Monday, December 10, 2012

As Plain as Peanut Butter and Pickles

           The New York Times, one of the most widely read newspapers in the United States, has an extensive variety of readers, but if you had to characterize the average reader, what kind of person would it be? According to The Times’ own advertising kit, its average reader is 51 years old with a household income of close to $100,000.  The advertising kit goes on to say that 60% of its readers have at least a college level education, if not more schooling. In order to entertain their millions of readers, The Times has to publish a variety of interesting material, from current news, to sports, to culture and fashion.  While browsing the trending articles on the website, I saw that one was titled “Peanut Butter Takes On an Unlikely Best Friend”.  Being a fan of peanut butter, I clicked on the link to take a look at the article.  I read about how the author, Dwight Garner, enjoys eating peanut butter and pickle sandwiches and wonders why this particular sandwich isn’t more popular.  Once I finished the piece, I noticed something interesting.  Superficially, the article seems to fit into its surroundings in the Dining and Wine Section of The Times, but after further consideration, this article is somewhat out of place.

            At a glance, the text seems like any other article found in the section.  It is a piece about food among restaurant reviews, recipe suggestions, and other topics commonly found in the Dining and Wine section.  The piece is also stylistically similar to other articles found here.  The article is written in the plain style, as evidenced by the use of simple sentences, an average grade level of 8.2, and a reading ease of 67.1. The author uses this plain style interspersed with larger, more complex words to make the article accessible to readers while still sounding credible.  Evidence of this can be seen in this excerpt:
“I’ve been happily eating these distinctive little sandwiches for years. The vinegary snap of chilled pickle cuts, like a dash of irony, against the stoic unctuousness of peanut butter. The sandwich is a thrifty and unacknowledged American classic.”
On the surface, this all seems well and good.  An article about food belongs in the Dining and Wine section right? Even though what is on the surface appears to fit, let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

            In the Dining and Wine section of the New York Times, you normally see articles about which grapes make the best wines, healthy recipes, and what dishes go best with persimmons.  So why is there an article about peanut butter and pickle sandwiches?  One possibility is that the author is purposely trying to be different.  He might be writing about an unusual food item in order to bring some novelty to the section, rather than writing another piece that only caters to those who are looking for fine dining suggestions.  An article about peanut butter adds a touch of simplicity to a place dominated by things like sparkling wines, risotto, and crown roast of pork.  The simplicity of the peanut butter and pickle sandwich is indeed a stark contrast to the normal cuisine featured in the Dining and Wine section, causing the article to stand out among the other stories.

            There is also contrast in genre between this article and those that surround it.  The usual articles are things like restaurant critiques, recipes, and wine advice.  Examples of these types of articles can be found here, here, and here. Garner’s piece, however, is almost like an ode to the peanut butter and pickle sandwich.  Whereas the other types of articles are meant to inform the reader about their respective topics, Garner celebrates his experiences with the sandwich over his lifetime and wants to spread his quirky snack food to anyone that will listen.  His zeal for the quirky food from his youth even went so far as to evoke responses from his readers about their love for the sandwich and other odd peanut butter combinations.  You can read the follow up article here. His ode ended up engaging his readers, which goes beyond those articles that are purely informative and adds another layer of complexity to the text.  This different genre choice makes Garner’s article seem like it doesn’t fit in the context of this section.

            Despite the fact that this article seems to be appropriate at first glance, Garner’s tribute to the peanut butter and pickle sandwich isn’t suited for the Dining and Wine section after comparing it to other articles found in the same area.  So how did this get past the editors if it doesn’t follow the conventions usually found in the section?  Perhaps being different is rewarded in some sections of The Times.  As opposed to the straight reporting of facts in the news, some areas might take on a more creative approach in order to entertain readers.  This balance between creative and plain styles might be a common occurrence in journalism, but that is an investigation for another time.  Whatever the case, Garner’s article about peanut butter and pickles certainly entertained me and many other readers, making his article a very successful one, no matter what section of the New York Times it ended up in.

You can read Garner’s article in full here.

---John E Yeakel

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