Tuesday, October 4, 2011


The New York Times Magazine Food and Drink issue came out this past Sunday, and perhaps not unexpectedly, the pages are chock full of preachy diatribes against this mythical creature Big Food. Proper diets, foods to avoid, and making your own mayonnaise to preserve the sanctity and control over your food are just some of the topics broached. If you happen to be watching Ken Burns excellent Prohibition documentary, you could draw a parallel between the two movements. Both movements had a no nonsense women leading the charge in Carrie Nation and Alice Waters. Both pushed the morality of their position as being superior, "Do it for the children" being a common refrain. Both lobbied for legislation that sought to tell other people how to act.

There is a much dichotomy (or polychotomy) taking place in the food atmosphere. Like everything in America (and the world, save China), the camps can be divided into two major political parties. On one hand, you have the Conservative Food Camp. Their food is marked by a return to traditional cuisines, ancient produce speakign for iteslf, and resurrecting nearly lost methods of preserving. The Progressives are tinkerers, their kitchens resembling laboratories with compounds, powders, stabilizers, and liquid nitrogen lining the walls. Their food challenges, plays tricks on the mind, and involves processes more advanced than putting a man on the moon.

Open a food magazine. Read the Wall Street Journal's list of the next best restaurant. Both camps get equal praise, at times even hagiographic treatment.  Both camps have a common enemy in Big Food and most of their followers try and focus on seasonality. Their main complaint against this faceless enemy is that Big Food alters the flavor/texture/specialness of this vegetable, that meat, or those fruits. The resulting logic goes on to say, a chef wants his squash or scallop or pork belly pristine and heirloom. As if the gourd took a time machine from 1867 into modern times, forgetting that both plants themselves as well as humans evolve. Big Food on the other hand delivers to them a tasteless grape or a ribe eye marbled by grain and not clover.

Fine. But aren't chefs doing the same thing to food that Big Food is? Consider the de facto sign of a "With It, Conservative" chef: the housemade charcuterie plate. Taking excess pork, salting it, grinding it, and hanging it in a temperature controlled cave for 90 days changes the texture of that pig's noble sacrifice. Pickling a cucumber changes the flavor of a cucumber. A caponata of summer's last eggplant to guild the lily is a far cry from that pristine specimen they plucked from the Farmer's Market.

On the progressive side, they tend to change the ideas of a particular dish. So they might make a syrup out of cherries and freeze it with liquid nitrogen. They will shave that over a sous vide duck breast covered with a blowtorch crisped duck skin. They may serve this with a bowl of foie gras "consomme" where the liquid has been spherified to resemble Dippin Dots. This is a drastic change from roast duck with cherry sauce. (Although it sounds delicious, file that in the To Do list.)

For the majority of human history, cooks, butchers, camp wardens, and the women who stayed home from the hunt have sought to keep food fresh by a variety of manipulative processes. Salting, smoking, pickling, drying, and freezing food are not new concepts. Once man had excess food, he or she quickly learned to preserve it for a time when there may not be enough food. What is new from the Big Food angle, is they "preserve" food prior to it reaching maturity. A tomato is bred to ripen on the shelves and not on the vine. Bananas have toughened to withstand the long journey from interior forest to downtown Cleveland. Cattle are raised on grain and slaughtered earlier to get them to market quicker to satisfy the demand for beef. These decisions change the thing subjected to this treatment, but prior to it getting into the hands of the cook.

Look, I am not saying Big Food is a godsend or any chef trying to serve seasonal food, a demon. Rather everyone in the food chain, be it Big Food, a salami artisan in Portland, or a high wire Modernist chef in Stockholm, are all altering food in some way. The debate is just one of degree, not of substance. We ought be careful with this crusade against any food or soon gangsters will have a new vice to deal in.


Anonymous said...

This doesn't really make sense. I don't think the issue of either camp is the manipulation of food. The issue is the type of manipulation of food.

There is a difference between pickling a cucumber and manipulating the genes of a tomato, between curing meat, and raising cows in a feedlot. You can agree or disagree with the moral stance people take on these issues, but to say that there is no difference is illogical.

Rene said...

The difference is only of degree of manipulation, as the second to last sentence states. At its heart most cooking, processing, or touching of food involves the manipulation of it in some form. Usually to either make it last longer or taste better.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the debate is about manipulation. It comes down to quality and quanity. As a chef the problem I see with "big food" is not changing a product trxture or taste be it plant or animal but the product being used. The chefs number one goal these days is to find the best products which usually means local, highly seasonal, sustainable, and humane. We have no problem paying more for a vegetable if the quality is there and we are supporting someone local.
On the other hand big food is the exact opposite. They promote unsustainable food sources ( completely rely on them). And in the process has ruined small farmers livelihoods in process. They don't care (for the most part) about locality or carbon footprints. Big food has created inhumane environments for animals and brainwashed people into thinking it's the norm.
Big Food has been slowly eroding our nations food and cuisine for a long time thru the manipulation of plants and animals genes and living and growing conditions. Chefs manipulate already quality ingredients for creativities sake. To make things more interesting for the diner. There is no comparison to the two.