Thursday, August 28, 2008
Saturday, August 23, 2008
More on the foodie blues
Here's the thing: when I decided to give up beef, pork and chicken (for my own personal and complex reasons), I just as firmly decided that I would not be one of "those" vegetarians. I would never speak unless spoken to at the dinner table when meat was on the menu (unfortunately, I am often spoken to and asked, by a person innocently biting into a burger, "So, what made you decide to become vegetarian?"). I would never require the b.f. to become vegetarian unless he chose to (although now, we cook together frequently, and it makes no sense to make meat for one when there are only two of us, so he has now become a de facto vegetarian chef). I would never pester my acquaintances to change their ways or even to change their choice of restaurant to accommodate my diet (although they often have and they will).
However, because I am not one of "those" vegetarians, I often have to perform the same mental magic of forgetting when sitting down to a meal, or I could not get through the day. I could not review a restaurant's menu objectively (I usually bring a designated carnivore). I could not feed my dog his dinner (once underweight, he now thrives on meat-based Evo kibble). I could not pick up takeout on the way home (where there is often an order of chicken tikka masala or beef pad see-ew for the b.f). I could not sit down to a meal with my wonderful meat-eating family without balking. And I need to be able to do those things.
In other words, I no longer eat certain foods, but in order to show respect and restraint toward those who still wish to eat them, I still go through my day performing the same acts of forgetting and objectifying those foods that more omnivorous folks perform in order to eat them. The result is that I am able to be shocked -- an experience both pleasant and painful, like a good hard massage releasing unconscious knots in the muscles -- when I read something like the following passage in Pollan's book, which elegantly sums up how we came to be in the enormous mess we're in.
America's food animals have undergone a revolution in lifestyle in the years since World War II. At the same time much of America's human population found itself leaving the city for the suburbs, our food animals found themselves traveling in the oppostive direction, leaving widely dispersed farms in places like Iowa to live in densely populated new animal cities. These places are so different from farms and ranches that a new term was needed to denote them: CAFO -- Confined Animal Feeding Operation. The new animal and human landscapes were both products of government policy. The postwar suburbs would never have been built if not for the interstate highway system, as well as the G.I. Bill and federally subsidized mortgages. The urbanization of America's animal population would never have taken place if not for the advent of cheap, federally subsidized corn.
Corn itself profited from the urbanization of livestock twice. As the animals left the [traditional family] farm, more of the farm was left for corn, which rapidly colonized the paddocks and pastures and even the barnyards that had once been the animals' territory. The animals left because the farmer's simply couldn't compete with the CAFOs. It cost a farmer more to grow feed corn than it cost a CAFO to buy it, for the simple reason that commodity corn now was routinely sold for less than it cost to grow. Corn profited again as the factory farms expanded, absorbing increasing amounts of its surplus. Corn found its way into the diet of animals that never used to eat very much of it (like cattle) or any corn at all, like the farmed salmon now being bred to tolerate grain. All that excess biomass had to go somewhere.
The economic logic of gathering so many animals together to feed them cheap corn in CAFOs is hard to argue with; it has made meat, which used to be a special occasion in most American homes, so cheap and abundant that many of us now eat it three times a day. Not so compelling is the biological logic behind this cheap meat. Already in their short history CAFOs have produced more than their share of environmental and health problems: polluted water and air, toxic wastes, [and] novel and deadly pathogens.
Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms such as the Naylors' used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop -- what in retrospect you might call a solution. One of the most striking things that animal feedlots do (to paraphrase Wendell Berry) is to take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical [petroleum-based] fertilizers), and a pollution problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all).
This biological absurdity, characteristic of all CAFOs, is compounded in the cattle feedyard by a second absurdity. Here animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us -- at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters -- to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed.
I can't imagine feeling anything other than outrage and frustration with our food production system after reading this passage. Yet the alternative -- to never to have read it at all -- I know would be worse.
The omnivore (food writer's) dilemma
A word on why I write so frequently about food and, when I can get away with it, food's connection to the environment. Many times exploring the world of food can be fun, but as anyone who's read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" or "Fast Food Nation" knows, it can also be painful. Ignorance really is bliss, and the more one learns about the way most food is produced in America, I find, the more one loses one's appetite.
This is why I feel I can no longer eat most forms of meat, even though this handicaps me as a food writer in the eyes of some. And this is why I constantly champion local, organic, etc., even though these ideas and words are beginning to lose their meaning and to sound hackneyed and impoverished even to me. Because below these "nice" words lies an ugly reality, and it's one I am fighting to change, even as I babble on about the wonders of chevre cheesecake and huckleberry ice cream.
Food in the new millenium is as much about pain as it is about pleasure, but unfortunately the former is not one many people enjoy hearing about. So since this balance is lacking in my published work, I feel the need to address that aspect here.
I'll be posting in 2 parts. I'll begin with this introduction.
Last night, I was telling the b.f. a story I had heard on This American Life on a drive I took to NYC this spring. It was on the "Matchmakers" podcast, Act 3. It's called "Babies Buying Babies", and it starred a factory reject doll named Nubbins. Perhaps you've heard it. This is the summary from the TAL website:
Elna Baker reads her story about the time she worked at the giant toy store, FAO Schwartz. Her job was to sell these lifelike “newborns” which were displayed in a “nursery” inside the store. When the toys become the hot new present, they begin to fly off the shelves. When the white babies sell out, white parents are faced with a choice: will they go for an Asian, Latino, or African-American baby instead? What happens is so disturbing that Elna has a hard time even telling it.Spoiler alert: What happens is that, rather than purchase an African-American doll for her white child, a customer chooses to adopt a deformed white doll the "nurses" at the toy store have dubbed Nubbins, a doll they never expected to sell. (Note: when Googling this episode I came across other blog responses to this episode, including an account from an adoptive mother who stated that unfortunately, the real adoption habits of parents in the U.S. tend to fall along similar lines, an aspect of the story TAL did not explore.)
As TAL pieces tend to be, this narrative skirts the boundary between provoking laughter and tears. I finished my own re-telling with a bitter laugh and said, "It's sort of depressing, really."
The b.f. surprised me by sighing and saying, "Ryan, I want to make you happier. I want you to be a happy person."
I responded by sighing back, then quietly but firmly explaining that while there are things that make me unhappy, I would rather be unhappy than uninformed. And yes, sometimes the information I consume (served up by the "liberal" media, which, it's true, tends to traffic in sometimes cynical truths) makes me unhappy.
When you believe, for example, that we should be working to preserve the environment for ourselves and future generations, or that we should be making food choices daily that underscore our values, or that women should be treated as equals among men across the globe, and then day after day you find that there are millions who would disagree with you or at least fail to support you in this view, then it's difficult to feel happy about the future implications of that fact. And when your enemies are not "Republicans" or "Democrats" but simply iniquity and ignorance, which are about the same as "Terrorism" or "Drugs" in terms of combat-ability, it's hard not to feel as though your work will never be done.
However. Because these stories of iniquity and ignorance exist, I know that it could be so much worse for me. I have my health, I have more than enough to eat (especially lately, with all these food articles!), I do fun and creative work daily with people who support and respect me, I have a lovely apartment in a safe and pleasant neighborhood, I have a loving (if deeply quirky) family, I have a committed and accomplished partner, I have smart and caring friends, and I have a wonderful puppydog, who is himself grateful to have been rescued from iniquity and ignorance and given a happy and healthy (for the most part) life of his own.
I am a happy person. I am living in difficult times. I am working always to make them less difficult for myself and those around me, and writing about food and all its implications is an integral part of that. Outside the blissful Eden of ignorance, my way often feels like a long row to hoe. But I don't think I would be happier if I laid my tools down and walked away, because I would have to leave myself and all this behind. And I like who I am, anger and sadness and all.
(Image from www.michaelpollan.com)
Thursday, August 21, 2008
However, I still can't understand why Pauley isn't already selling me iPods, and posing in some slightly scandalous way on the cover of a national magazine, and fending off accusations that she's "sold out", and dismissing rumors that she's stolen John Mayer away from Jennifer Aniston, instead of gigging around the country in small rooms and playing to small crowds. Maybe it's because her quiet voice wouldn't carry in a football stadium. She might not enunciate well enough for Sirius radio or NPR. She might not fit easily into mainstream music's pre-made molds of "winsome folk chanteuse" (read: women who are sad about the status quo) or "tough DiFranco-style broad" (read: women who are mad about the status quo). But I'd like to see her get the chance to try it all on for size.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Also, I am serious about the tofu at Rod Dee, the profiteroles at Eastern Standard, and the cold beer that must be imbibed before any proper brumble in the Utah desert. I can comfortably say that those three food items define me as a person.
Something else I'd like to mention: despite the fact that Bostonist does not pay for their copy, I have really enjoyed the sense of camaraderie that the staff seems to share -- and this extends to my friends who write for the 'ist in Chicago and Austin. Rob Christopher, Tom Thornton, and Josh Huck were kind enough to send me welcome notes when they found out that I had joined the club in Boston. I only hope I can live up to Tom's food coverage and build up enough chops to write an essay for Austin's Soup Peddler -- and perhaps to post as a guest commentator on Josh's soon-to-be-a-zeitgeist soup blog. (Oh no, I have not forgotten about the soup blog.)
Luckily, in the age of new media, a freelancer can sometimes find a home for these "bits of string too short to use" (to quote Didion once again) within the same news cycle as...er...the original ball of yarn. So I did a bit about InSeason's debut in Boston for the 'ist as well and added some additional commentary from Crandall.
Full story - and a lovely photo from Crandall's blog -- right here.
Friday, August 15, 2008
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
So far the word has been out for just a few days, and already we have a few kids signed up. We also have several great restaurateurs like Joanne Chang of Flour and Myers + Chang and Mary-Catherine Deibel of Upstairs on the Square who are going to offer our budding writers some "press meals" on the house so that the kids can share a nice meal with their parents and learn to experience the world of food with all 5 senses. (What I'm really hoping for are some funny essays and some great drawings!) We've also agreed that we will be talking about M.F.K. Fisher (who wrote about food as an emotional and aesthetic experience), Julia Child (who presented food as a constant adventure), and Michael Pollan (who has championed a view of food as a personal connection to the larger world around us). So that should be fun.
Here is the writeup from the 826 Boston site, in case you happen to stumble across this post instead of the 826 site, and know a kid who might want to sign up (another great thing about 826: you don't have to be an 826 kid already to sign up for a workshop!)
Food Critic For A Day
Don't miss this fall's tastiest workshop!
Date: Saturday, September 3 & 20, 2008
Time: 1-3 pm
Age: 11-14 years
Teachers: Ryan Rose Weaver & Jennie Coates
In this workshop, we teach you the skills to review restaurants professionally and to experience a meal with all of your senses in order to do so. You may decide (maybe after your third dumpling) that this is the job for you! We’ll be talking about some great food writers, then you'll visit a fine restaurant in Boston to write and illustrate your own food review. Then you' ll go over the review with your "editors" (your workshop teachers).
Please note: A parent or guardian will have the opportunity to accompany the student on their restaurant review! The meal will be scheduled during the week between the two workshop sessions (September 7-19). Confirmation of parent or guardian participation is required at time of registration for the workshop.
Download the flyer.
Enroll by emailing programs [at] 826boston.org or calling 617.442.5400.
About the teachers:
Jennie Coates holds a Ph.D. in Nutrition and is on the faculty of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University. A dedicated volunteer, Jennie led the highly successful Science of Ice Cream lesson at 826 Boston's Summer Science & Writing Camp.
Ryan Rose Weaver, a graduate of Emerson's journalism program, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Weekly Dig and the Boston Business Journal.
Workshops will be held at 826 Boston, located at 3035 Washington Street in Egleston Square.--
Also notable: Chocolate Cake City, a comedy troupe from my alma mater, Emerson, is also doing a workshop this month! Gotta love Boston.
Crandall and I ended up having a pretty pleasant conversation. The entrepreneur balances a sense of street smarts (he lived in Boston for over a decade) with down-home farmer charm (his grandparents on both sides come from Vermont farming stock). He told me about his motivation, which is complex, and therefore was cut from the Weekly Dig "Greenland" piece. He said:
"I feel very strongly about farmers in New England. I wouldn't have chosen this business if I didn't feel there was this intrinsic part of NewEngland that's just vanishing. My family history is in Vermont, where the dairy farms are being replaced by townhouses. The other families that we met there -- their farms are melting away.
Places lose their personality when they modernize and homogenize. I don't want that to happen for New England. There's a strong contingent that wish it wasn't like that everywhere. And those are the folks I'm trying to appeal to."
It's hard not to agree with Crandall, who seems to combine this idealism and nostalgia with plenty of pragmatism and an entrepreneur's instinct for survival. He started his delivery service because he sees an opportunity in folks like me, who can never make it to the farmer's market before it closes, who don't have the resources or reliable schedules to handle pounds of mystery produce every week a la Boston Organics' model, and who don't have enough capital for a CSA. It remains to be seen if he can really fix our problems. But if he can -- then rejoice, 9-to-5'ers and poor freelancers -- your time to consume heirloom tomatoes from a hydroponic grower in Western Mass has come. Hopefully.
(Note: do not confuse InSeason.us with Inseason.net -- which appears to bring salvation of an entirely different sort.)
Is this a victory for small business? A victory for Boston's struggling late-night scene? A victory for those who thrive on expensive sandwiches with fancy jams and require them to be served at all hours? I really have no idea. But it makes me want to walk over to the new space on Shawmut Ave., sit down with my sandwich, set a boombox on my table, and blast "Beastie Boys" til the break of dawn. Just 'cause.
Friday, August 08, 2008
As he laid out detail after detail about his changes to the restaurant (new lights, recycling), finally finishing up with the particulars of his own car, which runs on kitchen oil, my jaw creaked lower and lower until finally it just hung loosely like a door with a broken hinge. Innovative and hardworking, the Peruvian chef is an impressive and jovial person who is knowledgeable without being pretentious, and who originally became an expert on restaurant eco-tweaks simply because he wanted to cut costs, not due to any smug Prius-style sentiment. He's a great ambassador for the Boston green restaurant movement and deserves the support of Boston's green community.
Anyhow, that's my quick polemic - now for the slightly more food-focused piece on Bostonist.
(Image of Duarte above from www.wineandfoodweek.com.)
Thursday, August 07, 2008
[Preview is here.]
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
[Full Bostonist preview here.]
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
[Full writeup here.]
Monday, August 04, 2008
That pretty much sums up how I feel about RW, and that's what I wrote in Bostonist today.
However, if these things were enough to keep me away from good food at cut rate prices, well, I'd be a skinnier human than I am now. So I was still happy to do a RW preview series for the 'ist. This writeup of L'Espalier is the first of five.