Cliff Doerksen, as wry, intelligent, and versatile a writer as the Reader has ever been lucky enough to publish, died unexpectedly a few days ago at the age of 47. Among the first of Cliff’s friends to offer us his thoughts was Ira Glass:
Hanging out with Cliff for an evening meant that now and then he’d ease his way into a long story. It could be the history of some movie, or some cultural trend. It could be something from the history of radio, about which I knew nothing and Cliff seemed to know everything—he even wrote a book on the subject. Often it was just a story from the office, all the characters rendered with a great eye for detail and a delightfully mean ear for dialogue. He was a far better storyteller than me. Sure, on the radio, with the benefit of editing and background music, I could hold my own. But in person, after dinner, it was no contest. He kicked my ass. He could kick yours too.
There’s a prize that food writers all over the country covet, the James Beard Foundation Award. Cliff—who was not a food writer—swooped in this year and won it with a story that exhibits many of the qualities that made him so wonderful as a writer, editor and thinker. It was about mince pie.
- Elizabeth Gomez
- The Beard medalist
He explained that mince pie was one of the staples of the American diet in the 19th and 20th centuries, year round, as entree, dessert and breakfast, before it mysteriously vanished in the 1940s. He warms us up with these casually-tossed off sentences that are clearly the product of weeks of intense historic research: “It was the food expatriates longed for while sojourning abroad. Acquiring an appreciation for it was proof that an immigrant was becoming assimilated. It was the indispensable comfort dish dispatched to American expeditionary forces in World War I to reinforce their morale with the taste of home.” Then he arrives at the magnificent thesis of his article:
Most remarkably, mince pie achieved and maintained its hegemony despite the fact that everyone—including those who loved it—agreed that it reliably caused indigestion, provoked nightmares, and commonly afflicted the overindulgent with disordered thinking, hallucinations, and sometimes death.
And then the fun begins. Fantastic anecdotes. Stuff you’ve never heard or imagined. It’s encyclopedic knowledge, served up with bemusement and a pleasing and dark sense of amazement about the world. Treat yourself and bookmark it to read over the holidays.
In the article Cliff makes two mince pies according to old recipes and is stunned at how much beef fat and sugary crap went into them. In those pre-refrigeration days, that’s what kept the meat in the pie from spoiling. He builds the narrative suspense—what will these monstrosities taste like?—before arriving at the story’s climactic surprise: they’re delicious!
The pure joie de vivre he brings to this kitchen experiment is characteristic—the main quality I think of when I think of him, a huge, joyous part of his personality—though he would certainly mock me for using the phrase “joie de vivre” in any paragraph whose subject is him. He saw himself as a much darker kind of sensibility. Though how many Homestarrunner cartoons could he recite by heart? Most of my memories of Cliff involve him being incredibly funny, cracking jokes, laughing wickedly.
I talked to Cliff a week ago, trying to get him to do a story for This American Life where he’d make soda from an early recipe for Coca-Cola and write about the history of that. And yes, okay, it was a knock-off of his great mince pie article, but one I thought would amuse him and that he’d do better than any writer in the country. He passed on it.
It’s shocking he’s gone. This is so wrong.