Tag Archives: elitism

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week

3 Feb

Quite a variety of happenings in the world of food this week.

The Good

An illuminating new report out by the cooking & nutrition charity Share Our Strength provides concrete evidence that low-income families do cook at home more often than they eat fast food, and would like to be able to do so even more. I like Marion Nestle’s coverage, as she’s not afraid to nod towards some of the corporate influence the report contains. Good news, nonetheless.

Colorado is considering a state-wide ban on trans-fats in school lunch programs. Colorado is also, interestingly, the least-obese state in the nation (you can’t really say “thinnest” in a country where obesity is over 30% across the board). Coincidence?

In more school lunch reform news, the USDA announced this week its new rules (yes, actual rules here) that will increase the amounts of fruits and vegetables, and eliminate some meat requirements in its school lunch program. As Mark Bittman says, imperfect as the new rules may be, 32 million kids are about to start eating better.

Jane Black has a nice piece in The Washington Post discussing the rise in flexible CSA options. While I think her editorial brushes off the consumer benefits of a regular CSA too dismissively, I’ve loved my past flexible CSAs for the access they provided someone who couldn’t afford a full share.

The Bad

This article isn’t bad so much as slightly annoying. A new study out of the Washington State University purports to help reform the beef industry’s image by claiming cattle ranches are significantly more environmentally-friendly than thirty years ago. File under — yes, and…?

I mentioned one lawsuit Monsanto is currently facing. Here is another! A class-action case that claims the company spread toxic substances all over a town in West Virginia in the course of producing a chemical component of Agent Orange. The toxic substances listed are mainly dioxins, which have been linked to cancer.

and the (very) Ugly

The Humane Society of the United States (which has, in the last few years, done a really impressive job ramping up its advocacy of livestock animals along with homeless pets) released a new undercover video documenting standard pork industry practice for raising pigs.

Graphic images included.

Tom Philpott’s analysis cuts to the core:

The remarkable thing…is how banal it is. What we have here is the everyday reality of pigs’ lives on a factory farm, without regulations flouted or spectacular violence committed. It is abuse routinized and regimented, honed into a profitable business model.

The video even got NYTimes sustainability blogger Andrew Revkin interested. He’s got a response from the Oklahoma Pork Council (which suggests that images were “taken out of context,” leaving me to ask — is there a context in which these practices are acceptable?) and takes the opportunity to wonder if this might continue to make the case for test-tube meat. Not if the omnivores here on We*Meat*Again have anything to say about it, right?

Happy Weekend, All!

 

Inequality in Our Food System

12 Dec

A few events, some louder than others this week got me thinking about just how unequal our current food system is. The protestors on Wall Street are angry because income disparity leads to a disparity in political representation and access to education, improvement, etc. The food system, as it currently exists in this country, has the same results. The poor stay poor (and less healthy), and the small farms fail, so that the large corporate farms may survive.

In fact, the first event this weekend that reminded me of the parallels between food and finance was the first major gathering of farmers at Occupy Wall Street. Jim Gerritsen, president of the Organic Seed Trader’s Organization, spoke to The New York Times last week about why he’d be making the journey from Maine to join the protests:

He said farm gate prices — wholesale prices for farm products, excluding transportation — were the lowest he had ever seen. “And the price of food in supermarkets is higher than it’s ever been. So, farmers are hanging on by their fingertips, and consumers are paying through the nose.”

“The money that gets made in between,” he continued, “is going to companies, and the government isn’t doing anything about it.

“And if it goes on like this, all we’re going to have to eat in this country is unregulated, imported, genetically modified produce. That’s not a healthy food system.”

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Gerritsen’s quote is so valuable in that it reminds us that the current system of wholesale food distribution harms both producers and consumers. Just as big finance is constructed to continually insulate those in positions of power, to reward and encourage their risk-taking on the backs of a working class who suffers when these high-stakes maneuvers fail, so too is the food systm constructed to encourage consolidation and cheap growing methods that cause higher prices for less healthful foods.

And the people suffering most are the consumers with the least.

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The second event was much more quiet, in terms of news coverage anyway, and much more disturbing. After a seven-hour stand-off last week, a woman in Texas shot her two children, and then herself, in the head. The reason? She was at the end of her rope, having repeatedly been denied food stamps by the state.

She and her children bathed in hoses outside of their trailer park. She begged at the back doors of restaurants for their food waste scraps. But her child support payments were greater than her expenses, so she was deemed able to care for her children without assistance.

Clearly, this was not the case.

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Last Monday, at a campaign event in Iowa, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum promised to significantly reduce federal funding for food stamps, citing the nation’s obesity crisis as evidence that the program was being fradulently misused.

If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger program?” Santorum asked.

I had to re-read the last part of the sentence a few times to fully understand what it meant.

Set aside for the moment the complete lack of understanding of the roots of the obesity crisis (a significant increase in the consumption of certain types of foods, such as refined sweeteners combined with a sharp increase in the prices of whole foods due to the above mentioned consolidations) that this quote shows. Set aside for the moment the reality that SNAP has actually been proven to help grow the economy by protecting the poorest consumers.

I think it’s important to take a minute to address what Santorum meant by “among the people who we say have a hunger program.”

Maybe I’m wrong. But I’m pretty sure what he’s saying there is that poor minorities tend to be those receiving federal nutrition assistance, and also tend to have the highest rates of obesity. I think what he’s saying is, why do black people need food stamps when they are already so fat?

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Santorum isn’t wrong. According to the most recent data, adult obesity rates for Blacks and Latin@s were higher than for Whites in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Why? Do we believe, as Rick Santorum seems to, that this is because black and Latin@ people eat more? Are lazier?

Or could it be this: 35.3 percent of adults earning less than $15,000 per year were obese compared with 24.5 percent of adults earning $50,000 or more per year.

Could it be that we need food assistance from the federal government not in spite of increased obesity rates among the poorest, but because of those rates?

Could it be that our government’s food system, as its finance system, rewards the lowest-brow, cheapest, poorest-quality investment, and that the customers for those shoddy investments — in this case, mostly in the form of high fructose corn syrup and soda — are the least fortunate among us?

That those who have the least choice suffer the most loss.

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Internet comments on stories about the Texas family are too cruel to replicate, but include standard lines about the selfishness, or laziness, or incompetance of a woman who would turn to such desperate (and indefensible) measures when faced with an 18-page form and proof of income and employment.

But of nearly $262 billion in farm subsidies paid by the federal government over the last fifteen years, the farms with the highest top ten percent in annual incomes raked in more than 74%. $165.9 billion. And no one is calling them lazy.

Corporate Vegetarian Food

8 Dec

I’m in the midst of a pretty serious overhaul of the working manuscript of The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat, a process that is involving the second major rounds of cutting/rewriting to the book in the few years I’ve been working on it. This go-round involves the extrication of much of the research elements of the book–or at least a reframing of them as personal revelations.

So I thought that perhaps some of those segments might work well here on the blog, where the research may be new or at least interesting information. Let me know what you think of this one below, and perhaps I’ll make a trend of this. Scenes from the cutting room floor…

(Fellow Ithaca College alum may recognize some details…)

My first meals as a vegetarian, eaten in the crowded, generically-decorated dining halls of my college, were prepared by Sodexho. These dining halls were palatial, and would have impressed any dorm-dweller. One house had a vegan station and another a kosher station (with on-site rabbi), complete with separate kitchens and staff. All held tin warming counters polished to a glisten, swinging heat lamps hung down low over the chafing dishes of hot entrees, a sandwich bar, a salad bar, a soft-serve ice-cream machine, and lots of choices. We could choose from three different dining halls, including one with a waffle station and a fountain, or another that was open until midnight during the week. They were staffed by latex-gloved, hair-netted blue collar employees: small, frail women with thick glasses, men with big biceps, faded tattoos, edges softened with time, young Latin- and African-American men, fresh out of high school, who were not students at this college.

I didn’t know then that Sodexho, the 22nd largest employer in the world, pays their food service workers as little as $8.27 an hour to reheat frozen bags of soup and spoon them out to college students and elementary schoolers, to wash our dishes, to stock our salad bars, to fill our ice cream machines, to swipe our cards at the entrance. Since Sodexho employees are only needed during the school year, most are essentially laid off during the summer months, and are not guaranteed their positions will be available in the fall. I didn’t know that the HMOs Sodexho offers their employees cost more than a quarter of a full-time income. That Sodexho posts annual profits in the hundreds of billions. That their most lucrative source of income are the private prisons they operate, including ones they contract with the U.S. military to build and run on foreign soil. That most of the Sodexho workers making my on-campus food would have qualified for federal anti-hunger programs.

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In the Campus Center Dining Hall, at the vegan station, there were these veggie burgers, made with brown rice and black beans. I imagined them soft in someone’s hands, rolled around and flattened, the way my Nona’s raw meatballs felt in my palm before they were baked. Burgers tossed onto a slatted grill by a twenty-something guy with flowers on the backs of his hands I could just barely see through the gloves, then wrapped in red-and-white-checked paper and placed in a cardboard container, next to the side of the coveted sweet potato fries. We loved the Sodexho sweet potato fries, the perfect layer of corn-syrup crispy on the outside, a delicate crust that broke open into the soft, tanning-salon orange flesh of the fry, always just this side of too hot, crumbling and sweet.

We would sit in circles around tables, us white college kids, and talk about serious things, about free trade and facial piercings, and shove whole handfuls of these sweet potato fries into our mouths. I was happy to let someone else do the cooking.

The Weird & Wacky World of Food Marketing & Policy

29 Nov

Sometimes, as a composition teacher, I get very sad at the world.

Sometimes I have to walk around in a world where many people speak, think and behave in the very ways I try to convince my students not to. They use flawed illogical assumptions. They repeat ideas without verification or citation. They trust a single source without questioning its authority or credibility. And they build their own knowledge base with this rotting foundation.

Nowhere is this more true than in the world of food policy.

This is a world where it makes more sense for the government to spend trillions of dollars we don’t have on direct subsidy payments to farmers to grow corn we don’t need, and allow corporations to profit by injecting this corn into every known food substance to the detriment of the nation’s health — rather than  to change the policy.

This is a world so upside-down-backwards-on-its-head that very little makes sense any more. And I think of this whenever I try to have a conversation with someone who hasn’t spent as much time in this world as I have, whenever people ask questions like “Why is it such a big deal for my vegetables to come from Mexico?” or “But isn’t corn-fed beef the best kind, you know, according to the USDA?

So I have a brief policy roundup for you all today, to use as fodder whenever you are up against opposition that’s so dramatically different from your world view you don’t know where to start. Because we have to start. It’s up to all of us who care about food to have those tough conversations, and to have them with compassion, not condescension. The education has to begin by explaining just how weird food policy becomes when Big Ag marketing strategies and lobbying budgets get involved:

  • The Freakonomics blog calls a relocalized food system “inefficient” in comparison to modern industrial agricultural systems. Nevermind that industrial ag grows corn that becomes steak or salad dressing emulsifier or bread-browning agent or gas that costs more to make than its worth, whereas locally grown produce becomes, you know, food. That would be inefficient. (Anne Lappe has a great take-down of the Freakonomics post featuring actual economics, here.)
  • Congress failed to pass new regulations mandating certain amounts of certain types of actual vegetables in school lunches (considering the existing standards adhere to federal dietary suggestions from 1989, and include items you may have seen in headlines like the tomato pasta in pizza sauce) in a patently obvious fold to industry pressure. The frozen food industry didn’t want to have to repackage their meals to be “less palatable” to children, so instead our children get to eat whatever the frozen food industry can produce cheap and easy (see above. Corn is a vegetable, right?). This is where all those “Pizza is a vegetable” headlines are coming from.
  • A national marketing strategy document for the innocuously-named “Center for Food Integrity,” (sponsored by, among others, Monsanto and Smithfield) suggests the following for responding to consumer trends towards more sustainable farming methods:

As consumer values change, the food system needs to evaluate and potentially modify current practices and fundamentally change the way it communicates in order to maintain consumer trust.

See the rest of the document yourself to decide whether you think the CFI is looking to modify its practices or just to change communication strategies to make themselves sound more sustainable. See Tom Philpott’s coverage of a Sara Lee rebranding plan for Hillshire Farms to see proof of these communication strategies in action.

My point here is that the modern agricultural industry is an industry. I do not believe everyone who works for Monsanto is evil, nor do I believe that large corporations have no place in a new food system. I don’t think there is a giant, nation-wide conspiracy to force-feed us all corn (well, I kinda do). But industries behave like industries. The job is a CEO is to turn a profit, and he will do this with a billion dollar lobbying budget, campaign financing, public relations and marketing strategists and any other tool at his disposal.

So when we hear information on food policy, even from the federal government, we must trace that information back to its source and run a credibility check. If the author of a marketing memo stands to turn a profit from getting his audience to believe that “corn sugar is just sugar,” perhaps we should find out whether “our body can’t tell the difference” from a medical, rather than a marketing, expert.

Eating Well on Wall Street

14 Oct

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the Occupy Wall Street movement (as it has certainly become more than an individual protest now) and I find this pretty rad. I could certainly go on about just how inspiring it is to finally see my generation standing up for something, and to finally see this whole social media experiment working to some positive mobilizing effects, many many people have already written about it and have done so much more articulately than I could.

But I thought I’d use this week’s link roundup post to feature some of the great writing that’s been done connecting the food movement to the Wall Street uprising.

Civil Eats had two great posts today: one on the connection between the anti-corporate sentiments of the protests and the food movement, and another on the push for social equality in food justice alongside corporate accountability.

Similarly, Tom Philpott this week writes about the misperception that agriculture isn’t big business, and takes the Farm Action Bureau to task. It’s heartening to see smart people finally calling out Big Ag as the corporate lobbying powerhouse it is.

I wrote last week that I believe the social justice aspects of the food movement were perfectly compatible with the desire for good, artisanal food, and I see the two pieces coming together in Occupy Wall Street in a way that’s really promising for the future of the movement. The Food Committee has developed a pretty fancy makeshift kitchen in the park, full of donations, many of which are from local and/or socially-conscious businesses.

GOOD magazine has a really cool short piece on the symbolism of protest food, launching from pizza on Wall Street.

Word is, the city of New York plans to remove the protestors this weekend, at the request of the park’s private owners. We’ll see how this plays out, both on and off Wall Street. But if you were waiting to help, to contribute, to participate, now is the time. Get your activist on!

Foodies for Affordability

3 Oct

This past winter, Scott showed me this essay from The Atlantic, a sprawling piece whose central complaint is that foodies, by caring too much about food that tastes good and is artisanal in its production, are not as morally superior as we would like to believe. Myers, a vegan and member of the Green party, suggests that true moral superiority lies only in vegetarianism, a diet whose virtue is its smaller carbon footprint and accessibility.

I didn’t agree with Myers then, and I don’t now, but I don’t want to talk here today about the problems with his assertion in favor of vegetarianism (though I will sometime). Mostly, I want to refute the growing notion that being someone who cares about food that tastes good and is well-made is incongruous with social justice.

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Recently, I mentioned Slow Food USA’s $5 Challenge. If  you missed the earlier post, the idea behind the $5 challenge was for at-home chefs to host local potlucks featuring a meal that was produced with local, sustainable food for less than $5 per person — less than the cost of the average fast food value meal.

Just the act of organizing such an event is evidence enough to suggest that people can love food and want everyone to be able to afford it. But a recent Bittman column mentions an underlying value to the style of education at play here. By asking people to open their homes and share meals, Slow Food was not simply sponsoring an act of charity, but rather one of sharing domestic knowledge. Some people know how to buy and cook real food — usually by a happy coincidence of birth, culture or household income — and how to do it without breaking the bank. Why not get a bunch of people together and show how its done.

This is a reassertion of a formative American value. Think of times past when this kind of communal domesticity was a necessity — the victory gardens of World War II, the trade and barters of the Depression-era tent cities. In the midst of the United States’ Great Recession, what could be more equal-minded than a return to the exchange of ideas and goods, than placing that exchange not in a public sphere of speculative financial trading, but in the home itself?

We’re not talking about selling $17 loaves of bread at the Orange County Farmer’s Market. We’re talking about people all over the country doing something as simple and as meaningful as opening their homes to their neighbors to share.

And the people doing the sharing are us snotty, elitist foodies.

It seems to me than it’s people who care first and foremost about food’s quality that are responsible for making the larger social connection between quality and sustainability, quality and health, quality and social justice. Without foodies, we might continue to believe the myths that local food is more expensive, or that cooking is for rich people with the time to care, or that poor people don’t have the luxury of real food.

A response to this notion that gourmands can care about both food quality and food equality might ask why we split our energy at all. Why not prioritize access and affordability to real food over anything else? Why worry at all about frivolous expenses like supporting local butcher shops or artisan cheese producers. Let’s get some damn vegetables on everyone’s table, first, whatever it takes. Microbrews later.

Why care about food that takes more time to make and tastes better, too? My answer is because people have to want to eat better to succeed at eating better. Our brains are wired to trick us into eating junk food, and we’re working against decade’s of corporate marketing. Deciding to cook again requires working against urges that have been long embedded in our bodies and our psyches.

And if your only experience with a head of lettuce comes from the wilting basket on the counter at the corner convenience store, and its been sitting there for a week and was shipped halfway across the country (or globe) before that, that lettuce is going to be gross, and you are going to buy the bag of Doritos for a side dish instead.

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At the beginning of our very first graduate workshop with him, my future thesis advisor Ben Percy passed out little slips of paper with the same Harry Crews’ quote printed on each one. They read:

“You have to go to considerable trouble to live differently from the way the world wants you to live. That’s what I’ve discovered about writing. The world doesn’t want you to do a damn thing. If you wait till you got time to write a novel or time to write a story or time to read the hundred thousands of books you should have already read — if you wait for the time, you’ll never do it. Cause there ain’t no time; world don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.” 
I’ve kept that piece of paper, in binders and tacked up on office walls and now, next to a bowl of water on my writing desk, as a reminder that, fundamentally, everything in this world worth doing takes hard work to do. Yes, I’m saying that I think even Harry Crews would have felt the way I do about being a foodie (though he surely would have despised the term foodie as much as I do).

I’ve learned that it’s worth it to take that time, but I know that I was lucky to be able to learn that lesson. I know not everyone has the schedule that I do, or the bank account I do, not everyone comes from a family that values food and family dinners the way mine did, that not everyone has a family member whose dietary needs got all of ours in check at a very young age. But we’re talking about a shift in cultural priority, and that kind of shift has to start somewhere.

It starts with me. It starts with each of us not being afraid or ashamed of caring about food, not hiding our dietary desires, and not accepting the elitist labels the corporate world wants to stick on us. Foodies are the people out there who can teach us that this is worth it, but yes, we have to do it against a current social stigma that suggests that having this kind of time is selfish, indulgent, or for rich people. That’s not the truth – that’s industry marketing. Make more time for cooking by watching less TV (and, seriously, I love tv). Cook with your family.

Foodies may have originated as people who just really preferred market bread and raw oysters, but they have evolved. Because people who value quality know that you have to value the person who produces it. They celebrate the farmer and the soil, and above all, they celebrate knowing where your food comes from and what it takes to get it on the table. If we all cared about those things, we’d have a better, smarter food system, and that system would be capable of producing food we could all afford.

Food & Government in All the Wrong Places

23 Sep

Here are a few relevant links from around the web this week, many of which involve federal or state government involvement in food. Unfortunately, it seems that the government isn’t where it should be, and is where it shouldn’t be, which is both annoying and counter-productive.

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite Carter campaign worker turned anti-light bulb activist: Michelle Bachman, who, at a campaign event in Des Moines this week, said the U.S. government should scale back regulations on meat packing plants.

I think someone probably needs to tell Bachman about the recent re-infestation of Carghill’s contaminated turkey plant, which began producing salmonella-infected turkey just weeks after being shut down for salmonella contamination and implementing new testing measures. Or about the rampant overuse of antibiotics that directly cause harm to Americans, even under existing regulations. Or about the recent GAO report that admits the USDA does not currently have the data to even adequately monitor, let alone scale back, such antibiotic use.

But yes, by all means, Ms. Bachman, use one of the most dangerous and unregulated industries as a talking point in your bigoted campaign of Social Darwinism (whoa, guess I’ve been holding that one in a bit).

And on the other hand, the U.S. PIRG has compiled a report on agricultural subsidies that conclusively demonstrates just how much money the federal government spends subsidizing junk foods (in the form of corn products) in contrast to fresh produce.

A 21-year-old Real Food Fellow in Mississippi was recently arrested and therefore was unable to participate in the Food & Freedom Rides, a new movement to raise awareness of and protest food system inequalities. Her crime? Hanging flyers in the neighborhood to promote an event.

You know what? I changed my mind. I agree with Michelle Bachman that there are some things the government should keep its hands out of. One is subsidizing childhood obesity. Another is free speech.

Otherwise, get in there and do your job, regulators. Mount up. (Yeah, I made a Warren G reference.) Happy weekend, everyone!

Where Does Wal-Mart Fit Into the Food Revolution?

19 Sep

Wal-Mart’s made food news again this week with the donation of $1 million to Milwaukee’s urban farming mecca, Growing Power. As a result, a familiar conversation is kicking up over the role of large corporations in systematic changes to the food system.

Will Allen of Growing Power thus joins the ranks of non-profit leaders who must explain their fundraising practices, here making the argument that the food movement would do well to welcome large markets like Wal-Mart into the fold. Perhaps the most famous former supporter of such an alliance is Gary Hirschberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farms, who made such an argument in, among other places, the movie Food, Inc.

Like it or not, it seems, Wal-Mart will always be a factor. Earlier this year, Wal-Mart announced an initiative in conjunction with the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign to stock healthier foods and keep produce prices low. This chart from The Economist shows the corporation as the third-largest employer in the world (second only to the U.S. and Chinese armies), and they aren’t going anywhere.

Organic food. Local food. Urban growing. What’s not to love, right? Is Wal-Mart developing a social conscience?

My take isn’t so optimistic. I think Wal-Mart wouldn’t be as big as it is were it not for savvy CEOs, and any businessman with a pulse can see that consumers are demanding more and better food options. And while some argue that it is Wal-Mart’s sheer size that makes it a valuable ally in the food movement (almost every link above includes the phrase “big enough to make a difference,”) I’m skeptical of using growth and anti-labor bargaining as a tool for that change, simply because it’s a tool already being employed by corporations.

Call me Pollyanna, but I hope for a food (and social justice) future that eschews the ‘bigger is better’ mantra of the past. If Wall Street was too big to fail, why can’t we see Wal-Mart as too big to do good?

But I’d love to hear what you think? Are Wal-Mart’s efforts to improve its food offerings genuine? Does that even matter? Should the food movement include or exclude large corporations? Can we afford to?

The Big Picture of Food’s Future (Links)

16 Sep

Lots of coverage this week of the USDA’s new E. coli ban, so there isn’t too much breaking-news style policy to cover in our links round-up. But I’m rather happy for the respite, as it gives us a chance to reflect on the general state of the food movement, and where we go from here. So here are some big picture question & answer links for your weekend reading pleasure.

First and foremost, here’s a quick & easy action link you should all follow right now.  Remember how last week I wrote about the food industry push-back against the voluntary request of the federal government to please stop selling junk food to kids? Well, the folks at EWG are collecting signatures on a letter that will go to 13 CEOs. You can sign here, and the spread the word to your social networks to add your voice to the (perfectly reasoned and quite polite) fray.

Now on to the future…

The food movement grandaddy, Michael Pollan (who hopefully doesn’t think that I’m calling him old), has a fantastic piece in The Nation this week on the next big challenge for the food movement, transitioning from a shift in the public consciousness to systematic, policy changes. His interesting take? Our greatest ally may be the healthcare industry, also, as we know, in need of serious reform.

And there are a few exciting activities that might help us get there. Saturday, I will be doing my own version of Slow Food USA’s $5 challenge, in which we’re tasked with preparing an awesome slow food meal for only $5 a person — less than the cost of a fast food “value” meal. Take the pledge to join in, or find a potluck near you!

Even if you don’t want to be an “official” participant, here are a few great resources — from Eating Well magazine and NPR — with tips for cooking healthy on the cheap, always useful information.

Finally — and this, I have to say, I am majorly food-nerding out over — the announcement came this week of the launch of a new day of action and awareness: Food Day. Modeled after the Earth Day campaign, Food Day will be an annual event on Oct. 24th full of information and action: policy campaign kick-offs, cooking lessons, farm tours, film nights, public or private dinners in homes or public spaces, school curricula, filmmaking contests, protests, declarations of new city priorities, and announcements of changes to institutional food-buying or vending practices.

WOW, RIGHT?! I can’t wait to be a part of this new phase of action in a movement I believe has the potential to shape our future in meaningful ways.

Food, Music, Place

7 Sep

It all started when Josh Homme showed up on No Reservations.

A few weeks ago, No Reservations aired what may well be the best four minutes of cinema I’ve seen in ages (seriously, watch that clip at least until minute four). The show opened with Anthony Bourdain, chef, food writer and rock star worshipper, driving through the desert Southwest to “Regular John.” As a big Queens of the Stone Age and No Reservations fan, I knew I’d love this episode  from the moment I heard that Homme soundtracked it and made an appearance. But as the episode spread out over the course of the next hour, it unleashed a train of thoughts that led straight into this Monday’s Cajun Country episode.

Bourdain’s long been known to write about the connections between food and music. Ever since the debauchery of Kitchen Confidential, he’s drawn parallels that make a lot of sense between the world of the chef and that of the musician. But in these last few episodes, I’ve seen a deeper trend emerge, one that adds food and music together to interrogate culture, one that necessarily points towards the third element of place. Of course, place is the focus of No Reservations, and food is its lens. But the addition of music makes this a complex triangle that unlocks different possibilities in each point.

We begin to see how food can be deeply emotional, like music or any good art. We see music as regional, even in the modern United States, rather than generic, a reality that we know exists for food. And the thing that transofrms food into culture and music into history is its situation in a place and time, and the meaning that setting endows.

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In this week’s No Reservations, set in Louisiana’s Cajun Country, Bourdain speaks with Lolis Eric Elie, a writer for the show Treme, and New Orleans native, and asks why people in the rest of the country should care about New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Elie responds by saying that New Orleans is one of the few places in the country with a clear regional culture, and can serve as an example for the rest of the country to rediscover those cultural markers for themselves. We celebrate them here, he said, but you should celebrate them wherever your from.

I don’t believe people in Ohio, he said, didn’t have anything to eat before McDonald’s.

I’ve long since known the value of food as a way of understanding a cultural history. I grew up in an Italian household, and the single strongest marker of that (some may say the only marker, now that the immigrants and the speakers of the language are gone) is what we eat and how we prepare it.

Bourdain says in the episode that a common point between chefs and musicians is that both know to respect their elders. Anybody who cares about cooking or eating, he says, respects those who came before. Without the family-sized, weekend-long cooking and eating extravaganzas of my childhood, I might have missed out on learning who my Nona and Papa were, what it took for them to come to the United States. I might not have learned that there’s a Piazza Corsini, our family’s name, in Florence, or that when my Papa had saved enough money to buy their first house in Massachusetts, he had to pay an Irish friend to make the purchase for him, because the bank still discriminated against Italian immigrants.

How many children, whose great-grandfathers die when they are seven years old, have those kinds of stories? I have them because of the history that food gave us.

And food, like art, allows us the opportunity to make something beautiful of that history, even when the stories themselves are marred with the messy realities of suffering and loss. One of the most powerful moments of the Cajun episode of No Reservations comes at a crawfish boil, when the locals explain to Bourdain the origins of the gathering. Crawfish were trash food, the food of poverty, the kind of thing a person would only take the trouble to eat if she had nothing else. And so poor groups of immgrants, displaced and searching for community and survival, held giant gatherings to lessen the burden of preparing and eating this difficult meal. A tradition born of necessity, transformed into one of the region’s most celebrated cultural icons.

Making a story out of place, art out of reality, is the way a culture is born.

Image courtesy of the Travel Channel

At another point in the episode, Elie talks about how, in the midst of an economic recession, it’s easy to imagine that the arts don’t matter, that music is a frivolous pursuit. But, he says, chefs and musicians – who could be more vital to our national interest? It’s what we are.

This notion of art as identity, as a means for understanding culture, is more important now than ever before. In one of the best editorials I’ve ever read, my former professor (and friend) Dean Bakopoulos, wrote about the important of reading dark, complex fiction for college students, even those who never plan to study English. He writes that art carries “truthful, chilling voices that often are the catalysts urging use to do better as a people and as a nation.”

The blues were slave narratives. And just as the crawfish boil was born of an ugly past, art takes that past, the stories of suffering, and makes something beautiful enough for us to stand to look at while we learn from it.

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But this culture need not be historic. Local food does the same thing, and it’s no coincidence that in the midst of a new economic turmoil, a new era of struggle and suffering, that we are seeing a rebirth of the regional, a return to our own soil. Right now, it is necessity in many cases. But we can transform that need for purer food, closer to home, into a deeper cultural understanding of a place, and of ourselves. When we shop at the farmer’s market, we learn our neighbors stories, and we begin to work our way into those stories. As someone who has just moved to a new place, the search for food in this place has shown me who lives here, and what they want their lives to mean.

As Elie says, this is not just a lesson in who is around us. It is a lesson in ourselves.

We’ve wasted so much time thinking that creating food, whether growing it or preparing it, is something we are unable to do. We’ve sold our shares in food culture to corporations who have marginalized regional differences, smoothed over irregularities, whose ultimate goal is to create one, uniform, national food culture which must be as bland as possible. But we recognize the Golden Arches as easily in Alaska as in Iowa.

And look where this has gotten us. When did we stop thinking food was not for us, could not mean something? Very few of us can play the guitar like Josh Homme or the harpsichord like Beethoven. We may not have lived the suffering that created the blues or modern hip-hop, but that doesn’t stop us from appreciating all of those genres of music, both those to which we belong and those to which we do not. Why do we think that because we are not master chefs, we cannot celebrate the culture of food, hold to it, learn emotional lessons from it, just as we do from music?

Food, like music, can be both beautiful and fun, both regional and universally appreciated, can be both significant and accessible. When we willingly look at food as representative of something bigger than itself, and bigger than us, we learn the lessons of ourselves, of our land, of our home.

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In that spirit, I’m working on a mix of songs about what food means – and I need your suggestions! Not just for songs about food (necessarily) but songs about the meaning of food, music in which food represents something. Here’s what I’ve got so far. Leave a comment and add your favorite food songs to the list!

The Food — Common f. Mos Def

Eggs & Sausage — Tom Waits

American Pie — Don McLean

Peaches — Presidents of the United States of America (laugh all you want, but he’s moving to the country for the peaches! It’s all about food and the pastoral ideal!)

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