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Archives for Food and the Media

Eating Oil


On October 12 Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food took over the New York Times Magazine for his polemic, “Farmer in Chief” framed as an open letter to the next president. Pollan writes: “what’s needed is a change of culture in America’s thinking about food … focusing the light of public attention on the issue and communicating a simple set of values that can guide Americans toward sun-based foods and away from eating oil.”

CornThe article is a tour de force of the problems facing the American and world food supply. Pollan begins with food prices but moves on to farm policy, climate change, economic policy, health care, energy policy, and diet. He does a masterful job of showing how these issues relate to and affect each other.

There is much with which I agree. Pollan notes: “Monoculture is the original sin of American Agriculture.” We have a system designed to produce the most possible calories of food for the least possible price – factory farms are the result of this policy. It began with Earl Butz during the Nixon administration when he completely revamped farm policy to encourage maximum production and instead of offering farmers insurance during hard times the government began actively subsidizing crops such as corn, soy beans, and rice. This meant that farmers could make a profit even when their costs of production exceeded the market price of the commodity.

The most obvious result of this policy are CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and the increased use of HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) in processing our food Both encourage obesity and both are based on the over-supply of corn due to subsidies. That’s corn. But there’s also oil. Another product of corn subsidies, Ethanol – possibly the first bio-fuel – is increasing the demand for corn and thus contributing to increases in food prices. And, as the cost of oil and natural gas increase so does the price of crops dependent on high levels of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, made in many cases from petroleum by-products.

Pollan’s point is that the next president needs to have a Food Policy, a set of principles and plans that account for how energy, health, economics, and diet relate to and influence each other. Pollan’s thesis is that a piecemeal approach to the issues makes things worse and the next president needs to use his bully pulpit to encourage Americans to think more deeply about these issues and their interconnections. He even recommends turning part of the White House lawn into a vegetable garden as Eleanor Roosevelt did during World War II.

Frankly I think the chances of the next president even reading Pollan’s article, much less considering his ideas, is slim to none. But that’s not really the point. Food issues, whether the issue of animal confinement being addressed by California’s Prop 2, or buying organic, or even entertainment in the form of the Food Network is becoming something more and more Americans care about.

We see this interest reflected in the media. For instance, we not only have a Food Network, but one of Bravo’s hits is “Top Chef” and the Travel Channel offers both “No Reservations” and “Bizaare Foods.” The cover story of the November 2008 issue of Wired is “The Future of Food.” And equally telling, two years ago Spot-On asked me to write this column – not a food and cooking how-to but instead about how food and cooking fit into and are reflected in our culture.

This increased interest in food is a good thing because we’re approaching a food crisis that will affect even those of us in the developed world. The more thought we give to the issues now the better prepared we’ll be when the crisis hits and we actually do something about it. As Pollan writes, “…most of the problems our food system faces today are because of its reliance on fossil fuels, and to the extent that our policies wring the oil out of the system and replace it with the energy of the sun, those policies will simultaneously improve the state of our health, our environment and our security.”

In other words: We need to quit eating oil.


Update: Apparently I was wrong when I wrote:

Frankly I think the chances of the next president even reading Pollan’s article, much less considering his ideas, is slim to none.

According to this article Obama read at least a synopsis.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Hell’s Kitchen


Against my better judgment I watched Hell’s Kitchen the other night and. It contained:

So much for “reality” TV.

Gordan RamsayOr perhaps it is reality in what passes for most commercial kitchens these days. But I understand Thomas Keller runs a quiet, focused, and phenomenally effective kitchen at The French Laundry. And probably because it makes great TV, the idea – instilled by many an egomaniacal cook – that abuse and teaching go hand-in-hand stays with us.

Judging from the show, Gordon Ramsay is a pig. A small-minded martinet far more interested in his power than in the food. I’m unimpressed with his skin-tight chefs’ jackets and even less impressed with his ability to motivate cooks beyond anything but terror.

I did my homework. I watched a full episode and forced myself to watch half a dozen segments on YouTube. Ramsay complained recently on NightLine that, “Unfortunately, today at the age of 41, my persona gets judged over my substance, which is really frustrating.” Poor baby. Did he think people would ignore his referring to people as “stupid cows?” In that same episode he balled out a customer who had the nerve to complain. Did he think we would assume he had ability when we don’t see him cook but do hear him have tantrums?

He went on to say of his critics, “Have they actually spent a 16-hour shift cooking 70 to 80 lunches, 120 to 150 dinners short staffed, fish cook is not turning in, produce inconsistent because of the weather?” In one episode he screams at a contestant who talked back to him that the contestant is rude.

Sounds like a whiner to me. I have no doubt he could beat the crap out of me, and only a little more doubt that he would, given the opportunity. Hell, for all I know he’s a decent cook, I just see no evidence of that in his show. And yes, I understand the reality show concept. But let me compare Hell’s Kitchen with Bravo’s Top Chef.

Watching Top Chef you get a genuine feeling for each chef’s culinary personality, for how they think about food. Sure, Top Chef also is mostly about personality, but it’s about everyone’s personalities, not just the odious obscenity-filled rantings of an egomaniac. Watching the show you learn why the chefs make the choices they do in ingredients and techniques and you learn why the judges reach the conclusions they do. Food may not be the main point in Top Chef, but it is an important point.

I hadn’t expected to like Top Chef, but a couple of fellow cooks talked me into watching it and I got hooked. The various contests are generally more realistic than I expected. They selected chefs who are good to begin with and over the course of the show you can see contestants getting even better.

The judging strikes me as knowledgeable and it’s formed by consensus – unlike Hell’s Kitchen where one madman’s opinion is the only judgment. I’m well aware that in a professional kitchen the only opinion that does count is the chef’s, but with no way of knowing whether I might be inclined to agree with the chef – or in Ramsay’s case actively loathing him – I gain nothing from his pronouncements. When the last episode of Top Chef rolled around, though, I appreciated the quandary the judges faced. And for what it’s worth, their choice of Stephanie Izard as the Top Chef made sense to me: I know I wanted to eat her food.

I don’t know that I’ll tune in to Top Chef again, I watched most of the last season and I suspect that was enough. But I do know I’ve seen enough Hell’s Kitchen to last a lifetime. Recently, poor little Mr. Ramsay says he’s going to avoid the telly in the future.

Apparently he can’t take the heat.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

No Prevention, No Cure


Two weeks ago in “USDA – D is for ‘Downer’” I discussed the graphic and disturbing video taken by the Humane Society containing footage of “downer” cows – those too ill to walk – being shoveled into a meat processing facility in Chino, Calif. That film has since led to the recall of 143 million pounds of beef.

Click for larger image.The recall has become big news which is great, but as I’ve read and listened to the coverage I’ve been angry about one thing: The news agencies keep calling it a “USDA recall,” which is flat wrong and is misleading the public.

Why? Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has no authority to recall so much as a single hamburger. All it can to is request, “pretty please,” that the manufacturer voluntarily issue a recall. If the system really worked – or even if it were meant to work – there might still have been a recall but it wouldn’t have been for 143 million pounds of meat processed over two years, and it certainly wouldn’t have been voluntary.

Oh sure, as this Congressional Research Report states, USDA can apply some pressure by, say, pulling inspectors from plants – in which case the facilities are no longer permitted to sell across state lines. Or the agency can put a hold on distribution for up to 20 days. But if the meat processor balks there’s nothing the USDA can do about it. The USDA isn’t even permitted by law to inform consumers about where the recalled beef was sold. So if you’re wondering if you bought some of the beef that’s being recalled – you’ll have to keep wondering. That’s a trade secret of the company selling the possibly contaminated product. Nor can the USDA require that the recalled meat be destroyed. If Hallmark chooses to it can turn around and sell that meat outside of this country. In other words, their corporate “trade” secrets are more important to our government than your health.

Someone once commented that corporations have rights without responsibilities. This is a fundamental flaw in any social actor. When the health of corporal (living) members of a society is stacked against a corporation’s (non-living entity’s) welfare and then arbitrated by a government that feels it must treat corporations as individuals without the authority to impose the same set of responsibilities on the corporations that it does on real humans, well, then you – we – have a problem.

I quite understand the value of corporations and their ability to concentrate and apply capital. Without them I wouldn’t be able to catch a plane to New Orleans. Corporations make it possible for me to use the Internet to research places to stay (and more importantly eat) when I get to there. Corporations make renting a car in advance simple. But while I may need a large well-run corporate entity to help me find a bed and breakfast, it doesn’t have to be owned and manage by one. The same goes with a restaurant. And when a corporation can make me ill or even kill me without being held responsible for its actions then we – you and I – have failed in our effort to govern ourselves.

You can argue that the recall shows the system works. And the same argument may well be made in defending the lawsuits that may be filed in the wake of this scandal. But becasue there’s no evidence that anyone was hurt by this specific event, it’s not very different from pointing a gun at a stranger’s head, pulling the trigger, and upon failing to blow their brains out argue, “Hey! No harm done.”

In the latest recall Hallmark could have simply stonewalled. And that, may in the end, be the result. Apparently the company is going out of business just as Topps Meat did and under similar circumstances. So, in the end, what does the corporation stand to lose by not recalling the meat? In fact, it may have been better off if it hadn’t since then it wouldn’t have to reimburse those who purchased the meat. And, of course, a company closes its doors is one that’s harder to sue for any damages.

Given the drastic increase in recalls – not just meat but drugs and other products – those options becomes more logical, if you’re corporate but not corporeal. And especially if the dog guarding you has no teeth.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 8:00 AM | Permalink

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