2023 | 3,834 words

Most writing about food focuses on the output. Some of it focuses on the people. A bit of it focuses on technique. But not enough of it teases out the synesthesia of a night in a restaurant: the adrenaline, the prep, the community, the taste. The vibe of eating, as much as I hate to use that word. Brett Martin’s piece shrugs off those limitations on its way to being the most visceral look inside a restaurant since The Bear. Nominally a profile of punk-drummer-turned-chef Brooks Headley and his vegetarian burger joint, it manages to capture the twin high-wire acts of executing and eating inside New York City’s restaurant of the moment. Martin veers from evocative tasting notes (“[s]omething about the feathery sheets of tofu skin, layered on a squishy hero roll with broccoli rabe and a spiced chickpea paste that evokes Vietnamese pate, flips the same feral switch in my chest as does eating, say, andouillette, the most offaly of French sausages”) to capturing Headley at full speed on a packed Thursday night (“[o]ften, he’ll bustle in one direction, only to pull up short as though he’s forgotten what he was doing, and then run off in another”) to some shrewd commentary on the punk ethos and food gentrification. It feels, in the very best way, like you’re a drone being piloted through Superiority Burger during a dinner rush. Whether it makes you hungry is beside the point; it’s a feast of its own. —PR

— May —

Hive Mind

Celia Bell | Texas Highways | May 2, 2023 | 2,847 words

Celia Bell’s warm descriptions make bee society sound lovely, with her bees visiting “flowers or the quiet creek, or, on the hottest days, hang[ing] in clusters like elderberries on the outside of the hive, waiting for a breath of cool air.” The pleasure she finds in their world is not taken for granted. After entering beekeeping during the pandemic, Bell is conscious of how it grounds her and keeps her present. A video game fan, she draws thoughtful comparisons to the rendering of the natural world in gaming. While appreciating the artistry of game developers, she feels outside of her body in their virtual landscapes, whereas sweating in an apiary her body calls out its needs, forcing her to connect with her physical self. Although online life can creep in — a buzzing phone is never far away — the bees open up “the wonder and specificity of the world.” This reflective essay will make you consider which reality you choose to spend your time in. —CW

How Two Friends Sparked L.A.’s Sushi Obsession — and Changed the Way America Eats

Daniel Miller | Los Angeles Times | May 3, 2023 | 3,855 words

In 1965, Noritoshi Kanai and Harry Wolff Jr. were on a trip to Japan, looking for an interesting food product to import to the U.S. Instead, one of their dinners in Tokyo led them to another idea: sushi. Daniel Miller recounts how the two men brought the Japanese cuisine to Los Angeles, at a time when the city felt primed for something new. Which restauranteurs and chefs were the first to add sushi to their menus? When were the sushi bar and the California roll invented? Accompanied by lovely illustrations by Yuko Shimuzu, this is a fun piece of regional foodie history — one that ultimately explores whether food can truly bring different people and cultures together. —CLR

The Dave Matthews Guide to Living and Dying

Alex Pappademas | GQ | May 18, 2023 | 5,777 words

I’m not sure I ever had an opinion about Dave Matthews. I knew how I felt about his music — which is probably best left for another time, though “no thanks” pretty much sums it up — but I also think I thought he was Jack Johnson. (White guys with guitars, man; I don’t know what to tell you.) After reading Alex Pappademas’ stellar profile, though, I finally do have an opinion, and that opinion is that the world needs a few more people like Dave Matthews. Pappademas has always been able to walk the razor-wire tightrope of inserting just enough of himself to leaven a story without pushing it into This Famous Person Is Just an Excuse For My Thoughts territory, and that talent is on full display here. Even beyond the effortlessly entertaining writing, it’s a profile of the type we don’t see enough of these days: a multi-day/location/activity hang in which a rapport grows and a subject’s personality emerges. There’s lots here about Matthews’ understanding of who he is and how the world sees him, of course, but just as much about the way he moves through the world and the joy with which he approaches life and its inevitable end. Regardless of how you ever felt about DMB, you’ll leave this one feeling a little bit changed for the better. Which is probably exactly how Matthews would want it. —PR

The “Top Chef” Oral History: “How Is This Going Off the Rails on Day One?”

Mikey O’Connell | The Hollywood Reporter | May 18, 2023 | 5,573 words

In our 14 years as a couple, there is only one TV show that my husband and I have watched together consistently, and it’s Top Chef. (He leaves Outlander to me; I pass on Painting with John.) We’re not rabid fans like the people who, as this oral history of the series details, paid to go on a cruise with the hosts and several popular contestants and judges. “What really stayed with me is a lady, incredibly inebriated, running down the hallway to me,” season 10 winner Kristen Kish recalls. “I assume she was going to hug me but ended up fully licking my right cheek.” However, we never miss an episode of the show, which offers a window into the diversity and difficulties of the culinary world. Top Chef prompted me to master the art of risotto — a work in progress — and I’ve never been so excited to tell my husband, well, pretty much anything as I was to announce that I’d seen Padma working out at our gym while she was filming the Washington, D.C., season. This is all to say that I loved THR’s oral history, which is making the rounds online as the show’s 20th season wraps up. The season, which features contestants plucked from Top Chef‘s various international productions, is a testament to the show’s cultural impact. In related news, thank goodness producers didn’t go with the alternate title Grillers in the Mist. —SD


The Strange Survival of Guinness World Records

Imogen West-Knights | The Guardian | May 25, 2023 | 5,775 words

I grew up watching people break world records. Not because I am from a family whose skillset includes spinning basketballs on toothbrushes or sticking spoons to their chest (actual records), but because I watched a show called Record Breakers. It was all very wholesome: Enthusiastic presenters oversaw members of the public trying to earn a place in the book of Guinness World Records. The upbeat theme song confidently declared that Dedication is all you need. Perhaps it is. In this piece, Imogen West-Knights writes that her failure to beat the record for the longest time standing on one leg blindfolded “was not because I was incapable of doing it. It was because I didn’t want it enough.” She meets plenty of people who do want it (and want it a lot), her delightful account peppered with humans who have caught the most marshmallows fired from a homemade catapult in one minute or jumped the most consecutive cars on a pogo stick. But in recent years, things at Guinness World Records have become a little less joyful and a little more corporate. West-Knights explains how GWR Consultancy now helps brands to find a way to break a record—for a fee. (Perhaps unsurprising in the TikTok age.) But even if record-breaking is not what it once was, it is lovely to know that diehard record-breakers are still out there on their pogo sticks “celebrating achievement in the abstract.” —CW


Carrie Arnold | Noēma | June 6, 2023 | 3,186 words

Let me preface this by saying I am both a cat person and a dog person. That said, cats are assholes. That’s okay! It’s part of their charm. They’re loving, yes, but they’re also haughty and destructive and give approximately half a damn about your feelings or possessions. Carrie Arnold allows as much when she sets out her own felinophilic bonafides in her Noēma piece. Yet, even she, a woman who calls cats “the only phenomenon on Earth that could lure me out of bed before sunrise,” was surprised to learn of the havoc they wreak on the natural world. In the U.S. alone, as many as 80 million unowned cats (and another 20ish million pet cats with outdoor privileges) present a legitimate existential threat to birds, plants, and other wildlife. The story, for all its essayistic tendencies, focuses on the rift between conservationists and cat defenders—and also on the hypocrisy lurking in the way we think about outdoor cats. We shun the peaceful “free dogs” of India, yet we don’t give a second thought to the cat with a bird in its mouth (nor do we realize that for every mouth-bird we see, many others have been ravaged out of sight). Then again, as Arnold points out, “the problem with cats has nothing to do with cats at all. The issue is a fundamentally human problem.” We’re so busy marking our own territory, it seems, we don’t think about the responsibility of pet stewardship. Bob Barker was right all along. —PR

Beamer, Dressman, Bodybag

Alexander Wells | European Review of Books | April 19, 2023 | 3,551 words

Shared language is about communication, for sure, but as Alexander Wells notes in the European Review of Books, it’s also about identity and belonging. Sometimes, even understanding the latest slang makes you feel in-the-know, right!?!? (Not at all fond of how “right” has become the latest way to enthusiastically agree, but I digress.) As an editor of an English-language monthly published in Berlin, Wells is fascinated by ever-evolving common language usage in Germany, rife with combined English and German words cut like butter into flour to form something new and sometimes amusing, but always full of meaning. “German social media loves to mock awful Denglisch marketing attempts,” he writes. “But when the bilingual puns are good, they’re good—and enhanced by the thrill of belonging. I love this one billboard ad for classic indie radio that reads Everybody hörts (« everyone listens to it »), and I love it not only because I like the pun, but because I feel a surge of pride that I’m in on the joke, that maybe I do really speak German.” I came for the appreciation of evolving language and stayed for the pun of it. —KS

Is the Army’s New Tactical Bra Ready for Deployment?

Patricia Marx | The New Yorker | June 19, 2023 | 3,735 words

Who wouldn’t be grabbed by this title (combined with its cartoon illustration of a female soldier hanging from the air by her bra straps)? I certainly was, and Patricia Marx delivers on the promise of fun with her slightly tongue-in-cheek account of all things female military uniform. I could not help but envision Edna Mode (superhero fashion designer from The Incredibles) as Marx heads into the Design Pattern Protype Shop at the Soldier’s Centre in Massachusetts. After all, the designers she meets are in “chic black civvies,” there are areas designated to the Tropics and to the Arctic, and projects “have included a uniform that can change color and one that would enable troops to leap over twenty-foot walls.” These projects make a fire-resistant bra seem a touch tame, but the designers are as earnest about this brassiere as they are reluctant to let Marx squeeze herself into a prototype. (Spoiler: She persuades them.) Marx intermixes her snoop around the center with a deep dive into the history of military uniforms—which is surprisingly fascinating, full of bizarre (and sexist) tidbits such as the fact that in 1943 “[t]he government asked Elizabeth Arden to concoct a lipstick to match the red piping on women’s Marine Corps uniforms.” Neither clothes nor the military usually captures my attention, but I am glad I got sucked into this piece: A thoroughly entertaining read. —CW

Inside the Secretive World of Penile Enlargement

Ava Kofman | ProPublica and The New Yorker | June 26, 2023 | 8,601 words

It’s easy to think that “men trying to upgrade their dongs” is a journalism cheat code of sorts. Having written about them myself many years ago, I can assure you that it’s not. Pitfalls abound. Tone is everything. Jokes are easy; reserve is hard. (So is avoiding double entendres.) Yet, Ava Kofman manages to thread every needle in her stunning examination of the state of penile-enlargement procedures, which focuses primarily on issues surrounding the popular Penuma implant. She writes compassionately about the patients, not dismissing the complex psychological situations that led them to pursue surgery. She writes unblinkingly about the doctor who popularized the procedure, and whose practice seems at times to operate with all the care of a 30-minute oil change joint—and about the surgeon who “was doing such brisk business repairing Penuma complications that he’d relocated his practice from Philadelphia to an office down the street.” And speaking of unblinking, I dare you not to wince as she plays fly on the wall during an implantation; you may never hear the phrase “inside out” the same way again. This story may have drawn you in with its imagined salaciousness, but it delivers something far better: truth. —PR


Meet the Psychedelic Boom’s First Responders

Chris Colin | Wired | June 29, 2023 | 2,924 words

Recent psychedelics coverage tends to focus on four primary categories. There are the drugs’ benefits and/or dangers, as well as stories focusing on their creators and wielders: those who use them to help people and those who seek to profit from their use. Chris Colin’s fascinating Wired feature skirts that tetrad, instead tracing the evolving norms around supporting a person when their inward journey goes to dark places. From the opening graf, you know it’s going to be a fun read: “Everything was insane and fine. The walls had begun to bend, the grain in the floorboards was starting to run. Jeff Greenberg’s body had blown apart into particles, pleasantly so. When he closed his eyes, chrysanthemums blossomed.” Using Greenberg’s trip, his own psilocybin experience, and a solid dose of cosmic-cowboy history, Colin shows how the way we respond to a person’s “psychic distress” speaks volumes about how we respond to one another in general. That we’re in the midst of a psychonautics surge is not surprising; that we’re responding to the moment with care and common sense is. —PR

Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ Dream Job

Willa Paskin | The New York Times Magazine | July 11, 2023 | 6,671 words

After the barrage of Barbie-related content that has preceded Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming film, I was not sure I was ready for another 6,000 words on the subject. Luckily, I succumbed and read Willa Paskin’s thoughtful discussion with Greta Gerwig on the Barbie film she is bemused she was allowed to make. Paskin gets why she was: “[T]he fizzy marriage of filmmaker and material would break through the cacophony of contemporary life and return a retirement-age hunk of plastic to the zeitgeist.” Smart, Mattel. (And the snippets of the film Paskin describes do sound pretty good.) But what I most enjoyed was the reporting that went beyond the film. Is Barbie a feminist, or really, really not? Why did her creator, Ruth Handler, refuse to allow Barbie to have a child? How did Mattel reinvent Barbie in 2015? Read and find out. As someone who grew up with classic Barbie—the one whose proportions meant she wouldn’t be able to stand up in real life—I was intrigued to learn about her evolution. But as evolved as she may now be, this remains my favorite quote from the piece: “A psychological study found that after playing with Barbies, girls thought themselves less capable of various careers than they did after playing with a control Mrs. Potato Head.” Go, Mrs. Potato Head. —CW

How I Survived a Wedding in a Jungle That Tried to Eat Me Alive

Melissa Johnson | Outside | July 18, 2023 | 4,273 words

I defy you not to squirm as you read Melissa Johnson’s account of her Guatemalan trek. Her visceral descriptions conjure up the sticky, itchy, sweaty reality of the jungle until you feel enveloped by it; a written Jumanji, if you will. The only romance here lies in the purpose of the trek: A marriage at El Mirador, the ruins of a Mayan city. (The ultimate in an inconvenient destination wedding.) Ten friends attend, and each struggles on the trek, but only Johnson gets bitten on the vagina by a tick, an incident she describes with as much eloquence as she does the wedding ceremony. It’s fun and funny but also an honest reflection on aging and lost time—not to mention a brutally effective reminder to remember bug repellant spray on your next jungle trip. —CW

A Funeral for Fish and Chips: Why are Britain’s Chippies Disappearing?

Tom Lamont | The Guardian | July 20, 2023 | 5,276 words

I first came to this piece because of my own love of fish-and-chips, but also because I knew I’d find a parade of aggressively British-sounding eatery names. In that, I wasn’t disappointed. But I also found something unexpectedly tragic, and unexpectedly resolute. Over the course of a year, Tom Lamont frequented “chippies” around the U.K., concentrating on Scotland’s East Neuk of Fife—a coastal area jutting out of the land between Edinburgh and Dundee, and by many accounts the world’s preeminent purveyor of the meal. When he began, supply-chain issues and soaring energy prices had already driven the industry to the edge of disaster. By the time his year was up, things had gotten markedly worse. Yet, Lamont’s elegy is suffused with love: his love for the “paradoxical richness without grossness” that marks a great fish and chips meal; villagers’ love for the stalwart shops and shopkeepers in their communities; even the friers’ and fishers’ love for the tradition. “Fishing is a serious matter here,” Lamont writes. “Fish and chips is a serious meal.” And as shop after shop closes, from the Lowford Fish Bar to Jack Spratt’s Superior to Jackson’s Chippie, each meal takes on even more weight. It’s a microcosm. A metaphor. And Lamont’s piece unpacks it all deftly, making sure you can take it away and digest it on your own time. Hopefully by the seaside. —PR

— August —

‘I Didn’t Kill My Wife!’ — An Oral History of ‘The Fugitive’

Andy Greene | Rolling Stone | July 29, 2023 | 12,243 words

If you’ve watched The Fugitive more times than you can count—and let’s face it, you have—you probably think of the 1993 movie as a perfectly crafted thriller. Not so much, it turns out! As Andy Greene’s oral history makes clear, the classic result belies the seat-of-the-pants execution. A star who was convinced the film would tank his career. A screenplay that never got finished. An ensemble actor who constantly found ways to maximize his screen time. A cast member who fell out after most of the movie had already been shot (and, consequently, a janky fake beard). A climax that was plotted on set. Dialogue that, seemingly more often than not, came straight from the ever-fizzing brain of Tommy Lee Jones. As much as I usually despise the word, this story officially qualifies as “rollicking.” Harrison Ford may not have participated, but Greene’s reporting ensures that his presence is still felt, whether laughing over the movie’s impending dud status or inviting Sela Ward to improv their scenes together on the fly. At this rate, every movie is going to get an oral history on every major anniversary, and I regret to inform you that next year marks 30 years since Ernest Goes to School and 3 Ninjas Kick Back. Then again, as long as those inevitable pieces aim to replicate the good vibes and rich details of this one, there’s no such thing as too many. —PR

Beirut, at Sunset

Tamara Saade | The Delacorte Review & Literary Hub | August 3, 2023 | 3,971 words

When a disaster strikes affecting thousands, the only way you can possibly begin to understand the toll is to learn the stories of survivors. On August 4th, 2020, 218 were killed and 7,000 injured in an ammonium nitrate explosion at the Port of Beirut. Through personal accounts, and as a way to confront her own trauma over the event, Tamara Saade bears witness to those that were there. “I had thought that telling the stories of other people would make writing about August fourth easier for me,” she writes. “But I came to see that it was as hard, if not harder, to do justice to these people and their stories of that day.” In this beautiful braided essay, Saade processes her own thoughts, reactions, and feelings, alongside those of the citizens she profiles in the aftermath of the explosions. Sentence by sentence, scene by scene, Saade’s measured prose makes cogent the post-blast chaos and confusion, creating order out of disorder, in a bold attempt to find peace where once was pandemonium. —KS

Epiphany at the Y

Diane Mehta | Virginia Quarterly Review | June 12, 2023 | 4,236 words

I love to swim. Put me in front of a body of water and I will want to jump in it—temperature be damned. The feeling of a new silky texture rushing to envelop your skin. The silence of submerging. The sudden weightlessness of heavy limbs. However, not all swimming has equal majesty. Give me endless wild splashing in a sea or a lake, never the confusing etiquette of public pool lane-swimming. As I read this beautiful essay, I nodded to Diane Mehta’s frustration at swimming in the slow lane of her local YMCA pool. Why was a woman touching her foot? Why was another woman performing cartwheels and ballet steps? But Mehta keeps on going. Every. Single. Day. You will root for her as she learns to swim freestyle for the first time, and feel for her as she comes to grips with middle age and her new, less cooperative body. She swims until she “fell in love with the woman who cartwheeled down the lane, the stalwart silver-haired man who strode in with deliberation, [and] the older lady who gravitated forward like a Galapagos turtle.” And she swims until she also loves her own body again. I think I need to give lane-swimming another chance. —CW

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Werner Herzog | The New Yorker | August 21, 2023 | 3,482 words

In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Every Man From Himself and God Against All, Werner Herzog reflects on his time spent in Pennsylvania’s westernmost city. I’ve watched Herzog’s films, but this was my first experience of him conjuring pictures from a page. Unsurprisingly, he is very good at it: a keen eye for detail, astute character observation, and the ability to tell a good yarn make this a riveting piece. His prose knocks up another notch when he meets the Franklins, a family that takes him in during his studies at Duquesne University. His love for them is apparent in the warm descriptions of the hustle and bustle of the busy household, complete with twins, grannies, a dog, and a failed rock musician named Billy, who would only emerge from bed in the afternoon, “stark naked, stretching pleasurably.” Throughout, Herzog notes inspiration for his films—fascinating tidbits that included the dancing chickens in Stroszek deriving from a hallucination while traveling from Mexico with hepatitis. He can’t resist a bit of name-dropping and grandiosity, as might be expected, but these well-crafted scenes more than compensate.  —CW

— September —

The Evolution of the Hip-Hop Hunk

Clover Hope | Pitchfork | September 6, 2023 | 2,781 words

My wife’s in love with Method Man. Why shouldn’t she be? Dude is … very attractive. I mean, that’s just science. Besides, we’re all afforded celebrity crushes, especially those that took root in our younger years. Clover Hope was in love with Method Man too, but she was also in love with LL Cool J, DMX, Ja Rule, and Nelly, just to name a few—and in plotting her own life of crushes against the arc of hip-hop’s evolution, she elucidates how sexuality became an indispensable marketing ploy for male artists. Sometimes that entered problematic waters, as when Tupac grew into sex symbol. But times change, and when Hope surveys the present landscape, she sees little that gets her heart racing. Some of that is age, maybe, but much of it is archetype: When you’re the dominant cultural aesthetic on Planet Earth, the commercial behemoths need to flatten and trope-ify you any way possible. So we don’t have Andre 3000s anymore; instead, we have Drakes and Jack Harlows. Besides, female artists have come along and cornered the market on sexual fantasy, and queer artists have spun and subverted the the gaze as well. (“A single second of a Megan Thee Stallion Instagram workout video is worth a million and one Drake gym mirror selfies,” she writes.) This piece trades on looking backward, but Hope’s genius is in nudging our expectations—and our appetites—forward. —PR

“I Shall Not Be Moved”: Inside a New York City Sumo Wrestling Club

Jackson Wald | GQ | September 13, 2023 | 2,725 words

When you first meet James Grammer, the central character of this underdog sports tale, you’d be forgiven for thinking something along the lines of this again? The seeming disconnect of a white sumo wrestler, or any athlete in a sport that tradition (or racism) has deemed “not theirs,” has fueled many a glib fish-out-of-water piece. Thankfully, Jackson Wald’s story fully ignores that trope, and Grammer becomes one of the most interesting people I met this week. While sumo has grown in the U.S. over the past few years, it’s still a curiosity; when Grammer and his fellow enthusiasts began practicing in a Brooklyn park, they had to deal with onlookers asking to join or even betting on their matches. Grammer wants to be a champion, but the charm of his story lies less in his quest for greatness than in his human complexity. Before a match, most sumos think about their opponents’ weakness. Not Grammer. “As a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism,” Wald writes, “he believes in a series of deities, including ones that are fierce and wrathful, and that as he’s staring his opponent directly in the eyes, he imagines he and his opponent as two forearm hairs on one of the evil deities, blowing against each other in the wind.” Yes, you’ll find the hallmarks of a good niche sports piece—a giant boa constrictor, a guy who seems to want to be a samurai, Wald sparring with the 340-found Grammer to predictable results—but it’s Grammer himself you’ll remember, and particularly the man he is outside the dohyo. —PR

Revisit 51 Years of Giant Pandas at the National Zoo, From Beloved Babies to Fun in the Snow

Meilan Solly | Smithsonian Magazine | September 22, 2023 | 3,700 words

There’s something about pandas: these bumbling teddy bears entrance us humans, First Lady Pat Nixon included. Sitting at a dinner in Beijing with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Nixon commented on a cute panda picture she saw on a cigarette tin. Zhou responded, “I’ll give you some.” “Cigarettes?” she asked. “No. Pandas.” And so our story begins, with the two promised pandas arriving at the Smithsonian National Zoo in 1972. The next 51 years at the Smithsonian Panda House are carefully documented by Meilan Solly in this enchanting piece. Our original pandas—Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing—struggled with fertility issues, which were, rather harshly, reported at the time as being “largely because of ineptness by the male.” (Hsing-Hsing chose some bizarre positions.) But despite their lack of progeny, this pair were adored until their passing. Next into the Big Brother Panda House were Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, with Tian Tian proving a bit more competent in the bedroom department. However, artificial insemination was still necessary for the appearance of cubs—three surviving—including Xiao Qi Ji, a miracle baby born to Mei Xiang at 22. A whopping 639,000 people tuned in live to watch this birth via live Panda Cam. (No pressure, Mei Xiang.) Panda Cam remained hugely popular, with baby Xiao Qi Ji providing some much-needed endorphins to people stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Solly includes some Panda Cam footage (don’t get me started on the pandas sliding in the snow), heartwarming photos, interesting facts, and fun anecdotes. You cannot help but smile. Under an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, the current pandas will return to China on December 7, 2023. Smithsonian Magazine has written about the Panda House for over half a century. This essay is a worthy addition as the pandas’ time in America draws to a close. —CW

“Florida Man,” Explained

Kristen Arnett | Vox | September 18, 2023 | 1,634 words

Have you played the game Florida Man? It’s simple: type your birthday (month, date) and “Florida Man” into a search bar. You will be regaled (as I was) with not one, but several inane crimes committed over the years by men in Florida. As Kristen Arnett explains, “These crimes are odd and incomprehensible; the kind of behavior that someone might associate with a badly behaved toddler whose brain has yet to fully develop.” I had several to choose from; my favorite was the Florida Man who was caught on video driving down I-4 while standing up, his upper body poking through the sunroof. Arnett explains that the game is made possible because of the Sunshine Law, which makes arrest records and mugshots “readily available online for the general public to gawk and point at. If you’ve committed a crime in the Sunshine State, that information becomes accessible to everyone, everywhere, immediately.” This piece is far more than just a litany of bizarre behavior. Arnett, a third-generation Floridian, suggests that while the Florida Man meme makes it easy for outsiders to dismiss the state as the epicenter of America’s ills, we need to look deeper. “I think the harder lesson is that Florida is no different from anywhere else; the headlines just turn our hardships into a joke to make things more palatable,” she writes. “We can’t and won’t disregard the fact that we’re going to stay strange and continue to be completely, authentically ourselves; we also can’t forget the wonderful alongside the troubles.” Maybe it’s time we embraced that little bit of Florida Man in all of us. —KS

— October —

The Great Zelle Pool Scam

Devin Friedman | Insider | October 1, 2023 | 6,021 words

Devin Friedman and his wife wanted a pool. So they hired a contractor. And when their contractor emailed them to ask them to wire the money to a couple of odd-sounding usernames, they did. Then they did it again. And again. And then they learned that those emails weren’t from their contractor at all. Rather than simply marinate in the shame and self-pity of getting royally scammed, Friedman tried to get his money back. When that failed, he wrote a piece about why he couldn’t get his money back. Sounds like a bummer, right? Not so fast. I mean, it is for them, but it also turned into what might be the funniest feature I’ve read all year. Sure, there’s a little Joel Stein here. (“Like so many things I use to conduct the most critical tasks in my everyday life with a carefree obliviousness, I didn’t really know what Zelle was.”) But Friedman’s self-deprecation is perfectly tuned, and even when the reporting gets heavier, he threads humor through at just the right angle, a necessary weft to the piece’s warp. (“Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the financial industry regulator banks most love to hate, has been petitioning Zelle to find out exactly how much fraud there is. And the data she’s collected suggests there’s probably, technically speaking, a whole fucking lot.”) As he says himself, “[o]ut of all the kinds of money, money to build a pool is probably the very best kind of money for the world to suffer the loss of.” There’s no poor-me going on here. You, however, will be poorer for it if you skip this one. —PR

Who’s Afraid of Spatchcocked Chicken?

C Pam Zhang | Eater | October 3, 2023 | 1,300 words

I love words. (I know, shocking.) I am also a vegetarian. So it was with delight and horror that I read C Pam Zhang’s piece all about the English language—and meat. Have you ever considered why most animals are shielded by a fancy term once they hit a plate? Why is it a beef bourguignon, not a cow casserole? Zhang muses extensively on this prissiness—while spatchcocking a chicken, as a student at Cambridge, no less. It turns out (like many things in England) it has to do with the French. And class. Zhang explains: “The names of the living animals have Anglo roots, whereas the names of the ingredients came from the French—a trademark of Norman conquerors who, in the 11th century, hoped to subjugate the ‘savage’ Natives of the British Isles.” (The humble chicken managed to keep its name by being considered peasant food, not worthy of a new anointment.) Zhang compares this coyness with words in Mandarin, where pork can literally be labeled “pig flesh.” It’s a fascinating and fun essay, with the added pleasure of imagining the smell of baked chicken guts wafting down the hallowed halls of Cambridge and into the nostrils of disgruntled young lords who like their veal marinated. (Helped by the marvelous illustration of a chicken running down said halls.) While a little shorter than our usual Longreads offerings, you can’t say “spatchcocked” without encountering some joy, so I hope you will forgive me. —CW

Confessions of a Tableside Flambéur

Adam Reiner | Eater | October 11, 2023 | 1,553 words

Adam Reiner’s short but sweet Eater piece on food as entertainment is perfectly satisfying. For three years Reiner worked as a captain at a Manhattan chophouse called The Grill, where he prepared food tableside, including Dover sole and Bananas Foster, the flaming pièce de résistance. Reiner serves more than stories of boorish patrons as seen from behind the gueridon. (The fancy trolley containing cooking ingredients and utensils.) He gives us a taste of food-as-performance at his restaurant and others, such as Papi Steak, where the $1,000 wagyu ribeye’s reveal is meat theater—complete with special effects that could rival Taylor Swift in concert. “The steak even has its own designated entrance music that blares in the dining room to announce its arrival,” he writes. Reiner also reveals the perils of performance, and the very real anxieties that go along with it. For every Bananas Foster or cherries jubilee, there’s always the potential that the flambé is a flop, “like striking a book of matches in the rain.” Steak entrances and fancy flaming bananas aside, it’s Reiner’s writing that will keep you coming back for more in a story that’s less about the food and more about his uneasy relationship with the distastefulness of restaurant showmanship. —KS

The Evolutionary Reasons We Are Drawn to Horror Movies and Haunted Houses

Athena Aktipis, Coltan Scrivner | Scientific American | November 1, 2023 | 3,137 words

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a Halloween event. It was a big deal, with different haunted houses built in old farm buildings. As someone who jumps a mile if a piece of paper blows across my path, I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect—but my niece and her friend dragged me along. I’m not proud of how tightly I gripped the hands of those teens, or that I made them lead the way through rooms where witches and ghouls jumped out of the shadows (different teenagers, dressed up and trading their dignity for holiday money, but still terrifying). So why exactly did I do this to myself? Athena Aktipis and Coltan Scrivner know. Their absorbing essay details how this is all a part of our evolutionary past. A morbid fascination with danger is widespread amongst all animals—we inspect threats to know how to face them in the future. I was subconsciously rehearsing for when a real witch came to whisk me away. (Spoiler: she’d get me.) The modern decline in risky play has even led to increased anxiety in children. Full of such intriguing facts, Aktipis and Scrivner’s exploration into the psychology behind the scare will keep you on your toes—and inspire you to go out for some proper frights this Halloween weekend.  —CW

— November —

San Francisco’s 24-Hour Diner Stops the Cosmic Clock

Chris Colin | Alta Online | September 25, 2023 | 3,736 words

I did not expect a feature on an iconic restaurant to start out in a “small potato-farming village in the Arcadia region of Greece’s Peloponnese.” But then again, this—like many stories of the American dream—starts out somewhere else. For Alta Online, Chris Colin introduces us to proprietors George and Nina Giavris, but this profile focuses on the Silver Crest Donut Shop, a 24-hour diner they bought in 1970 that has been open every moment since, where the “new gal” has 30+ years on the job as a waitress. Time has stood still at the Silver Crest, and Colin lovingly documents the artifacts of the past that make up the diner’s interior. What’s a little more difficult to capture—and what Colin does best here—is highlight the intangible: the je ne sais quoi of the atmosphere that, along with George, Nina, and the Silver Crest, is the fourth character in this piece. “You could do worse than to age as the Silver Crest ages—no struggle, full acceptance,” writes Colin. “Once again, I find the Silver Crest a reprieve from something. Outside those doors, San Francisco teeters, democracy teeters, the ice caps teeter, sense itself teeters. . . . But here there’s no room for nonsense. You order your food, you eat your food.” With this piece, you might come for the food, but you’ll stay for the feeling. —KS

Bonefishing Off Bimini With Bobby Knight

Kevin Koenig | GQ Magazine | November 7, 2023 | 6,248 words

I spent this past weekend in the college town where I grew up. This college town also happens to be where legendary basketball coach Bob Knight cemented his complicated legacy. (Yes, I was at the game where he threw the chair.) Through three national championships and more wins than any college coach at the time, he loomed over the place like a god—a temperamental, wrathful god, but a god all the same. After Knight died last week, a deluge of remembrances followed. To a one, they celebrated the man’s accomplishments and acknowledged his flaws. Yet none of them came close to capturing him the way Kevin Koenig’s 2015 profile in Angler’s Journal did. Three days with Knight fishing in the Bahamas. Three days of witnessing his locker-room joviality giving way to a tempest. Three days of conversation and combat, drama and détente. It’s a portrait that feels complete, and a portrait I never thought I’d read. I missed it the first time around; thankfully, GQ reprinted it this week, with a foreword from Koenig unpacking the aftermath of his warts-and-all approach. If you love sports, it’s a can’t-miss. Even if you don’t, it’s still mandatory reading. Rarely these days do profiles steep you in a sense of place, but Koenig’s bucks that trend. You’ll feel the spray in your face, the sun on your arms—and in the many moments where Koenig’s questions encounter Knight’s volatility, the burn of shame on your neck. —PR

Days of the Jackal

Alex Blasdel | The Guardian | November 9, 2023 | 7,941 words

Reading this profile of Andrew Wylie, the most powerful agent in book publishing and apparently one of the most odious people alive, is like eating several Big Macs: an experience so delicious you don’t mind that it leaves you queasy when it’s over. The piece’s astounding anecdotes about a man whose life is as glamorous, and legacy as enormous, as his ego is hideous beg to be binged. Wylie, who is in the twilight of his career, is the kind of person who said of his favorite chain restaurant for weekday lunches, “You feel right next door to extreme poverty when you eat at Joe and the Juice, which is a comfortable place to be.” Wylie is also the kind of person who used the following words to describe his desire to dominate the Chinese publishing market: “We need to roll out the tanks…. We need a Tiananmen Square!” I tore through this profile and was soon texting lines from it to friends, gleeful with horror and liberal in my emoji deployment. Yes, readers, I was lovin’ it. —SD

Everybody Knows Flo From Progressive. Who Is Stephanie Courtney?

Caity Weaver | The New York Times Magazine | November 25, 2023 | 4,690 words

I always feel just a twinge of guilt recommending a story that has already become The Thing Everybody Read This Week. In my defense, though, I read the story before This Week had even officially begun, and immediately knew that it would be my Top 5 pick. Also in my defense, the first line is perfect. “One needn’t eat Tostitos Hint of Lime Flavored Triangles to survive; advertising’s object is to muddle this truth.” Why is this perfect? Well, because it tells you everything you need to know about what the story will be about, and what this story will be. It will be funny (as Caity Weaver’s profiles always are). It will be clear-eyed. It will be armed with some well-earned cynicism about how companies—or, rather, their vaporous and often uncanny incarnations known as “brands”—operate. The one thing this sentence doesn’t quite prepare you for is how generous the story is. How generous its subject is. And how generously you might think about things thereafter. We all have aspirations. Sometimes our life realizes those aspirations, sometimes it doesn’t. But sometimes even when it doesn’t, it does. Stephanie Courtney, the comic actor once bent on getting to Saturday Night Live and now in firm possession of a far more fulfilling gig, knows that better than anyone. —PR

— December —

One Swedish Zoo, Seven Escaped Chimpanzees

Imogen West-Knights | The Guardian | December 5, 2023 | 7,400 words

You know right from the start that this one’s going to break your heart. But you carry on and brace yourself, because you can also tell, from the opening line, that Imogen West-Knights will deliver a riveting piece of reporting. Last December, the beloved chimpanzees in Sweden’s Furuvik Zoo escaped their enclosure. It took the zoo staff and keepers 72 hours to contain them to their ape house, and West-Knights reconstructs the ordeal with deft pacing and great detail. As the hours pass, the zoo must weigh the safety of the zookeepers and public at large against that of the chimps, and the situation grows more distressing. The photography in the piece—snowy landscapes of the zoo’s grounds that look more sinister than serene—add to the unsettling nature of the story, as you can’t help but imagine these great apes loose in the cold, some in their final moments. (You also wonder: why are we subjecting these animals to a place that’s too cold for them six months out of the year?) This is a sad read, but it sparks an important conversation around zoo safety protocols, climate-specific zoos, and whether zoos should even exist at all. —CLR

My Favorite Restaurant Served Gas

Kiese Laymon | The Bitter Southerner | December 6, 2023 | 1,914 words

The Bitter Southerner just published Kate Medley’s Thank You Please Come Again: How Gas Stations Feed & Fuel the American South, a “photographic road trip” documenting service stations, convenience stores, and pit stops across the South. This essay by Kiese Laymon is the book’s foreword. At one point I seriously considered writing a recommendation for this piece that simply read: “Kiese Laymon. That’s all you need to know.” But that would have robbed me of the opportunity to reread and savor the bounty of this essay. If you do not know Laymon’s work, do yourself a favor and read this piece. Here, he takes us back to his childhood in 1984 and the Friday nights spent with his grandmama and her boyfriend Ofa D at Jr. Food Mart: a diner, convenience store, and gas station in Forest, Mississippi. “I loved everything about where we were going,” he writes. “I loved the smell of friedness. I loved the way the red popped in the sign. I loved how the yellow flirted with the red. I loved that the name of the restaurant started with Jr. instead of ending in Jr. Like, Food Mart Jr.” It’s a captivating read about anticipation, finding joy in a place you might not expect, and the long hours worked at minimum wage that made that joy possible. At Jr. Food Mart, Laymon, his grandmama, and Ofa D got oh so much more than fried fish and ‘tato logs for a yummy Friday night supper; they got a hefty helping of love and care and history served up to go. —KS

What Are Farm Animals Thinking?

David Grimm | Science | December 7, 2023 | 3,694 words

A couple of years ago, my downstairs neighbors kept chickens. (Finger, Tender, and Nugget. I take no responsibility for the names.) These sassy ladies realized that I was a soft touch, and every day merrily hopped up the stairs to my deck to peer in through the patio door, awaiting kitchen scraps. I soon noticed that when I got up and opened my bedroom curtains, the chickens peered up from the yard. Curtains open, they would race up the stairs: the café was in business. These girls were so on the ball that I have not eaten a chicken since we became acquainted. It’s little wonder, then, that I pounced on this investigation into research on the complexity of thinking in farm animals, an area I have mused on since the food-savvy chickens but that is often ignored by scientists. David Grimm bravely faces the “cacophony of bleats, groans, and retching wails” and “sour miasma of pig excrement” to enter the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) and learn about the questions being asked there, such as do cows have friends? (Considering that scientists have potty-trained cows here, I think they probably do.) Grimm keeps the tone light—sliding in a few quips between the science—but still provides a comprehensive overview of the work. With a staggering 78 billion farm animals on Earth, it is time we gave them more thought. —CW

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