Category Archives: Food
I used to think it was impossible to agree with someone’s conclusion, but find their arguments for it repellent. Then I read Michael Pollan.
One problem with the division of labor in our complex economy is how it obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility, between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences. Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon. Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.
Before I say why I find this argument, this article, so infuriating, a caveat: I like Michael Pollan. He’s a great campaigner for food that doesn’t make us fat or sick, and the net impact of his work has been positive, especially in the early years when most people didn’t know about how poisoned the US food supply is. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and I hope he continues writing.
But that doesn’t mean I’m going to continue reading. This entire article—and from the reviews I’ve read, this entire book—is some sort of ode to cooking, an aria to its sensory, health and spiritual pleasures.
Perhaps what most commends cooking to me is that it offers a powerful corrective to this way of being in the world — a corrective that is still available to all of us. To butcher a pork shoulder is to be forcibly reminded that this is the shoulder of a large mammal, made up of distinct groups of muscles with a purpose quite apart from feeding me. The work itself gives me a keener interest in the story of the hog: where it came from and how it found its way to my kitchen. In my hands its flesh feels a little less like the product of industry than of nature; indeed, less like a product at all. Likewise, to grow the greens I’m serving with this pork, greens that in late spring seem to grow back almost as fast as I can cut them, is a daily reminder of nature’s abundance, the everyday miracle by which photons of light are turned into delicious things to eat.
Some of this sounds borderline convincing. I actually love cooking (though butchering a pig myself, less so), and I get a genuine sense of accomplishment when I serve my friends something I created from scratch. Pollan’s right, that’s a rare thing in this world, especially where most of us have jobs (‘solutions architect’, ‘strategic consultant’) that are boring to describe and impossible to show off.
But that’s really the problem with Pollan’s argument: He’s not making one. The only thing this piece (and, frankly, a lot of Pollan’s work) tells you is ’I like cooking.’
I’m sure that’s great for Pollan’s health and pocketbook and carbon footprint, but it’s not clear that his preferences are scalable, or that they offer any solutions for the actual, real health problems facing America.
Yet even to cook a few more nights a week than you already do, or to devote a Sunday to making a few meals for the week, or perhaps to try every now and again to make something you only ever expected to buy — even these modest acts will constitute a kind of a vote. A vote for what, exactly? Well, in a world where so few of us are obliged to cook at all anymore, to choose to do so is to lodge a protest against specialization — against the total rationalization of life. Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.
I hate to spray Roundup on Pollan’s parade, but cooking is not withdrawing from corporations, it is simply trading one set of them for another. Tyson Foods, Smithfield, Cargill, these companies control, directly or indirectly, vast swathes of the American landscape. Monsanto makes the pesticides farmers spray on their crops, Ford the trucks delivering them, Safeway the shelves stocking them.
And that’s not in itself a bad thing. Corporations provide the great majority of the things we buy. If Pollan is serious about withdrawing from corporate specialization, why not make his own clothes, his own car, his own toothpaste?
This, ultimately, is why my problem with Pollan goes so far beyond this excerpt. His signature phrase, ‘Vote With Your Fork’, isn’t an argument for a better food system, it’s an argument for two food systems.
A hundred years ago, when Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ described the sweatshop conditions of meatpacking workers in Chicago, the cries weren’t for consumers to choose ‘sweatshop-free’ products. Fifty years ago, when the modern highway gave rise to the modern head-on collision, the cries weren’t for consumers to pay extra for a seatbelt. In both cases, the government did its job and raised the minimum standard to stay in business, and in doing so kept consumers safe and healthy, regardless of their choices.
The United States doesn’t need a higher ceiling, it needs a higher floor. Two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, a rate that has more than doubled since 1960. Diabetes went from 5.5 million people to 20 million people in just 30 years.
Sending everyone to Whole Foods with an apron and a vegetable peeler isn’t going to fix this. As long as our food system continues to produce cheap, unhealthy, ready-made food, cooking from scratch won’t be a viable alternative.
Instead of telling people to leave the world of corporate food, I’d love to see Pollan help improve it. When the government gets serious about reducing obesity rates, it will stop subsidizing unhealthy food and start labeling it. It will restrict companies from advertising to kids and selling them junk in their schools. It will tax the obvious bad products like soda, and nudge us to consume less of the slightly-less-bad ones.
Should people cook more? Undoubtedly. But before we tell them to vote with their forks, we should tell them to vote with their votes.
Gladwell’s core argument is that ‘what’s the proof?’ is often used as an excuse for those who profit from a harmful activity not to fix it. It was obvious for 50 years that breathing coal dust gave you black lung disease, but mining companies resisted change, claiming ‘There’s no proof!’ Nowadays, it’s obvious that football severely harms the mental health of the people playing it, but the leagues refuse to fix it, claiming ‘There’s no proof!’
Last year I read a bunch of books about the Tobacco Wars of the 1990s. Everyone knows that tobacco companies still claim ‘there’s no proof’ that cigarettes cause lung cancer and emphysema. The most surprising thing I found in those books was that the tobacco companies are basically correct. To this day, scientists still don’t understand the exact mechanisms and pathways linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
What we do know, though, is that people who smoke get lung cancer and emphysema way more than people who don’t. This is consistent across age, race, wealth, age, location, religion, left vs right handedness, you name it. Cigarettes make you more likely to get sick and die. We don’t know precisely how this works—molecules are involved or something?—but that’s irrelevant. We know enough to tell people they’d be better off if they never smoked.
I’d argue that we’re at basically the same place with soft drinks. People who drink more soda have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. People who stop drinking soda see their risk for all these things drop.
And yet, the mechanism whereby soft drinks lead to obesity isn’t comprehensively understood. Maybe soft drinks mess with your satiety signals, making your body ‘forget’ that it’s just consumed 300 calories. Maybe all that sugar leads to tolerance, or even addiction. Maybe liquid sugar is converted to fat more efficiently than food. Maybe a vengeful God has cursed mankind by making everything that tastes good slowly kill you.
These unanswered questions aren’t an excuse not to act. A 20-oz. bottle of Coca-Cola contains 16 teaspoons of sugar. A kid that drinks an extra soda every day has a 60 percent higher chance of becoming obese. Kids shouldn’t be drinking soda, and neither should adults. Period.
Starting in the 1990s, governments around the world started taking tobacco prevention seriously. They removed vending machines, taxed cigarettes, banned smoking in bars and prevented marketing anywhere kids might see it. These steps weren’t driven by incontrovertible new proof of tobacco’s perniciousness. They were just our actions catching up to our common sense.
I think in the next 10 years you’ll see the same thing with soda. Cities are already banning soft drinks from schools and daycares. Soda taxes are appearing on ballots like red on Big Gulps. Bloomberg’s large-cup ban is spreading to other cities.
There’s still no ‘proof’ soda causes obesity. Or cigarettes cause cancer. Or football causes CTE. But some things are so obvious, proving them is what you do after you fix them.
Update: This is now on The Huffington Post.
One thing that fascinated me when I was in Portugal was the ubiquity of the ‘Pastelarias’, the little cafes—one espresso machine, four or five wooden tables, pastries behind glass—on nearly every corner.
But the ubiquity wasn’t the most interesting thing about them, it was the uniformity.
Each of them appeared to be an independent business. They didn’t have the same brand name or the same décor.
What they did have, though, was the same pastries. Not, like, a similar selection. The exact same pastries. Same size, same shape, same flavors, same perfect little char-marks on the custard, everything.
It wasn’t til I saw the same pastries in a grocery store that I started to get curious about what was going on. Most of these little hole-in-the-wall bakeries aren’t big enough for proper baking equipment, and seem understaffed as it is.
I was convinced that all these cute little bakeries were actually frauds, they were getting shipments of pastries from some suburban warehouse every morning, putting them in the window, tricking me into thinking they’re all charming and artisanal.
I imagined some vast conveyor belt near a suburban motorway. Chinese workers sweating into hairnets, mechanically charring an endless line of snack-size custards.
It turns out it’s not as bad as that. In a random bookstore I came across a coffee table book called ‘The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery’, and I learned some things:
First, Portugal not only has the highest number of food establishments per capita, but also has the highest percentage of people who eat breakfast outside the home every day. This is why, I eureka’d, it’s the only European country I’ve been to where cafes are open before 8am.
Second, there’s not some beltway warehouse making millions of pastries every morning and trucking them into the city. It turns out there’s a standardized baking school curriculum, and a strict licensing regime for confectionery makers.
Not only that, but a lot of the pastries are made with powders and mixes (even the eggs, ew), minimizing the time and skill required to make them.
These three things—high demand, standard methodologies and effort-free production—mean pastries are a viable and profitable business model.
Due to the country’s history as a trading post where a lot of these recipes originated (the book’s version was that when Portugal Inquisitioned out the Jews starting in the 16th century, they all went to Vienna and became bakers), this business model is supported by government policies on opening hours, licensing, taxes, etc.
If you’re gonna pick something for government subsidies and high standards, you can do worse than pastries. Still, I don’t know if bags of Bisquick and buckets of egg whites are any more edifying than a giant suburban croissant factory.
The sustainable food movement wants to increase the availability of food that is ‘local’, ‘handmade’, ‘fresh’. These pastries are all of those things, at least technically, but there’s something about the process that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Literally, the taste they leave in my mouth is delicious.
But maybe that, more than anything, is what foodies should be afraid of.
Originally posted at The Billfold
Last weekend in London I had a cute little lunch at a cute little patisserie in Soho, and was feeling all satisfied with myself until I was on the Strand later in the day and saw the same patisserie—same food, same interior, same smell coming out the door.
Oh, I thought, deflated. It’s a chain.
Suddenly I felt scammed. These punks tricked me! They made me think their little bakery was all artisanal and small-scale, when actually it’s some venture-capitaled, focus-grouped, conveyor-belted profit factory. They probably have a corporate headquarters in midtown Manhattan, some Yale econ grad staring at the surveillance cam footage of my purchase, trying to moneyball me into buying more next time.
So my immediate reaction was Well! Never going there again. But now that I’ve thought about it, I’m less sure of my reaction.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Of course it’s a chain. Soho is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world. Thatcher, gentrification, celebrity chefs, they ran mom and pop outta there decades ago. The only businesses that can afford Soho rents do so through high volume, high margins and manufactured cosiness. That “grandma’s cinnamon roll” smell coming out the door is as deliberate as the font above it. What did I expect?
So I should have known. Next up: Who cares? I had a tasty meal at a reasonable price in a pleasant environment. It was precisely what I wanted. What’s the difference if there is a duplicate of my experience happening elsewhere? Or 100 duplicates? Or 1,000?
When I lived in Copenhagen, my favorite bakery was called Lagkagehuset (“layer cake house”), and it had the best bread on the planet. There was only one location in Copenhagen, family owned, and I glowed with self-satisfaction every time I bought a dense loaf of bread or a misshapen (artisanal!) breakfast roll there.
A year after I left Denmark, it was bought by a private equity firm. Now there are nine of them in Copenhagen (industrial!), and last time I visited I walked past one at the airport (monetizers!).
But you know what? The products are exactly the same. Still dense, still misshapen, still crazy-overpriced, still so salty you want to dip them in a cup of water like a hot dog eating contest. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that now I can buy them in nine places instead of one.
Which brings me to my last point: What am I actually against?
Among my people (urban, lefty, low BMI), places like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Applebee’s have take the role of a kind of punchline, the culinary equivalent of Coldplay. For us, they’re not restaurants or cafes, they’re totems of America’s—and the world’s—relentless, inevitable march toward sameness.
I’m generally sympathetic to this. Starbucks kills independent cafes, McDonald’s cuts down rainforests, Applebee’s wants you to have diabetes.
But in every other aspect of my life, this doesn’t bother me. I wear Nikes, I shop at Safeway, I use rapper-endorsed headphones to drown out the clacking on my MacBook. All of this is just as mass-produced as anything from Starbucks, and yet I willingly (OK, maybe grudgingly) submit.
But chains underpay their workers, my conscience shouts. They get foodstuffs from poor farmers and nonrecyclable lids from petroleum! They donate to ugly political causes!
All that’s probably true, but there’s no reason to think an independent restaurant or café is any better by default. Maybe the guy handmaking the gluten-free scones at that ‘small batch’ bakery makes the same minimum wage as the teenager at McDonald’s. Or maybe he owns the place, and thinks women never should have been given the vote. Just because I have no way of knowing his conditions, impacts or beliefs doesn’t mean they’re not there or that they’re not problematic.
So if I don’t object to chains in principle, and I don’t object to the goods and services of some chains in particular, then all I’m left with is opposition to chains as a class signifier. I reject them not because the food is bad or they’re worse for the planet than other corporations, but because I personally don’t want to be associated with them. Starbucks is for tourists, Applebee’s is for flyovers, McDonald’s is for the poor.
I’m not defending chains, really, I’m not going to start actively seeking them out or anything. I just need to be honest with myself about what I’m avoiding, and why.
My favorite cafe in Berlin is called The Barn. Silky lattes, snobby staff, handwritten prices, brownies dense as Jupiter—it’s perfect. Just before Christmas they opened a second location, closer to my house than their first. If I’m lucky, next year they’ll open a few more.
Originally posted at The Billfold
This year, I took my first fundraising job. Asking for money is like dating: You hope you never do it enough to get good at it. Then suddenly you’re walking into a room full of strangers and telling them why you are more entitled to their money than they are, and you realize that that you have done this umpteen times, this is literally your umpteenth time, and you don’t even sweat a little bit the first time you say a number out loud.
This year I learned that chasing money in this way is both more and less unseemly than you’d think. More unseemly because you and your coworkers sit around and speculate on which people, governments and corporations are swimming in Scrooge McDuck coin-vaults, and you call them greedy when they don’t invite you to join them in the deep end.
Less unseemly because you hella do need their money more than they do, dammit, your organization is genuinely trying, and occasionally achieving, a slight uptick in non-shittiness for people who deserve to learn how to read and drink unfilthy water and not get diseases, or at least they deserve it more than the strangers in the room deserve another trip to the Maldives.
Sometimes I remember that, and sometimes I forget it, and I don’t know which one makes me worse at my job.
My contract on this fundraising adventure expires in May, and I’ve been doing some preliminary LinkedInery to scope my options before I decide whether to renew. I’m genuinely surprised at how large a role money is playing in my decision-making so far.
I don’t have a husband or kids, I don’t eat fancy cheese or drink alcohol (OK I do eat fancy cheese), I don’t drive a car, I don’t need lots of living space. I like to think of myself as the kind of person for whom money isn’t a major concern. I work at an NGO, I wanna save the world and shit, I should be looking at these job ads for impact, responsibility, command over armies of interns, instead I’m skimming straight to the end for the numerics.
Maybe this means I’m anxious about my financial future. Maybe this means I’m becoming old and greedy. Maybe it means my passion has become a job. Maybe it means all three. The only thing I’m sure of is that somewhere in my late 20s, changing the world became a priority in competition with an ongoing supply of cheese, and I fear it won’t win forever.
The best money decision I made this year was hiring someone to clean my apartment. I know this sounds imperial and one-percentish, but I genuinely loathe cleaning, and every time I have to, I do it sloppily as a kind of self-directed spite: “See, I told you it was pointless.”
The going rate for a cleaner in Berlin is about €10 ($13) an hour, but I pay €15 ($19) out of sheer oligarchical guilt. Two months ago, I calculated that, after taxes, I only make €13.60 ($17.50) an hour myself. This helps.
My cleaner is from Lithuania and, like everyone in Berlin, is biding time working until she happens in her real profession, which is sculpture. This fall, my apartment fell into a campsite state of disrepair because she was exhibiting in Milan for eight weeks.
Which brings me to the best money advice I got this year, from my friend Brandon, who works at a bank and votes for Ron Paul and has a sneering tattoo of Ayn Rand across his torso (OK only the first one is true, but still): He told me, “You pay $40 a month to never stress out about cleaning your apartment. She gets a living wage, you get a clean apartment. This is how the economy works. So shut the fuck up already.”
Every single year, I lobby my family to stop giving each other Christmas presents, and every single year I am denied. This year, instead of spending 15 minutes picking out perfunctory DVDs on Amazon, I got everyone $100 gift certificates to their respective cities’ best restaurants, or at least the ones topping the “Best of 2012″ lists in their local newspapers.
I did this in the hope that these gifts would be so thoughtful and delightful that next year I can do the equivalent of a mic-drop and announce that they will be the last.
Not only did I get all the restaurants wrong (“It costs at least $200 to eat there. You just gave me the gift of spending $100″), but some of my relatives couldn’t figure out the gift certificate websites, and won’t bother redeeming them. My brother, in condolence, wrote, “Looking forward to next year’s DVD, sucker.”
I’ve spent basically my whole adulthood moving from small apartment to small apartment, and I’ve gotten good at not filling them up with tangibles. I give away all my books, I’m immune to home appliances, I wear clothes til they’re fishnets.
This doesn’t mean I’m good with money, just that I end up spending it on frivolous experiences rather than frivolous things. And this year I discovered the frivolousest money-hole imaginable: Brunch.
I stole the idea from a friend who, like me, had just moved to Berlin and didn’t know very many people.
“Write to all your Facebook friends in Berlin,” he said. “Invite them all to your house for brunch, and tell them to invite two or three people they know.”
“It gives the impression of intimacy because they’ve seen you in your living space,” he said, sounding like one of those top-hatted dating gurus from The Game. “And these people are sure to reciprocate the invitation, since they feel they owe you for all the free food.”
Three weeks later, I spent $150 on ingredients (OK mostly cheese), spent a day cooking, and ended up feeding 10 friends and 20 strangers in my living room. We started at noon, and the last didn’t leave ’til 8 p.m.
It may have been a calculated idea and a lot of prep work, but in execution, it was a relaxed and enjoyable way to spend a Sunday, and I met a lot of people I still know now. It was also a way for me, a career introvert, to meet a lot of new people in a slow, comfortable trickle rather than a networking-event deluge.
It might not have been my most prudent financial decision this year, but it’s the investment I’m the happiest I made. Now if only I could stop feeling bad about paying someone to help me clean up after it.
In recent years I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the willful blindness of the food movement to the fact that organic food is produced by profit-making entities.
These sound suspiciously like rationalizations to me. I have no doubt that the production costs of organic food are higher than non-organic food, but that’s not an explanation for why the retail price is up to three times higher.
Retail prices are only related to production costs up to a certain point. An iPhone costs about $170 to make. Apple charges you $650 to buy one not because this has some quantitative relationship to the production cost, but because the company has calculated that this is the highest price the greatest number of people are likely to pay. Any less than that, and the company would earn less profit. Any more than that, and the company would sell fewer units.
The price of a product is based on profitability and demand, not cost. As soon as the price is above $170.01, how much it costs to make is irrelevant to how much it costs to buy.
I hate to break it to everyone who takes healthy eating seriously (myself included), but there is no reason to believe organic food is the only sector of our economy that is immune to this reality.
A free range chicken at Whole Foods is $3.99/lb. At Safeway, it’s $0.89/lb. I’m sure it costs more to produce a chicken that’s free-range, no-GMO, gluten-free, dolphin-safe, etc. But you’re not gonna convince me that those two chickens are equally profitable for the retailer.
Or check out peanut butter: $0.24 per ounce for normal (‘natural’, even!), $0.44 per ounce for organic. Again, I’m sure organic peanuts are more expensive to produce than normal (natural!) ones. But seven bucks for a jar of peanut butter is just fucking hella, and the company that makes it is just as profit-seeking as McDonald’s or Nike or Halliburton or any other.
No one defends their Lexus by saying ‘Well, it cost more to make’. We accept that it’s a luxury good whose price is determined by a standard demand curve. A Lexus costs $80,000 because that is how much people are willing to pay. That jar of peanut butter costs $7 for the same reason.
In the context of our current food system, Whole Foods and other organic food producers and retailers are providing luxury goods. A whole chicken costs $12 not because it was raised on foie gras and asparagus tips, or allowed to roam freely and pursue its life’s dreams. It costs $12 because that is highest possible price the company can charge before demand starts to taper off.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward solving it. We need to acknowledge that organic companies are just another facet of Big Food, and aim our advocacy efforts toward universal sustainability standards (if pesticides are so harmful, why can they be used at all?).
Otherwise, we haven’t improved the food system. We’ve just added a Lexus to every meal.
One: The shark-lamprey relationship between the US government and Big Food goes all the way back to World War II
The War Advertising Council was attended by representatives from advertising agencies, corporate advisers, the media and officials from various interested government departments such as the Office of War Information. Together they agreed on the outlines of public information campaigns. In this way the government co-opted the food industry to do the work of spreading healthy-eating propaganda while still allowing them to make money, or at least keep their brands in the public eye, guaranteeing them future–if not always present–sales.
The problem was that the food industry tended to use the language of the new science of nutrition to sell its products, regardless of their real health benefits. Thus, the American public were urged to eat grapefruit because it was rich in ‘Victory Vitamin C’, but they were also told that Nestle’s cocoa was a ‘concentrated energizing food’, and children’s love of sweets was encouraged by campaigns which promoted the benefits of sugar by pointing out that it was an essential part of a combat soldier’s diet.
Doesn’t Winston Churchill have some quote about how in a just economy, the government must be a referee, not a player? Well he should.
Two: Your grandma is a fucking liar.
In May 1943 an opinion poll found that rationing and wartime food shortages had barely made any impact on American meals. Two-thirds of the women surveyed asserted that their diet had changed very little since the introduction of rationing, and three-quarters of the women acknowledged that the size of their meals had stayed the same. The minimal impact that ration had on American eating habits is revealed by the passing comment of a woman from New York, who noted that coffee rationing, which cut consumption from three cups to one a day, was ‘the wartime measure to have affected one the most.’
Collingham reports that food rationing actually improved the diets of a significant number of Americans, since farmers increased production and the surplus inspired free school meals and other in-kind social programs. The Greatest Generation truly made sacrifices during World War II, but less or worse food doesn’t appear to be one of them.
I want to agree with this study because it confirms my pre-existing biases, but am I really supposed to ignore this paragraph?
The study’s 21 participants, 18 to 40 years old, initially lost 10% to 15% of their body weight during a three-month diet that contained about 45% of total calories from carbohydrates, 30% from fat and 25% from protein.
… So this experiment basically took three groups of seven people, put them on a diet, and recorded what happened. I know that controlled laboratory studies on weight loss are difficult and expensive, but an n this small isn’t science, it’s a reality show.