I just came back from a gloriously sunny run during which I listened to the latest This American Life episode, and was mesmerized by the third story. You can listen to it here or find the article that it’s based on here. It’s ostentatiously about investigating the latest food craze in San Francisco – artisanal toast for 4$ a slice -, but gets to be so much more than that.
I would recommend listening for the full experience and come back after so that I don’t spill the secret, but if you don’t have time, here is what I found remarkable about it:
In a very surprising twist, the story veers off from its original aim to talk about the background behind the cafe that came up with the idea of artisanal toast, a little place called “The Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club”. The only four things on the menu are cinnamon toast, coffee, young thai coconuts, and shots of grapefruit juice. If that sounds bizarre – yeah, it is. But these items also have a strong significance for the owner, Giulietta Carrelli, who uses all of them – as well as the cafe itself – to keep herself grounded and sheltered in a life fraught with difficulties due to mental illness. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, she frequently has episodes of hallucinations, out-of-body-experiences, or sensory overload (when sounds are unbearably loud, for example). Coconuts were some of the only food items she could tolerate for a while, being both nutritious and not as loud to chew; supplemented by grapefruit juice for vitamin C, she survived 3 years on them (except when people would take her out to dinner).
Working in coffee shops and opening up her own was also a unique coping strategy of Giuletta’s, who discovered early on the necessity of being recognizable in a neighborhood in case she needed help during one of her episodes. Her external appearance – specific clothing, tattoos, colorful headscarves – help as much to make her a constant of the neighborhood as her continuous contact with customers. This paragraph from the article – quoted verbatim in the radio show – particularly struck a chord with me:
If the spread of toast is a social contagion, then Carrelli was its perfect vector. Most of us dedicate the bulk of our attention to a handful of relationships: with a significant other, children, parents, a few close friends. Social scientists call these “strong ties.” But Carrelli can’t rely on such a small set of intimates. Strong ties have a history of failing her, of buckling under the weight of her illness. So she has adapted by forming as many relationships—as many weak ties—as she possibly can. And webs of weak ties are what allow ideas to spread.
In a city whose economy is increasingly built on digital social networks—but where simple eye contact is at a premium—Giulietta Carrelli’s latticework of small connections is old-fashioned and analog. It is built not for self-presentation, but for self-preservation. And the spread of toast is only one of the things that has arisen from it.
It got me thinking about the importance of communities and webs of ‘weak ties’ in general, to support each other in times of need even if we can rely on ‘strong ties’ as well. Yesterday, I was also at a Transition town event where we talked about the significance of feeling indigenous to a place, with communities affecting real change. The group discussing the matter came up with the definition:
Being indigenous to a place or a community is the feeling that you want to stay there forever.
If that is the case, you will invest very different amounts of time and resources into improving your community, protecting your resources, and making the place more friendly and livable. Unfortunately, in my experience our generation has become more and more transient. In Paris one year and Montreal the next, thereafter Germany and Sweden, I’m a prime example of feeling indigenous to nowhere and struggling to get involved in community activities because ‘I won’t be here next year anyway’. But only through establishing real networks of lasting relationships can we get to a point where social support systems are strong enough to help both individuals in their struggles and group efforts to move towards more happier and sustainable lifestyles. Hm. Lots of food for thought that was kicked off by investigating artisanal toast (which I still want, though.)