Feeding Frenzy

From Celebrity Chefs to Gourmet Guerrillas, Americans Confront the Hazards of the Food World

More than 70 dapper people are sitting in a lecture hall stuffing their faces with ham. This isn't your garden-variety gluttony, though. The four kinds of ham arrayed on our plates are examples of food made in painstaking ways considered too cost-ineffective for commercial producers, and the people here consuming them are supporters of Slow Food, an international eco-gastronomic movement. These dietary dissidents reject generic fast food in favor of handmade "artisanal" products, all in the interest of preserving biodiversity and culinary tradition. Who would've thought pigging out could be a political gesture?

America is in the throes of a giant food fight. As a nation we're conflicted: We salivate over gastro-porn on the Food Channel or in books by sexy celebrity chefs like Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain, and Mario Batali. At the same time, a growing number of people are mobilizing against genetic modification, pesticide use, and the dubious practices of agribusiness. Once marginal ideas like veganism, biodiversity, and organic farming have now staked a permanent claim on the mainstream.

In the last few years, food studies has blossomed in the academy thanks to the discipline's first dedicated department at New York University, a journal called Gastronomica, and hundreds of books that present history, politics, race, and culture from a culinary perspective. Judging by the popularity of bestsellers like Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation(an exposé of cattle factories and fast-food labor practices) and Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire (a meditation on the hazards of genetically modified vittles), Americans are getting suspicious about what's at the end of their forks.

This growing unease makes perfect sense to Marion Nestle. A petite woman wearing chunky modern jewelry, Nestle is the head of NYU's food studies program, which she founded in 1996. "Everybody has some kind of mishegoss about food," she says between bites of grilled eggplant at Lupa, one of Mario Batali's restaurants. "Anthropologists going back to Lévi-Strauss explain that because you take it into your body, like sex, it has a level of intimacy and primacy that can create a lot of free-floating anxiety. Is it safe, is it going to make you fat, is it going to make you healthy, is it going to keep you up at night?"

Nestle's controversial new book, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (University of California Press), dishes up many of the industry's dirtiest secrets: how multinational companies spend billions to convince us that unhealthy foods are good for us and lobby the government to sway dietary regulations and subsidies in their favor.

She says her political awakening coincided with a job at the Department of Health and Human Services in the '80s. A nutritionist with a Ph.D. in molecular biology, she was brought in to advise on the first (and last) Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition. On her first day, she explains, "The director told me flat out, this report will never say, 'Eat less meat,' because the Department of Agriculture was fiercely protective of food producers." This meant assuring the cattle and sugar companies that nothing in the report would damage their business. So instead of telling Americans they should ease up on meat and processed food, the report resorted to vague euphemisms (e.g., "eat less saturated fat" instead of "eat less beef") to keep the food industry off the department's back.

Food Politics exposes the incestuous relationships between food lobbyists and politicians (it's not unusual for someone to switch from a job as an industry lobbyist to one with the government agency that regulates that very industry, and vice versa). According to Eric Schlosser, the power of food lobbyists means that the government can recall baseball bats or strollers, "but it cannot order a meatpacking company to remove contaminated, potentially lethal ground beef from fast food kitchens and supermarket shelves."

A string of food-related health scares—including mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease—prodded the European public into action. Witness the outcry over GMOs. (Genetically modified organisms generally refers to agricultural crops or animals in which genetic material has been altered—by incorporating pesticide genes into potatoes, for instance, or human growth hormone genes into fish.) In 1999, a French intellectual-turned-farmer named José Bové became a folk hero of the anti-globalization movement after he was jailed for destroying a half-built McDonald's in southwest France. In The World Is Not for Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food (Verso), Bové uses the term malbouffe to describe the bastardization of gastronomy and nutrition into fast food. "For me, the term means both the standardization of food like McDonald's—the same taste from one end of the world to the other—and the choice of food associated with the use of hormones and GMOs."

Most Americans aren't even aware GM foods exist, because the U.S. food industry and government have decided they don't need labeling. (The European Union requires all GM products to be labeled, and many major food producers there have stopped using GM ingredients.) "Even though research hasn't been done to prove the products are safe, they've found their way to the market, which is a decline in our power as consumers," says Anuradha Mittal of the California-based think tank Food First. "Part of being in a democracy is being able to decide for ourselves what we want to eat and how it's grown, instead of a few corporations deciding." Several years after the issue dominated European headlines, though, Americans are taking notice. Last week the Genetic Engineering Action Network organized a nationwide protest urging supermarkets like Safeway and Food Emporium to remove GM ingredients from their store-brand products—estimates suggest that 60 to 75 percent of foods in our supermarkets already contain GM ingredients.

Slow food stands out from more radical groups because it has found a way to to combine activism and hedonism. Instead of carrying a picket sign, you can attend tastings of regional food grown by small farms. It's where the gourmet meets the guerrilla—or that's the idea, anyway. The organization, which now has 65,000 members worldwide and 6000 in the U.S., started out as something of a lark: In 1986, Italian activist Carlo Petrini heard that McDonald's was opening a branch in Rome's Piazza di Spagna; infuriated, he coined the term "slow food."

Erika Lesser, the group's American director of programming, explains, "The point is to provide consumers with viable local alternatives and a pleasant environment to learn about them. You know, Isn't this delicious, don't you want to know more? On a gastronomic level but also on a social and economic level, it gives you the opportunity to support a local business." Events run the gamut from food festivals to symposia on environmental politics (though the emphasis is on the former); members are urged to buy specific products and to patronize sustainable agriculture. It's a quiet form of activism—voting with your dollar—but it's backed up by education and increasing numbers.

The constituency of Slow Food's ham-tasting evening—mostly white upper-middle-class Manhattan gastronomes with a vague resemblance to Frasier Crane—has an unfortunate whiff of elitism, though. Sure, it'd be great if everyone could eat tasty organic morsels from small ethical farms instead of artificial crap, but can your average American afford it? Standing at the front of the room caressing a humongous pig shank, Dan Latham—the salumiere for Batali's restaurants—explains the difference between ham cured the old-fashioned way and the mass-produced kind. The former requires time and a hog raised on a healthy diet, while the factory ham is cured quickly and comes from pigs injected with sugary fluids to juice them up. "Is my ham cost-effective?" Latham asks his audience. "Nah—it's gonna cost ya about $75 a pound!" The downmarket variety sells for less than $10 a pound.

Nestle explains that commercial, processed food is cheaper in part because of hefty government subsidies. She hopes that, in the wake of Enron, the lobbying system will be overhauled. "The subsidies are all wrong from a health perspective. And fruit and vegetable growers don't get them, especially small ones, because they don't have lobbyists and they don't give huge campaign contributions."

Slow Food's Erika Lesser argues that her fellow believers are therefore in the vanguard of a new rebellion against this invisible imbalance. "The more people support small suppliers, the more viable it becomes for them to make it more affordable."

Daniel Boulud, the French chef who presides over top Manhattan restaurants Daniel and Café Boulud, is more skeptical. While he believes it's important to support small, ethical food producers, he says, "It's just a microsolution." Boulud is sitting in the empty burgundy dining room of Daniel, one floor above the sprawling kitchens where cooks scurry through a maze of ovens and freezers. "José Bové represents something that needs to be addressed," Boulud offers. "But I don't think he's able to understand, what food will we give the masses if we burn down McDonald's? The invasion of McDonald's in France is a terrible thing culturally. But it's very cheap for a family to eat there. And the French don't have another answer for feeding people who don't have time to cook anymore. It's not like you have the grandmother cooking anymore—the new generation of grandmothers, they want to eat out too!"

All of this serious focus on food has resulted in an accompanying boom in theory—valuable because it places food in a wider historical, cultural, and economic context, sifting through the hidden ramifications of objects we mindlessly consume. It feels as if a massive vista has suddenly opened up, like we're seeing the world through the stomach for the first time.

Last year, Gastronomica—a quarterly academic journal with the mouthwatering design aesthetic of a glossy style magazine—hit the food studies world like a cherry bomb. Now in its second year, Gastronomica zooms in on many of the food world's ongoing ideological tussles, gleefully deflating culinary pomposity. There are essays for and against GMOs, articles on patenting food and irradiating it, meditations on the colonialist impulses behind gastronomic tourism.

One of the journal's more provocative pieces is Rachel Laudan's manifesto of culinary modernism, which mocks Slow Food-style Luddites who argue for the superiority of natural or traditional foods over fast, processed products. In olden days, she points out, "natural" usually meant something indigestible and unsafe until processed and preserved. At the same time, ideas of the "authentic" and "traditional" often turn out to be constructs of surprisingly recent vintage—quintessential national foodstuffs such as the baguette and moussaka are 20th-century inventions.

Gastronomicaeditor Darra Goldstein says that, until very recently, snobbery kept a lot of academics from pursuing their interest in food: "If it had to do with women or domesticity, it wasn't perceived as serious intellectual men's work." Meanwhile, "feminists felt a lot of discomfort about women who wanted to talk about the kitchen." On top of all that, "Everyone eats, so we all feel we can talk about it. So where is the scope for intellectual elitism?"

It's easy to scoff at this new solemn fascination with food—a title like "Searching for Gold in Guacamole: California Growers Market the Avocado" might've come straight out of a Don DeLillo-esque satire of academic excess. Then again, what could be more crucial than what we put in our bodies? Food is a nexus where health, pleasure, ecology, global economics, and corporate power collide.

"In whose interest is it for people to eat healthily?" says Marion Nestle crisply. "I can't think of a single industry in the U.S. that would be better off if people ate healthily. Not the insurance industry, because prevention is expensive and treatment is less expensive. Certainly not the drug industry or the diet industry or the food industry. I can't think of a single one, and that's not good. So you try to change societal priorities, in the same way that in many circles it became socially unacceptable to smoke."

If this seems overly optimistic, just look at how much societal attitudes about food have changed since the '60s. Back then vegetarianism and sustainable agriculture were considered crank fringe movements; now meatless and organic products occupy a sizeable corner of our supermarket shelves.

Anuradha Mittal believes education is the key: "If people understand that the reddest tomato [grown on an industrial farm] is not necessarily the best . . . when they've tasted the difference and heard what pesticides have been sprayed on it and what damage it causes the farmworkers—it's basic common sense to say stop. Food is something that everyone depends on; I can't believe anyone would not want safe food and universal access to it. When people have the information, that's when they are mobilized to take action." Bon appétit and vive la révolution.

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