Monday, January 4, 2010

The White House, Food Network and Trendy Food Culture

I wrote a piece about the trendiness of “new American cuisine” and its sustainability movement. And last night, the Food Network supported my trendiness-thesis with a two hour special complete with “Super Chefs” that even anti-epicureans would recognize. Chef Emeril Lagasse teamed up with Iron Chef Marrio Batali to take on White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford and Iron Chef Bobby “The Ego” Flay.

As promised, it was the culinary event of a lifetime.

Eh, but it was fun TV and the food looked pretty fantastic. For a blow-by-blow, I suggest reading another blog. However, to ease your suspense I can let you know that the President, the First Lady and the world’s most important people will be eating from the kitchen of a champion. (Like that was a big surprise.) The only thing I will say about the content of the show is that this two hour special about local food, sustainable production and healthful eating didn’t provide Americans with an attainable way to engage in local, sustainable or healthful eating.

Most people don’t have a garden that can produce 1,000 pounds of food -- forget the army of people needed to tend to such a small scale farm. Most people don’t have the knowledge to use watermelon radishes or that crazy looking cauliflower-broccoli thing that Batali used in his unearthly mega-ravioli. Most people also don’t have the skills to create those kinds of food.

But beyond all the simple things that make Iron Chef a fun TV show and not an educational program, the food that was presented last night was really not all that local, sustainable or healthful.

Sure the veggies were produced locally in relation to the White House, but not to Kitchen Stadium where they were consumed. The meat may have been grown on a sustainable farm within 100 miles of New York City (home of Iron Chef America) but odds are a good deal of that meat isn’t even close to affordable for most Americans and therefore not sustanable for thier budgets. The use of the deep fryer makes me question the overall healthfulness of the meals produced. No question: even the fried oysters with remoulade created by Lagasse are a better choice than a Big Mac, but they were still battered, fried and dipped in a fatty sauce.

The end result was a pretty meal that could not be reproduced in a home kitchen by a home cook. However, if Iron Chef America stops using secret ingredients that have to travel thousands of miles to Kitchen Stadium, incorporates more diverse vegetables into its pantry and cooks with health and taste in mind, then maybe this popular cooking competition will have some sort of an impact. If not, then the culinary event of a lifetime was just another episode of a TV show trying to keep up with the trends it claims to set.

Until well made and carefully crafted food becomes just what is done in this country, we will continue to see the negative impacts of our current fast-mass-produced food culture wracking our society. I don’t pretend to eat only organics or local food. I know I could, but it is really difficult and cost a ton of money. It is a choice and that is one of many that I make, with my wife, on how to consume our food thoughtfully. That is really the core issue with the lackluster American food culture and this “battle” of “Super Chefs” did very little to address this part of the problem.

We do buy so-called cage free eggs, feed with organic vegetarian meal. I know that just means a small door at the end of a huge coop is opened a few hours a day to "allow" the chickens to go outside. And chickens aren’t really vegetarians, so that is another problem. But that extra money is worth spending most of the time because the eggs taste and cook much better. The same is true with organic chicken. Do we buy organic milk? Yup, when it is available at our finicky market. But sometimes we need milk and they aren’t carrying the organic half-gallons. And sometimes you really want an orange; organic or not, those suckers aren’t growing in the 100 mile radius of Kitchen Stadium in January.

The change in US food culture will take place when we start thinking about our food more. I do not believe the answer is the Alice Waters local-or-nothing approach or the White House uber-garden method. People need to think when they buy produce or meat or dried goods (and they should try to buy these items more often than the stuff that comes already made (which we also buy, but less and less of it)) where it comes from, how it is made and if they are alright with the story they get.

Does your farm fresh milk support the exploitation of workers? Possibly. Do your organic, cage-free eggs come from truly free chickens? Most likely not. Does sneaking veggies into a kid’s meal really help her expand her growing palette and lead to smart eating choices later in life? I don’t know, but I would doubt it. Where any of these kinds of questions raised on Iron Chef America last night? No, they were not.

It is great that people want to eat better. It is also fantastic that organizations and the entertainment industry are talking about healthful and local food. But it is just trendy and it will not create real change in the American food culture unless the conversation is about a process towards a better eating culture and not just a buzz word infused two hour TV special, no matter how good the sweet potatoes from the White House garden taste in that ravioli.

1 comment:

chef Jeff said...

I agree. I stopped watching Iron chef when it immigrated from Japan. It's never been realistic and that is (or was) it's charm. To try to teach the north american public with a blanketing concept of local food is ridiculious. Local food is a great idea but has it's problems.
Local food has been tried in places on earth where the governments have tried to be self sufficient... unsuccessfully. When we look at the land for various agricultural uses, there are specific soil and growing conditions that differ form region to region. While some crops may thrive in certian areas, others will do poorly. If we try to produce a variety of food from the same patch of land(growing region), we are reducing the indigeniuos high yeilding crops, replacing it with a foriegn low yielding crops which may require excessive watering, herbicide and pesticide use due to the fact that the plant may not have natural resistance to pests, weeds and disease. We may use more energy to turn that growing region into food production then the carbon saving would justify. In other words, if it cost more(money and carbon output)to make a patch of land suitable for food production compared to the transport of goods from a suitable growing region; how can the local food movement survive in it's current state? . Much of North America's produce is grown in California, but would it make sense to grow wheat in California. How about people living in Nevada or Alberta, could they realistically survive on a local food diet? ( well, yes they can, with a whole lot of greenhouses which are major energy consumers).For those interested in reducing the carbon footprint that our food distribution creates; consider another concept that's sustainable, provides everything we need for good nutrition, and allows chefs, cooks and Mom to continue the create our North american cuisine the way we always have. Maybe, it could be called a "smart food movement" where decisions on food purchases ask the question "what is the most responsible format to purchase food?"...i.e. Instead of buying apricots from chile in january buy the dried ones from California and adjust your recipe. It's great that the health of our planet is finally a concern but we shouldn't just look at the GROSS carbon footprint savings but the NET savings...and stop acting like spoiled brats with our asparagus in february and cherries in December.