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For several years American Consumers have been exposed to an onslaught of misleading and alarming information about the foods they eat and the plants they grow. The most common of the “pseudo-scientific” or, really, unscientific claims have ignited a passionate anti-GMO movement, whose adherents believe that crops altered by genetic engineering, either by the insertion of a gene slice from the same or another organism or the use of a protein in the organic bacterial pesticide Bacterium Thuringiensis to protect plants from predators are toxic, dangerous and will destroy the environment. The Anti-GMO faction believes that the American Government conspires with “Big Ag” and “Big Food” to poison its citizens, that genetically engineered organisms and the pesticides they are engineered to resist are carcinogens, that the pesticides used on engineered organisms are killing off bees and lepidoptera and will result in over half of US Children will be autistic by mid-century, that the policies of the companies holding patents for the seeds have caused famine in the third world and wide spread suicide among farmers ruined by corporate policy and that GMO crops will cause loss of all plant diversity.
In 2014 I chose the topic of GMO fears as the subject for a paper for the excellent McGill University course 181X, Food for Thought. It’s point was not to refute the anti GMO claims but to examine the means by which half of the “greatest country on earth” and much of Europe have come not only to accept and fear them as proven fact but to defend them tooth and nail against legitimate research. A list of sources of legitimate information, which is extremely hard to find due to the proliferation of pseudo-science on the Internet, is provided below. Here is the paper:
According to an ABC poll  earlier this year, 52% of Americans believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat and 13% are “unsure” Two thirds of the American public fear a technology that has been proven safe to the extent that proving anything safe is possible – Genetically engineered organisms have been shown to be safe not only by extensive FDA, independent, and international research. No legitimate studies have been able to show any correlation between modified crop consumption or agriculture and harm to humans, the environment or other organisms.
The European Commission invested over 450 million Euros between the years 2001 and 2010 on research exploring potential risks of modified organisms. None were found.  Not one of the many governmental and private research organizations around the world which have tested genetic engineering extensively for potential hazards has yet been successful in detecting risk.
The attitudes of 52% of American consumers and activists range from mild concern to outrage and extreme fear. Activists and voters have attempted and in Hawaii briefly succeeded in passing bans on GMO crops. Over half of the American population demand that any GMO foods be labeled. This demand includes foods containing sugars – fructose and sucrose – which are chemical compounds indistinguishable from/ identical to sugars from non-GMO crops. Consumer pressure has moved corporations like General Mills to remove GMO ingredients from their foods with the ironic result that those products cannot be vitamin fortified and are thus less healthy.
Consumer ecological and world political objections range from fears that modified organisms will wipe out genetic diversity to Vandana Shiva’s claim that practices of companies like Monsanto, the producer of Roundup and patent holder for many GMO seed varieties have driven Indian peasants to commit suicide. .
If GMO crops have been researched and found safe by the world’s most respected organizations and promise real solutions for current and coming ecological and world nutritional challenges, how can two thirds of American consumes reject them? How does myth, ignorance and decidedly cultish belief trump empirical data in the national consciousness?
Very few people even understand what GMO means, for one thing.
What is a “GMO”.
A GMO is a Genetically Modified Organism, which leaves the unfortunate impression that there are tiny life forms or chemical bits in GMO products. BT corn and Roundup Resistant soy are GMO’s. Cattle and Pork are not GMO’s, but cattle or chicken which has been fed genetically engineered corn or soy is termed GMO by those with GMO agendas and concerns. Sugar, as explained above, is not GMO, but soft drinks, tomato sauce or baked goods containing sugar produced from genetically modified sugar beets are inappropriately classified “GMO’s”, leading to the inaccurate claim that 90% of the food sold in America is GMO.
Crops are genetically engineered for various reasons and by various methods – generally the process involves isolating a gene from a related or unrelated organism with a desired characteristic, creating a ‘vector’ of that gene, injecting the vector into a bacterium in turn is used to “infect” plant cells .The desired altered characteristic of the organism can be water tolerance in rice, bacterial resistance in threatened species like papayas, grapes, mangos or creating grapes resistant to the devastating bacterium xylella fastidosa. A protein from a bacterium (Bacillus Thuringiensis) is inserted into the corn genome to prevent corn borer infection. The most despised and feared GMO products are glyphosate resistant plants, also known as “Roundup Ready”. Roundup is the brand of Glyphosate produced by Monsanto.
Thre are very few GMO crop varieties in production. The only commercially produced crops are corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash, and papaya. A newly developed Potato strain has just been released for planting, as well, and a recently announced strain of browning resistant apples is expected to be available for sale in about two years. No distribution company at this stage. however, would be prepared to bring arugula or melons with altered genes to the market. None the less, customers demand that oatmeal be labeled for genetically altered strains and ask at farmers’ markets is the strawberries are GMO free.
Many countries in Europe have bowed to public pressure and have blocked planting of some of these crops. Note that these decisions were made to comply with public sentiment and not scientific data.
We are romantics and we tend to be luddites.
Or perhaps we are simply hopelessly nostalgic. When Alice Waters stood on the steps of San Francisco City Hall and smiled benevolently over the hundreds of volunteers who had fought tooth and nail to have a spot getting their hands dirty in the Garden For America, an entire nation went out and bought potting soil, throwback overalls and canning jars. America now pickles, cans and puts up wearing designer overalls. Chemistry, physics and big industry – big food, big ag, big resale, big chemistry – has no place in the romantic imagination of people who envision their carrots dug one at a time from a halcyon garden.
When Friederich Wohler first managed to synthesize urea from organic compounds (not from pee) in the 19th century, thus paving the way for synthetic adrenaline and many other chemicals the scientific community was outraged at the suggestion that living juices should not contain “vital essences”. Today the “vital force theory” still exists.  If God had intended us to fly, he would have given us wings. Our religious roots offer world views based on belief rather than knowledge – sects like Rosicrucians and Christian Scientists reject proven medical treatment in favor of faith. We have snake dancers.
We are lazy thinkers. We want simple answers to complex questions. We perceive, partially due to more and more alarming media coverage, that many frightening diseases have exploded into the population during the same period that GMO crops were being first developed then introduced, so we want to believe that doing away with the science will reduce the incidence of cancer, autism and many others. We would rather believe charismatic speakers or writers than deal with analytical reality, which requires curiosity and some effort. In matters GMO I have heard the arguments, “You may have some facts, but I have to go with my heart” (as in Jonestown or anti vaccination?) and, “It’s best not to fool with mother nature,”, that maternal giver of polio, athletes foot, hemorrhoids, tsunamis and locust swarms. By all means. Trust Mom.
Most of us understand little or no science and are not interested in finding out: We are not a stupid country, but neither are we as a whole well educated. According to New York Magazine writer Jim Holt less than 10% of Americans are scientifically literate.  Radical anti GMO activists make fruitful use of this. I once heard an anti-GMO speaker shout to a crowd: “ I want you to ask every waiter in every restaurant, to ask every butcher, every grocer, ‘Is this MUTANT food.” And the crowd roared agreement. The crowd did not know the meaning of “mutant”. As a people we Americans lack both the vocabulary and the critical skills to distinguish between truth and rhetoric.
Americans are not critically trained: We like to believe: We are seduced by sensationalist media and the false prophets, snake oil salesmen, charlatans and quacks. If enough celebrities speak to an issue, we generally believe them. We lack the tools to determine the accuracy of studies and scientific predictions.
The GMO panic began with a 1999 publication in the Lancet by S.W. Ewen and Arpad of the Rowett Research Institute Pusztai stating that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered intestinal damage , followed by the publication of a study by Gilles-Éric Séralini stating that rats fed GMO corn suffered alarming rates of cancer. Although the first study was retracted and the research money returned by Rowett and the second ingloriously withdrawn (it has since been republished to provide the text), the anxiety they created remains in a bizarre Internet version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. – the more legitimate science tries to explain how facts worth, the more traction those dealing with angst and hyperbole attain. Anit GMO writers base many of their arguments on “Scientists have proven”, or “A published scientific article proves,” using these studies. They are convincing. Vani Hari actually persuaded the government of famine struck Zambia to reject shipments of life saving food on Hari’s advice. 
We are swamped by misinformation: Not only does passionate and irrational GMO opposition linger despite the efforts of concerned scientists to educate the public, but fanned by a celebrity created by the GMO debate it has all but overtaken the Internet and media. The anti-science community is now a profitable and well connected industry. One of the country’s impressive quacks, Dr. Joseph Mercola, has since taken up the anti GMO cause. Mercola  who is one of the forces behind the anti-vaccination campaign and who has been censured by the FDA  for other dangerous claims and practices is a frequent guest of Dr Oz, a highly vocal GMO opponent. (Oz has begun to distance himself from GMO opposition since the end of February 2014, but it is unclear where he stands at this time.)
Misinformation is an industry: Mercola is a relatively small fry compared to Vedana Shiva, a heroin of the Earth Justice movement, who has been honored for her work. It was Shiva who claimed that hundreds of Indians had committed suicide because they could no longer afford seed, among other things. She has recently been much in the news in a bust up with New Yorker science writer Michael Specter, who challenged the accuracy of her statements.  Shiva published a venomous ad homonym response, to which Specter’s editor, David Remnick, replied with violent logic.
Slow Food: The most illustrious name to ascend the soap box is probably Alice Waters: It’s a very big important thing. We are talking about the seeds that gives us life. To imagine a company that wants to buy those seeds, patent those seeds, alter those seeds and and sell them back to us, it’s criminal.”  Waters, the poster child for the Slow Food Movement, follows founder and leader Carlo Petrini’s doctrine, and foodies follow Alice.
The disciples: Their followers blog, and blogs become memes. Organic Consumers’ blog tells you ten ways (they say) GMO will kill you.  Taking things one step further “Food Babe” has set the Internet afire with claims that “wheat belly”, since the question of gluten sensitivity has been laid to rest, is caused by glyphosate sprayed on wheat – even though the wheat is not GMO. . There are so many of these blogs that finding reliable and fact based information has become extremely difficult.
Innumerable irresponsible sites like Realfarmacy.com, which hosts pieces by Mercola, offer a potpourri of faux science, alarmism and sensational misinformation, which is spread as memes via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Social networking has given false prophets a platform and leant quackery wings.
The established media repeats and thus affirms the claims: From lone prophets to the respected media: As the sheer volume of Anti-GMO sites and followers makes data harder and harder to find, legitimate organizations like NPR and Consumer Digest miss on fact checking and support the myth rather than the data. The UPI mistakenly picked up and broadcast vaccination opponent Stephanie Seneff’s claim that glyphosate (Roundup) would make half of all babies autistic stating that “MIT Scientist Claims..” , news outlets reprint the allegations, and it’s a wrap. The entire country believes false statements, since they come from trusted sources.
Universities legitimize the myths: The interaction of popular intellectual media and Universities have given Anti GMO authors and journalists like Michael Polan and Mark Bittman a legitimizing forum for thee philosophies in which they Believe. Marion Nestle of NYU, Bittman and Polan, who heads the Department of Journalism at Berkeley have all spoken against Genetically engineered crops.  University of California Berkely is currently offering a course in Food policy, Edible Education 101  .
Stephanie Senneff presents herself and is presented by the media and Anti-GMO activists as an “MIT scientist,” which makes here the defacto voice of MIT.
What’s in it for the writers, for the bloggers and the followers? Follow the money: Grants, speakers’ fees, web sites selling cures. Ads on blogs. Vedana Shiva demands $40,000 per speaking engagement. She appears to live well.  Mercola pushes miracle cures. Oz has his media empire. As for the new girl on the block, Stepehanie Seneff, whose prediction that glyphosate, the herbicide used in some GMO plantings would cause half the country to be autistic: speakers fees and possibly the gratification of being celebrated as the voice of MIT on issues biochemical. (Seneff is a computer science professor, not a microbiologist).
Further down the disinformation chain there is social cohesion. Belief and belonging foster identity. Once believers join the march they are members of a community which tolerates no contradiction.
What about the politics? A tricky part about the public consensus of democracy is that people believe that everything is democratic, including science. It is not. Science is evidence based, or to use a nice word, “empirical”. Daniel Moynihan’s :”You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” is poorly understood. Equipped with fear and a surplus of bad information a growing number of not only Americans but Europeans have begun to demand either that GMO foods be labeled or be forbidden altogether. The Council of Europe in a bow to public opinion granted member nations the right to ban import of GMO crops, and some have. The California County of Sonoma and Kauai in Hawaii voted on outright bans on GMO growing. The Sonoma proposition lost, but Hawaii’s passed. It has since been overturned. Politics overrules science, and by doing so negates science.
Readers’ Digest Version: A small number of blogging public activists used a discredited study to promote an anti-science / pseudo-science agenda. Their misinformation is picked up and promoted first by media figures and food celebrities then by legitimate media sources, leading an unquestioning and scientifically poorly educated public to fear food created by genetic engineering. Activists who profit from the GMO hysteria use this fear to demand cessation of genetically engineered farming and failing that to demand labelling of all products containing any substances derived from genetically engineered crops. A bad study leads to national hysteria.
There are, however, a few bright points. The media seems to be picking up on a nascent “Science is Cool” sentiment. Oz appears to have changed his opinion, Celebrity Scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has come out against pseudo scientists with his usual short tempered accuracy, and hysteria usually dies down at some point. And then there are a few very sane and very clear and unbiased voices.
Nathanael Johnson, a refreshingly unbiased agriculture writer for the ecology site, www.gryst.com, has written a series on the truth and myths of GMO’s. He has a few more ideas as to the cause of the roots of genetic hysteria. For one thing, says Johnson, the company associated with GMO crops and Roundup is Monsanto, the company responsible for and still closely associated with Agent Orange, which, in turn, is emotionally linked to Roundup. “For most people, I suspect, GMOs are a metaphor — a stand-in for of all that is vaguely frightening in our food system. People attach their mistrust of agribusiness and fear of the unknown to this metaphor.”
Bibliography and Footnotes.
1) Gary Langer. Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods. ABC Poll. June 19/?. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97567Poll: Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods 2) A Decade of EU Funded GMO research 2. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, decade of EU Funded Research, ISBN 978-92-79-16344-9 / doi 10.2777/97784 3) Ronald, Pamela C; R.W. Adamchak, Tomorrow’s Table. Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. 5) JIM HOLT, Madness About a Method. New York Times Magazine December 11, 2005 6) David H. Freedman Scientific American The Truth About Genetically Modified Food Aug 20,2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/?page=1 7) Worstall, Forbes. 11/30/2013 That Appalling Seralini GMO Cancer Paper Has Been Withdrawn 8) Joseph Mercola’s Blog: http://gmo.mercola.com/ 9) Quack Watch.Com – http://www.quackwatch.com/11Ind/mercola.html 10)Michael Specter, Seeds of Doubt. Annals of Science August 25, 2014 Issue http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt
11) Mischa Popoff & Patrick Moore & Robert Wager, Organics versus GMO: Why the debate? October 15, 2013, Genetic Literacy Project http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/ 12) Alice Waters Discusses Food, Community, and GMOs November 14, 2012 Yoli’s Green Living. http://yolisgreenliving.com/2012/11/alice-waters-discusses-food-community-gmos/  Alexis Baden-Mayer & Ronnie Cummins, Ten ways GMO foods are killing you – And the Planet Organic Consumers Association, February 1, 2012 http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_24800.cfm 14) The Healthy Home Economist. http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/real-reason-for-toxic-wheat-its-not-gluten/
15) Carlo Petrini. Ten Reasons to Say No GMOS Italy – March 5, 2015 – Carlo Petrini http://www.slowfood.com/international/food-for-thought/focus/71683/ten-reasons-to-say-no-gmos/q=25F06E 16) Keith Kloor, The Rich Allure of a Peasant Champion. Discover Magazine. October 23, 2014 3:29 pm 17) David Remnick, New Yorker editor David Remnick responds to Vandana Shiva criticism of Michael Specter’s profile The Genetic Literacy Project. September 2, 2014 http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/09/02/new-yorker-editor-david-remnick-responds-to-vandana-shiva-criticism-of-michael-specters-profile/ 18) Nathaneal Johnson, Panic-Free-GMO’s. Grist.com July 8, 2013 continuing.
16) BBC: Zambia rejects GMO food aid. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2371675.stm
17) Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman and Michael Polan
Rebuttal to Mark Bittman on GMO’s
18) The UC Berkely course Edible Education 101. http://edibleschoolyard.org/ee101
Nathanael Johnson, Gryst. http://grist.org/food/rat-retraction-reaction-journal-pulls-its-gmos-cause-rat-tumors-study/ GMO mythbuster.
Nathanael Johnson’s Panic-Free-GMO series in Gryst.com beginning 8 Jul 2013 http://grist.org/series/panic-free-gmos/
(this post is about 07 Adverse Food Reactions / Food Production Stories)
Scienced Based Medicine: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org
International Scientific Organizations and State and international health organizations stating that GMO’s cause no risk. http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/GLP-Science-and-GMOs.pdf
The New York Times on Vani Hari, the most prolific of the anti GMO food bloggers and vaccination deniers: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/style/taking-on-the-food-industry-one-blog-post-at-a-time.html?_r=0
Getting Food Smart, II
The Harvard Course I took provided me with terrific and occasionally but not often useful insights on modernist cuisine. It made me poorer, as I ended up buying myself a graduation gift – a $200 Anova immersion circulator followed by the online digital copy of Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist cuisine at a for students only reduced price of about sixty bucks.
While the Anova is enormously entertaining and really offers a new dimension to cooking – and I will eventually figure out how to get 64 degree eggs to come out without a mantle of snot and be able to shell them, I swear – the book is not better than the $2500 tome, except that it takes up less shelf space. Joy of cooking still does it for most things.
Having not only somehow passed the Harvard course, I continued on with a course on world nutrition and nutritional science offered by McGill University in Canada – specifically offered by three to my mind very handsome professors backed up by a bevy of delightful assistants, and I managed to pick up some interesting information which seriously contradicts common beliefs.
This has become an issue. I think I mentioned that. The problem is that knowing something – actually knowing just about anything about food, agriculture and nutrition these days sets you apart from the crowd, or at least my crowd.
People are distressingly misinformed about so many things they proclaim loudly. That would be, for instance, the value of organic food or local food (silly idea) or Genetic Engineering. Anecdotally (the courses have me hooked on empirically tested statements, which I can’t provide, since I don’t have grant money to do legitimate research) the vast majority of people I know believe passionately that GMO crops are dangerous, and a great number of them neither know what crops those would be (few) or really what GMO is. This is very handy for them, as it sets them in concord with all their friends.
Until the shoddy research revealing the damages of gluten to people who are not celiac, any gathering of women I participated in would contain a fair group of “gluten intolerant” individuals attempting to convert the rest of us to a gluten free lifestyle which would cure out wheat belly and brain fog. Actually they still do, even though the existence of non-celiac gluten intolerance has been roundly disproved and the original “study” shamed and withdrawn. I demurred at one and nobody talked to me the rest of the evening. (I had just undergone testing for Celiac and was delighted not to be a sufferer. They were delighted with their common affliction, it seemed.)
Facts, schmacts. Belief is what counts.
I have issues with belief which far transcend a firm grasp of evolution (the mechanism for creationist beliefs and GMO damage or anti vaccination beliefs is exactly the same). Easily swayed by alarmists, too many of my otherwise smart friends join the avalanche of misinformation and spread the alarm.
Let’s get to belief later. For the moment let’s talk about me, and if you haven’t removed yourself from the subscription list, you. What I/we have found out since being empowered with actual empirical data is that it sets one unpleasantly apart. Facts can outrage and insult. There is no way to say “No, not really,” to a friend who parrots the latest Luddite meme and still remain friends. The relation turns frosty, and you won’t be invited to their next grass fed Bar B Que.
I got kicked out of Slow Food for stating a truth, although nothing as upsetting as a rejection of locavorism.I kept to myself. (What? No bananas? Get real.) At least I think that’s why. In an early leader meeting I contradicted Marion Nestle’s assertion that the problem with Food in the United States (“our culture”) is that it is too cheap.
Excuse me, Ms Nestle – but have you tried to buy pot roast recently? Alice Waters was there, as was her old college roommate sitting next to me, who profited from the relation and slow food by eventually becoming Prince Charles’ PR person – I think he had an organic food line or cookies or something like that. As for wardrobe, Waters does not dumpster dive and the roommate was wearing what looked to me like Farogamo sandals with a pretty nifty pedicure, so deducting that nobody there had ever experienced the privilege of poverty and perspective it provides I decided unwisely to enlighten the Slow Food nobles. That was kind of like inviting the SS to a Seder. I had, and I told them that I had shopped in places where I was the only one not on food stamps and watched grandmothers with four kids in tow load up carts with cocktail wieners, which were on special for fifty cents a can, then not have enough food stamps to pay for them.
I was hushed up, and eventually drummed out of the corps. I assume the “food is only too cheap if you have a lot of money” snipe was the cause, but occasional comments about other SF dogma surely did not help, There were, of course, the usual dirty non-profit politics, and I once asked Waters at a screening of Deborah Koons Garcia’s anti big-ag film (the future of food, I think) for advice on setting up a garden for John O’Connell High School. She was neither pleased nor helpful. (“Do what I did. Raise a lot of money”) but I think speaking out about something I knew from reality which contradicted something they believed in the abstract was the main cause. People in general and ideologues in particular hate having their dogma kicked in the tires.
With the insights McGill and curiosity have provided me about so many of the nutritional sacred cows I now find myself in quandary – If the truth insults your friends but your friends’ fixed beliefs are distressing to you, do you a) hold your peace and decide it doesn’t matter (diplomacy – more or less what I have aspired to up till now) or b) simply state the fact and hope not to start an argument, knowing that it won’t have much impact.
The keep your peace solution would seem to have the least damage, but there is the “To thine own self be true, “ theory and the feeling that truth is indeed worth something.
My father had a saying: In the land of the blind the one eyed man had better damned well keep his stupid mouth shut. It’s served me well when I’ve had the self-discipline to apply it, but I think that has to stop now. Not at cocktail parties, where you really can change the subject to the weather or the Giants (well, you probably could. I know nothing about the Giants) but here.
It’s a little too self-important to quote Edmund Burke in this context: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” as I doubt that anything I say will have any measurable effect on the prevalence of evil, but I have a friend with stage four colon cancer who is forgoing traditional therapy for an outrageous expensive juice treatment, because it is natural. The good news about this is that about 65% of stage 4 colon cancer sufferers survive with or without further treatment, so we hope he is not one of the remaining 35%, but he is following a “natural is good” philosophy preached by some of the same people who oppose vaccination and all progress including genetic engineering. And it’s too late to do or say anything, but I think if somewhere he had stumbled upon something that said, “warning..there are quacks about and they are maybe crazy and maybe greedy, and maybe both, and they will let you endanger your life for a little money,” or just, “high colonics don’t cure cancer,” he might have lost is hair by now and have a 17% higher chance of the cancer not recurring.
So, I think, the time to be a diplomat, or a wuss, has ended. Here, for instance.
I wrote a paper on the mass hysteria opposing genetic modification, which I was not going to publish. I changed my mind. Watch for it soon. If it insults you, then I suggest you take the time and effort to do a little independent research beyond the constant stream of Monsanto-hate that flows through your social media portals. You’ll be surprised what you learn.
I apologize to all of you who will be offended, but thank you Senator Moynahan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts. “ Facts rule from now on.
“The food, opined Ted”, “was amazing.” Actually he said something more like the FOOD was AmAAAAYYYZZING.” Ted had laid down about half again a minimum wage employee’s weekly salary for the meal. You can do that a lot these days. As a matter of fact, it’s getting a lot harder to pay only a couple of hours’ wages for a blue plate special.
You would think that given the price, Ted would have expected a meal as refined and delicious, sexy and beautiful as if it came from the hand of a tweezer wielding deity.
Last year dinner at Benu in fact did amaze me: The final bill came to $400. Even mellowed by a spectacular wine flight I was floored (It had something to do with the extra price for the dried abalone, which we hadn’t quite checked. ) The magnificent, artfully prepared, once in a lifetime food, however, pretty much met my expectations. It delighted, it tantalized, it was downright spiritual bliss, but it was not a surprise. I expect mind altering flavors when I put that kind of weight on my plastic. So should you.
A 22 year old aspiring gourmet on Check Please just pronounced a meal at a Castro street bistro, “Amaaaayyyyzzing” as well. He had garlic shrimp and some nice Spanish short ribs and good wine. Truth: The meal looked really nice, and I have put the place on my short list. Even so, this kid seemed pretty easy to surprise, but then, he’s got a lot of time to calibrate his reaction levels.
As a matter of fact, everyone I know describes whatever they eat – cheese, a candy bar, a chicken fried steak or dinner at Saizon, Parallel 37 or Benu – as amazing. Considering the fact that most of the people I hear this from work in the food industry, it’s really surprising how little it takes to dramatically whelm them.
Amazing is the new must own food vocabulary accessory, the absolute superlative of approval. Sometime when we weren’t looking it rolled right over awesome (which actually described sensory experiences beyond the pale quite passably) and left “perfect” a speck in the rear view mirror. As in “How was the sandwich?” “Perfect” has become, “How is your sandwich?” “Amazing.”
The rise of everything food being “amaaayyyyyyzing in the Bay Area is pretty amazing in its own right, as we here are all about cool, laid back, not showing our weak emotional culinary underbellies, but we go into paroxysms over sandwiches. And Toast. Isn’t “amazing toast” an oxymoron? When did we arrive at the point where a sandwich, or for that matter a five course tasting meal astounds us and we all melt effusively over our collective stunned shock and awe over mayonnaise?
The OED defines amazing thus:
- causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing:an amazing number of people registered it is amazing how short memories are
- informal very impressive; excellent:she makes the most amazing cakes
Granted it’s common usage is simply approval of whatever, but basically “amazing” means “surprising”, as in, oh, I wasn’t expecting that to be good. (So you go to a place where dinner costs half an economy ticket to Paris without expectations?) How thoroughly perverse.
It is of course possible be that the techie diaspora has provided San Francisco with a sizable population of nutritionally immature and unsophisticated but moneyed people for whom a basic kale salad is epiphanic and life changing after years of Jolt and Pizza, but even forty somethings who have time to tiddle with stuff that doesn’t come out of the box pronounce themselves in the thrall of surprise at goat cheese ice cream. And friends in Paris use it.
I don’t know about you, but it’s getting to me – the universal wide eyed wonder at the most recent amuse bouche – kind of like being hit repeatedly an a vaccination site or trying to sleep in a room with a dripping faucet.
Pronouncing a meal amazing sets off a superlative oneupmanship over amazing flan and amazing espresso, which after due magnification wanders onto Yelp! or Open Table reviews, where everything is either amazing or the worst meal ever. And the funny thing is that once something is pronounced amazing, you really don’t have any sense that it is particularly good, as the word has been beaten into hyperbolic mush with a brick bat and thus has become as potent as your grampa after two bottles of the good stuff.
Foodie America needs a thesaurus. Phenomenal food deserves just a little thought in its description. I’m here to help. There’s an app for that, and even if you don’t remember all of the vocabulary you crammed for your S.A.T’s (or you managed to escape them), you can have a thoroughly adequate supply of still functional superlatives at your fingertips..eh, smart phone in a snap for just $0.99.
In case you want an instant fix, here are some of their suggestions from http://www.Thesaurus.com
astonishing, awesome , beautiful , breathtaking, fearsome , formidable , imposing , impressive , magnificent , overwhelming , stunning , daunting , exalted , fearful , frantic , grand , hairy , majestic , mean , mind-blowing , moving , nervous , real gone , something else , striking , stupefying , comforting , good , nice , pleasing , wonderful , fascinating , incredible , marvelous , prodigious , , stunning , surprising , unbelievable , wonderful , bang-up , capital , champion , excellent , fine , first-rate , fly , top , whiz-bang , wonderful , fantastic , supernatural , uncanny , unearthly , fantastic , wonderful, excellent, a-1 , awesome , best , best ever , delicious , far out , first-class , first-rate , great , like wow , marvelous , out of sight , out of this world , sensational , superb , unreal , awesome , breathtaking , fantastic , incredible , outrageous , phenomenal , remarkable , spectacular , superb , terrific .
How was your dinner at Fogard’s Kale Gastrorestaurnt? It was..oh wait a moment [tap tap tap] ..ah, flabbergastingly delectable.
Too tame? Knock it up a notch. Bleeping epiphanic.
Superlatives are manifest. In case that doesn’t do it, here are a few of mine:
Fabulous (so Roselyn Russel campy, as in “Oh, Dahling. The trout fondue with caviar foam was ahbsolutely mahvelous!”), exquisite, mind blowing, sock knocking off, gobsmackingly good, or reach back to the roaring twenties (always fun) with “The cat’s pajamas”, “The bee’s knees”. One of the finest meals I have had in a long time…the options are endless.
“How was your meal at Tres Luces?” “Oh, DUDE! It was the bleeping cat’s pajamas.”
Of course you can get really creative and avoid “It is/was” altogether as in “I loved every tantalizing bite.” “ It was like “Angels made love on my tongue”. The latter is courtesy of Ray Mazotti, one of the greatest eaters I have known, and even though Stanley Eichelbaum once noted, probably in a pique of envy for the wild turn of phrase that wasn’t his, “I don’t fancy dead people fornicating in the back of my mouth,” I find it gets cheap points now and then. Alternatively, just lapse into Harry meets Sally rapture, groan and rub your stomach.
This will all be on the test, so here’s a little homework for review:
The raclette at Hansi’s Chinese Fusion Matterhorn Café was absolutely ___________. ( You probably want to avoid “hairy”)
Magdelena said that ________________________ Chef Bernie’s crouton salad.
We really loved the ______________ doughnuts at Fred’s Croissant and Fill Dirt corner.
See. It’s easy.
Stand apart from the crowd and give the food that has made you happy the honor it deserves.
How could Nora Ephron die? How could a wit that vibrant and a spirit as sassy and gracefully robust as hers not guarantee immortality?
Among her legacy is the wonderful wisdom of the relation of mortality to pleasure, constantly proposing a Weltanschauung roughly equivalent to “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow at some point. You may are going to die.
Ephron’s quotes suggest nothing of a “foodie” or a food snob or a gourmet, although surely she was one (gourmet, that is..she claimed an all encompassing love of, even obsession with food.) . Ephron’s love of food was visceral. Her knowledge of it profound. Food pervaded her work and her interviews. Heartburn, the book that buoyed me up through a miserable divorce, shifts from snide comments on “Mark” to recipes for key lime pie, all of them treasured then and still.
A collection of her commentary on the Huffington Post repeats her unapologetic, all encompassing love of good things to eat and either contempt or pity for those who complicate their diets with the various rules fashionable in foodie circles that she espoused in her writings
“I have a friend whose mantra is: You must choose. And I believe the exact opposite: I think you should always have at least four desserts that are kind of fighting with each other.”
“Everybody dies, there’s no avoiding it and I do not believe for one second that butter is the cause of anyone’s death. Overeating may be, but not butter, please. I just feel bad for people who make that mistake. By the way the same thing is true of olive oil. What difference could it possibly make if there’s a little olive oil in your salad dressing? It does not take one day off your life.”
Newsweek, August 2009
In interviews on NPR and with Charlie Rose she asserted that waiting for the last meal (hers would be a Nate n’ Al’s hotdog) was foolish – you might be hit by a bus the next day.. Eat more Nate n’ Al’s she directed. In another she advocated eating doughnuts, not later but now. “it’s very important to eat your last meal before it actually comes up.”
I hope that Nate n’ Al’s had a direct delivery line to MS Eprhon’s house in her later days, that the people who loved her brought dozens of doughnuts and trays of desserts.
My appetite channels Nora Ephron, as probably does yours. As for the pitiful party-line locovores, egg white omelet fanatics, glutenophobes, fussy eaters, vegans, nutritional activists and sadly misled, loud-mouthed foie opponents in our midst, may I propose that you simply hold your peace and follow Ephron’s advice. Eat more doughnuts.
“Are we really all going to spend our last years avoiding bread, especially now that bread in American is so unbelievable delicious? And what about chocolate?”
Plagiarism admission: Most of the quotes here are p;lucked from the above linked Huffington Post article. You should read it. Reading all of Ephron’s pieces on the site has just hit the top of my own bucket list. I don’t think they will object. Ephron was the voice behind the Huffington Post’s exquisite food writing, or much of it. We all who eat with joy owe them gratitude for this.
The hiatus in Culinary Promiscuity’s postings was due to a minor calamity; a neighbor desiring more bang than his home renovation buck deserved hired cheap and fairly irresponsible contractors who, fearing that coming rains would harm whatever internal improvements they had made, diverted all the rain water from his higher roof onto mine. The $35K resulting damages left me with three months of nothing but a kitchen and a bedroom intact and furnished. All the rest of the furniture was removed, leaving an empty hull of waterlogged drywall, bare studs and curling floor boards with a view.
The catastrophe that upended my life and business also brought an odd blessing: As the bright, freshly finished floor and the pristine white walls emerged from the wreckage, the space became light, open, and for want of a better word, Zen – accidental Sheng Fui – a few dishes in the kitchen, no chairs, no trappings and no table. I ate seated on a kitchen stool at a pull out bread board by the sink, listened to music and read. Not once did I have to look for my keys. I cooked some, i sat on the deck a lot and made friends with couple of bread junkie blue jays.
The empty space was soothing, full of its emptiness and at times vaguely blissful. I briefly considered calling the furniture removal team to tell them to keep it all and send me a prayer rug – impractical unless one prays and probably not very comfortable in the long run, Instead I put a yellow bistro table with a batch of flowers in the middle of an otherwise empty living room. It gladdened my mornings.
The furniture was returned on Wednesday, catapulting me into five days of something like spring cleaning – arranging, selecting and culling, not only the returned three rooms of the house but the kitchen
Mostly culling. Less is not more, but less and better for being that. Three months of forced minimalist living left in its wake a need for more space, simpler surroundings and fewer possessions.
That’s not as easy as it sounds. The real world dictates more stuff and more complexity.
During the final reconstruction phase a dysfunctional painter somehow disappeared my simple “vintage” Bauhaus style Braun coffee maker – the kind with a single on or off function, simple elegant design and great coffee. I looked for a similar replacement. It does not exist. I ended up with a contraption reminiscent of Darth Vader with a grinder and NASA pretensions – a menacing piece of equipment with options requiring something like pilot training to make ten cups. It’s green lights snarl at me when I enter the kitchen.
In search of something as theoretically simple as a coffee maker, I discovered that just about everything in the Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s kitchen appliance department is like that. Simplicity, elegance, reliability and the basic on/off switch have been replaced by imposing things with circuitry. Not only has the pompous design and engineering of everyday items expanded beyond the modest needs of a one family kitchen, the number of things proposed for the home cook has exploded.
A practiced cook prepares a poached egg by slipping the egg into nearly boiling water, gently folding it over onto itself as the whites seize, finally removing a neat, delicate package with a slotted spoon. The perfect egg requires a pot and a slotted spoon. The gourmet products market offers electric (electronic) egg poachers, microwave forms and silicon egg poaching pockets, as well as single purpose items like Smore’s kits, $100 milk frothers, single sandwich presses, carrot curlers, electr(on)ic asparagus steamers and chocolate fountains. While some of the newer items – say anything Silpat – are welcome, even indispensable improvements, one could live and cook better without most of them. They are mostly cabinet clutter and decidedly un-Zen, distasteful metaphors for an unpleasant evolution of the relationship between people with kitchens and food.
Thomas Mann subtly mocks the bourgeoisie in his novel Tonio Kröger, noting ironically that the Krögers, a wealthy North German Merchant family, were cultured and educated, as they possessed all the knowledge of the civilized world in the unread books in their vitrines. The food revival, the culinary madness of this millennium, has created a similar foodie bourgeoisie with all of the potential great dishes of the world in their cabinets, or worse, on their counters..
Pimping out kitchen basics comes at a price. The food prestige and luxury marketing industry has replaced the fifteen dollar citrus juicer with a $199 Breville sans reservoir. Coffee makers have evolved from light, sleek and simple with one on/off button and great coffee to space age pod machines and $100 – $300 mini IT coffee factories, heavy and loaded to the gills with delicate circuitry which guarantees you will be paying to replace or repair within less than a decade. I dread to think what will happen when my magnificent first generation DeLonghi espresso maker bites the dust – the newer models have the footprint and the price tag of a small European car.
The question, following the food / society / people theme of this blog, would be who buys this stuff and why? If it’s basic and good,why not? New owners of exorbitant All Clad pans are amazed at difference in ease and precision in cooking – sometimes outrageous price is based on solid quality. There are, however, a limited number of such necessary cooking utensils and appliances, and the food equipment industry has long outgrown the market’s actual needs.The greater part of the luxury and single application appliance sales are driven by luxury marketing principles and created desire rather than the usefulness and need for products. It’s obviously successful. If consumers did not want space age $120 toasters, those could not have replaced the original simpler, more economical and robust models.
But toast is toast, and higher prices and prestigious design do not mean better coffee or waffles. The only logical conclusion I can reach on the reason for the replacement of good by not necessarily better but more expensive and unnecessarily complicated items is that the great demand for this equipment is propelled by social aspiration rather than the real pleasure of the kitchen. Desire for prestige rather than practicality. Working appliances and equipment have become status symbols, a role previously reserved for Limoges porcelain, Baccarat crystal and other luxury dining settings.
Remember that those with the means to enjoy such luxury generally paid someone else to cook their meals,so it is logical that the status symbols were confined to the spaces where they entertained rather than the kitchen, were solid and serviceable were the standards,
Having lived Zen for a quarter year now, I have a low tolerance for complexity and clutter and limited desire for luxury in the form of over the top or superfluous machinery. I was having a bit of trouble with it even before the great flood, but I am now realizing the desire for order and a lighter domestic load, at least as far as it is possible. (The coffee maker is a total failure in this regard.)
Dan Scherotter, Chef Owner of San Francisco Restaurant Palio D’Asti shared as he showed me his lovely, vast but minimally furnished kitchen (Zen) that as a chef he abhors clutter and that any piece he did not use daily had a place only in the garage. If you walk into the best restaurant kitchens you see not more but more robust equipment. Dan’s point is that a good cook or a chef relies on his knowledge and skill to cook with an economy of exceptional tools. He does not expect the tools to cook for him.
I have taken his point. Less is less and less is better. I want my counters clear and my shelves roomy and organized. If I don’t need a thing frequently, it does not earn kitchen real estate. If a kitchen item isn’t crammed in the back of a cupboard, it won’t need looking for. Stuff: bad / Zen: good. On/off button: good / electronic timer with alarm and timer: annoying, bloated frippery. If you are unimpressed by my toaster, stay home and make your own damn tuna sandwich. My kitchen is there for me to enjoy, not to impress anyone. But then, I was never very “social” so it’s an easy decision.
“THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
The World is too much with us. Wordsworth, 1806
What kind of Tarian are you?
When I was a kid everyone ate about everything unless you happened to have the misfortune of being Catholic with Lent or Vatican imposed meatless Fridays, Seventh Day Adventist or Orthodox Jewish and had to adhere to theologically imposed dietary restrictions. Or poor, of course, which came with its own set of limitations.
As Episcopalians we were theologically/nutritionally unencumbered. My mother, who railed at people who came to dinner then disclosed their dietary restrictions (there were fewer back then), never invited the one Seventh Day Adventist she knew and invited our Catholic friends on Saturdays rather than Fridays unless she happened to expect bluefish or crab off my uncle’s boat on a Friday.
A Friday dinner invitation from Catholic neighbors was cause for some nose wrinkling, but then most of the Catholics we knew back then were Irish, who, apologies to the sons and daughters of the Green Isle, are far from the best ambassadors for Catholic cuisine. Had we known Josephine Gasparro, things surely would have been different. Josephine cooked a mean salmon. Kosher was never an issue..the only Jews we hung out with were reformed and were lavish eaters and phenomenal cooks.
Times have changed.
The Vatican lifted it’s fiat on meat, thus removing its negative image of an imposed food and possibly contributing to the endangerment of hundreds of species, as seafood became not only interesting but hotly desired for any night you wanted to have it. The Adventists may still be meatless, although the two I know eat non garden burgers with gusto. My Jewish friends now are staunch proponents of all things porcine. Religion no longer rules the plate. Instead we have made our self imposed food limitations to our religions.
Vegetarianism has gone secular-mainstream and highly vocal and spawned a score of variations, some extreme, some simple variations, and we have named them all.
The equal and opposite reaction to the steady surge in demanding vegetarian diners sprung up in the form of testosterone laden carnivore movement under the name of the Whole Beast Movement or Snout to Ass, initially carried by chefs like Chris Cosentino, then picked up by butchery event planners like Big John Fink, who creates butchering shows followed by orgies involving large pigs on spits.
There are nutritional crusades and tirades on both sides. Animal rights activists have effected bans of foie gras and shark fins in California and attempted to pass laws requiring that restaurants observe “Meatless Mondays”. At a North Beach Pizzeria a young Swiss guest responded to the gorgeous Italian server’s suggestion of a porchetta spiked pie with, “I don’t eat meat,” spoken with the vehemence of a Jonathan Edwards holding out a cross and snarling, “Get the behind me, dead animal.” Professed carnivores also have their obnoxiously vocal moments.
Most of us omnivores in the middle eat just about anything anyone sets down in front of us, or at least it around our plates or feed it to the dog, so people think you liked it.
That was the Readers’ Digest version – our personal nutritional sects are considerably more complex.
The Administrative Director of the Culinary Institute of America told me years ago that the Institute had done a survey of eating habits. Among those who stated their diet as vegetarian a large number – I believe over half – also stated that they ate seafood and/or poultry frequently, and a smaller number occasionally meat. I eat vegetables, ergo I am vegetarian.
There is now a term for that:
Vegetarians remain vegetarians, at least in theory people who don’t eat meat, poultry or seafood.
Seafood eaters but not meat eaters, on the other hand, are either Pisquitarians or pescatarians, the word being so new that nobody has settled on a proper spelling.
Vegetarians who avoid eggs, honey and milk are vegans. Vegans believe in making life more challenging by foreswearing eggs, honey and cheese, which supposedly exploit chickens, bees and cows.
Vegans who don’t cook their food are Raw Foodists.
Vedic Vegans reduce their options by the entire nightshade family, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes.
The most radical vegans are the fruitarians, who eat no live fruit – that is, eat nothing that is picked from the tree on the theory that picking it would be killing a living thing. In other words, they live from vegan road kill. One suspects that the pharmaceutical company is not producing sufficiently effective meds, but perhaps the fruitarians reject them because their production exploits some bacilli or fungi.
Omnivores don’t get away with a simple label, either.
Those of us who eat meat but not huge steaks have recently been dubbed “flexitarians”, which apparently means that we are not huge meat eaters. That would be in less pretentious food speak “omnivores”, or perhaps nothing, since we are still the people who generally eat what is put in front of us (or push it around the plate.) Most of us still consider ourselves, probably irrationally, the default.
My son’s best friend’s mother is a socially conscious vegetarian with an irresistible taste for salami, which makes her a salmitarian (or salumitarian, if you include things like coppa and sopressata, which she probably does. )
My father’s second wife who actually ate mostly Cheetos and taco chips unless they went out was a poultry eater and pronounced herself an “avitarian”. Actually she also ate some seafood, preferably fried, which would probably make her a pisqueavitarian.
And then there are the locovores, who, donning one of the rougher nutritional hair shirts of our times, swear never to eat anything grown more than a hundred miles from their homes. There aren’t many locovores in Minneapolis, and God bless the others. More bananas and Prosecco for the rest of us.
Fortunately the dining community, omnivore, flexitarian vegan et al, have not yet come to the point where we define ourselves by what we don’t eat – I am an antiglutenitariian or a non-lactositarian, but for an identity starved society who craves labels, it’s probably not far off.
The poor are still around, but they would probably just as soon renounce their dietary restrictions.
As for me, you can ask me to dinner any time. I’ll eat it if you’re a good cook. Unless it’s steamed spinach, in which case it will be neatly distributed around the plate.
When I was about sixteen a disgruntled taxi driver had the bad manners to shoot my father, shattering his carotid artery, which had about the plasticity of a china cup. Research had just discovered that the arterial sclerosis affecting the artery was caused by beef, butter, milk, ice cream, pork and baby lamb chops and just about anything else I like to eat. My mother, determined not to be widowed early, followed the cardiologist’s dire warnings and changed our diet, which, considering my mother’s voluptuous egg, cream and butter based cooking was like turning the Queen Mary on a dime.
Bacon and burgers were replaced with poached salmon and steamed spinach. Vegetables no longer dripped with butter and cheese, our milk went from creamy white to transparent blue, margarine and Wesson oil took the place of butter, and cottage cheese was dressed up to provide a thoroughly inadequate and mildly disgusting alternative to sour cream. We were among the zillions of families catapulted into anti cholesterol hysteria by a nutritional scientific community, which avowed longer and better lives for all if we just cut out red meat and took the skin off our chicken.
In the next few years Victoria Station, a rollicking beef restaurant group in yellow railway cars, folded because the management failed to see the anti-cholesterol writing on the wall, the chicken industry (no skin please) exploded from farms to batteries and the food factories of the world developed cholesterol free versions of anything that was any fun based on partially hydrogenated oils. Lard became an obscenity and pie crusts lost in the exchange.
The Mad Men generation of Americans spent their middle age eating gawdawful alternatives to real food, trusting their doctors and the nutritional voice of the Nation, the FDA. They died anyway, and possibly occasionally sooner than they otherwise would have. What a pity. No wonder they drank.
Shortly after my mother’s non coronary related death twenty five years after the shooting my father remarried. His second wife couldn’t cook for squat, not last because her hoarding had the stove covered three inches deep in shatskis and collectable jam jars. She seemed to believe that vodka and Cheesits were a pretty acceptable dinner substitute. Under her influence father’s preferences quickly morphed from boiled halibut to double cheeseburgers, Mexican omelets with bacon, and Linguini Alfredo. He lived another 26 years and died at 96 from strep. Perhaps if he’d lived another ten or so years, the cholesterol would have had a shot at him.
I so intensely disliked my mother’s nutritionally correct steamed spinach, simmered kale and faux cottage cheese sour cream, that once out of the nest I decided to die young, if necessary, but not to be miserable with healthy food. Every time one of my dinner mates whined, “My doctor won’t let me eat shellfish / chocolate / peanuts / salumi because of cholesterol,” I suppressed the urge to say “Shut the fuck up and let me have my lobster bisque in peace,” and made a mental not to find another dinner companion.
My chances of dying young are dwindling, but despite a life of Epoisses, flans and duck breast, I have what my doctor describes as “divine cholesterol levels”. How come?
More recent studies indicate that not milk fat but trans fats , that is the products in all of the low fat baked goods, cool whip and anything else concerned eaters were making do with, were disastrous for coronary health, not lamb and vanilla ice cream. In other words, it really is not butter, whether you believe it or not, and it’s not better – in fact it’s worse for you than butter.
Better yet: According to new research by the Royal University of Copenhagen milk fat is good for you, or at least better than the alternative. They’ve been at this for a while, actually, and while all contemporary research should be suspect (Copenhagen does, after all, have a lot of cows and export a lot of milk products, so what’s to keep his Highness the Danish King from suggesting to the scholarly researchers that their duty to their country was to do an empirical spin job on our Danish butter?) it’s pretty hard to envision the University of Copenhagen carrying out studies funded by Kraft or the Danish Dairy and adjusting their results to harmonize with the funders’ objectives. It’s more likely that they just know a heap more about milk and cream and the resulting products than, say the University of Beijing.
Food research is big and oddly enough widely believed despite continual retractions and opposing results. There’s a great deal of fun to be had with it, and Culinary Promiscuity looks forward to doing just that. Soon. For the moment, however, let us just gently propose that based on the scientific community’s long track record of contradiction and failure increased skepticism towards people telling us what will make us healthy is advisable. Take their pronouncements with with a grain of salt, which, by the way, researchers tell us will lead to coronary disease. Or maybe not. We are an excessively nutritionally gullible nation.
Culinary Hysteria: Anatomy of a food fad
The inspiration for Culinary Promiscuity came through a book tour presentation by Richard Wrangham, primatologist and author of “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human“. Wrangham theorizes that fire was the pivotal event for human evolution, catapulting our species from tree dwelling, leaf chewing primates to doctors, lawyers and casino magnates.
With more calories available through cooking, says Wrangham, our treed ancestors no longer needed to spend the entire day chewing to fuel their oversized bellies, could climb down from their branches, develop a brain in place of their enormous chewing apparatus, walk upright and begin hunter gathering. All that in turn permitted the development of a voice box followed language, society, tools, the wheel, the written word, the printing press, hors d’oeuvres and eventually Julia Child and Jacques Pepin teaching us how to make puff pastry and employ a Cuisinart the right way. Cooking made us human.
Once published Wrangham’s initially contested theory gained instant popularity among the food crowd. Endorsed by sustainable food guru Michael Pollan, the idea took hold in at least some of the food fixated community. Others, however, didn’t get the memo.
During Wrangham’s book tour presentation a member of the audience mentioned the burgeoning Raw movement, whose adherents eat nothing cooked, maintaining that food in its “natural state”, i.e. raw, was healthier to the point of possessing nearly magical powers. Wrangham gave it short shrift, stating that he had “heard of them” and that they were “always very thin, and very hungry,” suggesting the question : If you’ve come a long way baby, why ever would you want to go back?
The raw food movement, with little regard for Wrangham’s insights or for that matter, any empirical scientific data was gaining momentum and soon topped the foodie topic chart, it’s disciples eschewing their Wolf ranges and promoting the value of all things not only raw but vegan with a truly missionary ignorance.
The first time I heard about the Raw Movement was perhaps ten years earlier, when a restaurant asked me to find him a “special chef. As it happened, Nick Petti , a pretty special guy, dropped by that afternoon. “Have I got a job for you,” I probably said to Nick who undoubtedly raised one eyebrow under his signature jester cap, mumbled the likes of “We’ll see about that,” and took off to have a look. In a couple of hours he was back. I’m pretty sure he slammed his fist on my desk. “Don’t you ever…” he sputtered, then gave me a review of his interview. “He puts pizzas out to dry on the roof in the sun. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? There are flies!”
I backed off the deal and dismissed the idea as one more visionary loony’s fantasy, but the idea was out of the barn and about to explode. It’s odd how easy it is for outrageous ideas to find followers. Sometime later the raw restaurateur’s book appeared, spawning an initial rush of highly vocal disciples, then suddenly “raw food” was the trend, gathering foodies as it rolled on like a cartoon snowball. Charlie Trotter adopted the philosophy, offering all raw prix fixe menues at this Chicago restaurant, and published a blockbuster book with beautiful pictures in collaboration with Roxanne Klein, who opened a raw cuisine, or “living food” as she put it, restaurant in Marin, claiming credentials from Stars, Square One and Chez Panisse – enough heavy ammunition to awaken the herding instincts of the food mad restaurant followers of the Bay Area. She apparently actually did work at Chez Panisse.
Chefs, on the other hand, scoffed: “The whole thing about being a chef, said one,” is cooking. “That’s what I have been working to learn for ten years, that’s what I went to culinary school for. You gotta have fire.” Wrangham’s point, entirely. The cooking community concurred: the reason you cook things was that a) it made food safer and b) food tastes better. Klein had asked me to find a “chef” for the restaurant, although she, herself, was generally accredited with the food. My searches led nowhere. “You don’t need a chef. That’s a pantry cook,” said potential candidate. The others noted things like, “Hey, man. I gotta do meat.”
The trio of arguments against raw food – safety, flavor and nutritional value – are convincing. The whole raw food philosophy rejects temperatures above 118F, keeping the procuts in the sweet spot for microbe growth for extended periods of time. (The Microbial danger zone is between 40F and 140F). The PH of the vegetable proteins used, for instance to make “dough” of sprouts, is perfect for dangerous critters. As for flavor, the combination of vegan dictates rejecting eggs, milk products and honey plus the processing limitations exclude hot baked biscuits. Eggs Benedict, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, oven baked asparagus, chevre and Waygu sliders. Why would otherwise seemingly intelligent people turn their back on Toast in favor of a Neolithic diet of nuts, soy and berries, skillfully combined in an expensive, high visibility restaurant? Why the lemming rush to the past?
Titillation certainly counts for some of the fad’s and the restaurant’s popularity. The food was reportedly tasty. The usual promotional tricks surely worked; Roxanne’s claimed connections to prestigious kitchens in her press releases, and that kind of provenance – fact based or not – brings in the public. The Klein’s social connections – they included some of the most glamorous figures in San Francisco and Marin, surely did no damage to the project.
One restaurant, however, does not a movement make, and a movement raw became. The press went wild. The SF Chronicle Food section all but pronounced Roxanne’s the second coming and writers around the country followed suit in the usual food press elephant walk, passing the new and outrageously edgy story about in the usual self-fulfilling prophecy mode. Other restaurants, gurus and books were created. Bloggers went bloggy. Raw web sites and “living food” communities were established.
The language was an extra plus. For the same reason “prunes” were re names “dried plums”, using the term “living food” suggests mythical powers, at least if your food is vegan. It would not work as well for omnivorous menus.
Once the herd was in motion, logic was doomed. At the height of the “living food” revolution, any protest against it became advertisement for it. In the food world, printers ink and pixels turn isolated incidents into widespread phenomena. Wealthy women began looking for private chefs who could juice.
Some of us scratched our heads.
The raw public’s unquestioning acceptance of the trend is further puzzling in light of the amount of raw food from orange juice and salad to sushi and carpaccio we were already consuming in our more or less balanced conventional diets. Nobody, at least in California, was deprived of raw food. Reason (and science) would suggest that they were getting enough fiber or vitamins already, but the diehard believers rejected all cooked foods. Why?
Like other food fads, the raw philosophy promotes the “natural” character of the foods, uncompromised by fire. We were intended, they reason, to eat raw and did so exclusively until about 10,000 years ago. (they’re off by only a little more than three million, but precision was never a prerequisite of nutritional fashion.) Raw Foods, proclaim the advocates, are healthy, insinuating that cooked foods are not. It addressed our obsession with unadulterated and real foods as opposed to the poisons we somehow feel we are subjected to. By some twist of logic, “raw” came to equal “pure”, while cooked foods took on the suggestion of toxicity. We Americans are all fools for healthy; our health grounded gullibility enjoys a fine history in this country beginning with travelling snake oil salesmen. It’s good for what ails ya’.
A claim was that cooked foods fostered allergies and food sensitivities, which various raw advocates stated were due to the destruction of natural elements in food. One chef I asked recently noted he had heard that eating foods raw kept the enzymes intact. It’s quite surprising, in fact, how many food professionals don’t discount the vital enzyme theory and it’s dual fallacy: they are not human enzymes but effective for chlorophyll producing organisms – not us – and second your own digestive enzymes destroy them.
As for the fuzzy concept that raw food is more nutritional, Wrangham and a number of nutritional scientists in the fact based side of the debate avow that cooking foods actually makes many vitamins and enzymes available.
The trend has settled as the foodists rush on to the next thing, be it cupcakes or food trucks. There are plenty to choose from. As trends will, raw food occasionally still stubbornly bubbles up in some food section article now and then, but they are fortunately no longer ubiquitous. It turned out that at least in San Francisco and Marin there were not enough raw devotees to support a large, expensive “live food” raw and vegan restaurant. Their money ran out. The principal investor, Michael Klein, withdrew his support. Perhaps those who tried the regime were disappointed when the wellness they expected from natural and uncompromised product did not materialize. My guess is that, as Wrangham said, they all just got “really, really hungry”, chucked it all in and went out for a pork chop with mashed potatoes.
The Kleins divorced it was rumored that Michael Klein was planning to invest in an Argentine steakhouse with George Morrone. For every action……..
So, how did something as silly as “live food” get so much press and how does misinformation linger on so long? A professor of mine once said that “People attach great importance to what ever comes into and exits their body.” He didn’t add that reason did not apply. When it comes to nutrition, health and food, we are frequently irrational. Give us enough semi scientific evidence and tell us that something is natural and healthy and not contaminated, regardless of the facts, and we’ll all our logical garments and follow the nearest buck naked emperor down any road he decides to lead us.