That IS A Tasty BurgerPosted 9 June 2011 by Wee Bey
Well, we finally got a look inside the briefcase.
The new sportswriting website grantland.com made its debut yesterday, to no limited amount of fanfare, both self-generated (a countdown clock? really?) and organic. And the opening three-course menu set off no small amount of text messages, emails and discussion threads in the writing community. Initial reactions to these sorts of things often say more about the person doing the reacting than about the artifact itself, and such was the case throughout the gossipy and incestuous writing world.
Grantland kicked off with a piece by NoPepper favorite Chris Jones, ostensibly about a series between the Blue Jays and the Red Sox, but really examining a fan’s experience returning to baseball. Chuck Klosterman wrote about a rather amazing basketball game he happened to see by accident in a piece that began to take apart the reasons casual fans watch sporting events and how we remember them. And Bill Simmons, the site’s proprietor through the conglomerate that is ESPN.com, wrote about, well, Bill Simmons.
There were no shortage of people purporting to be underwhelmed by these offerings. And a popular line of criticism went along these lines: They’re trying too hard to be too cool. They served the readers a mousse in the shape of a shrimp that ended up tasting like macadamia nuts, when what readers really want, deep down, is a burger.
This analogy falls flat, but begins to point us somewhere. If we’re in the business of serving readers food, people really do enjoy burgers. And ESPN, the McDonalds of our industry, certainly has succeeded in convincing people that they want consistent, fast and timely mass-produced burgers. The secret in plain sight holds true for both the Golden Arches and the Worldwide Leader — everyone knows you could do what they do better on your own grill or laptop. What they offer, then, must be something other than what they’re actually selling.
That’s the direction the burger analogy points toward. You’re tricking the reader, or eater, as the case might be, and people don’t like to be tricked. But we know that has to be false. McDonalds sells the most burgers, and we know they don’t offer the best burgers. People love to be tricked. Every business in America sells something other than what they “sell.” Such is the duality of the Post-Modern Thang.
McDonalds doesn’t sell burgers. They sell consistency, convenience and corn syrup. Chains such as Five Guys and In N Out sell you simplicity and populist primacy — ironically by anti-marketing themselves as “just good burgers.” Upscale Manhattan steakhouses sell a sense of entitlement and status to Wall Street douchebags and call them Kobe Sliders — a concept Anthony Bourdain rightfully demolishes in his latest book. And this is where the burger analogy falls apart. Everyone sells burgers and something other than burgers — from Big Kahuna to Grantland. The question to ask is this: What kind of burger does Grantland offer?
Even a cursory glance at the roster shows you Bill Simmons can shop for ingredients: Jones, Klosterman, Malcolm Gladwell… These are talented motherfuckers. They are also disparate motherfuckers, as far as that goes. Our initial taste of Grantland points us in that direction. First, the sand in the mussel.
Bill Simmons cannot write for shit, and this shop should not have an open kitchen. I know that millions love to consume his prose, but, Jesus, fuck, that welcome to the site column borders on self-parody. It’s not that there isn’t talent there, or even a likable narrator. Buried deep within some of his meandering efforts are some truly tasty nuggets. But that column needed to serve as a manifesto for this site, and it became, as almost all Simmons pieces seem to, a warbling, wobbly, wandering trip down the varmint’s path that is Teh Simmons. We didn’t finish the plate.
Humphrey Bogart once said a hot dog at the ballpark tastes better than a steak at the Ritz, and Chris Jones proved him right. With an essay that was equal parts about returning home and realizing dreams, Jones made us care about an otherwise unremarkable AL East series. The obvious criticism is this: Does the world need another AL East correspondent? The answer is yes, if said scribe is Chris Jones.
Chuck Klosterman can be an acquired taste, but we savor every morsel. His first course told the tale of a junior college basketball game in North Dakota in 1988 — and made us care about the outcome, not just of the game but also the lives of those who played. His second plate, then, as a matter of course, undermined his initial assertions on the surface, and explained exactly why we don’t care about sporting events we watch on DVR. Such is the duality of the Post-Modern Thang. The thread running through both pieces — that we watch to see something we’ve never seen before, and that technology impacts how we watch in ways we don’t yet understand — makes it clear Klosterman is preparing a tasting menu about why we care about sports in the first place. We’ll be back for more.
This is, then, different from the normal fare, for certain. But how different? Klosterman’s basketball story could have run as a Sunday centerpiece in a great, well-staffed newspaper, if those creatures still existed. Jones’ essay would be right at home in Esquire, which should really come as no surprise, since that magazine employs him already. Simmons column, such as it is, was no different than his Sports Guy columns for ESPN. It seems clear Grantland is not trying to reinvent sportswriting in a classical sense. They are not Ferran Adria tinkering with the possibilities of food in his kitchen in Spain. This was no macadamia-nut mousse. Rather, they aim, we think, to be Richard Blais’ Flip or Tom Colicchio’s ‘wichcraft. They’e going to give you a really good burger with a twist. It looks like a burger and tastes like a burger, but it’s got an indulgent dollop of foie gras mayonnaise on top. On one level it’s a burger with a fried egg on top — even if the patty is made of brisket and sirloin tip, and the topping is a perfect six-minute quail’s egg.
Like Colicchio and Blais, who got scads of publicity appearing on Top Chef, Grantland has the advantage of Simmons and ESPN’s backing, and employs writers who already command followings of their own. This new venture, then, does offer readers a burger, and a damn good one so far, with a twist that might be slightly unexpected, but will likely be comprised of familiar flavor combinations. And that is in no way meant as a criticism. Putting bacon on something is still a fucking outstanding idea nine times out of ten, despite being unoriginal.
The risk of Grantland, mitigated though it is by ESPN’s massive marketing Moloch, is the whole becoming less than the sum of its parts, the ingredients clashing in some strange way that ends up tasting off. There we can only impart the wisdom we gleaned from years behind an actual grill, broiling damn fine burgers that kept people coming back for more: Get the best ingredients possible and pay attention to the details. Slice the bacon thick and the onion thin and toast the bun just right. As for the patty itself? Put it on the grill, turn it once, flip it once, rest it and serve it. When it comes to grilling meat — and, we think, dealing with talented people — the chef’s job is to not fuck things up.