Happy holidays, world! Vacation means more time for me to read things about food on the internet, and then more time to mull it over and form opinions.
And you get to read them!
The title of this post is a play on Julie Guthman's "The Food Police: Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos
". In that article, originally published in Gastronomica, Guthman critiques the "messianic, self-satisfied tone" with which Pollan writes about his own diet and the diets of other healthy - read: thin
- people. Fundamental to Pollan's perspective - which is admittedly now further-developed than in 2008, when Guthman's piece was published - is an upper-middle class lifestyle complete with upper-middle class resources, values, body image concerns, and food access.
Which is all well and good! Pollan has his limited perspective and that's fine. And though I take issue with some of his positions, Pollan does his research. He's aware of his biases. But I think we have a wider problem in food writing - that the only other widely-read commentator on food policy possesses the same biases as Pollan, but examines them even less.
Which brings me to the point of this post - Mark Bittman's
most recent Opinionator column
from December 25th, 2012. This article is the latest in a slew of opinions pieces by Bittman that range from questionable to absurd. Bittman has a unique ability to be coyly, slyly condescending in such a subtle manner that you might just miss
the moment he essentially blames obesity on poor people drinking soda.
Here's my problem with Bittman's world. In Bittman's world, obesity exists primarily in poor communities where families rely on SNAP benefits, and are uneducated in how to properly feed themselves and their children. His solution is to remove agency from individuals and families who receive SNAP benefits by limiting what foods and beverages SNAP can buy, and thereby address our so-called obesity epidemic. His assertion that "the answer [to improving the diets of SNAP participants] is easy
" [emphasis added]
is patronizing, insensitive, ignorant.
Maybe this seems harsh, because maybe that's not the impression you got from Bittman's piece. There goes his subtle condescension! It's easy to miss! But it's there. Let's look at some key quotes.
The "evidence" for Bittman's "argument" comes from a new article
co-authored by David Ludwig, one of a few prominent medical professionals currently writing (read: spouting) about obesity and, vaguely, food policy. Here's Ludwig's justification for why we should limit the purchasing power of people who receive SNAP benefits:
“It’s shocking,” says Ludwig, “how little we consider food quality in the management of chronic diseases. And in the case of SNAP that failure costs taxpayers twice: We pay once when low-income families buy junk foods and sugary beverages with SNAP benefits, and we pay a second time when poor diet quality inevitably increases the costs of health care in general, and Medicaid and Medicare in particular [emphasis added]."
Who's the "we" here? The first we refers to doctors; the second, to taxpayers. Ah, taxpayers! The everyman; the voting population; we government-supporting, rights-defending Americans! But wait - "we" apparently don't include "low-income families", the kind who "buy junk foods and sugary beverages" and have "poor diet quality", and make us pay for their health care. Apparently taxpayers are also healthy-eating, soda-eschewing, junk-food-abhorring skinny people. I never knew! Does that mean I don't have to file this year?
So anyway, if it's so "easy" to improve the diet of SNAP participants - and thereby defeat obesity, remember! - how do we do it?
This could happen in two ways: first, remove the subsidy for sugar-sweetened beverages, since no one without a share in the profits can argue that the substance plays a constructive role in any diet. “There’s no rationale for continuing to subsidize them through SNAP benefits,” says Ludwig, “with the level of science we have linking their consumption to obesity, diabetes and heart disease [emphasis added].”
Alright Bittman, let's play ball. Who's to define what foods play a "constructive role" in a person's diet? Do Cream Cheese Brownies play a constructive role in my diet? Or Lemon Cheesecake with Sour Cream Topping? Or Cheese Souffle? Jeez, How to Cook Everything sure has a lot of non-constructive recipes. See what I did there??
And as for Ludwig's claim that there's "no rationale" for allowing SNAP benefits to be used to purchase soda...well, I don't really need to be nuanced about this. All of us see advertisements. All of us are affected by them (even healthy - read: thin - people). Some of us drink soda, some of us don't. If the medical establishment really thinks that soda is so unhealthy that it should be illegal for people to buy it, then MAKE IT ILLEGAL TO PRODUCE SODA. But that probably wouldn't be as easy as limiting the purchasing power of a politically and economically unempowered population.
Alright, one more - stay with me!
Simultaneously, make it easier to buy real food; several cities, including New York, have programs that double the value of food stamps when used for purchases at farmers markets. The next step is to similarly increase the spending power of food stamps when they’re used to buy fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, not just in farmers markets but in supermarkets – indeed, everywhere people buy food. [Emphasis added]
I don't disagree with Bittman here. It would be great to expand farmers market incentive programs and to increase the value of SNAP benefits for buying produce. That would be wonderful! Let's do it!
I pull out the above quote primarily to reiterate misuse of the word "easy" throughout this column, and indeed throughout Bittman's entire philosophy. Ease is at the crux of the philosophy of those - like Bittman and Pollan and probably Ludwig - who perpetuate the "messianic, self-satisfied tone" of health-focused, white, upper-middle class food commentators. Being healthy (READ: THIN) is easy - you just need to make the right choices. And if you don't make the right choices, we'll make them for you.
Like Pollan, Bittman is entitled to his opinions. He's entitled to his biases and, like everyone (me too!), is a product of only his own experiences and context. And if he were writing exclusively about the dietary choices of white, upper-middle class people, his columns would be far less problematic. But he's not.
I challenge Bittman to, in the words of the internet, do better. Ask some people who receive SNAP benefits what their opinions are on restricting their purchasing options. Talk to community organizers who work on hunger and poverty issues in urban or minority communities. Do your research. Ask more questions. Challenge your assumptions. I mean, you're writing in the New York Times. Do the issues justice. I empathize - it sucks to be one of only a few people tasked with representing the entirety of food policy and diet issues throughout our vast country. Maybe - hopefully - we'll one day be able to debate this issue as peers. I'd be happy to ease some of your workload.
Thanks for reading.
The food memoir is a tricky genre. Many chefs, restauranteurs, and home cooks have penned brilliant books about their experiences with food and in life. As a reviewer I've read dozens of these memoirs, and as such have reasonably high standards for personal recollections of kitchen conundrums. Apron Anxiety: My Messy Affairs in and Out of the Kitchen
by Alyssa Shelasky, who keeps a blog of the same name
, drew me in and kept me turning the page. But Shelasky's tone and anecdotes proved ultimately more annoying than inspiring, and left me wondering why exactly this book was sold as a food memoir.
Shelasky was a longtime writer for magazines like People and US Weekly, living a party-girl lifestyle in New York City for much of her twenties. She spends many pages discussing how, as a pretty girl, she had many sordid, silly, and sexy affairs with all types of almost-celebrities. The details of these affairs comprise much of the first section of the book, making for some funny moments but also a fair amount of forehead-slapping. When discussing this period of her life, Shelasky reiterates that food was never all that important to her. She could eat whatever she wanted and stay thin - she matter-of-factly highlights consuming an entire pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream every day in high school - and was more interested in the restaurant scene than the actual food being celebrated.
Then the opportunity came along to interview a certain ex-Top Chef contestant for People's bachelor issue. She refers to this man as Chef throughout the book in an attempt to conceal his identity, but a simple Google search reveals who he is - Spike Mendelsohn, season 4. Shelasky and Chef hit it off during their interview, and entered into a serious and romantic relationship right away. Their love was quick and deep, and Shelasky shares sweet details of their trips and late-night snacks.
But soon the stresses of Chef's schedule, especially as he opened Good Stuff Eatery and then We, the Pizza, put strain on their relationship. Around that time, Shelasky began her first forays into the kitchen - basic dishes that she could serve to a tired fiancee when he arrived home late into the night. But her homemade dishes couldn't patch their fraying relationship; when Chef couldn't commit to a wedding date, Shelasky left.
The rest of the book details how Shelasky turned to cooking as a way of soothing herself and those around her. She doesn't seem to have had such a hard time learning her way around a kitchen, with tales of amazing jumbo muffins and 10-person dinner parties. She picks up with a few new guys, some of whom are also chefs, and lands a sweet job as the editor of Grub Street: New York (which she currently holds). Chef remains in her life as a texting buddy and close friend, their relationship never entirely platonic.
Heartbreak is a universally understood subject, and it's hard not to empathize with someone who is trying to cope with the fact that she can't be with the man she loves. But this book never quite recovered from the initial 100 or so pages of somewhat self-promoting tales of a wild child adolescence. I found myself constantly wondering why this book was ostensibly about food - it really was more of a kiss-and-tell for the Sex and the City crowd than an insightful personal recollection of time spent in the kitchen. (And speaking of SATC, if you find that show whiny, elitist and narcissistic, don't pick up Apron Anxiety. The book has a little too much Carrie Bradshaw influence for my comfort.) Shelasky is a good writer whose constant dramas did keep me engaged. But if you're looking for a satisfying, touching, and relatable memoir about food and cooking, this book misses the mark.
Courtesy of the New Yorker.
My research these days is related to soda consumption in Providence, Rhode Island, and I spend much of my time reading and thinking about soda taxes and policies to reduce consumption across the country. So I was particularly interested in this week's story about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban the sale of soft drinks larger than 16 ounces in food-service operations across the city. The ban would apply to restaurants, movie theaters, and the like, but would exempt alcoholic and dairy-based drinks (mmm, 30-oz milkshake!), fruit juices, and diet beverages.
NYC has recently been a hot spot for food reform, particularly in the form of top-down policies implemented by the Bloomberg administration. Among those policies are a ban on the use of trans-fats in restaurants, a letter-grading system for eateries, and a requirement that chain restaurants publicly post calorie content beside menu items. By and large, these policies have been somewhat successful and somewhat popular (which is generally about as far as you can get with a New Yorker).
But this new soda proposal has been scorned, shrugged off, shunned, and scoffed at by talking heads across the political spectrum. Here, I'll address the two largest concerns of the New York Times
, the New Yorker
, the Huffington Post
, and even the Daily Show
, and share some of my (still being formulated) thoughts on the issue.Limiting consumer options.
Not-so-subtle implication: Bloomberg is restricting my personal liberties!! Reality: I can't drink 24 ounces of soda while I watch the latest Kristen Stewart movie. Okay...what are we really talking about here?
"Nanny Bloomberg," as he's been dubbed by less level-headed members of the press than myself, has become known for health-related policies that attempt to make New Yorkers eat healthier against their wills. The New Yorker has an interesting argument as to why Bloomberg exercises his arrogance in this manner - he's not up for re-election, he's too rich to care about corporate power, and he has huge political influence in his city. So he uses his power in the most devious way possible - he tries to make you eat better, and maybe even live longer as a consequence
. The devil!
I won't dismiss the consumer-choice argument, because it's obviously a valuable one. The government's role is not to control our everyday decisions - it is to serve us, protect us, and hopefully fix the potholes on Williams Street in the near future. But at the same time, the government has played a huge role in allowing corporate power of our food system to grow as it has. Corn wasn't always cheap (and it wasn't always available as a syrup, either). To suggest that taking away 10 or so ounces of our soda is a terrible affront to our personal liberties is to be incredibly blind to the realities of American food production. Surely we should be more angered about the huge profit Coca-Cola rakes in on our expanding waistlines than the consequences of drinking less soda. Which brings me to the next bulletpoint...It's a slippery slope!
I find this argument kind of hilarious. I mean, what's at the end of this slope? A hell of vegetables and grains, grown organically and on sustainable farms? Okay, maybe I'm the only one who thinks that image is funny. But really - what exactly are we afraid of?
Some policies really do imply a slippery slope dilemma - national security programs come to mind, or allowing corporations the same rights as citizens. But reducing how much soda you can drink in one sitting? That seems like a one-off to me. And honestly, it's not even that strong of a policy. Have you people ever read some of those crazy liberal food blogs?! (Full disclosure: you may be reading one right now.) Here are my honest thoughts
: We have already
lost control of what we eat. Corporations run our food system, and so our diversity of options has decreased significantly over time, even as the number of food items on grocery stores shelves has skyrocketed. And in order for the word "sustainability" to gain any traction in our culture or kitchens, the government has
to get more involved. City, state, federal - all parties need to act on behalf of their citizens and figure out how the hell to feed us all better. There are a million problems and (a million)^2 questions along the way. Let's stop wringing our hands about the Nanny and start wondering why our government has let so many of us down for so long.
This piece originally appeared on Serious Eats.
- The W.K. Kellogg Foundation released a survey of 800 American adults that revealed some interesting patterns in fruit and vegetable consumption. About 70% of respondents said they eat more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables than they did five years ago. 45% said they grew their own produce in the last year. And 83% said that the government should shift its funding towards smaller sustainable farms and away from large farm businesses. More information and statistics can be found in this infographic.
- A judge ruled in favor of the Federal Trade Commission in a complaint against POM Wonderful LLC, maker of POM pomegranate juice and supplements. The FTC charged that POM's claims that their products could treat, prevent, or reduce the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction are not well supported. Expert testimony revealed much uncertainty around these claims, and the judge ruled that consumers had no way of determining the validity of the health claims in advertisements.
- The Union of Concerned Scientists released an infographic detailing the increase in American crop production and funding that would be necessary to provide the USDA's daily recommendations of fruit and vegetables to all Americans. The necessary increase in acreage and funding is comparatively quite small next to the acreage and funding allocated to "big ag". Additionally, the UCS claims that 189,000 new jobs would be created with new investment in small agriculture.
- Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York proposed legislation to eliminate fingerprinting of food stamp recipients in New York City. The state no longer requires fingerprinting, and New York City and Arizona are the only two jurisdictions in the country that require fingerprinting of food stamp applicants. The city maintains that fingerprinting reduces fraud and saves the city money. Public comments on this measure will be accepted until early July.
- An agreement between Colombia and the U.S. now allows for tariff-free trade between the two countries. This extension of trade relations allows for many American food products, such as chicken, soybeans, and beef, to enter Colombia duty-free. Some Colombian farmers worry that American products will be priced substantially lower than Colombian equivalents, threatening farmers in the Latin American country. Additionally, some hygiene certifications used to monitor Colombian food products are generally not recognized in the U.S., making exports more difficult.
Why Calories Count, by Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim
Arguably the most important nutrition book to be released this year, Why Calories Count
is Nestle and Nesheim's take on the relationship between calories and weight. The authors do a wonderful job making nutrition science accessible, and the book may give you a few new ideas for how to approach weight loss and a healthy diet.Culinary Intelligence, by Peter Kaminsky
This half-memoir, half-diet guide is friendly and easy to read. Rather than lecture or scold, Kaminsky provides simple tips gleaned from his journey of losing forty pounds. He is a food enthusiast, with no patience for bland diet food, making Culinary Intelligence
a refreshing take on the weight-loss story.Taste Buds and Molecules, by Francois Chartier
While Taste Buds and Molecules
is a bit heavy to lug to the beach, it has tons of new recipe inspiration for planning your summer picnics. Its innovative design makes this book easy to read and Chartier's take on pairing foods and wines is truly something new.Charlotte au Chocolat, by Charlotte Silver
Charlotte Silver grew up in her mother's restaurant, a high-end dining club near Harvard University. She recounts the ups and downs of childhood in the restaurant business in Charlotte au Chocolat
, including plenty of mouthwatering dish descriptions.An Extravagant Hunger, by Anne Zimmerman
M.F.K. Fisher remains one of the most influential and inspired food writers of all time, and this biography by Anne Zimmerman provides unique insight into her life and struggles. An Extravagant Hunger
has it all: romance, despair, and of course, amazing food.An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler
Adler's take on cooking is relaxed and fluid—her recipes blend into anecdotes and experiences from her years as a cook. She takes much inspiration from the beautiful prose of M.F.K. Fisher, which is reflected in her personal and engaging writing style. An Everlasting Meal
is lovely book for curling up under the sun and dreaming of new dishes.On the Future of Food, by the Prince of Wales
This slight book is packed with a compelling case for revolutionizing our food system. If you're looking to brush up on your food facts but want an accessible pool-side read, On the Future of Food
is a great beginner's guide to good food.White Bread, by Aaron Bobrow-Strain
Bread is a staple of many countries' diets, and is a necessity in many American households. Aaron Bobrow-Strain takes us through the complicated and fascinating history of bread
, both homemade and packaged, and how American culture has been reflected in the country's bread preferences over time.French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billon
We often turn to the French as the gold standard of cuisine and food culture, and Karen Le Billon argues that French parents are also most adept at raising adventurous, un-picky eaters. Her memoir French Kids Eat Everything
of transforming two fussy American tots into well-behaved and proper French children provides an interesting conversation starter.This piece originally appeared on Serious Eats.
I thought it was about time to make a website, for professional reasons and all. I'll try to keep a log of my writing from Serious Eats here, and will hopefully generate some other new and interesting content by the end of the summer.
Enjoy, and don't hesitate to contact me with any questions or thoughts!
Thanks for visiting.