Friday, February 25, 2011

Guest post: Response to Bittman post

Jen McCleary and I worked together some years ago at a publishing company, when I was a struggling vegetarian and she was (and still is) a dedicated vegan.  I have since returned to a diet that includes meat and poultry.  Below is a comment she left on my Mark Bittman post and I think it's too valuable to be buried beneath my rant.  Thanks, Jen.

Interesting post...I agree with some of what you said. Of course I hate hate hate the idea of Big Brother looking over everyone's soup pot to make sure you haven't put too much salt. But what frightens me more (and seems a more realistic threat at the moment) is gigantic food companies that adhere to the philosophy of good ol' "profit no matter the costs." Without some sort of governmental regulation you end up with melamine in the baby formula and sugar water labeled as juice, and these companies laughing all the way to the bank. Sadly these entities have been hugely influential in directing the food policies of the nation (just look up the history of the food pyramid), and quite successful in persuading the American public that cooking is a horrible, difficult, time-consuming task and why bother when you can buy their products?

It's a matter of balance between a number of forces (corporate food interests, government, individuals), and I think it's missing an opportunity to just throw up our hands and leave it up to "personal responsibility." Yes, people need to take responsibility for their own lives and choices, but what happens when the social structure is not there to support responsible choices? Just how much choice does someone have who has no proper grocery store within accessible distance? This is not about "forcing" anyone to do anything. This is not about banning potato chips and soda. This is about making sure people have access to good information (not just advertising and corporate manipulation) and access to good food (not just nutritionally dubious crap priced much lower than it should be due to subsidies).

Bittman et al. are reactionaries against a food system that has clearly gone off the rails, and the loudest, most out-there voices always get the most press. There IS something horribly elitist about a lot of what they have to say, given the realities that so many Americans have to live with. It IS ridiculous to suggest that everyone should take up the home cultivation of heirloom microgreens, or eat only bread made from grains you have ground yourself, or eat only meat from animals that you personally befriended on the local farm (a particularly psychopathic attitude in my mind, but that's another story). (If Bittman makes you stabby then don't read Alice Waters!) But I think that despite all that, it's still a discussion worth having and I'm glad Bittman et al. are calling attention to these issues. Hopefully the pendulum will eventually swing toward somewhere in the middle.

No, what makes me stabby is knowing there are children living in the richest country on Earth waking up hungry with no prospect of a decent meal. Knowing that people HAVE to work two or three jobs to make ends meet while companies are making billions in profit on feeding them crap food that is detrimental to their health. Knowing that the government would rather spend billions on ridiculous military interventions in foreign countries than use that money to ensure that every American has access to healthy food and the information to make good choices for themselves and their families. No, stabby isn't even the word. Bittman-style elitism is just a minor irritant in a morass of injustice and poor policy.

Ugh, sorry for the rant. I should just get my own damn food blog. Very interested in your thoughts on this though!

I cannot argue with any of this.  Why, then, do I feel stabby towards Bittman et al.?  Because, as Jen pointed out, they are reactionaries.  In my opinion, they have a personal agenda and believe that their way is the only way.

I have always believed that everyone should be taught by somebody, somewhere, basic cooking skills.  Home ec in schools would be a great way to start.  It's not just cooking, there's reading, math and science involved, too, a whole spectrum of skills that can be put to good use.  Plus, it can be fun.

I fully believe in government regulations to keep food in the proper condition to be consumed. However, I am firmly against taxing foods that the government has deemed improper for consumption, simply because they don't want to put together a proper system of checks and balances.  This whole "let's tax junk food so people won't eat it" is ridiculous and won't work anyway.  Case in point: cigarettes.  Five bucks a pack and people still buy them by the carton.

The two people I think can most bring about change right now are Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver.  They "get" people and understand that there is room for moderation and that it's more important to get fresh vegetables and fruit into the diet be it organic or conventional.  They are both very hands-on in their approach without resorting to hammering people into guilt trips over what they eat.  They know that working with people on a level they can understand, without finger-pointing and badgering, will be far more effective in the long run than constantly telling people that what they are doing is wrong.

Finally, I think Alice Waters has lost all touch with reality.  Good intentions but I think she's barmy.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why Mark Bittman makes me stabby

Mark Bittman, author of "The Minimalist" series of cookbooks has been around forever, teaching people how to cook and cook well.  You can read all about him here.  While I've never gotten his appeal, he has a legion of devoted followers, many of whom take his word as gospel.

Bittman is now preaching his word in a new column in the NYT.  And boy is he ever preaching.  In the vein of Michael Pollan and others, Bittman is ranting about the current state of the American diet and calling for more government intervention in an attempt to prevent future generations from becoming even more obese and unhealthy than the current.  He advocates taxing unhealthy foods such as fast food, junk food, and sodas; ending subsidies for corn and soy farmers; creating subsidies for organic farmers, etc.  He firmly believes everyone has time to prepare foods from scratch, plant and harvest their own home garden, and the money to afford organic fruits and vegetables.  I believe you can see where I'm starting to feel stabby.

I have said time and again that we as a nation do not need the government in our kitchens.  We don't need them constantly haranguing us to eat less and exercise more.  We especially do not need Bittman and his ilk and their condescension should we choose to eat at McDonald's or gorge ourselves stupid on potato chips and ice cream and soda.  It's called personal responsibility and, last I checked, the government wasn't listening to me when I said they shouldn't be blowing billions of dollars on wars we shouldn't be fighting.

Bittman has the luxury to eat however he chooses; he has the funds and the lifestyle which allow him to have a fully organic diet and the time to prepare everything from scratch.  He can easily nurture and harvest his own garden and, in a pinch, pay someone to do the work for him.  This whole notion that people need to grow their own food is ludicrous.  Not everyone has the time or the means to do this, let alone the space.  Does he really believe that people working two, maybe three jobs just to make rent and buy generic-label food have the time or the inclination to spend on a garden, no matter how small?  So they should sacrifice valuable time spent with their children doing homework, or trying to put a meal together, or--dare I say it?--relaxing worrying whether the lettuce will grow or the tomatoes will come in?  And gardening is not cheap.  Good seeds that are not genetically modified can be pricey; then there is the investment in potting soil (organic, of course), containers, the constant attention, and, sometimes, the crushing disappointment when it all fails and you have nothing to show for all your labor except maybe one weepy tomato and half a pot of basil.  That could easily amount to a small fortune for a struggling family, a small fortune that could have bought groceries or been put into the bank.  It's this elitist attitude, this whole "look, I can do it and so can you" thought process that is so damn insulting it makes me scream.

I agree wholeheartedly that many, many people are coming apart at the seams.  But insisting that organics and grass-fed and vegan or vegetarian diets are the path to salvation is, again, insulting. Americans on the whole are not stupid. Yes, there are many who are too lazy to do anything except roll up to a drive-thru and get the value meal; however, let's give credit where credit is due. Change doesn't happen overnight. People do know enjoying everything in moderation, daily exercise, plenty of water, and a good night's sleep can do wonders both physically and mentally. But beating people over the head with so many negative messages only makes them defiant and can lead to a "fuck you, I'll do what I want" attitude that has just the opposite effect.

Finally, I'm getting really, really sick of the word "manifesto."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Last frost? What's that?

While on Twitter today, I had a great conversation with Elle and Heather about starting our seeds for this year's gardens.  If you have followed me for the last two years you know that, once I get my seeds started indoors, I pretty much ramble on about them, post many unnecessary photos of them, and basically work very hard at boring everyone to tears.  This year I promise 173% more boring photos!

I got my seeds this year from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Johnny's Selected Seeds. As I do every year, I purchased way more than I have room to grow out back; however, I don't really care so it's a moot point.  Like I told Elle and Heather, I am my father's daughter; I buy the seeds, stick them in the dirt, and wait and see what happens.  There is absolutely no planning and much running amoking.

From Baker Creek:

Herbs:  Chervil, Wild Zaatar Oregano, Oregano Vulgare, Genovese Basil, Greek Dwarf Basil, Sweet Thai Basil, Cilantro, and Parsley

Root veg:  Crimson Forest Bunching onion, Radish Saxa II, French Breakfast Radish

Greens: Little Gem lettuce, Chadwick's Rodan lettuce, Arugula

Pepps:  Santa Fe Grande, Jimmy Nardello Italian, Serrano, Coban Red Pimiento, Large Sweet Antigua

Toms:  Thessaloniki, Riesentraube, Tonodoes des Conores, Bloody Butcher

Little Fingers Eggplant

From Johnny's Selected:

Toms: Debarao, Eva Purple Ball, Striped Cavern

Hungarian Wax Peppers

Herbs:  Mexican Mint Marigold, Wild Bergamot, Orange Thyme, Chickweed

Started this initial batch on February 15:

Using salad bar containers, applesauce and pudding cups plus terracotta pots

Genovese basil has started sprouting

Lincoln pea sprout

Yogurt cups with tomato, parsley, chervil, and cilantro

Heather had a great idea of using cardboard egg crates to start seeds as they can be planted right into the soil; she also mentioned using the toilet paper rolls to help carrots grow straight.  If I ever get around to doing more root veggies than radishes I'm going to do this.  

As in years past, we have numerous critters who like to trespass in our yard (a black cat, rabbits under the shed, the occasional possum or fox), which means I still have to do everything in pots, even though I'd love to make the investment of a raised bed.  The squirrels still manage to have a good rummage now and again but they don't do too much damage.  I like using those giant tool carriers from Home Depot or Lowe's for my tomatoes and they were great last yard when I grew chard.  I'm going to invest in a few more of those but I think I have enough pots floating around to give everything a home.  

I'm also very much looking forward to growing strawberries again.  Those were amazing.