Book Review: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

For Americans, Chinese food is ubiquitous.  We debate about authenticity and taste in Chinatown and in our favorite corner takeout joints.   I may prefer the subtle charms of hand-drawn noodles or the joyous free-for-all that is dim sum to a folded white box of General Tso’s Chicken– but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have General Tso’s for lunch yesterday.  We see Chinese restaurants everywhere, without giving them a second thought– the almost-identical menus, the red and gold signs, the isolated Chinese families who are sometimes the only immigrants in town.

Jennifer 8. Lee, a Chinese-American New Yorker and beat reporter for the New York Times, tackles the question of Chinese food in America in all its glory in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. It’s an exuberant book, enthusiastic and well-researched, and Lee’s passion for her material is evident on every page.

The scope of Lee’s research is astonishing.  She visits Chinese restaurants all over the world in search of the best one (sorry, no spoilers here).  She travels to China to visit General Tso’s home village, where the inhabitants are surprised to hear that his fame in the West revolves around a chicken dish they’ve never tasted.  She visits San Francisco and Japan in her efforts to track down the origins of the fortune cookie.  And she delves deep into the world of “snakeheads,” the smugglers who charge would-be immigrants their life’s savings for dangerous passage into the US and Europe, and compassionately relates the story of Michael, a Fujianese man who survived a shipwreck on his journey to New York.

What she finds is astonishing.  This isn’t food porn (though there are plenty of tasty descriptions), nor is it fluff (though it is a quick and enjoyable read).  It’s more like the Freakonomics of Chinese food.  Lee applies her crisp writing and sense of humor to the intersections of social justice, the immigrant experience, business, gastronomy, and my favorite topic, political economy.

For example:

Why are American Chinese restaurants’ menus all so similar, even though they’re not centralized?  McDonald’s strives for the kind of uniformity that the China Gardens and Golden Pandas of small towns across American seem to have achieved effortlessly.  Lee argues that Chinese restauranteurs have, in effect, been early adopters of crowdsourcing techniques.

Why are Chinese dishes in America so different from Chinese dishes in China?  (And why do people in China find them so unpalatable?)  Lee traces the history of Chinese cooking in America, from 19th-century mining camps to chop suey palaces, and shows the evolution of the cuisine as it gained popularity and adapted to American tastes.

Why are the delivery people from Chinese restaurants so routinely mugged, beaten and murdered?  What does this say about the position of Chinese immigrants in the US?

Why is Chinese food so popular among American Jews?  Lee explores a kashrut scandal that took place in a Washington, DC-area kosher Chinese duck restaurant and the effect it had on the community.

And the question that ties all of these questions together: What does it mean to be an American child of Chinese parents?  It’s the fortune cookie that brings this question to the fore for Lee:

Fortune cookies weren’t Chinese.

It was like learning I was adopted while being told there was no Santa Claus. How could that be? I had always believed in the crispy, curved, vanilla-flavored wafers with the slips inside.

It was through reading The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan when I was in middle school that I first became aware of the mass deception. In one tale, two Chinese women find jobs in a San Francisco fortune cookie factory, where one is utterly perplexed when she learns that the cookies and their cryptic messages are considered Chinese.

I asked my mom if she had known all along that fortune cookies weren’t Chinese. She shrugged. She said when she first got to the United States from Taiwan, she’d assumed they were from Hong Kong or mainland China. China is a large and fractured place. She had never been to mainland China. Neither had I.

Lee’s quest to understand the origins of the fortune cookie becomes a quest to understand her own origins, and she handles it with intelligence, compassion and grace.  It’s a story relevant to every American (hyphenated or otherwise), every immigrant, everyone who’s ever sought a new life.  Whatever nonsense the Republicans and Democrats are spouting about barrier walls and guest-worker programs, it’s stories like the ones Lee brings to life that are the true lifeblood of this immigrant country.


Book Review: Kitchen Literacy

We buy everything, and have no idea by which the articles are produced, and have no means of knowing before hand what the quality may be… Relatively we are in a state of barbarous innocence, as compared with our grandmothers, about the common articles of daily use.

-Ellen Richards, home economist, 1885

I picked up Ann Vileisis‘s Kitchen Literacy: How we lost knowledge of where food comes from, and why we need to get it back at the suggestion of a reader, and I’m glad I did.  It’s a fast, fun overview of an important topic.

Vileisis takes the reader from the kitchens of the late 18th-century New England to those of the present day, tracing the history of the American food system from its pastoral beginnings through its process of industrialization.  She shows how each successive generation has been a step or two further removed from knowledge of where food comes from, and explores the social changes and food scandals that shaped the balance between what people want to eat and what the food industry offers them.  She wraps up by arguing that if we’re going to have a sustainable system that doesn’t poison us on a regular basis, we’re going to need to regain an understanding of seasons, local specializations, and where our food comes from.

It’s a simple enough thesis, and Vileisis doesn’t overcomplicate things– her explorations of the changing roles of women, the nature of work and living patterns, and the politics of federal agencies are mostly cursory.  I didn’t learn much that I hadn’t already read, but I’m pretty well read on this subject.  If you haven’t already exhausted the works of Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Friedrich Engels and Upton Sinclair, you’ll find much to enlighten you– and even if you have, it’s an enjoyable and accessible synthesis of what can be a complicated literature.

The joy of this book is in the details Vileisis digs up in her extensive research.  She uses antique cans, product labels and advertisements to trace the way food manufacturers have adapted their pitch to appeal to the needs of each new generation of consumers.  The book is packed with little gems, like a 1928 Piggly Wiggly ad that appeals to the liberated woman (complete with chic hat) by telling her how the new self-service supermarket gives her self-sufficiency:

The woman of today!  So self-reliant now in all her shopping– so sure of her new skill!  Only yesterday her mother depended almost wholly on the advice of salesmen when she bought food-stuffs…  The woman of today with her new, wide knowledge of real values has blazed a trail of her own.  The she may be entirely free to choose for herself, she has made this plan of household buying a nation-wide vogue.

These details really bring the book to life.  (Especially for cultural studies types like me, who loooove to deconstruct advertising.)

Vileisis begins in colonial Maine, where she draws on the wonderful diary of midwife and farm matriarch Martha Ballard (worth a read in itself) to illustrate how very close Americans once were to the sources of our food.  Back then, you knew your milk was fresh because you milked the cow yourself.  Food came directly from sweat and hard work– you grew it yourself, or you traded what you grew for what your neighbors were growing.

As the nineteenth century began, the country began to urbanize rapidly, and the countryside began producing for the city.  A city’s foodshed consisted mostly of the farms in the surrounding countryside, plus a few exotic items like sugar and tropical fruits that were shipped in.  Food was mostly sold fresh in open-air markets.  But as cities industrialized and transportation improved, food was being brought in from more and more far-flung locations.  Fresh food often didn’t survive the trip too well– fruits and vegetables were beginning to rot, and cattle were bruised and emaciated from long and brutal train trips.  This was when the food system began an industrialization of its own, with the introduction of canned produce and “Chicago-dressed” meats (killed and dressed before being shipped).  Vileisis does a great job of illustrating the initial suspicious reactions of people used to fresh foods– it was, after all, a hard sell to convince people to buy food they couldn’t see until they’d paid for it.  Early canning methods were worthy of their skepticism– it took a while for canners to realize that if cans weren’t heated to a specific temperature, botulism could grow and thrive. Food poisoning was quite common in those days, and even well into the twentieth century: Armour’s canned meats notoriously killed nearly as many World War I soldiers as the enemy did.

But social changes prevailed over skepticism: agricultural jobs gave way to factory work, and city children grew up never seeing live plants and animals.  More and more women entered the workplace, not only out of a desire for freedom from traditional roles, but also just to earn enough to keep families afloat.  They had less time to spend shopping and cooking, and convenience foods began to sell widely.  As new generations were raised on canned and prepackaged foods, they became the familiar, comforting norm– and advertisements became less about connecting products to “nature” and more about creating an imaginary world of bountiful farms and idyllic countryside that would appeal to the eyes of consumers.  (Vileisis’s description of the term “natural” and its evolving meaning to generations of consumers is a highlight of the book.)

While each generation had different emotional and cultural needs to which food producers responded, consumers also had fears that shaped both federal regulation and product marketing.  The food system has never been free of problems– from the horrific slaughterhouse conditions Upton Sinclair portrayed in nauseating detail in The Jungle (1906) to, um, the horrific slaughterhouse conditions Eric Schlosser portrayed in nauseating detail in Fast Food Nation (2001).  Contemporary readers are also consumers, and today’s worries about tomatoes, spinach, e. coli and pet food from China will seem familiar in Vileisis’s descriptions of scandals over adulterated jam, pesticide residues in canned vegetables and sodium benzoate (a poisonous and once-controversial preservative still widely used in manufactured foods):

Even as serious concerns were raised and not addressed, most consumers had little choice but to continue their grocery shopping as usual.  What could an individual shopper do about the fact that pesticides killed fish, that chickens were jammed into cages, or that agriculture used too much oil?  Through the 1950s most American shoppers’ lack of awareness about their foods may have been characterized by a naive “I don’t know,” but by the mid-1970s, with more prevalent news of toxic pesticide residues and repugnant animal factories, it had become an anxious and resigned “I don’t want to know.”

Sound familiar?  She follows this with a quick overview of the rise of the organic food movement and a call for consumers to become more involved with their food choices.  It’s surprisingly short, though in fairness, how to do so can be (and is) enough for an entire book in itself.

Kitchen Literacy is a fascinating book.  It’s not a food-politics education in itself, but it’s a great jumping-off point for those new to food politics, and might inspire even the skeptical to read further, and better yet, to ask some pointed questions about what’s in the food they eat.

Slow Cooker Chili: American History in a Bowl

Chili is a classic example of a dish created by poor people out of necessity that evolves into a beloved national dish. This one originates from Texas– there are some theories that it originated in Mexico, but they are widely regarded to have been disproved. According to What’s Cooking America’s wonderful account, chili origin legends in the Americas date back to at least 1618, when

it is said that the first recipe for chili con carne was put on paper in the 17th century by a beautiful nun, Sister Mary of Agreda of Spain. She was mysteriously known to the Indians of the Southwest United States as “La Dama de Azul,” the lady in blue.

Mind you, Sister Mary was supposedly projecting herself spiritually to this unnamed tribe from her abbey in Spain. Good story, but probably not it.

Another theory is that the recipe evolved from pre-Colombian ingredients and migrated north. Another holds that it was invented in Mexico specifically to cater to American visitors– tourist food, in other words, which is an interesting theory. The prevalent belief, however, is that chili con carne evolved as a simple peasant dish in San Antonio in the 19th century. We know that

During the 1880s, brightly-dressed Hispanic women known as “Chili Queens” began to operate around Military Plaza and other public gathering places in downtown San Antonio. They would appear at dusk, building charcoal or wood fires to reheat cauldrons of pre-cooked chili, selling it by the bowl to passers-by. The aroma was a potent sales pitch, aided by Mariachi street musicians, who joined in to serenade the eaters. Some Chili Queens later built semi-permanent stalls in the mercado, or local Mexican marketplace. (Link)

Everything traceable seems to bring chili back to Texan street food– the perfect spot for Native American, Mexican, Spanish and Anglo cultures to be drawn together into regional specialties.

So what is chili? Read the rest of this entry »

Thanksgiving: A few thoughts before the feast.

Hey all,

Just a quick note to wish you a happy Thanksgiving.

This is a bit of a conflicted holiday- it commemorates a joint feast held by the rightful citizens of our country and the (let’s face it) pirates who were later to betray and murder them on a colossal scale. The genocide of Native Americans is not something to be celebrated, and all of the ‘Pilgrims and Indians’ crap that comes along with this holiday makes my skin crawl. (If you aren’t familiar with the real history of Thanksgiving, James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me is a great place to start, as is this article from Counterpunch.)

But here’s the thing: outside of elementary schools, the ideology of conquest is really not part of the day for most people. I’ve never been to a Thanksgiving dinner where anyone even talked about patriotism and Pilgrims. The actual practice of celebrating Thanksgiving involves getting together with family and/or friends, eating a lot of great dishes that celebrate foods native to this country, watching football, shopping, and perhaps occasionally stopping to be grateful for the feast, the company, and your life.

Every culture has feast days; in this country, the two other big feast days are Christmas and Easter. This is the one truly secular feasting holiday, the one everyone can enjoy, and when you take away the horrific crimes that led to its founding, it’s actually really pleasant. I enjoy Thanksgiving, as a foodie, because it’s the one day where everyone cares about food, and it’s completely normal to obsess about turkey skin and spend the day in an apron and be proud of what you cook. It’s also a great opportunity to make seasonal dishes with local foods– Pennsylvania, where I’m writing this, is brimming with abundant squash, pumpkin and other produce, and there are parts of our state where you can’t walk down the sidewalk without running into a wild turkey.

So, am I wrong to enjoy Thanksgiving, given its bloody origins? Maybe. But I’m thankful to live in a country with people like Leonard Peltier and Winona LaDuke, among many, many others, who are willing to stand up and fight for a real democracy that respects the rights of all people. I’m thankful for the real, fresh food that is still available and worth celebrating in this prepackaged country, and I’m thankful to the people whose work went into growing it, transporting it and selling it to me. I’m grateful that my body is allowing me to eat. And I’m thankful to be spending my day off with my family, especially my grandparents. I’ll be raising my glass to all of those things tomorrow– not to the Pilgrims.

Enjoy your turkey, folks!

World Hunger: Twelve Myths

In a comment that I made in response to a comment on the post The Local Food Bandwagon, I suggested that people should read the book World Hunger: Twelve Myths by Frances Moore Lappe, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset with Luis Esparza. Back in 2000, I did a review of the book for the International Socialist Review. I thought that I would reprint the review here to see if I can motivate people to read this book. If I were to write the review over, I probably would’ve gone into the author’s criticisms of the Green Revolution a bit more, as well as what they have to say about local production techniques. Maybe I will write another review when the next edition comes out.

Why Does Anyone Go Hungry?

Review by Joe Cleffie

Each day 34,000 children under the age of five die from hunger and the diseases that hunger brings. At any given moment, almost 800 million people in the world are going hungry. Why? Is there enough food to go around? Would feeding everybody in the developing world mean increasing hunger in the West?

Frances Moore Lappe and her coauthors answer “no” again in the second edition of their classic World Hunger: Twelve Myths. In their book, Lappe, Collins and Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, better known as “Food First,” demolish commonly held views about the causes of hunger and famine.

Citing UN statistics, the authors begin by showing that today’s farms actually produce a food surplus:

The world today produces enough grain alone to provide every human being on the planet with thirty-five hundred calories a day. That’s enough to make most people fat? And this estimate does not even count many other commonly eaten foods – vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats and fish. In fact, if all foods are considered together, enough is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day. That includes…nearly [a] pound of meat, milk and eggs.

But aren’t there shortages of food in the places where hunger is most prevalent, such as India and sub-Saharan Africa?

No, say the authors, citing a 1997 study that showed that “78 percent of all malnourished children under five in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses.” In 1995, for example, India exported $625 million in wheat and flour and $1.3 billion in rice while at least 200 million of its citizens went hungry. In sub-Saharan Africa, 11 countries are net exporters of food.

So, do ordinary people in the US benefit from hunger elsewhere? In answer to this common view-that workers around the world are in a winner-take-all competition for the globe’s “naturally scarce” resources-World Hunger blames the market system for the maldistribution and outright squandering of resources that could actually provide for everybody.

“The market,” the authors point out, “responds to money,” not to need. The world market that prices food out of the reach of poor people in Africa, Asia and Latin America does not thereby siphon resources to American workers. That same world market has been sucking American workers dry for the past 25 years!

Instead, the real beneficiaries of the market are the megacorporations that profit when everybody works harder for less. In response to the pressures of the global market, Lappe and her coauthors an internationalist prescription:

In a global economy, our own jobs, wages and working conditions will be protected only when working people in every country establish their rights to organize and protect their interests…If we allow our government to help drive wages down elsewhere, our own wages will soon follow. If, on the other hand, we support improving living standards abroad, those will help push our own back up.

With all of its virtues, though, World Hunger does have some shortcomings. Although they condemn the market, the authors still see it as essential to ending world hunger. They call for pressure on governments and international bodies to curb the power of businesses and to regulate the market’s worst effects. No doubt they were thrilled to see the impact of the protests upon the WTO conference in Seattle. Socialists should join the authors in building such movements, but we need to point beyond the immediate tasks of pressuring government and multilateral institutions that are, in the end, answerable to big business. We need to build this movement of international solidarity to the point where it can create new institutions to begin the democratic deployment of the world’s productive resources.

Despite the limits of its political strategies, World Hunger does the best job of any single book in cutting through the conservative myths that obscure the real social causes of hunger.

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Taste

Omnivore’s Dilemma

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is the kind of book that gets passed around; I heard about it from my mother, a coworker and the guy who sells cheese at the farmer’s market before I picked it up. After reading it, I’m convinced that it’s no longer possible to have a serious discussion about food in the US without mentioning this book.

We live in a country with massive class inequalities-in our health care, our modes of transportation, our housing, our education and the food we eat. The size and terrain of the United States makes it possible for fresh, high-quality foods to be easily shipped around the country, and immigration from around the world gives us access to an amazing variety of cuisines. The US is a fantastic place to eat a meal-if you’ve got the cash. For working-class people, though, there’s another American cuisine-one that comes from a box and is loaded with synthetic chemical additives and high fructose corn syrup. The US also has a massive processed-food industry that stresses profit margin, branding and shelf life over factors like taste and nutrition. And while rich neighborhoods have the upscale gourmet nutrition of Whole Foods, rural and inner-city neighborhoods have been largely abandoned by even basic grocery store chains, leaving poor people to search for nutrition in small stores that sell boxes and cans, not fresh produce. Diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity rates are rising rapidly among the poorest segments of the population-and the food industry’s response has been to add vitamins to Diet Coke.

Yet there is some healthy, affordable and delicious food still available, both in cities and in rural areas, thanks to a growing segment of small farmers who are becoming disillusioned with the food industry and are struggling to stay afloat by finding a niche. So how do we get the food to the people? And, even more to the point, what should we eat?

“What should we eat?” is the question Michael Pollan proposes to answer in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He reviews the sorry state of nutrition in the US, as well as the history of legislation and government programs designed to improve nutrition, often based on the input of the major food processors, and diagnoses the US with what he calls “a national eating disorder.” He looks at the ways in which capitalism has rendered unrecognizable what were for thousand of years the normal ecological patterns of human eating:

…We’ve acquired the ability to substantially modify the food chains we depend on, by means of such revolutionary technologies as cooking with fire, hunting with tools, farming, and food preservation… Agriculture allowed us to vastly multiply the populations of a few favored food species, and therefore in turn our own. And, most recently, industry has allowed us to reinvent the human food chain, from the synthetic fertility of the soil to the microwaveable can of soup designed to fit into a car’s cup holder. The implications of this last revolution, for our health and the health of the natural world, we are still struggling to grasp.

Pollan’s aim is to begin to grasp what food means in an advanced capitalist society. When we are so very distant from the origins of our food, how can we even know what is good for us? In most parts of the country, particularly in urban areas, we no longer are in touch with what grows locally-tomatoes are always in season somewhere in the world, and we have become used to tomatoes as a commodity that is available on demand, whether it means they are grown in a greenhouse or shipped in from Chile. And we eat tasteless, white tomatoes that bear little resemblance to the juicy red gems that could easily grow from the soil in our neighborhoods. So rather than having a diet that is directed by local culture and based on the availability of local ingredients, we are faced with the overabundance that is characteristic of capitalism-megastores filled with more food choices than have ever been available to human beings in the history of our species, some nutritious and some that are quite dangerous for us.

Our senses developed to help us make decisions about food: our noses evolved to help us weed out spoiled foods; our eyes pick up on what’s ripe and appealing; our taste buds tell us when something’s not supposed to be eaten. But the skills that millions of years of evolution have given us don’t give us all of the information we need to make decisions in supermarkets filled with the bounty of industrial production. The dangers we face are different:

By replacing solar energy with fossil fuel, by raising millions of food animals in close confinement, by feeding those animals foods they never evolved to eat, and by feeding ourselves foods far more novel than we even realize, we are taking risks with our health and the health of the natural world that are unprecedented. (10)

So how do we make those decisions?

Pollan’s method mirrors the way most of us make decisions about our meals. He makes four meals, each representing one of four unequal options in food production: mainstream industrial agriculture, large-scale organic production, small-scale local farming, and hunting and gathering. After visiting farms, factories or forests, as well as the stores through which each kind of food is distributed, he serves his family a meal from each kind of food and analyzes its taste, nutritional value, ethical content, potential health effects, environmental impact, and accessibility.

In part I, “Corn”, Pollan uses a meal from McDonald’s-eaten in the family car-as the springboard for an investigation into the industrial production of a fast food meal. He covers some of the same territory as Eric Schlosser’s excellent Fast Food Nation, but takes a very different tack; this investigation is really about the political economics of corn. What do burgers, fries and Coke have to do with corn? Everything, as Pollan discovers-thanks to the use of corn-based ingredients, a lab analysis shows that a McDonald’s cheeseburger is 52% corn; chicken nuggets are 56% corn, a milkshake is 78% corn, and a Coke, impressively, is 100% corn (117). (With such outlandish overexposure to one specific food item, is it any wonder that corn allergies are on the rise?) Even the cows eat corn almost exclusively, although their bodies are not built to do so-it’s cheaper and more profitable to feed corn and antibiotics to sick cows than to raise them on nutritious grass.

In fact, corn has gone from a dietary staple of the Americas to a massively overproduced commodity. Pollan traces corn from its evolutionary rise as a foodstuff to the farm legislation of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the modern food industry’s quest to keep corn prices high by utilizing as much of the grain glut as possible in every mass-produced food item possible. As Pollan explains it:

If where you stand is in agribusiness, processing cheap corn into forty-five different McDonald’s items is an impressive accomplishment. It represents a solution to the agricultural contradictions of capitalism, the challenge of increasing food industry profits faster than America can increase its population. Supersized portions of cheap corn-fixed carbon solve the problem of the fixed stomach: we may not be expanding the number of eaters in America, but we’ve figured out how to expand each of their appetites, which is almost as good… If where you stand is on one of the lower rungs of America’s economic ladder, our cornified food chain offers real advantages: not cheap food exactly (for the consumer ultimately pays the added cost of processing), but cheap calories in a variety of attractive forms. In the long run, however, the eater pays a high price for these cheap calories: obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease. (117)

He then goes on to explain the impact that this has on the vast majority of people on the bottom rungs of the world’s economic ladder. He visits a corn farm, a grain elevator and a food science laboratory, and follows a specific steer through its (entirely unsettling) lifetime from ranch to feedlot to slaughterhouse.

Part Two, “Grass,” investigates two alternatives methods of food production: “Big Organic,” the growing mainstream organic foods industry of which Whole Foods is the most prominent public face, and a small, family-run “grass farm” in Virginia. One of the joys of the book is watching Pollan rip apart the ‘friendly capitalist’ image of Whole Foods, whose food sourcing and labor practices are much less friendly and green than the rolling hills and farmlands pictured on the labels of so many of its products.

The “grass farm” Pollan visits is the most inspiring part of the book. Run by a fiercely individualistic farmer named Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm is a vision of what healthy, locally based agriculture can be. Pollan stays on the farm for two weeks and traces the complex food chains that are preserved and nurtured at Polyface. It’s called a grass farm because, just as the hamburgers at McDonald’s trace their existence back to industrial corn, the livestock and poultry at Polyface can be traced back to the lush pastures of grass in which Salatin’s animals graze. His ingenious system allows the farm’s animals’ natural processes to renew the soil and grass, as farmers have been doing for thousands of years. Salatin also explains the ecological benefits of giving over part of his farmland to forest, and his deep understanding of the workings of the ecosystem in which he farms gives the reader an idea of what it might take to bring about a truly sustainable system of food production.

The final section, “The Forest,” traces Pollan’s attempts to produce an entirely non-commercial meal-he goes mushroom hunting at secret locations around Northern California, hunts for wild boar, and even bakes bread with yeast he cultivates in his neighborhood. The point is to try, in the face of an economic system set up to disguise the true costs of food production, to shoulder all of the hidden costs that go into the creation of a meal-the labor, the environmental costs, the sweat and even the emotional cost of killing an animal. He finds it more challenging than he’d anticipated, and concludes, as one might expect, that while the experiment is enlightening, there is simply no way, in a developed economy, for any one person to realistically try to produce his or her food on an individual basis. We are in this together, he concludes, and we have to try to figure out what to eat and how to produce it without incurring costs we can’t pay, or passing the real costs on to farmers, workers and the world’s poor.

What are Pollan’s conclusions? He finds that organic food, while not the cure-all it purports to be, is indeed better for you and better tasting; industrially produced food is frightening and disgusting in the way it treats animals, the way it overloads our diets with superdoses of specific foods, its environmental impact and its health effects; local, fresh, sustainably farmed food is the best thing out there; and hunting and gathering your own food is a rewarding thing to do, but not sustainable as a solution for any but a tiny minority of people.

As Pollan himself is the first to admit, he is a food writer, not a political writer, and is generally not given to polemics. He does not attempt to come up with a political solution to the problem of industrial food production- but he does acknowledge that such a solution is necessary, and leaves the door open to more political writers to attempt it. In writing the book, however, Pollan seems to swing to the left on the issue of food politics. It was probably impossible to avoid-after all, food is an unavoidably politicized arena, and one central to the survival of every human society. You can learn a great deal about the politics of any culture, time or place by asking how it produces its food-and in the case of modern capitalism, the answers are disturbing.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a popular book, I think, not only because it’s a well-written, engaging look at a universally popular topic. It also poses some very important questions about what we’re eating and why. As food allergies, heart disease, diabetes and cancer rates soar, and as we see more and more scandals arise around issues of food safety and sanitation, people are becoming more aware of what the industrial food chain means for their health and their lives, and they’re beginning to seek alternatives. Even bland corporate outfits like the Food Network have helped to raise popular awareness about the quality of food and alternatives to boxed ‘fake-food’ products.

So what is the solution? More to the point, is there a solution under capitalism? Certainly, there are steps we can take as individuals and as communities toward eating better-we can help to organize farmer’s markets in urban areas, we can shop for local foods whenever possible, and we can educate ourselves about nutrition. But the steps we can take as consumers are aimed at circumventing Big Food, not changing it. In order to change the nature of food production, it’s necessary to completely rethink the entire system-and that would mean organizing the sustenance of human beings around the nutritional needs of people and the health of the planet, not around profit. That’s not going to happen under a capitalist system that is completely organized around maximizing profit at all costs.

It’s difficult for us even to picture what a healthy, sustainable global food market might look like-but I think it would have to decentralize food production, placing an emphasis on local production and local cuisines, and on using the land in less harmful ways, like Joel Saladin’s grass farm. I think that it would have to involve ordinary people’s labor and their guidance. I think it would also have to be organized around the elimination of hunger. It would have to use agricultural techniques that nourish the land rather than exacerbating the tendency toward desertification of arable land that already begun by global warming. And I hope that it would involve educating the palates of a new generation whose children will be able to taste the difference between real, healthy food and dangerous synthetic concoctions.

As a piece of culinary writing, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is widely acclaimed as a masterpiece, a work in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher and other giants of the food world. I couldn’t agree more-but it also deserves to be acclaimed as a work of political economy.

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Alton Brown does gluten-free chocolate chip cookies; Foodie reading

First things first: 

Alton Brown goes gluten-free

Dear Alton Brown:  Thank you.  

I just watched the Good Eats episode “Sub Standards,” in which you make peanut-free satay sauce and gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.  You talked not only about the science of allergies, but also gave sound explanations for the ingredients and proportions in your gluten-free flour mix.  It was smart; it was helpful.  (I recorded it for future use, actually.)  It was sensitive– everyone who knows the feeling of being denied delicious cookies was grateful for that little demo.  And those recipes looked good.

I wrote you an email several months ago asking you to do just that show; either you really liked my letter, or I wasn’t the only one with that request.  Or maybe you’re just in touch with these sorts of issues, realize that the numbers of people with food allergies and sensitivities in the US is rising rapidly (why?  That’s another post…) and decided to strike a blow for us.  I’d like to believe you read my letter, though!

See, the thing about Good Eats fans is that we actually cook.  Good Eats is the Food Network show that the foodies watch, and use, and argue about.  And do you know what that means for this particular episode?  One in 100 or so Americans are gluten-free, and more are wheat-free.  When your fans see this episode, they’re immediately going to think of their gluten-free friend/coworker/neighbor and say, ‘Oh, I can do that!’  And hundreds, if not thousands, of celiacs are going to be presented with a surprise plate of delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies.  And if you think ordinary people are happy when you give them cookies, believe me, those gluten-free cookies will inspire tears of joy in some people.

So thanks, Alton.  Keep rocking the food science and fighting the good fight.  We are all a little nerdier (in a good way) because of you.

Much love,


Click here for the recipe.

What I’m reading

Alton wasn’t the only one who made my foodie heart glad last night.  I also received my copy of the big, beautiful Oxford Companion to Food, which I bought used on Amazon for $15.  This gorgeous coffee-table book is an encyclopedia of ingredients, dishes and cuisines (not a cookbook).   Surprisingly, it’s the work of a single author, Alan Davidson, who’s been working on it since 1976.   It’s amazingly well-researched– the bibliography is 20 pages long, and draws on everything from Pliny to a gastronomical journal from Sudan.  Its coverage is uneven– Europe, India, the Arab world and Japan are well represented, but not so much Latin America or Africa.  But, again, it’s one man’s life’s work, and it represents his voice, his quirks, and his obsessions.  You’ll get whatever information you’re looking for, plus a funny quote from a 1700s-era cookbook or a rave about the amazing taste of opah or beaver tail.  I plan to spend many happy hours leafing through this wonderful work.

I also just received my new Chinese cookbook!  It’s The Chinese Kitchen: Recipes, Techniques, Ingredients, History, and Memories from America’s Leading Authority on Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin-fei Lo.  It’s another big, pretty hardcover, also way cheap if purchased used on Amazon.  She delves into the history and cultural significance of each dish, and it’s a pretty fascinating read for a Chinese-cuisine newbie like me.  I haven’t cooked from it yet, but at a preliminary glance the explanations of techniques and ingredients seem helpful and thorough.  The emphasis does seem to be on elaborate, fancy dishes rather than everyday food, but both are represented and I’m looking forward to a shopping trip in Chinatown and my first experiments with her recipes.

Finally, two classics of gastronomic literature: The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher and The Physiology of Taste, or Transcendental Gastronomy by the big daddy of the table, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.  (You can also read the latter online for free here.)  Fisher is one of the best food writers of the English language.  She’s funny, strong, informative and sensual.  This book is a collection of some of her works, including the famous How to Cook a Wolf.  I haven’t had time to get deeply into it yet, but her discussion of 1950s ideas of ‘balanced nutrition’ (and what a ridiculous pain in the ass it was) is hilarious and sensible.  She’s also known for her translation of Brillat-Savarin, still the king of funny food writing.  He was a French lawyer and gastronome who wrote in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (and yes, he’s responsible for the ‘Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are’ quote they show at the beginning of Iron Chef episodes).  He writes on various social aspects of food, tells all sorts of anecdotes about French dinner parties, and makes the case over and over for ‘gourmandise’ as a way of life.

Here’s a teeny little taste:

I have looked through various dictionaries for the word gourmandise and have found no translation that suited me. It is described as a sort of confusion of gluttony and voracity. Whence I have concluded that lexicographers, though very pleasant people in other respects, are not the sort of men to swallow a partridge wing gracefully with one hand, with a glass of Laffitte or clos de Vougeot in the other.

Just read him.  You’ll get it.

And while I’m at it, Alton’s book I’m Just Here for the Food is excellent.  The recipes are good, but what’s more useful is that the whole book is set up by technique (as in, different ways to apply heat to food).  It’s designed to teach the reader how to understand a recipe, not just follow it blindly. 

OK, readers, your turn: what should the well-read foodie be consuming?

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