Articles Published From 2006 to 2010
THE best opportunity in a generation to improve the safety of the American food supply will come as early as Monday night, when the Senate is scheduled to vote on the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization bill. This legislation is by no means perfect. But it promises to achieve several important food safety objectives, greatly benefiting consumers without harming small farmers or local food producers.
HERE’S THE CONCEIT: Build a single wood fire and, over the course of 30-plus hours, use it to roast, braise, bake, simmer and grill as many different dishes as possible — for lunch, dinner, breakfast and lunch again.
It might sound odd to say this about something people deal with at least three times a day, but food in America has been more or less invisible, politically speaking, until very recently. At least until the early 1970s, when a bout of food price inflation and the appearance of books critical of industrial agriculture (by Wendell Berry, Francis Moore Lappé, and Barry Commoner, among others) threatened to propel the subject to the top of the national agenda, Americans have not had to think very hard about where their food comes from, or what it is doing to the planet, their bodies, and their society.
Every trip to the supermarket these days requires us to navigate what has become a truly treacherous food landscape. I mean, what are we to make of a wonder of food science like the new Splenda with fiber? (“The great sweet taste you want and a little boost of fiber.”) Should we call this progress?
To listen to President Obama’s speech on Wednesday night, or to just about anyone else in the health care debate, you would think that the biggest problem with health care in America is the system itself — perverse incentives, inefficiencies, unnecessary tests and procedures, lack of competition, and greed.
A few days after Michelle Obama broke ground on an organic vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House in March, the business section of the Sunday New York Times published a cover story bearing the headline Is a Food Revolution Now in Season? The article, written by the paper’s agriculture reporter, said that “after being largely ignored for years by Washington, advocates of organic and locally grown food have found a receptive ear in the White House.”
We animals don’t give plants nearly enough credit. When we want to dismiss a fellow human as ineffectual or superfluous, we call him a “potted plant.” A “vegetable” is how we refer to a person reduced to utter helplessness, having lost most of the essential tools for getting along in life. Yet plants get along in life just fine, thank you, and did so for millions of years before we came along. True, they lack such abilities as locomotion, the command of tools and fire, the miracles of consciousness and language.
I was only 8 when “The French Chef” first appeared on American television in 1963, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that this Julia Child had improved the quality of life around our house. My mother began cooking dishes she’d watched Julia cook on TV: boeuf bourguignon (the subject of the show’s first episode), French onion soup gratinée, duck à l’orange, coq au vin, mousse au chocolat.
Dear Mr. President-Elect,
It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food. Food policy is not something American presidents have had to give much thought to, at least since the Nixon administration–the last time high food prices presented a serious political peril. Since then, federal policies to promote maximum production of the commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat and rice) from which most of our supermarket foods are derived have succeeded impressively in keeping prices low and food more or less off the national political agenda.
The worldwide crisis over food prices is the direct result of the decision, made by the Bush administration in 2006, to begin feeding large quantities of American corn to American automobiles, in the form of ethanol. This fateful decision led to a run-up in corn prices, which in turn led farmers to plant more corn and less soy and wheat–leading to the surge in the price for all grains. But make no mistake: we’ve created a situation where American SUVs are competing with African eaters for grain. We can see who is winning.
Why bother? That really is the big question facing us as individuals hoping to do something about climate change, and it’s not an easy one to answer. I don’t know about you, but for me the most upsetting moment in “An Inconvenient Truth” came long after Al Gore scared the hell out of me, constructing an utterly convincing case that the very survival of life on earth as we know it is threatened by climate change. No, the really dark moment came during the closing credits, when we are asked to . . . change our light bulbs. That’s when it got really depressing.
The word “sustainability” has gotten such a workout lately that the whole concept is in danger of floating away on a sea of inoffensiveness. Everybody, it seems, is for it whatever “it” means. On a recent visit to a land-grant university’s spanking-new sustainability institute, I asked my host how many of the school’s faculty members were involved.
For Americans who have been looking to Congress to reform the food system, these past few weeks have been, well, the best of times and the worst of times. A new politics has sprouted up around the farm bill, traditionally a parochial piece of legislation thrashed out in private between the various agricultural interests (wheat growers versus corn growers; meatpackers versus ranchers) without a whole lot of input or attention from mere eaters.
A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Soon after the news broke last month that nearly 200 Americans in 26 states had been sickened by eating packaged spinach contaminated with E. coli, I received a rather coldblooded e-mail message from a friend in the food business. “I have instructed my broker to purchase a million shares of RadSafe,” he wrote, explaining that RadSafe is a leading manufacturer of food-irradiation technology. It turned out my friend was joking, but even so, his reasoning was impeccable.
Belated thanks for your June 28th letter. I was delighted to hear of the new initiatives you outlined in it, and even more delighted in the weeks since to see so much evidence–as I’ve visited your stores and heard from both your suppliers and employees–that the company appears serious about pursuing these initiatives. So I’m writing primarily to applaud the steps you’ve taken.
Every five years or so the President of the United States signs an obscure piece of legislation that determines what happens on a couple of hundred million acres of private land in America, what sort of food Americans eat (and how much it costs) and, as a result, the health of our population. In a nation consecrated to the idea of private property and free enterprise, you would not think any piece of legislation could have such far-reaching effects, especially one about which so few of us–even the most politically aware–know anything.
Descendants of the Maya living in Mexico still sometimes refer to themselves as “the corn people.” The phrase is not intended as metaphor. Rather, it’s meant to acknowledge their abiding dependence on this miraculous grass, the staple of their diet for almost 9,000 years.
On May 26, John Mackey, the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, wrote me a letter (also published on the Whole Foods Web site), taking issue with some of the points I have made about his grocery chain–in my book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” in my column for TimesSelect and in some of my public remarks.
I’ve spent the last two months mostly on the road, talking to audiences around the country about my book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and the questions it raises about how and what we eat. Most of the posts here on TimesSelect represent my thoughts in response to questions put to me by those audiences as well as readers of this site. Complicated as they may seem, many of the questions — Local or organic? Carnivore or vegetarian? — boil down to variations on the most basic question of all: What should we have for dinner?
So who are these “food police” we’re starting to hear so much about? The term has begun showing up in media accounts of campaigns to reform school lunch or in discussions of the food industry’s growing legion of critics in the media. It’s the “food police” who want to get soda out of the schools and who argue that fast food outlets should disclose nutritional information about what they sell. The “food police” supposedly want to take away your constitutional right to a Big Mac — or, at the very least, your right to enjoy a Big Mac with a clear conscience.
Once upon a time Americans had a culture of food to guide us through the increasingly treacherous landscape of food choices: fat vs. carbs, organic vs. conventional, vegetarian vs. carnivorous. Culture in this case is just a fancy way of saying “your mom.” She taught us what to eat, when to eat it, how much of it to eat, even the order in which to eat it. But Mom’s influence over the dinner menu has proved no match for the $36 billion in food-marketing dollars ($10 billion directed to kids alone) designed to get us to eat more, eat all manner of dubious neofoods, and create entire new eating occasions, such as in the car.
“Elitist” is just about the nastiest name you can call someone, or something, in America these days, a finely-honed term of derision in the culture wars, and “elitist” has stuck to organic food in this country like balsamic vinegar to mâche. Thirty years ago the rap on organic was a little different: back then the stuff was derided as hippie food, crunchy granola and bricklike brown bread for the unshaved set (male and female division).
Late last month the Chicago City Council took the incredibly courageous step of banning the sale of foie gras — the livers of ducks and geese that have been force-fed corn — within the city limits. The move, which followed on the heels of an equally bold ban signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, risked offending such well-organized and powerful food-industry interests as, well, let’s see …. the two tiny farms, one in Sonoma County and one in New York’s Hudson Valley, that produce the entire U.S. foie gras crop.
I’ve been traveling in the American Corn Belt this past week, and wherever I go, people are talking about the promise of ethanol. Corn-distillation plants are popping up across the country like dandelions, and local ethanol boosters in Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and even Washington State (where Bill Gates is jumping into the business) are giddy at the prospect of supplanting OPEC with a homegrown, America-first corn cartel.
Several readers of my last few posts about eating locally have asked for some resources. Certainly it can feel daunting to leave the familiar confines of the supermarket, where you can find just about everything you want, arranged according to a comfortingly predictable map.
So which side of 14th Street should we shop on? The south side, where Whole Foods has planted the flag of industrial organic food, or across the street at the Union Square farmer’s market? The last time I was in that neighborhood, I stopped by the meat counter at Whole Foods and was delighted to see they’re now carrying grass-finished beef, the only kind I buy. It’s one of the most sustainably grown foods you can eat. But I was dismayed to discover that the grass-finished beef at Whole Foods had traveled all the way from New Zealand.
At the risk of sounding more equivocal than any self-respecting blogger is expected to sound, I’m going to turn my attention from the benefits of Wal-Mart’s decision to enter the organic food market to its costs. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the advantage of making organic food accessible to more Americans is outweighed by the damage Wal-Mart may do to the practice and meaning of organic food production. The trade-offs are considerable.
Let’s take another look at “the elitism question” – the idea, trumpeted by the industrial food companies and their defenders – that because organic and other alternative foods cost more, they’re an upper middle class luxury or, worse, affectation. It is true that organic food historically has cost significantly more than conventional food, but now that retailers like Wal-Mart have decided to move aggressively into organics, as reported in Friday’s New York Times, that is about to change.
Thanks for all the great posts from readers — you’ve given me a lot to chew on, and there are many questions and comments I plan to address in future posts. But for today, I want to look briefly at the “elitism” issue raised by several of you. As you will see it also ties into the good question raised by Paul Stamler about whether consumer action — voting with your forks — is adequate to the task of changing the American way of eating.
Whenever I’m in the company of other journalists and the conversation turns to our respective beats, mine — food — usually draws a silent snicker. It’s deemed a less-than-serious subject, and I suppose compared to covering war or national security, it can be viewed that way. Even when someone is ostensibly complimenting a food story, as a colleague of mine recently did, it comes out backhanded, like so: “You wouldn’t think a piece about food could be so … interesting.”
To someone who’s spent the last few years thinking about the American food chain, a visit to Manhattan’s Union Square in the spring of 2006 feels a little like a visit to Paris in the spring of 1968 must have felt, or perhaps closer to the mark, Peoples Park in Berkeley in the summer of 1969. Not that I was in either of those places at the appointed historical hour, or that the stakes are quite as high.
I might never have found my way to Polyface Farm if Joel Salatin hadn’t refused to FedEx me one of his chickens.
Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete. Nothing in my experience has prepared me for the quality of this attention. I notice how the day’s first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground.