Hmm Weekly for December 3, 2019

We don't restrict tacos to a single day

Hmm Weekly for December 3, 2019

Another Week, Another Hmm Weekly

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Dragon fruit relaxing in Hong Kong luxury hotel


I ORDERED THE golden dragon fruit without thinking about it, because thinking about dragon fruit is discouraging. The first time I ever saw and ate a dragon fruit, it was the most disappointing fruit experience of my entire life, and it has still not been surpassed. There were a lot of firsts going on for me on that occasion, and most of them turned out to be hard to surpass, but generally they were positive ones. It was on my first true travel-writing assignment, backed by my first glossy-magazine expense account; a friend and old colleague of mine had landed at GQ, and through him the magazine had sent me to write about the big December horse-racing meet in Hong Kong, with instructions to spend like a prosperous tourist would spend. I had never crossed the Pacific before or stayed in a five-star hotel, and now I was doing both of those things, and my wife had come along (on a ticket we'd bought out of pocket; there were limits even to dawn-of-the-century magazine-industry largesse).

It is almost inexpressibly unnerving to see the sights, today, of tear gas in the malls and a towering Christmas tree in flames, because we had first encountered Hong Kong in the dream of its holiday shopping season, with giant animated light displays moving on the faces of the towers on the harbor's edge, the colored lights shining on the water. There were little paper stockings with wishes written on them hung all over the ceiling of an immaculate pedestrian underpass, and bell music jangled on the mild subtropical air. The promise of the holidays is always, Things will be this way, again and again, forever, and with the handover from Britain to China resolved and completed, it was possible to believe Hong Kong had found a stable dispensation. We had not yet been to the mainland and lived there and had the chance to see the processes of history in action, up close, nor had the mainland really yet tested itself against assumptions of the world order and found the tremendous elastic sagginess between prosperity and liberalism. Everyone had a lot to learn.

But we were in a luxury hotel on the Kowloon side, on a budget that was not our own, and it was not always easy to distinguish between the unlikely and the impossible. There were wide glass windows looking out at the endless activity of Victoria Harbor, the big freighters and the green-and-white Star Ferries and the little junks crisscrossing in the watery space between us and the island. The bathroom was spacious in a way that felt hyperreal, the tub—a tub wholly apart from the glassed-in shower—was of a length and depth that was unfamiliar. The robes were plush and brilliant white. There was fresh fruit.

Among that fruit was something I had never seen before: magenta-pink, flawless, sprouting ribbonlike protrusions that tapered to green at their tips. Truly we were on the other side of the world now, and beyond. I snapped photos of it on a hotel plate, on the windowsill, awash in the pearl-gold light with the harbor behind it. It glowed with life. What must it be like to eat? At last we cut it open and found a stunning contrast, a snow-white interior flecked with little ebony seeds. We could only imagine what it would be like to eat something so gorgeous.

It tasted like—nothing. To call it "watery" would be an insult to every satisfying, quenching, particular drink of water I've ever had. It was just wet. My olfactory bulb was unaware of any signals it might be looking for; the mouthful of fruit might as well have been on the other side of the glass shower door, as far as my flavor perception was concerned. There was an obvious lesson: the dragon fruit was so beautiful, people evidently didn't concern themselves about whether it was any good as a fruit.

I filed away this lesson, but I didn't like it. It made me feel like a chump; at the same time, I could never quite forget the lost ideal version of the fruit, the dragon fruit as it seemed possible it could be up until the moment I ate it. Eventually I started seeing the fruits for sale in the United States—this Hong Kong exotic is, in fact, a cactus fruit of the Americas—and when I saw them I averted my eyes.

Among the places I had been avoiding the dragon fruits, lately, was the grocery delivery website we use. I would spot the brilliant pink and keep on scrolling, no matter how many stars' worth of quality rating the online grocers might give it. Why waste the money and effort?

But then I saw a listing for "golden dragon fruit." That little difference was enough to break my disengagement—something special relative to all the usual fruit and relative to the old untrustworthy dragon fruit I'd known. "Golden" was a good word. I pictured it as a rarity superimposed on the original rarity. Why not try?

Golden dragon fruit

When it arrived with the rest of the groceries, I understood I'd made a conceptual mistake: the gold color, in combination with its stubbier protrusions, canceled out the original flamboyant oddness of the pink fruit. It could have passed, at first glance, for one of those plump little one-hand-sized papayas.

It felt ripe already, so there was no sense dwelling on its visual shortcomings. I took it to the kitchen, in private, got a cutting board, and sliced off one end. The flesh had a grayish tinge to it, rather than the old optic white. I peeled it away from the skin—it separated itself at the slightest invitation—and popped some in my mouth, with the lowest of hopes.

It was astonishing. Not one but two or three different delicious fruits seemed to have come de-suspended from hypothetical fruit-space and collided with each other into reality behind my teeth. There was a sort of creamless banana essence, and something melonish, and kiwi that had broken free of any thoughts of astringency—exactly how they fit together kept shifting around a constant axis of full but not cloying sweetness. I sliced off some more and called in my wife and gave her some, and then I called in the children and in very little time there was nothing left but thick strips of golden skin. I ordered another one as soon as I could.


Spam Filter Letters to the Awl

WHILE WE MULL over what to serialize next, with our Chicago-to-Denver travelogue complete, here's yet another installment of Spam Filter Letters to the Awl, from the 80,000-word collection of dummy-text cover letters I wrote to make sure that when I emailed that site a photograph of the sky, the filters would allow it to go through.

Subject: Words go here, to be the subject.
To: Awl notes
More words go here. After them, another set of words--longer and with more punctuation in them, to produce that natural-looking shape of meaningfulness. Words follow those words, continuing the job. Are there enough words now? Probably there are. Attached is a sky photo, and the review is in the system.

Subject: usual business plus correction
To: Awl notes
Here's the email, telling you what it always tells you, except today it contains the bonus information that somehow I only put four stars in yesterday's review when I meant to put five. Can someone please add that fifth star? Whereas today's review (of yesterday's weather) is only four stars, which is how many stars I put in there, on the review that I have put in the system, to go with the sky photograph attached to this message. Thanks.

Subject: good afternoon
To: Awl notes
This afternoon, I mean. Yesterday afternoon suuuucked, as documented in the weather review that is in the system now, which I am notifying you about in the usual word-padded manner, so as to defeat the filters that block simple and effective communication. So anyway, as I was saying, that review, of yesterday's awful weather, is filed, and attached is a photograph of yesterday's grim and ugly sky. Pure garbage. Anyway. There you go.

Subject: This thing and that thing
To: Awl notes
"This thing" is a photograph of the sky, downloaded and cropped and attached to this email; "that thing" is the review of yesterday's weather, saved into the system. What I am telling you about this thing and that thing is that they exist, for your use, which is not a fact that in itself requires any explanation. You know that; you know that the explanation is useless; you know every meta-layer of already-knowing that could be appended to this. Including of course why these words are padded onto it.

Subject: Here you go.
To: Awl notes
Here we go. Here goes a message. The message will be a certain length, and will have a certain irregularity to its structure. What a plausibly irregular message it is! Here comes a little more of it, enough of it to make sure. That's got to be enough now. If not, this will surely do it, or this will. Won't it? Who can even say? Here's a photograph of the sky, and there's a review in the system.

Subject: I try to write jokey subject lines sometimes
To: Awl notes
And then I realize that I'm using SEO language that runs the risk of setting off the filters that it takes so much work to avoid. If I speculate about whether or not you could possibly guess what this message is about, the ironic curiosity gap--you know exactly what this email is about; it's to tell you that the review is in and to deliver a sky photo--might be mistaken by the filters for an act of sinister obfuscation.


A Day in New York City

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WE PRESENT A selection of recipes for ancient but reproducible sandwiches, found in The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich, by Eva Greene Fuller; 1909; McClurg and co, Chicago, now in the public domain for the delectation of all.

Boil link sausages until done; when cold cut into thin slices; place between thin slices of lightly buttered white bread. Garnish with a pickle.

On thin slices of lightly buttered bread, place slices of roasted partridge; spread lightly with currant jelly and cover with another slice of bread. Garnish with cress.

Between thin slices of lightly buttered white bread, place a lettuce leaf that has been dipped in mayonnaise dressing. On this place thin slices of head cheese, cut diagonally, and garnish with a pickle.

Cook sweetbreads until tender. When cold, remove skin, chop fine, season with salt and pepper, add one cup of finely chopped celery, and a dash of mayonnaise dressing; spread on thin slices of lightly buttered white bread. Cover with another slice and garnish with an olive.

One tablespoonful of broiled truffle, one-half breast of chicken, and two tablespoonfuls of sweetbreads chopped fine. Add a dash of mayonnaise dressing, salt and pepper. Place between slices of buttered white bread, cut in oblong pieces. Garnish with pickle.

If you make one of these sandwiches, please send a picture to


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