Tag Archives: changing times

Food and Foie Gras and Freedom – Democracy fails again

Years after much of the foie gras brouhaha has subsided, California’s foie gras ban signed into law by Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sept 29, 2004, is about to go into effect, and California’s chefs are pissed. You should be, too.

The question of animal rights and vegetarian or omnivore is less of an issue in this law than its implications for the integrity of our law makers and the protection of personal rights in a society which increasingly values the voice of the most vocal minority activists over empirical science and the greater interest of the public.

Why? I like ducks. What’s wrong with protecting them?

Lots, even neglecting the fact that avian experts at the University of California at Davis clearly determined that Gavage, the process by which the geese are fattened, neither damages nor distresses them – although legislation based on bad science and misrepresentation serves no one.

So what’s wrong with the bill, even if no birds are harmed by gavage? It’s just an elitist dish served by snooty chefs, right?

Again, lots of things.

,For one , the kickoff to the bill was nothing less than an act of vandalism or terrorism if you believe the FBI.  An animal rights group, which never had the courage to put its name to the act,vandalized a new Sonoma restaurant project and the owner’s van and threatened the chef/owner and his family by sending pictures showing his child  inside the home: “We know where to find you.” The chef owner was forced to sent his wife and child back to Europe for their protection and took the loss of the project, not wanting to see the violence escalate.

Not only the restaurateur was threatened, but owners of other small businesses were threatened and harassed. Having expressed my opinion on the subject, I  received numerous “we know where to find you” with veiled threats on my answering machine, as did chefs around the country.  The California Senate validated these criminal actions by ceding to the activists’ demands.

You don’t reward that kind of behavior.  It encourages imitation. Yet John Burton and the California Senate did just that.

It is a bill without a reason – a solution to a problem which does not exist.   It neither improves the ducks quality of live nor protects anyone nor anything from danger or abuse beyond excepting slaughter. If this bill is valid, than any bill banning meat and poultry production, sales and consumption is equally valid. It is the kind of empty and baseless pandering, crowd pleasing legislation which has contributed to California’s current legislative and fiscal dilemmas.

Counting on the reaction with enough media, the activists did not cease their activity but stepped it up  with an aggressive public relations campaign which eventually landed on the desk of outgoing California State Assemblyman John Burton. Burton, pandering to the calls for drastic action,  chose to sponsor the ban as his legacy. The passing vote was a parting gift by his colleagues.

Think of it this way: Instead of giving Burton a gold watch, they gifted  him a restriction of your right to choose what you eat and legitimate businesses’ right to provide services.

But there was overwhelming opinion against foie gras, correct?  Not exactly. There was loud opinion and prestigious opinion.  Informed opinion was missing in action.  Since most Californians had hardly ever heard of foie, they didn’t think much one way or the other. The voices were those of PETA and Pease’s followers,  who took dogma for fact. The law if based on faux science and untruths.

The charge against the small business producing the product in California was vocally supported by Governor Schwarzenegger’s tearful friends and colleagues of the glitterati, among them Paul McCartney, Chrissie Hynde, Kim Basinger, Martin Sheen and Pamela Anderson.

But what’s the harm? Foie gras is an unnecessary luxury, after all. The harm is enormous, considering the legal intrusion into the choices of businesses and consumers practicing ethical policies. It is neither the government’s job nor its right to ban things to which a minority objects based on their general popularity. We don’t need chocolate, Coca Cola, leather belts, the color puce or hip hop, which may offend some people. Their gratuitous nature does not give the government the right to forbid them.

This ban was supported by people I admire including Paul McCarthy and Martin Sheen.

These people are great actors and contribute much to our lives. It’s hard not to love Sheen in the West Wing, but  we did not elect them to office, and I personally resent Bea Arthur’s making law, as she succeeded in doing here. They are not experts in the field of avian science or animal husbandry and apart from their strong feelings have little to say about our governmental processes. California had two actors in the Governor’s Mansion, and each time was a disaster.

Why would you trust actors and show people to sway the course of your state legislation? You wouldn’t let these people tell you  how to drive or what clothes to buy. Why would you let them how to run your state? Or would you — in which case, this piece is way above your pay scale, and you should return to TMZ.

I said forget about the law not being based on facts. Let’s not.  Remember “W” rejecting the “fact based community”?  Think of all the money and lives this country would have saved if he and his had given an ear to reality. The die hard adherents to the foie law also reject facts.

Legislation should be based on facts. The foie ban was based instead on emotion. Despite ample expert evidence presented by veterinarians, avian scientists and the University of California Berkeley contradicting the statements made by animal activists that foie production abuses animals, the Senate passed a bill for appearances, fanned by uninformed sensationalism.  Laws based on emotion and diatribe are poor choices.

The activists ignore or brush off all empirical evidence regarding the process, and the legislature ignores it. The activists are not stupid – they know and they don’t care, but distortion of the truth and misinformation fits their agenda better. Their motivation is based on identity and power issues and demagoguery (I was a minor demagogue once for a short time, and it’s really kind of fun),  rather than a logical concern for rights, reality and truth.

As a matter of fact, the lead figure in the foie battle shows a blatant disregard for “right” and rightness. Bryan Pease who has a history of what he would call Civil disobedience and the rest of us might be more inclined to consider thuggery,  was offered a deal by one of the restaurants being threatened before the passage of the bill. The restaurateur would place a 90 day moratorium on foie gras sales and investigate Pease’s claims, but in return Pease would spend some time working in a soup kitchen to experience something like the real restaurant world and take the trouble to inform himself with the help of the restaurateur regarding the actual facts of the process.

His refusal was not surprising, as Mr Pease certainly has been informed of and apparently doesn’t give a duck’s butt about the facts of the issue. His  campaign would appear to be less about the actual welfare of the birds than than visibility of his cause and the connections and power which inevitably come from this kind of lobbying and outrageous activity.

You should be concerned about this bill, furthermore, because it was passed quickly in an atmosphere of sensationalism and threats, it is a piece of political expediency by politicians who in pursuit of their own pandering engendered personal advantage and short term favor played away your rights?

“RIGHTS?”  You ask.  Why do I need the right to eat foie gras? That’s for rich people, and I am not sleeping in a tent in front of City Hall or Wall Street to support that lot of sodding thieves?

Umhh…well, yes you are, because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. (sorry).  Discriminating against people you don’t like or care about can easily lead to discrimination against people you do, including yourself.  Vocal and unprincipled activists supported by throngs of the well-meaning followers with limited critical thinking abilities can get a lot of things banned. This kind of legislation was once called blue laws, and they may still exist in some places less evolved than the great State of California. No drinking on Sunday and the like.  False morality posing as factual concern inevitably results in repression of somebody.

There are a lot of people these days who take offense at cars. With the same tactics they could force you to use your lousy public transportation system.  Ideologues in China made everyone wear the same dreary Mao suits (not mention imprisoning and killing quite a few).  You and I do not want the most vocal groups to tyrannize us and to limit our options.  It doesn’t matter if they are members of the Christian Right effectively making homosexuality illegal through their emotionally contagious aversion to sodomy, Environmentalists striving to ban cars in cities or food groups forbidding the sale of corn syrup (which despite the fact that it sounds like a good idea is not). In our system we don’t want the mob with the biggest stones pushing the rest of us around, and that’s what happened here.

In short, what has happened to California is mob rule. Small, loud mob. Big stones. It’s bad policy.

Chicago went through a similar process and eventually passed a ban on fatty goose liver with just about the same  machinations, plus one vegan alderman seeking reelection. Fortunately Mayor Chris Daly was not particularly moved and eventually convinced the more level headed of his political colleagues to reverse the decision, calling it Hogwash.

Finally, the entire process was cowardly in that it targeted not those who one could logically accuse of mistreating their animals, but one small business without the money to fight back, but which feeling they were right,  went into debt trying. Had there been any integrity whatsoever in Pease’s avowed desire to better the lot of animals, Tyson chicken rather than an immigrant duck farmer who cared about his livestock would have been in the process and won.  The animal activists are bullies. I don’t know about you, but I hate being bullied.

So what do you do if you think this is a bad idea?

For one thing,  do your civic duty and bang on your Congressman’s door. Sweet talk your Senator or Representative. “You Sir/Madam,  I know, weren’t part of this stupidity, and I am sure you have the intelligence to reverse it, bless your heart.”

For another,  inform yourself. Learn the facts.

The Artisan Farmers’ website provides ample, highly credible information on the process, including an informative video by Anthony Bordaine statements by veterinarians and testimonies to the California State Senate rejecting claims that foie production harms fowl.

Sign the Artisan Farmers’ Alliance petition to reverse the law.

So, what if you are still not comfortable eating foie gras? Don’t. It is not going to become a fast food item any time soon. It’s production requires great care of the animals and costs accordingly. Like so many cholesterol laden innards, it’s hardly health food. Choose the heirloom tomato salad instead, knowing that I and those who share my opinion of your right to determine what goes on your own plate will not sit beside you and preach that you should not be eating tomatoes because tomato pickers are exposed to pesticides.  Keep those standards you feel necessary for your own integrity and let others keep theirs.

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Street Junk Food

The Iowa State Fair comes to Downtown San Francisco

In May of 2010, a handful of visionary food entrepreneurs were running a Kafkaesque bureaucratic gauntlet in exasperating attempts to get permits for the kind of food trucks that were making the front pages of the New York Times and the LA Times, stumbling into walls and redirects as they wandered City Hall. In theory, the police department assigned mobile food permist, but the cops were having nothing to do with a new set of vehicles with open kitchens. (“They could sell drugs from those,”  said one.) The Health Department had its doubts, and the Board of Supervisors, whose previous president and current bar owner Chris Daly had pronounced that “There are already too many restaurants in San Francisco” was absorbed with their usual social experiments and international political declarations.

“I’d be happy to give the City $10,000 for a permit, groaned Gail Lillian, who was trying to set up a falafel truck, but they won’t take it. I thought the City needed money, but they won’t let me pay it to them.”  .Gail wasn’t the only one. La Cocina, a non profit food business incubator which initially enabled Latina women (and now everyone)  to turn their ethnic specialties into business models, had been trying to get permits for street food in carts and trucks for about two years, but had only been able to secure off street spots at the Farmers’ Market.  More daring young business-chefs hadn’t waited, choosing instead to run outlaw operations, using Twitter to inform their locations to an avid fan base, who thrilled to the idea of eating illegal food on the sly.

The economy was thus effectively routing around the broken system of food permits (or lack of them) when Supervisor Bevan Dufty  took up the cause and pushed It through the Board in a just a few months. By November of last year a streamlined permitting process had been transferred to the Department of Public Works with a substantially reduced price tag of about $3000 per vehicle, and a street usage fee of $125 per year. (This has since been reduced to about $1,000 for permits and street usage.) Opposed brick and mortar restaurant owners had been placated by an agreement not to locate trucks serving similar fare in front of local eateries.

Dufty, it seemed,  done good: In addition to securing the appreciation of San Francisco’s infinite resource of street hungry foodie hipster voters, he and the other City Hall occupants gained not only Gail Lillians now celebrated “Liba”  falafel, but a daily shifting street food selection including the already permitted La Cocina trucks at the Wednesday farmers’ market and the collection of trucks serving everything from Kobe beef sandwiches (sells out fast) to Asian noodles and Samosas at “Off the Grid” a random herd of wheeled eateries at United Nations Plaza, a block away.

The development was not without protest –  previous Mayoral Candidate “Chicken John” Rinaldi announced a “puke iin” in response to one of La Cocina’s trucks in Dolores Park – but most San Francisco residents and office population fortunate enough to live or work where trucks could be parked started to hope that they, too, would soon be carrying All Star Tacos or foie sandwiches back to their homes, desks or break rooms for lunch. Silly them.

The downtown, Union  Square business community is not, it seems, going to be treated to a daily changing menu of kobe beef sandwiches and Vietnamese noodles. But that’s all right. It’s getting the Iowa State Fair. Three  (3) trucks of it, Monday to Sunday, all day. Kettle Corn, funnel cakes, waffles and crème brulee (they probably serve crème brulee at some state fair.). The center of one of the two top food cities in the US has been handed a kettle corn monopoly. So much for the office girl’s dream of culinary diversity.

It makes sense in a way: That’s where the tourists settle into block long, fog bound lines waiting for the Cable car, and that’ what a lot of them are  used to. We certainly wouldn’t want to overwhelm them with Pho and quesadillas. Now they will all go back to Lubbock or Detroit swooning over our upscale junk food – “Margaret, you wouldn’t believe it. We ate Funnelcakes in the cable car line!  Those people in Frisco really know how to eat.” And then, of course, there are Herb Caen’s flying rats as well as the earth bound kind. They’ve been looking pretty emaciated recently, but wait until they’re put on a steady diet of fallen kettle corn. Our patron saint would approve. Making Market Street look more like Fisherman’s Wharf will bring a comforting lowest common denomenator consistency to the City. 

In case you were wondering how this was planned, it wasn’t. Some junk food lord just swooped down on the cheap, available spots. It could have been worse – fast food companies have reportedly realized that there’s a cheap version of the Oklahoma land rush going on and are vying in Los Angeles with the “legitimate” chef vendors, creating what the LA Times has dubbed a “food truck bubble”.

Downtown business associations have their own objections and have stopped everything to confront the trucks. “It’s turned my life upside down,” said one of the directors. They object to the lack of any kind of plan or guidelines, the result of speedy cobbling of the bill. At the moment the “Planning” process consists of submission of a permit request with first come, first serve selection.

Cartier on Union Square is understandably apoplectic at the proposed taco truck blocking their high rent luxury windows. Aside from an obvious stylistic disconnect between the truck and brand, they cite long lines and litter. Remembering the 10% tax on Bottega Veneta’s $10,000 purses buys a lot of pot hole fill, San Francisco might want to listen to their concerns.  A mostly middling collection of eateries in the food court in Bloomingdale’s basement is opposed to anything that vies with their selection being stationed in the neighborhood. Real estate owners and property management companies fear liability issues: If the kettle corn propane tank blows and injures someone in Bloomie’s entrance, who is liable. (Hint: Who has the deeper pockets?) Our food truck arrangements are still a little rough around the edges.

Maybe Bevan and the stupes didn’t do all that well after all. Perhaps there’s still time to step back, take a breather and refine the concept with a distribution plan that actually serves the communities whose limited food vendor slots are being practically given away, before they all go to businesses who sell deep fried Twinkies and Hooters or McD’s.

And then, just maybe, it would be a really, really good idea to circulate the trucks – after all, the suckers are on wheels  – to put different trucks in different places on different days. Put those vehicles in gear and let them roll.  Give us at our desks access to a diverse menu – the kind of food so many of us left Iowa and Texas and Alabama for.. I want the Kobe sandwich. Crème brulee once a week or once a month doesn’t sound like all that bad. Daily kettle corn is a plague.

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Farming as Spectator Sport

Time was people couldn’t wait to get off the farm. My father’s family put up everything they had to leave their Oneida truck farm and head out to own and run a small transient hotel in considerably more urban Sterling Colorado. The hotel still had a garden patch – it was the depression and growing food meant having it – where my father picked potato bugs until he was able to escape to college and the eminently more luxurious life of a printer’s devil, who slept under the printing press of the Boulder newspaper. I never once heard him speak wistfully of the experience.

To a generation forced to read travails of the Job family in the Grapes of wrath,  farming sounded less than romantic, until the Hippies resurrected and altered the concept in a back to the land rush of families and co-ops, living in buses and communes across the country and raising equal crops of corn and pot . I missed that bullet, but fate and hormones (call it love if you will)  moved me to a town on a plateau in the Jura mountains with twice as many cows as people and a mish mash of cross hatched fields and orchards, farm gardens and eventually our own plot. In the second season our plot took on truck farm proportions thanks to a borrowed tractor,  and I was, like it or not, farming, at least by todays altered criteria.  I thought it was gardening at the time, but the concept has been adjusted to meet our romantic nostalgia for what you probably didn’t know, so that any meridian or sidewalk cutout with a stray carrot now counts as a farm.

I escaped the Alp in ’85 to a city house with too much land behind it and found myself caught up again in the world of digging forks and slugs and soil amendments, aiding my newly divorced budget to feed a twelve year old. It was my lonely love hate cross to bear 2008 created a gardening explosion.

Alice Waters and Slow Food, with vast funds, installed a “Victory Garden”  (what were we trying to vanquish, actually?) in  the City Hall Plaza. The “plots” were made of straw bumpers filled with luxury soil and planted with pre grown flowering and fruiting “crops” by a few hundred eager volunteers – there was a waiting list – while Alice stood on the steps with her hands folded and took a lot of credit but no dirt under her nails. His Honor Gavin Newsom, on the other hand, was down on his knees planted pre grows heritage beans and nearly grown kohlrabi and romaine with the disciples, Godblessem.. Waters claimed the plot was producing 200lb of food a week for the homeless,  (I’d guess more like fifteen).

Of course this was not really farming. Nor, for that matter, was it extreme gardening. It was container planting. Someone described it more precisely as agro decorating – placing fully grown plants in a tastefully created pattern of improvised containers. Real farming involves seeds and weeds and fungus and worrying that grubs and funghi don’t get it before it’s big enough to resist. It’s all muddy boots and washing off the leeks so as not to stuff up the drain with mud. Containers are not farms.  Nor does farming involve around the clock guards  (more volunteers) to keep the bums from snatching the tomatoes and relieving themselves among the squash.

The “Victory Garden” was an immediate success. San Franciscans marched reverently through the paths separating the snap peas from the corn in awe, few remarking that the VG’s tomatoes were free from the early blight and powdery mildew which afflicts our own coastal vines. Waters, aided by an adoring and unquestioning food press,  urged America to go out, rip out their lawns and plant corn and tomatoes, and rip they did. Local stores ran short of Burpee’s seed and Home Depot hired new garden sales people.

With the Slow Food spin the construct of d.i.y. food production eventually morphed from garden  to “Urban Farm” – a term conveniently offered up without contest by the Urban  Farmer drip watering supply store near the zoo. It inspired thousands of urbanites to plant something – most of them to plant way too much and too many. My neighbors dug up their heavy clay and asbestos containing serpentine soil and started a plot, but gave up when reality set in, leaving the weeds to blow seed into my own 26 year old vegetable garden, where my version of vegetable gardening (It really isn’t farming) involves swearing a lot of blue streaks and plenty of Advil.

Organizations like Slow and the Commonwealth Club tossed fuel on the smoldering farm romanticism through panel discussions with Farmer Al from Frog Hollow Farms. Tours were organized to familiarize the city folk with the new organic farm practices.

It was probably Farmer Al,  a mountain of a man with a mind to match, who thought first of the entertainment value of farming. Frog Hollow has some of the best stone fruit in the state and a full kitchen, where Al’s  pastry chef wife creates jams and pastries available at the Ferry Plaza Market. Big Al figured his packing shed  could house a long table and the kitchen could provide food.  For a hefty fee  he could bring us city slickers out there, run us around the back forty on a tractor bed and feed us an organic banquet under the corrugated tin roof. He started something.

Farming has become a spectator sport. You take your kids to the zoo to see the monkeys, you go  to the farm to see the rutabagas. There’s something enchantingly Victorian about the public’s urge for self-betterment through the investigation of the source of things.

Of course farm tours as marketing tools for seed and produce salesmen have been around for years. I have been on a few, and I enjoyed them terrifically, but I considered them part of my job. I could never resist the temptation to make a quick bend and  yank out some miners lettuce or grab a handful of soil and play with it, deciding if it is loam or clay or envy it’s damp black coastal crumbs.  It was fun because most of the people who were there know about the product or the process – we smelled leaves and tasted tomatoes and wondered what the market price would be.

I got an invitation today from Les Dames de Escoffier for a farm tour – $48 to visit the farms at the University of California at Santa Cruz with lunch made by a graduate. It’s one of at least five such invitations I have received so far this year to do something I considered work people who have never had the opportunity, it’s probably great fun, but I keep hearing the distant echo of Tom Sawyer and the fence in the new identity of Farming as Entertainment.

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