Articles in Academics
I set out this summer curious as to how our food is produced and in search of the people producing it. Armed with a little money generously donated to our cause and a whole lot of enthusiasm, my colleague Chris Maggiolo and I traveled 15,000 miles in more than 100 days to investigate the food system. Living in the back of our 20-year-old 20-foot van, we spent time in nearly every state in continental America.
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In that time, we worked with just about every kind of artisanal food producer you can imagine (nearly 80 in all). We harvested oysters in Rhode Island and made tortillas in Portland, Ore. We foraged herbs for bitters in the mountains of Colorado and spent the day shrimping off the coast of Houston. We chopped and we cured; we brewed and we baked. We met those enthusiastic to tell their story while others were more laconic. We met fifth-generation farmers who’ve barely managed to hold on to patrimonial land while green-thumbed others have taken to agriculture for the very first time. We met producers with a profound social or sustainability mission and others who simply wanted to eat or feed their family better.
Think beyond the grocery store shelves
We were fortunate to experience a goat being born in central Virginia and took part in a pig slaughter in Oregon. These are profoundly emotional experiences in their own respective way — the alpha and omega of life. It’s easy to forget the seemingly obvious fact that our food comes not from shelves at the store but is the result of a natural life cycle that includes death and rebirth and that extends to distant (though hopefully not too distant) farms and fields. In the case of meat, this means living breathing animals whose death was necessary to bring our sustenance.
Appreciating this fact is to consume more critically, and for my part, perhaps not to eliminate meat consumption altogether but to certainly take measures to ensure that the meat I do eat is responsibly raised and humanely slaughtered. Once you’ve experienced the profundity of the cycle firsthand, to do otherwise would be incongruous. I want to take steps to be a little more intentional. I encourage you to do the same, and it can start with the simple act of consuming meat.
Though we may hold romantic notions of “craft,” it isn’t always what it’s made out to be. This pertains to food production in the general sense (“artisanal” bread at Subway comes to mind, the largest fast food chain in the world) but it is especially true, and especially well veiled, in terms of alcohol. For instance, many of the top spirits brands are owned by the same monolithic parent companies.
They buy neutral grain spirits from large distilleries in Indiana. Sometimes they age them elsewhere. Sometimes they run them through another still. Sometimes they just slap on rustic label to give an aura of hand-crafted authenticity. This isn’t to say these spirits are necessarily worse for being produced in this manner but it is to reiterate the importance of looking behind the label. We are experiencing a revival of truly small-batch artisanal spirits throughout America. I encourage you to seek out something made with local grains, by local people, feeding into local economies. All stand to benefit, your taste buds included.
Meet your makers
Relationships matter. This applies to people, to places, and to products. Never have I been more aware how critical it is to meet a farmer at the local farmers market. Ask questions. For instance, “What exactly are garlic scapes?” And ask for advice. “How would I use them?” These individuals are proud of what they do, and their labors of love shine through in conversation. It’s a contagious sort of enthusiasm. What’s more, I encourage you to create not just a relationship of mutual benefit but of one actual friendship. We live in an age that feels quite solitary at times. We can begin to build resilient communities in the most natural way possible, by sharing sentiments.
Get out to the farm. If I learned nothing else from our adventure across America it’s that experience is the best educator. I can read how cheese is made a hundred times but just one opportunity to milk a sheep before dawn, to culture curds in a vat and to taste from wheels in odorous caves designed for aging, cheese comes alive with a significance entirely new. This stands for farmers and brewers and bakers (and the rest) as well as cheesemakers.
In the end, I simply encourage you to be curious. Ask thoughtful questions and search for meaningful answers. Don’t take things at face value. Experiment! Pick up a couple pots and soil and grow your own herbs. Try (and fail) to make cheese. Try (and fail) to bake bread. Get your hands dirty. You’ll feel not only a tangible and edible sense of accomplishment but you’ll have acquired a measure of self-reliant contentment. The next time you’re in the grocery, you’ll be better informed because you asked and answered these questions. You’ll appreciate your food, and those who made it, in whole new way. You’ll demand more from the food system. And with the help of artisans across America, you’ll continue to see it change.
Top photo: Brad Jones, left, and Chris Maggiolo stirring strawberry preserves at Quince and Apple in Madison, Wis. Credit: Sarah Makoski
Myths are fictional stories that satisfy shared desires. In the contemporary world of wine, the most pervasive myth is that of terroir, the story of how a wine’s essential identity comes from where the grapes for it were grown. Like all myths, this one contains a metaphoric, not a literal truth. Terroir’s story fulfills our longstanding wish to believe that wine comes from more than human hands, and so possesses a significance that transcends artifice.
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Grapes were first cultivated and wine made deliberately some 8,000 years ago. From its earliest origins, wine assumed a special because a sacred cultural status. In societies as different as ancient Babylon, the Pharaohs’ Egypt, classical Greece and Imperial Rome, it was viewed as a gift to humanity coming directly from the gods. No other beverage, indeed no other foodstuff, was thought of in this way.
Wine and the divine — absent terroir
Why was wine valued so highly? Unlike other food and drink, it did not require human agency. And unlike other natural products such as milk or honey, it possessed a seemingly mysterious power to relieve care. Put simply, drinking wine made a person feel good. That is why Euripides in “The Bacchae” has the prophet Tiresias declare that “when we pour libations . . . it is the god himself we pour . . . and by this bring blessings on mankind.”
In today’s world, we do not credit a god with wine’s power. Instead, we attribute that power to the presence of alcohol, which is produced through the interaction of living yeasts and the sugar in ripe grapes. And we no longer consider fermentation to be mysterious. From a rational modern perspective, wine is simply fermented grape juice. It can be controlled, even manipulated, by human beings.
The problem with this perspective is that it robs wine of its uniqueness. And the solution appears to be the story of terroir, according to which wine is, if not sacred, still special because it reflects its origins. Or to be more exact, it is special because it can embody a specific natural origin — not just a region but a vineyard. Many contemporary wines, particularly mass-produced ones, do not do this. But artisanal wines made with attention to the distinctive character of each plot or parcel of land — those are the wines in which one supposedly can experience the gôut or taste of terroir.
The back story
Terry Theise, a leading American importer of artisanal wines, makes the case for terroir eloquently. “Wine can be a bringer of mystical experience,” he declares, adding that the wine “has to be authentic . . . [with] a rootedness in family, soil, and culture.” And what constitutes “rootedness?” Thiese recalls a well-regarded German vintner telling him, “I hope my wines convey a story. Otherwise they’re just things.” It’s the story of the vineyard and, if this doesn’t sound overly sentimental, a man in love with the vineyard, that enables wine to be what Thiese calls “a portal into the mystic.”
This all sounds great, if admittedly a bit New Age-ish, and it’s true that many of the world’s best wines convey a sense of place. They would not taste the same if made with grapes grown somewhere else. But that does not mean that they actually taste of a specific place. After all, tasting a place literally means eating dirt. Moreover, plenty of fine wines are made with blends of grapes from different vineyards. And some of the world’s most prestigious wines — many classified growth Bordeaux, for instance — come from vineyards containing separate plots, with diverse soil types and exposures.
It’s worth noting that the very concept of terroir is a relatively recent invention. The word, derived from the Latin terratorium, entered the French lexicon during the Renaissance, when it meant “territory.” Not until the 1920s and 1930s was terroir used to designate a vineyard’s natural environment. Then it began to signify a particular feature of wines grown in that environment, features that may be both sensed physically and recognized intellectually.
The emergence of the story of terroir corresponded precisely with a period in which fine wine experienced a profound crisis. The phylloxera plague of the late-19th century had devastated vineyards the world over; virtually all winemaking countries were experiencing deep economic depression; a generation had been bled dry by world war; and people with money to spend on drink were increasingly downing cocktails, all the rage among the middle and upper classes. Even in France, wine was being valued less for any magical properties and more simply for its alcohol.
A drink apart
The people who still cared about wine — some consumers surely, but more significantly, vintners, merchants, agricultural ministers, and then importers, writers, critics and others — needed to elevate wine and separate it from its competition (beer, hard spirits, and in the second half of the 20th century, when refrigerators became a household staple, fruit juices, soft drinks, and the like). What better quality to single out than terroir? It, after all, was what allegedly distinguished wine. Its story made wine special.
The elevation of terroir as the primary source of a wine’s value was not the result of some grand conspiracy. Nonetheless, marketers have used it with great success. And though terroir is not always considered a portal to the spiritual, its story continues to satisfy an apparently widespread desire to consume something that is more than just another man-made thing. In reality, the wines we drink are modern consumer products. They come in many different forms, but the differences have less to do with the taste of the wines themselves than with the attitudes that human beings bring to them. Put another way, if you want to taste terroir you can, but its source will be as much in you as in any vineyard.
Top photo: Paul Lukacs. Credit: Marguerite Thomas
Kimbal Musk has an audacious plan to destroy America’s appetite for junk food.
His big idea? Plastic.
Musk wants to revolutionize Alice Waters‘ concept of school gardens as societal change agents by making the gardens easy to build and maintain. More gardens will be installed and more students will learn the joy of growing and eating healthy fruits and vegetables.
As it is, Musk says, school gardens are a laudable idea that is dying on the vine. Raised wooden beds that look pretty when they are first planted disintegrate in a few short years. The alternative — concrete beds — is an ugly, expensive and permanent albatross schools grow to hate. Tear up school-yard blacktop to create green space? No public school has that kind of money.
Musk made it a personal project to design a solution. His modular plastic garden containers snap together to create customizable outdoor classrooms that can sit on top of existing hard scape. His concept is so slap-your-head simple that less than a year after launching his nonprofit Learning Gardens, Musk has commitments for at least 60 gardens each from Chicago, Los Angeles and Colorado to be installed by the end of 2013.
“I want to make the school-garden movement work,” says Musk, who was in Los Angeles two weeks ago to witness the planting of two giant gardens, a total of 3,000 square feet dedicated to fruits and vegetables, at Samuel Gompers Middle School in South L.A.
The key to ensuring that the gardens flourish is local control. Musk partners with a local sponsor, who raises the funds and works with the individual schools to design the gardens. “I don’t make a dime from this,” says Musk, “which gives us credibility with the people raising money to build these gardens.”
The Wasserman Foundation, led by sports business entrepreneur Casey Wasserman, took the lead at Gompers providing all of the funding and 100 Wasserman employees for the planting.
If gardens increase student engagement, they are a good investment, says Wasserman. “The success of our kids in our schools is the leading issue for our city.”
High tech and an apron
Musk comes to the school garden party with a rare combination of technology expertise and kitchen cred. In 1995 at 23, he and his brother Elon founded Zip2, an early content management system that provided the first maps and door-to-door directions on the Internet. The company built online restaurant and city guides in partnership with 100 major media companies, including the New York Times. It was sold in 1999 to Compaq for a reported $307 million.
Among several investments in startup software and technology companies, Musk helped his brother launch the company that would become PayPal. That venture was acquired by eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion in stock. Elon used his winnings to found SpaceX and Tesla Motors while Kimbal redirected his energies into his passion for food, attending the French Culinary Institute in New York City.
After traveling the country with his wife in search of a community to call their own, the Musk family settled in Boulder, Colo., and, in 2004, the couple opened The Kitchen. Its composting, wind-powered, recycle-everything culture earned immediate applause from Boulder’s environmental community. Food critics from across the country raved about Musk’s garden-fresh cuisine featuring ingredients harvested from the massive garden he planted near the restaurant.
Turning point for more than Kimbal Musk
From the earliest days, Musk’s vision included a modest nonprofit to support school gardens, an effort he named The Kitchen Community. The huge leap from supporting Boulder-area school gardens to today’s sweeping ambition to build gardens in every school in the country came after nearly dying in a tubing accident 2½ years ago.
“After my accident, the stuff that mattered was stuff that made a difference in the world, not the stuff that made money,” Musk says in his soft South African accent, a lingering artifact from his childhood in Pretoria. He moved to Canada when he was 18.
“After Kimbal broke his neck, it super-charged the giving philosophy,” says Travis Robinson, Kitchen Community managing director, who also traveled from Boulder to help with the Gompers planting. “Kimbal is a visionary, but he is pragmatic. It’s step by step, day by day to create communities and empower people.”
Building school gardens costs a fraction of what it would cost to lobby Congress to change farm policy, says Musk. And in the long run, it is the more effective way to change society. “Start with the young, work with them until they are adults, and they will demand real food. When you have the demand, you can change the government policies that create McDonald’s and junk food.”
“I knew if I could make this work in the South Side of Chicago with $2 million, I could raise $2 billion and make it work everywhere,” he says. “We will have gardens in about 20% of Chicago’s schools. That’s a critical mass of students, enough for a movement that can change the food culture in that city. You do it child by child.”
Students aren’t the only people who can benefit from Musk’s novel approach. Last May, I asked Musk for help on a project to overhaul the outdoor space for a shelter for homeless female veterans. The backyard of the Venice, Calif., home was one giant cement slab, and they wanted a vegetable garden.
Musk came to the rescue with a “starter garden” that could sit on the cement. The lady vets loved how they could move the modules around to redesign their garden whenever they felt like a change.
Building the demand for fresh, wholesome food one person at a time.
Photo: Kimbal Musk with a student and special education teacher Holly Driscoll at Gompers Middle School in South Los Angeles. Credit: Corie Brown
The greatest (food) show on earth is just getting under way in Turin, northern Italy. As the autumn fogs soften the contours of the Alps that shoulder the Piedmontese capital, food-related people from every corner of the earth have come here to bring today’s most important food issues into sharper focus. Slow Food’s International Salone del Gusto is a biennial, five-day event, and this is the ninth edition. This year, for the first time, both the Salone del Gusto and its sister event, Terra Madre, are open to the public. Their joint opening ceremony took place in the city’s Olympic Isozaki ice hockey stadium.
The audience was the message: Representatives of food-making communities from 150 countries — including Syrian cheesemakers, Iraqi beekeepers, Iranian wheat growers and Afghani raisin producers — sat together in what has become a global fraternity of solidarity and mutual respect. As they and the rest of the 8,000-strong audience listened to the opening talks, excitement, pride and wonder were palpable. For many from such rural locations, this was the first trip away from home.
Terra Madre was first organized in 2004, the brainchild — like so many of the most inspiring, life-changing ideas Slow Food has hatched — of Carlo Petrini, who founded Slow Food in 1986. In a radical move, Terra Madre decided to bring these country folk face to face to share and discuss traditional and innovative ways of making food in the modern age. Herdsmen from Chad were able to compare notes on transhumance with Mongolian pony herders and European shepherds. If, in that first edition, they met each other almost with disbelief, a live channel of communication and commitment has since been forged between them and the many volunteers and Slow Food coordinators who have helped facilitate this marvelous, ever-expanding network.
The growth of Terra Madre
A lot has changed since that first meeting of Terra Madre, when the motley groups of farmers, fisherwomen, herdsmen, growers and other food communities clustered, willy-nilly, in a large tent-like space. Some taped photos of their villages, animals or crops on its walls; others pulled handmade crafts from their suitcases and set up a spontaneous marketplace on the ground. This year, it’s much more structured: Each group has its own cataloged stall from which to share, explain and sell their foods and wares.
The opening ceremony’s first speaker was José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who spoke in four languages to deliver his talk.
“I feel like we’re all sitting around a big table at home,” he began, to nods and applause from the audience. “We must look forward, not back, to sustainability. Biodiversity is one of the keys: We once made use of 23,000 varieties of tuber. Now, we’re down to just six kinds of cereal crop. There will be 9 billion of us by 2050 and in order to increase our food production by 60%, we need to change our way of producing food and conserving energy.”
Salone del Gusto: Food waste needs to be addressed
“The ‘Zero Hunger’ project in Brazil suggested one way to do that,” he continued. “By mandating that one-third of the ingredients used in all the country’s school food were sourced locally from small producers and growers, we boosted local economies, helped our children eat healthy, seasonal food, and reduced waste and transport costs.” Food waste is a key problem, and one of the major themes of this year’s Salone. “If we could cut total food loss and waste by half we would have enough food to feed 1 billion more people.”
Da Silva’s message and commitment set the tone for the evening. A succession of inspiring speakers, including two of Slow Food’s vice presidents — Indian activist Vandana Shiva, and chef and food educator Alice Waters — as well as Nobel laureate Daro Fo, gave food for thought as they pointed to the issues Terra Madre’s seminars and conferences would be tackling. These went from the freedom of seeds to water rights, sustainability, endangered foods, raw-milk cheesemaking in the tropics, ocean conservation and hundreds of others. That’s in addition to the chance to taste handcrafted foods from Italy and beyond, attend meals cooked by top chefs and street-food vendors, and sample thousands of artisan wines.
Carlo Petrini: ‘Food’s sovereignty is under threat’
The ceremony ended with a passionate speech by Carlo Petrini.
“The challenges facing us are enormous. Food’s sovereignty is under threat,” he said. Ideas about food have changed in the last decade, and people globally are more aware of the value of good, clean and fair food, and of the long-term hazards of climate change, he said, but the road ahead is long and hard. “The shameful land-grabbing that is taking place around the world is nothing other than neo-colonialism, worse even than the last: 80 million hectares have already been stolen from Africa.” Food waste and the right to seed diversity are urgent issues. “Taking responsibility for food means taking care of the planet, of all living things, and that’s a political stance.” Terra Madre’s kind of politics requires serenity and perseverance. “We’ll need joyous versatility to face each obstacle, to adapt ourselves to every corner of the globe. That will be our strength for taking on the aridity and injustice of the arrogant and the overbearing.”
Top photo: Carlo Petrini, president and founder of Slow Food. Credit: Courtesy of Slow Food
To eat or not to eat? That’s not the question. What’s more important is to understand our relationship with food.
In this age of high-tech living, we often find ourselves in a hurry, trying to catch up. At times, it seems that we are riding on a tidal wave, not knowing where we are heading. Eating on the run is becoming a way of life, be it in the car or at our desks while responding to emails. And those business lunches: Can we really enjoy our food during a working lunch? Are we eating our lunch or our business problems?
A working lunch seems to be an efficient use of our time. But look more closely and we may find ourselves eating mindlessly. As we are trying to think, talk and make decisions, we may not be able to taste what we eat or realize how much we consume. Studies have shown this kind of mindless dining can lead to overeating, which in turn can lead to obesity, a major risk factor for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. To entice us to eat, the food industry surrounds us with television ads, fast-food “dollar menus” and strategic placement of unhealthy selections on supermarket shelves. All these social and environmental factors can make it difficult to gauge what and how much food our bodies truly need.
A few years ago, my husband and I visited Kochi, on the Shikoku island of Japan, an area famous for its fresh produce and seafood. We were amazed at how seriously the residents took care of their produce. During our car ride to the hotel, we saw rows of trees with round objects that looked like white Christmas ornaments dangling from the branches. To our astonishment, we found that they were maturing fruits — apples and pears, each wrapped in porous paper so that neither insects nor birds could devour or blemish them as they grew. This is a labor of love, to grow perfect, juicy fruits without any pesticides.
We were also impressed by how the locals enjoy their meals. We stayed at the Utoco Deep Sea Hotel, and dined at its restaurant. As with any Japanese cuisine, we expected the food preparation, presentation and setting to be artistic and pleasing to our senses — and it was. But what was even more striking was one of the hotel guests, a young attractive woman wearing an elegant executive suit, who walked into the restaurant with great poise.
She sat by herself at a table across from us. When the first course arrived, she paused and looked at the dish attentively from various angles as if trying to make sure that she had a panoramic view. She smiled at the dish, and then gently picked up her knife and fork, cut up a small portion, and gracefully put it into her mouth. As she started to chew, she put her cutlery down. She nodded slightly and beamed a smile at the dish. She continued to savor each bite, nodding with joy and gratitude. Though she was sitting alone, she was at ease and totally immersed in her dining experience. It was as if she was acknowledging a special communion with her food. Watching her mindful way of eating was a delight.
We all can have this savory experience, we only need to learn to be present for the food when we eat. When our mind is cleared of the chaos of the day and there is no distraction, we can fully engage our senses and enhance our experience with food. A good way to begin is to have a silent meal. We can eat a silent meal alone, like the young Japanese woman, or with our family or friends — even if we just get take-out. Begin by setting the table in the dining room, without the television or any reading materials. Sit down and shift your focus to yourbreath. As you breathe in, follow the entire duration of your in breath. As you breathe out, follow the entire duration of your out breath. Just a few conscious breaths can reconnect your body with your mind and prepare your senses to enjoy your meal.
Spend a few moments looking at the food. What is the aroma, the texture, the taste? What colors, shapes and sizes are the ingredients? What are the ingredients? Where are they from? Your local farmers market, supermarket or fast food restaurant? Do these foods enhance or compromise our well-being and the well-being of our planet?
I find that the Five Contemplations from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh are a useful guide:
Mindful eating provides nourishment to our bodies and our minds. When we eat, we feed our senses and we feel connected with the food, the earth, the sky and all the people who have made the food possible. We are aware that we are eating for our own well-being as well as the well-being of all. Eating mindfully is an opportunity for us to cultivate compassion for all beings. You will be surprised how much more wholesome your meal is when you can truly savor the gifts from the universe.
Lilian Cheung is co-author with Thich Nhat Hanh of the just released “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life” (HarperOne, 2010). She is the director of Health Promotion & Communication in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and editorial director of The Nutrition Source.
It seems food researchers like to keep us guessing. One minute we’re told to stay away from butter, the next they advise us to toss the margarine ASAP. Red meat falls in and out of favor, and no one seems to know whether the salt shaker will kill us or not. To find out what food scientists have in store next, chefs and food service executives gathered in January at the Worlds of Healthy Flavors Conference in California’s Napa Valley.
The annual conference, sponsored jointly by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition and the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, was launched in September 2004 to help corporate and executive chefs in volume food-service operations learn more about healthy meal choices. During the conference’s two and a half days, nutritionists present the newest research, chefs demonstrate recipes that put their recommendations to delicious practice and purveyors show off health-conscious innovations. But above all, participants want to know: What, exactly, should we be eating?
Debating what food is healthy
The debate between scientists and the food-services community is lively but centers around the organizers’ goal of helping large-scale chefs and operators stem the tide of diet-related health problems that are afflicting the United States (and increasingly, the world). The objective is to champion health by promoting world cuisines and the wide range of ingredients, flavors and menu concepts. According to the National Restaurant Association, 45 percent of our food dollar is spent away from home, so this group really can have an impact on our population as a whole.
The conference has had some successes, most notably in the implementation of trans fat regulation. This was a big topic at earlier gatherings, with nutritionists presenting the latest data regarding trans fats, and the food-service industry trying to figure out how they were going to deal with the inevitable regulation that has since been implemented. Now the key issues scientists are talking about are “carbohydrate quality” (e.g., sugar-sweetened beverages and the refined carbohydrates that are driving our growing obesity epidemic), obesity, red meat consumption and sodium.
But findings and recommendations are always changing. This can be very confusing to the public, especially since the media often reports on these studies long before they have been peer reviewed and follow-up investigations have been completed. These premature studies are then taken up by food manufacturers, marketers and even government agencies. (Their hapless food pyramids often don’t reflect the best science at the time, and can do more harm than good.) So it was that for 20 years, fats were deemed the root of all dietary evils; marketers plastered packaging with low-fat claims while filling us up and taxing our insulin with vast amounts of useless, even harmful, carbohydrates. Now we’re fatter than ever, and now, as far as many of the scientists and doctors presenting at the Worlds of Healthy Flavors conference are concerned, saturated fat is “a non-issue.”
Dariush Mozaffarian, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of cardiovascular medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School) and assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, had this to say in his presentation, “Fats, Oils, and American Menus”:
“The saturated fat and total fat paradigm is wrong. Low HDL cholesterol is a risk factor for coronary heart disease, and saturated fat raises HDL cholesterol better than other fats and has no significant effect on heart disease events.” But he also said that we should be replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats because polyunsaturated fats — particularly omega-3s and omega-6s — reduce the risk for coronary heart disease. Confused? “A low carbohydrate vegetable pattern has consistently shown that healthy fats coming from plant sources can be beneficial…..Lower total fat in the diet has not been shown to lower obesity (because we are compensating by replacing the fats with low-quality carbohydrates), and using the percentage of calories in the diet from fat has proved to be un-useful.”
Now, if I worked for the National Beef Association I would certainly be spinning those words. However, I might not be too pleased about the findings presented by Lawrence Kushi, associate director for etiology and prevention research at Kaiser Permanente, whose research showed a direct link between red and processed meat consumption and rates of colorectal cancer, diabetes and mortality in men. Kushi’s message was echoed by every other scientist who presented at the conference: Plant-based diets promote good health. But they were all also urging us to eat more fish, especially oily fish (because of the omega-3s). Twice a week was the recommended frequency.
Salt in the scientists’ sights
The next big issue on the horizon? Sodium. New York City is already trying to limit the amount of salt allowed in food items sold in chain restaurants. Right now the USDA recommends that we consume no more than 2,500 mg of sodium per day, and all of the nutritionists I’ve talked to want the limit to be 1,500 mg per day (there are 1,325 mg of sodium in a teaspoon of salt). The food industry packs its food with sodium: 77 percent of the sodium in the American diet is added to foods during processing. Six percent is added by consumers while eating and only five percent is added during cooking. Since so many people eat their food away from home (the New York City Department of Health has data showing that one in four New Yorkers reports eating fast food on a typical day), putting a limit on sodium in prepared food could have a direct impact on public health.
As a cookbook author, the sodium recommendations make me nervous. What if you don’t eat much processed food? What if you and the people you are cooking for don’t have high blood pressure? Then is a limit of 1,500 mg per day warranted? Taste and tolerance for salt vary among people, but all good cooks know that no matter how well executed a dish is, for it to be really good, it needs to be properly seasoned. The wife of one of the presenters admitted to me that she loved to cook but her food didn’t taste good “because my husband won’t let me use salt.” I always teach my students to taste what they’re cooking; if they’ve succeeded with the dish, upon tasting it they should think “this is good,” and want to take another bite immediately. If it lacks something – if it doesn’t quite finish in the mouth, needs je ne sais quoi – nine times out of 10 it just needs a little salt. That’s what the ubiquitous recipe instruction “taste and adjust seasoning” is all about. If it tastes salty it’s been over-salted, and this is something that cannot be undone. If people who cook at home are made to fear salt the way they have been taught to fear fat, those of us who write good recipes are not going to look very good because all of the food that is cooked from our books will be under-seasoned.
The best advice I’ve heard about sensible eating comes not from a scientist, cook or chef, but from the journalist Michael Pollan — “Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much.” No amount of science can alter the soundness of this simple mantra. My job as a recipe writer is to empower people to eat more food — mostly plants. And with a little salt, please.
Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks, including “Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes From the World’s Healthiest Cuisine,” “Mediterranean Light,” “Provencal Light” and “Entertaining Light.”
Photo: Walter Willet, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, speaking at the Worlds of Healthy Flavors Conference in the Napa Valley last month. Credit: Culinary Institute of America/Kristen Lokey
I’m worried about the coming month. Not because I have any dark premonition, but because this is the time when we slip into that autumnal haze marked by pumpkins, turkeys and cornucopias.
These harvest-time icons signal the arrival of World Food Day (Oct. 16), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual hunger and food insecurity report (early November), and of course our Thanksgiving bacchanal (Nov. 26). Taken as singular moments in time, these events appear celebratory or simply benign. Looked at over the course of 80 years, however, they remind us of our failure to end hunger because of our inability to address its cause, namely poverty.
On World Food Day, hunger, which now inflicts its wrath on 1 billion human beings, will again be decried by global institutions for the villain it is. Fresh vows to eliminate this scourge with more money (seldom fulfilled) and the latest agricultural technology (courtesy of Monsanto) will be placed on the world’s altar.
As this painful recession continues, the USDA will probably announce that America’s levels of food insecurity and hunger (measured as “very low food security” by USDA) are at an all-time high. In 2007, the numbers were at 12.1 percent of all Americans, about 36 million people. We can safely anticipate that the new figures will be higher and most likely mirror the growth in the U.S. poverty rate, now at a 10-year high of 13.2 percent.
These figures will prompt government agencies to tout the safety net virtues of the food stamp program. Now giving more than 35 million Americans (yes, also a record) a not terribly generous $1.30 per meal, food stamps will again be revealed for what they are and are not: a pretty good way to manage poverty but by no means a way to end it.
All of this, however, will be trumped by the Thanksgiving symphony orchestrated by the nation’s 205 private food banks. Their mailed, emailed, radioed and televised pleas for assistance will tell us that demand is up, the shelves are bare, and their warehouses are too small. They need turkeys, cans and bucks, the latter to complete yet another expansion of their already humongous warehouses.
Having devoted 35 years of my professional life to community-based food programs, including the development of a food bank and advocacy for more food stamp spending, I have come to believe that the continuous growth in these efforts are dramatic and expensive failures. Not only do they not end hunger, they operate in illogical defiance of the principles of American individualism and self-reliance.
As if asking the victims of our failed national and global food systems to accept their fate — to be poor, to be hungry — isn’t enough, we also ask them to forgo their innate human desire to challenge that fate. “Don’t worry,” say the agencies and the charities, “Do as we say; fill out the forms, stand in line, and you shall be fed.”
Whatever their virtues — these programs do prevent food riots — they do not lift their clients out of poverty. Nor do they help them find their democratic voice, build confidence and wealth, or otherwise erase the stigma of poverty. Instead, most food programs implicitly encourage people “to shun the rugged battle of fate,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson admonished us not to do 150 years ago.
When I want to imagine a different path, I think of Maurice Small, a middle-aged African-American who grew up in Cleveland’s housing projects. For a while he succumbed to the urban hustler’s life but grew tired of seeing the same vacant lots as an adult that he saw as a kid. He would eventually redirect his hustler’s energy to lead the charge for what is now a bourgeoning urban agriculture movement. With assistance from city hall, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Food Policy Council, the nonprofit City Fresh, Oberlin College, Case Western University and the Cleveland Clinic, Small has mobilized people and land to produce more than $2 million of food annually. As he put it himself, “I’m a kid from the projects who’s now selling organic vegetables to white-tablecloth restaurants.”
I also think of Dorothy Washington who lives in the housing projects of Austin, Texas. A 35-year-old African-American who is overweight and has five children, Washington could be mistaken for the archetypical welfare mom. But instead of taking canned food from the food bank, she got involved with a program called The Happy Kitchen that is run by the nonprofit Sustainable Food Center. Through this peer-led food education program, she learned how use herbs to flavor her food instead of fat and how to interest her children in vegetables. Washington and her children have lost weight. She has more confidence in herself and is making a greater commitment to serving her community. About her new diet she notes, wryly, “God didn’t make nachos.”
And then there’s Cynthia Torres, a second-generation Mexican-American who grew up in South Texas. She co-founded the Boulder County Food and Agricultre Policy Council to empower that community in Colorado to make sustainably produced food available to all. Under her leadership the council recently stopped a plan to take over thousands of acres of publicly owned farm land for genetically modified sugar beets. Monsanto and other biotech seed companies had forced sugar beet growers into a box by producing only genetically modified seed. Torres and the community found their voice — the voice of democracy — and have temporarily defeated the attempt. They are now working with farmers and county officials to promote less risky and more sustainable agricultural practices on public land.
These are not poster children for right-wing, up-by-the-bootstraps dogma. To the contrary, that was the philosophical foundation for today’s food assistance programs. “We’ll give them enough food so they don’t starve,” the thinking went, “but we won’t help them out of poverty. That’s their job.” Maurice, Dorothy and Cynthia have been given the support and assistance they need to resolve their dilemmas and without shunning “the rugged battle of fate.”
Feeding America’s hungry and impoverished is now close to a $100-billion-a-year enterprise. For the most part, these efforts do not empower their recipients, and in some cases they infantilize them. As the community activist and former White House adviser Van Jones once said, “We are servicing poor communities to death.”
As our common day of grace approaches, and as we learn more about the dire circumstances of those left out of the American dream, let’s ponder again the ways we might end hunger by ending poverty, and the ways that the voiceless among us can be heard.
Mark Winne is the author of “Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty” (Beacon Press, 2008). He is the former executive director of the Hartford Food System in Connecticut and is co-founder of the Portland, Ore.-based Community Food Security Coalition. For more information, see www.markwinne.com.