Thursday, August 25, 2011

Food Fights

I only recently started watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, and I like it, which is kind of ironic, because it doesn't like me back. I like the show because it's light entertainment that doesn't zap every single brain cell I have. I learn something about a place and its people. The show has a running positive theme -- that you should enjoy life and not be afraid to try new things (although there are no guarantees that you won't be sorry afterwards). And it's funny. I like it a lot, even though vegetarians are frequently the targets of the humor. I mean, he's right: vegetarians are frequently annoying.

As are organic food purists.

And food snobs.

And fast food fanatics, for whose convenience Target, which would otherwise be a decent place to shop, smells like rancid grease.

And middle-aged men with earrings who get to travel around the world, trying new foods, bragging about it, and getting paid for it.

I'm a vegetarian, for the most part. I try to buy local and organic produce as much as possible, for my sake and the planet's. I cook from scratch most of the time, trying to avoid processed food. And I'm ready to change those practices at any time, for any good reason, including whim. I think whim is a sometimes a perfectly valid reason for doing something.

Some days, I don't want kale and tofu. I want pizza.

I care about food, but I'm flexible, which is probably why I'm finding Frank Bruni's column on celebrity chef wars kind of amusing. Mostly it's about Anthony Bourdain's over-the-top verbal assaults on other chefs, first Alice Waters -- for an unrealistic assumption that people who work all day and can barely afford McDonalds are going to make regular trips to the local farmer's market to buy organic produce (which Bruni admits is a legitimate criticism)(and I find amusing, considering how many episodes of "No Reservations" begin with trips to local markets) -- and now Paula Deen, for "telling an already obese nation it's O.K. to eat food that is killing us."

Bruni calls this "elitism," because, as Paula Deen responded, "Not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib."

As if cooking with massive quantities of butter and cream were cheap. Not to mention the health care costs you incur when you fry your apple pie. (No, I am not kidding.)

And Bruni missed the better slam on Paula Deen: "She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations."

Got that right:

Last September, she signed a lucrative endorsement deal to be a spokeswomen for America's biggest pork producer, Smithfield Foods Inc. "When I was looking for a company to partner with, " she recently gushed, "I wanted to make sure it was someone who shares my family values and traditions."

That's a mighty sweet sentiment. But, unfortunately, Smithfield is not at all sweet. It is notorious as a massive factory farm polluter of its neighbors' air and water, as a monopolist that squeezes out small family farmers, and as an anti-union abuser of working families. Family values? Try these: In recent years, Smithfield has been cited by federal regulators, courts, and other independent monitors for spying, coercing, beating, assaulting, illegally arresting, intimidating, harassing, illegally firing, and racially insulting its employees.

I'm guessing not too many of those people can afford prime rib, butter and cream, or organic produce. And that's the important issue. If you care about food, you ought to care about how it's produced. You lose the right to pose as protector of the poor when you're helping to keep people poor.

As far as I'm concerned, there are only a few hard and fast moral rules, but I'm almost certain that none of them involve eating. That doesn't mean I don't think food has an ethical element to it. An entire industry makes a great deal of money producing food that hurts people and destroys the planet. That is a moral issue. But the issue isn't who eats "right" and who eats "wrong." It's trying to figure out how to make healthy food, farmed in sustainable ways, available to everyone at prices they can afford.

A cook who shills for a factory farm has opted out of the issue entirely. But I think Bourdain and Waters are aiming at similar goals -- encouraging people to try new things, and making it possible for them to do so.

She's more earnest. He's more entertaining.

I'm okay with both.

Update: In a related story, Mother Jones magazine recently interviewed Alice Waters and Nikki Henderson. Henderson is executive director of People's Grocery, a non-profit group in West Oakland, aimed at increasing poor people's access to healthy food. The two women are working together on a class at UC Berkeley titled "Edible Education 101," which will focus on "food justice": "the right of everyone to eat well."

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