The Politics of Food

Last week, I came home early from work. It was a warm day, which made me itchy for spring, so I went into my miniscule backyard to inspect the progress of the buds on the trees. I heard a couple of neighbors chatting, so I wandered over for a quick "hey." I had to go back in to grade papers, but we talked briefly about the weather and the buds. I said that I couldn't wait for the farmer's market to open and that I wanted to join a CSA this year. Long pause. The thought bubbles over their heads read, "Laura is off her meds."

Ezra Klein writes about Alice Waters and the food movement. She hopes to have found a friend in the White House and is pushing her agenda of locally grown, organic food. But is it realistic, especially in this economy? Klein quotes Bourdain.

Chef-author Anthony Bourdain recently took direct aim at Waters' "let
them eat artisanal cheese" tendencies, complaining to the Web site DCist,
"We're all in the middle of a recession, like we're all going to start
buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There's
something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become
unrealistic."

Food is not a priority to most people. Pressed for time and energy, most people are going through the drive-through window at Wendy's. Even if it was cheaper and more readily available, kale and okra are only important to the intellectual fringe. And people don't want to hear about it. They don't want the guilt. Vegetable-guilt drives people to Sarah Palin's rallies.

A little commonsense needs to be on the menu.

47 thoughts on “The Politics of Food

  1. I just wanted to thank you for the line “Vegetable-guilt dries people to Sarah Palin’s rallies.” I think I’ll be snorting about that all day. 🙂

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  2. Okra has a broader appeal than “the intellectual fringe”. They occasionally serve it deep-fried at our cafeteria. The french fried sweet potatoes are pretty good too. That’s a vegetable, too.

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  3. When I was in North Carolina, it wasn’t the intellectuals eating the okra. For myself, I didn’t like okra and I’m not a big fan of anything leafy, even arugala.

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  4. Okra, despite its inherent nastiness, is a near-staple in the South, and it is put into soups because the goo it produces is not bad at binding. The deep-fried version is also good for throwing in food fights.
    Amy’s right about the sweet potatoes, though.

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  5. I’ve tried sweet potato fries and they aren’t bad, but they aren’t the real thing. Speaking of recession food, it it hard to beat the regular potato for cheap nutrition.

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  6. There are many ways to be political about food that don’t include kale. (Blech.) For example this recession has pushed our family to a new pattern that’s both cheaper and good for the environment: we skip on much of the meat. My husband and one daughter still eat chicken, but no fish (mercury concerns) and very little pork or beef. It saves us tons of money, is healthier, and does wonders for the environment.
    Have you heard the statistics about the recent uptick in frozen food purchases? Evidently people who used to eat out are now buying frozen dinners at Wal-Mart. This also sets off my political food buttons. I must be the only person on this earth who doesn’t love Trader Joe’s. Have you seen the metric tons of packaging used in these foods, and how salty/fatty they are? Are we all *really* that pressed for time? As MH notes, what ever happened to a simple potato, thrown in the crock pot for the day?

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  7. I love frozen food. Except for lettuce, carrots, potatoes and onions, we get all of our vegtables frozen for most of the year. If you count french fries, we also get a very large portion of our potatoes frozen. We eat Whole Foods frozen pizzas one day a week and Belle and Evans chicken another. With that and Sunday left-overs, we only have to do real cooking two workdays a week.

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  8. Hey, I’m doing a new course next year called The Politics of Food. I expect about half the campus. Fun, fun, fun!

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  9. There’s an ethnic angle to kale and okra as well. I live in a heavily Af-Am area (for Los Angeles County, that is), and we get a *much* better selection of dark leafy greens than Whole Paycheck, TJ’s, or other places where food activists shop. And we’re talking kale, collards, mustards, and beet greens, not arugula.
    A lot of my neighbors care about locally-grown food not because of Alice Waters but because of the food-contamination scares, from spinach to jalapeños to melamine-laced milk (and pet food). Several have told me that they prefer to shop at Mexican markets because the food isn’t factory-farmed but trucked across the border from small farms in Durango, Sinaloa, and Nayarit. That too is problematic, but the point is that they *are* thinking about it. Bourdain and Waters can both get down off their high horses.

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  10. I don’t know that they are preventing much exposure to food contamination by getting their food from local farms. Is there really any evidence to support that?
    Having said that, I prefer to shop at ethnic grocery stores because they are often cheaper and I get some variety that isnt available inexpensively elsewhere.

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  11. An Ann Coulter ad?? Ugh! I have no control over the ads that google places on my website. My guess is that I wrote a post about Republicans a couple of days ago, and that google thinks that it was a pro-Republican post. I should just take those ads down. They don’t bring in much revenue.
    Politics of Food? Sounds excellent, RC. However, I would expect appetizers in that class. So, you’re going to do a history, the agribusiness, food subsidies, health? What else? An international perspective? I want to see the syllabus.

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  12. “Are we all *really* that pressed for time?”
    Part of the problem is that home cooking is a multi-step process. 1. plan menu and make shopping list 2. do grocery shopping 3. cook 4. clean up. This is a very vulnerable supply line, especially when you know that you have other choices. If you buy frozen, you eliminate 1, simplify 2, simplify 3, and simplify or eliminate 4.
    Another issue (with small children) is knowing that you are making a big mess to produce a meal that only 50-75% of the household is going to want to eat. We’ve been eating at our campus cafeteria for the past year and a half for something like $10-12 for all of us. The kids moan and complain about going and want to eat at home (i.e. eat toaster waffles or peanut butter and jelly or oatmeal or canned soup), but we’ve informed them that until they can cook for the whole family, we parents are deciding where we eat dinner.

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  13. Some more on food politics. Well, it’s George Will, so there’s sex thrown in. I’m not sure about the editorializing, but this has some interesting commentary about how Americans have come to moralizing food choices.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/25/AR2009022503123.html
    I’m with Laura though — can’t imagine that it’s going to last long, with the recession. Organic/local produce is just too expensive for most folks (and, btw, a pita to get to the farmer’s market — can’t just drop in on the way home from work as easily).
    But I do love okra. Have been known to fry it myself at home. But I am a southern girl.

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  14. @will: Oh, definitely not. But they are thinking about their food and its sources in ways that neither AW nor AB gives them credit for.

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  15. I also have the ethnic grocery thing going. I always buy fresh veg & fruit there; it’s unbelievably cheap and much higher quality. And for the record I’m a huge fan of frozen veg — purchased as an ingredient, as opposed to the full prepared meal. It’s the only way we survive a full work-week, where we can’t really absorb another trip to the store on Wednesday night.
    Here’s my thing with buying local. If we were all paying the full cost (including pollution costs) of groceries trucked in from elsewhere, and the full cost of the disposable packaging, buying fresh, local produce would make sense. This is what I argue for. I think you can do that without making it a style issue (which I believe is essentially the argument here).

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  16. Most people never read books, so I guess I’m a Communist mass murderer for wanting to have a few of them in schools.

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  17. In which world are kale and okra rich intellectual people’s foods, and can I move there?
    (I think of them as poor southerners’ foods, and love both.)

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  18. Thanks for the reminder, meg, of how little I miss collard or mustard greens. My parents never inflicted beet greens on me, but I imagine they’re much of a muchness. Toss them out with the butter beans, which my mother never served after one time when I was about eight and refused to eat them, while my dad insisted I would not leave the table until I did. About two hours later, I think that I gave in. I come by my hardheadedness the old-fashioned way.

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  19. Okra and kale became rich intellectual people’s food by the same mechanism that rapini got to be broccoli rabe. I think most of the hippest vegetables started out as poor peoples staples. Next up for rehabilitation, poke salad, where salad means, of course, boiled in unfiltered tap water.
    And I always liked butter beans, though I had some trouble with the limas dressed like baked beans. My mother stopped making those after she found several platesful behind the shrubbery after a backyard party.

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  20. I picked okra and kale, because northern girl has never cooked them before and because I like the sound of them. Now, give me as asparagus and I can cook six ways till Sunday. Same goes for zuccini and spinach.
    So, what is the most elitist vegetable?
    I’ve been cooking out of the Rachel Ray cookbook, which was a Christmas gift. I have to write a post about that one.

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  21. For most elitist vegetable, I nominate salsify. Asparagus and artichokes were the hoity-toitiest vegs of my youth, but they’re _veg_ordinaire_ elsewhere. Whereas I never heard of homespun salsify seasoned with the salt of the earth.

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  22. I nominate heirloom anything as most elitist. (Have I just outed myself as hopelessly behind the times?)

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  23. I nominate anything that is not its plebeian color and/or shape: white asparagus, yellow watermelons, square pumpkins.

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  24. Maybe she Suze meant yellow pumpkins and square watermelon? Just a guess as I’ve heard of those.

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  25. Wouldn’t my Louisiana-born grandmother have been shocked to learn of kale’s appeal to “the intellectual fringe.”
    Though my Dede was a schoolteacher and emphasized the importance of education to her only child and his children, she cooked okra because it was *cheap*.
    (Same with tripe. My dad recalls fighting to save the pieces o’ cow stomach from the dog when the serving platter fell on the floor during one family dinner hour.)

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  26. Whoops — the first paragraph should read, “Wouldn’t my Louisiana-born grandmother have been shocked to learn of okra’s appeal to “the intellectual fringe.”

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  27. To some extent Alice Waters is like the anti-vaccine parents, parasiting on the immunity others have gotten for their children. When a whole farming area is organic, you get plagues of locusts, leafhoppers, etc. Yield goes to hell.
    Factory farming is extremely efficient. If you abandon it, food prices will go way up. I see a lot of the special food mania as a way for people to grunt together to show that they are in the same (refined, special, tasteful) tribe.

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  28. Has anyone ever taken a look at what the rich actually eat? Most of the menu at upscale restaurants isn’t “healthy,” and it certainly isn’t locally grown. Chilean sea bass, lobster flown in, caviar, fresh exotic fruits all year. The only rich who eat like Alice Waters’ clientele are…Alice Waters’ clientele. Of course, they eat like the poor of the past. Vegetarian meals, whole grain breads, etc. Much of the high status food of today is the poor man’s food of the past. (High status as in conferring status points to those who follow the food-of-the-moment fads.)
    I don’t know about you, but going through 6 crates of peaches to find 31 pristine peaches for a dinner is wasteful. Yes, I’ll assume that the remnants of the 6 crates were used to make something else. Still–wasteful.
    As I live in New England, I applaud modern agriculture. Boiled mutton and root vegetables would be our lot, if it had to be locally grown. Of course, 99% of the farmland has been developed, so “local” is a relative concept. Oh, and cod stocks are very low, so we really shouldn’t be eating it. Back to boiled mutton.
    I buy local vegetables, in season, from a local grower. (Not everything you’ll find at the farm stand is grown locally, at least in New England.) It tastes very good, and I love the variety of the old vegetable lines, which aren’t supermarket staples. However, the supply varies, and it’s vulnerable to weather and pests.
    I don’t think the local growers could supply the immediate area. It is a niche market, which caters to people who cook their own meals. I think most people do not cook from scratch on a regular basis, as I do. If you plan well, and keep an eye on specials at markets, it can be cheaper than the prepared, frozen stuff. If everyone cooked from scratch, there wouldn’t be the huge jump in food supplies in the local supermarkets at Thanksgiving. That’s just the effect of most families cooking a turkey, and the visiting relatives bringing a side dish or dessert. As I wrote, I doubt that the average American family cooks during the week.
    As to time, I think it’s a matter of perception. I read somewhere that most cooks spend about half an hour preparing dinner, whether they cook from scratch or reheat something. Convenience foods allow Americans to eat more complex food, and more of it.
    Of course, if the powers that be decided to institute a Chez Panisse-inspired policy for school lunches, all the school lunch personnel, and business managers, would need training. In San Francisco, at an Alice Waters run facility, I’d bet.

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  29. NPR had an interesting report yesterday: “Iowa Family Weighs Future Of Farm,” in which the husband and wife have differing views on the future of farming. The wife’s convinced the husband to have an “organic” corn patch, while they continue to farm the rest of the 1000 acres in the standard way. The husband, though, is coming around, and imagining that the future involves smaller farms with smaller scale techniques. But, in order to move to that model, he imagines growing a “value-added”, i.e. non-commodotized, and expensive (think iPhone) crop.
    I think there’s a future for both kinds of farming, but am wary of more expensive sources of foods being required for others (in school lunches, and elsewhere).

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  30. “NPR had an interesting report yesterday: “Iowa Family Weighs Future Of Farm,” in which the husband and wife have differing views on the future of farming. The wife’s convinced the husband to have an “organic” corn patch, while they continue to farm the rest of the 1000 acres in the standard way. The husband, though, is coming around, and imagining that the future involves smaller farms with smaller scale techniques. But, in order to move to that model, he imagines growing a “value-added”, i.e. non-commodotized, and expensive (think iPhone) crop.”
    The technical achievements of factory farming have been amazing. Half of my mom’s family is involved in wheat farming in eastern Washington, and my dad was telling me recently that whereas in the good old days, the wheat harvest would take weeks, it now takes only a single day. This advance is thanks to bigger, faster combines. I would imagine that there has to be a significant fuel savings involved in not running heavy equipment for several weeks. Likewise, in the past, all the local farms would be harvesting wheat all at the same time for weeks, so each individual farm needed to have its own set of heavy equipment. Thanks to the new fast harvesting, it is now possible to share equipment.
    On the other side of the family, my parents and paternal grandparents used to each have 60 mama cows and would send about 60 calves a year to the feed lot. These days, both farms are down to 20, which is pretty much hobby farm size. I suggested to my dad that he look into selling as organic or grass-fed, since up until they leave for the feed-lot, that’s essentially what they are. He said that at least right now, you’d have to follow through right to the stores, which would be a big pain in the neck. What would be great would be to find a middle man who could take the cattle off ones hands and deal with the picky business of slaughter, packaging, marketing, etc. Interestingly, my grandma tells me that back in the day (40 or 50 years ago), they sold animals directly to the town grocery store. I suspect that it probably wouldn’t even be legal to do that today. Dave S.?
    Speaking of which, there’s a book by a guy named Joel Salatin entitled “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front.” I haven’t read it, but the conflict between “sustainability” and government regulation comes up a lot in my architecture and design reading. I had a post in November entitled “The more ecologically you live, the more illegal it is,” dealing with this issue and quoting from a Taunton press article on grey water.
    http://xantippesblog.blogspot.com/2008/11/more-ecologically-you-live-more-illegal.html

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  31. Amy P, it’s funny you would mention buying local meat in Iowa. As a child I always remember the meat we ate coming in the white paper wrapping from the local locker, with the name of the cut stamped on the side. Sometimes we’d even buy a portion of an entire animal just for our family, in which case the packages were also stamped with our name. You could do this when we were living in a small town in Iowa or Nebraska; maybe it’s possible in Chicago as we’re not too terribly far from the producers. But Las Vegas? New York? In a world where everyone is moving into ever-larger cities? As stranger notes, local producers would never be able to sustain all of New England.

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  32. Let’s not forget venison, either. A lot of states have unsustainably large deer and elk populations and a lack of non-human predators. In our area of Texas, there are a number of deer-processing plants. I believe a couple of them (in a historically Czech town) will even turn your deer into sausage.

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  33. I wouldn’t eat venison from wild deer at this point. I’d be too afraid of Chronic Wasting Disease.

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  34. Half of my mom’s family is involved in wheat farming in eastern Washington, and my dad was telling me recently that whereas in the good old days, the wheat harvest would take weeks, it now takes only a single day.
    Amy, did I know this about you? I grew up in Spokane, WA, and my family still owns about 1800 acres along the Kootnei River in northern Idaho, a couple of hours away from the homestead, which we have farmed. Wheat, mostly, but sometimes barley and lentils. Small world.
    Sorry I came late to this thread; it looks like it was a great one. My wife and I are definite food snobs, but we’re also the parents of four daughters, and we’re also Mormon inheritors of a tradition of food storage, gardening, and canning. Plus we’re big defenders of the farmers markets. And plus we try to live pretty cheap. Putting all this together doesn’t always result in a very consistent approach to “food politics,” but we do our best.

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  35. RAF,
    Probably not. That side of the family ranges around far eastern Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. My mom grew up around Clarkston, Lewiston, and Asotin. When I was a kid, we used to do these epic car trips from far western Washington to Clarkston for Christmas or Easter. (Clarkston and Lewiston face each other, one on each side of the Washington-Idaho border, which is pretty neat.)
    I should probably add that when my mom was growing up, everybody was extremely free-and-easy with the chemicals and there has been an unusual amount of ill-health at relatively early ages among her parents and siblings. Her father had Parkinson’s, which seems to be especially prevalent among farmers, perhaps because of high exposure to pesticides.

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  36. One more thing–everybody needs to read “The $64 Tomato.” It’s a memoir by a would-be organic gardener, chronicling his struggles with all the critters that want to eat his yummy fruits and veggies.

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  37. Right there with you on the $64 Tomato, Amy. The chapter about the woodchuck had me ROTFL.
    On the topic of eastern Washington State, were you aware of all the downwinders’ cancer and health problems as a result of radioactive releases at the Hanford nuclear facility? “Atomic Farmgirl” is a very good narrative about that whole thing, and in general a good read.

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  38. There was a time, years ago, when I was pretty thoroughly informed about all the issues pertaining to Hanford, the state and federal governments responses to the radioactive pollution there, and so forth. But I really haven’t followed up on it since Clinton was in office. I wonder what the latest is there.
    Clarkston/Lewiston is a nice area. The time was, years ago, that some of the grain my father either part for the feed mill or sold from the farm was transported down their on trains, where they’d be picked up on barges going down the Snake River that would take them west to Pasco. Nowadays, though, I think it’s all shipped by train directly to the Tri-Cities and the Columbia River.
    Eastern Washington and Oregon, Northern Idaho. Beautiful places. Sometimes I really miss the Inland Empire.

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