Tuesday, February 23, 2010


For my Ethical Controversies class this week, we read Peter Singer and Jim Mason's book The Ethics of What We Eat (formerly known as The Way We Eat) which was a compelling prequel to Eating Animals (Jonathan Safran Foer) which I read over winter break. I should have read the Singer/Mason book first, the JSF is just a basic re-write of the facts with a sort of more philosophical twist. I use the term 'philosophical' there lightly--both Singer and Safran Foer are philosophers, have studied and have degrees in philosophy, but, in the interest of popular attention-grabbing, they seem to both shy away from any depth in that area. Too bad.

In any case, I was to lead the discussion and instead ending up writing some sort of manifesto on the food movement (typical). Half the class seemed to dig it and the other half seemed completely weirded out. I focused on the second section of the book, which highlights a family of 'conscientious omnivores'. If you feel like reading my manifesto, here it is without further ado:

What this section poignantly outlines is the amount of degradation within the ethically food conscious. We learn how much we do not know, in essence, and this can be extremely disconcerting for someone that thinks they are making earth-positive ethical choices. It’s kind of that “you think you know, but you have no idea” kind of thing. If there is one thing that is certain is that there is an incredible amount of uncertainty, even when we are trying to ‘be good’ and make the right and proper decisions surrounding our food choices. When even labels from the government and spending money are not a guarantee, how do we eat ethically? The heart of this section seems to be the question that Singer and Mason state on page 132, “What is the ethical response to such a state of uncertainty?”

And really, they offer few answers to that. Lord knows we can’t eat oysters all day every day and we’re not rich, but there are a few points that resonate well with regards to re-thinking the grander system in a sense, that I find they have highlighted well and that get left out of much of the other popular literature on the topic:

First, do not self-aggrandize and think that you are the end-all be-all perfect consumer and global citizen when it comes to your food choices. If you think you are doing well in one aspect, you are most likely failing in another:

-More than 90% of pigs are in total confinement
-Cage free means little when you are beak to beak with another chicken
-Free range means even less, could be just a window in the barn
-Billions of creatures are caught every year as by-catch to the fish we eat and dumped overboard as trash
-Singer/Mason even take issue with eating locally

Second, we need to consider it a completely normal and good decision to spend more of our income on food. As John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, says, “Mackey’s response to criticism of his pricing is that Americans spend far less of their income on food than people in other countries do…” and that “on average, only six percent of our total income goes toward buying groceries, down from 17 percent fifty years ago.” (183)

Third, as students that are constantly educating ourselves on these topics and concerns, we are lucky that we have this sort of material as required reading, but the general population needs to understand, as a general principle, that unless you are going to put an incredible amount of time and energy into researching and tracing back your food, there is no guarantee that what you are eating is an ethical choice. In essence, unless you are growing it yourself, there are no guarantees. Guarantees have lost their meaning; greenwashing and labeling have been co-opted by marketing which does not have our health or the health of our planet in mind. We need to stop patting each other on the back and start asking more questions.

I had a couple of minor critiques of the section in which I disagreed with Singer/Mason’s ideas, which were often very boldly and clearly stated.

First, you can imagine that I took issue with Singer/Mason’s treatement of big business. On the one hand, I felt like they were willing to be uber-critical of general practices of, say, fishing or farming, but when it came to putting a label on it, they were very generous to the corporations that hawk products that have gone through these methods. The book, like its theme seems to warn against, was ethically choosy. McDonald’s and Chipotle were almost praised for their efforts made to go more sustainable, green, etc but they do not acknowledge that fast food is one of the reasons we are in such a state in the first place, contributes to an enormous amount of health problems in this country and does little good for society on the whole. Same with Chipotle, who was recently under attack for employing unfair labor practices with their tomato pickers. Singer/Mason want to encourage readers to take into account every aspect of ethical consideration when it comes to food (production, the environment, the workers, your health, the animals/plants themselves, who you’re buying it from, etc) but fail to fully critique big businesses and instead highlight their positive strides toward sustainability, etc? I’m not sure I follow or respect this logic.

Second, I found the argument against locavorianism less than satisfying. To refute only the claims that being a locavore is good for protecting the environment, support endangered family farms and strengthen your local economy are only certain parts of the pie. It seems that assuming global citizenry’s absolute duty in an all-for-one, one-for-all sense is a bit absurd. The locavorian movement aims to enhance awareness, more than anything, at the idea of taking a conscientious look at where your food comes from. Yes, it emphasizes community and seasonality, but is that such a bad place to start? Additionally, 2009 was the first year in hundreds that small farms actually grew by 4% in the US. This seems significant to me. Additionally, I think their idea of a free market is a bit idealistic and in fact we are living in more of a corporate socialist state where farmers in, for example, Africa, would have a very difficult time getting a decent price for their crops on the ‘free’ market. So to say buying a bean from an African farmer is more ethical than from that of your local farmer is a big stretch, one I’m not easily willing to make.

Now, after all of that, things may seem bleak and depressing. Being an ethical omnivore seems like a complete oxymoron and it may seem like there is nowhere to turn. On the other hand, perhaps you felt empowered by the knowledge in this book and validated that you are on the right path to help reform these problems. Perhaps you see hope that is not evident in this book since it was published in 2006. I welcome a discussion of both of these aspects, but, above all, how do we act ethically with so much uncertainty?

For me, the takeaway is as it is with philosophical ethics. We continue the search and rarely feel satisfied. We step back and consider the larger perspective of a system gone awry. Instead of feeling unfortunate to stumble into the course of history when our food has become so convoluted, we can consider ourselves lucky to be part of a revolution to rapidly and whole-heartedly change it. We can understand that ‘voting’ with our food choices is not interesting, because we are voting in a system we do not respect; a system that is un-democratic thus making voting meaningless. We can work to change this system. We can raise consciousness and awareness about these issues in every possible way that we can. We can opt out.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Letter to a Friend

Basically, I think the bigger picture for me is always about democracy and certainly with your class, you can point to the idea of truth not only with regard to marketing but with regard to the food movement really lifting the veil on what the industry has attempted to hide from us. That's over-simplistic, perhaps.

My class is basically all about the sociology of the food movement and my conclusions have lead me to believe that a) there is certainly a food movement, b) it's not always as simple as it seems (for example, Stonyfield Farms is a large corporation pushing organics, but why does it need to be a large corporation? Does that not run counter to the ideology of the food movement?), c) The ideology of the food movement is fuzzy but can generally be summed up as a bunch of different factions with different specific issues that form a cohesive direction against, what I believe to be, bigger picture Capitalism and a gross systemic problem and d) the food movement, unlike movements previous, is attempting to function non-hierarchically and through individual agency, mostly directly through consumer choice (but in other ways as well).

Individual agency is powerful (look at Antigone; one woman's decision to bury her brother destroys an entire family and town) and can be extremely effective. The information age has given us ways to 'link up' and 'download' each other's thoughts and ideas (like right now! right this minute!), so as to not feel alone--we are connected by this nebulous idea cloud in the sky--but at the same time our fight is singular and regional. The problem is ubiquitous but the solutions have manifested themselves locally: shopping at the farmer's market, planting an urban garden, learning how to cook, learning how to can foods, 'opting out' of corporate food, etc. And it seems to be working, in a way. People feel continuously motivated and it's constantly in mainstream media, so something's happening.

But regarding the food movement, the problem I see is this. The movement attempts to counteract a bunch of really problematic larger systemic situations that are derived from capitalism, but no one is willing to point to that as the cause and or problem that needs to be changed. It's like Zizek says, capitalism is accepted as a total given these days, there isn't even a discussion happening among most people that maybe there are other options. We only look to function within the confines of this system, but the TRUTH is that those confines are the problem and it's my belief that little will change until the largest system changes. We are currently under corporate socialist rule and having, for example, a bunch of corporations begin to make organic food instead of non-organic is not going to change our alienation, our problems.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


I am writing my Food Sociology term paper on the notion of hierarchy within movements, obviously with direct focus on the current food movement. My questions being the following (or some mashup thereof): Is hierarchy (or at least the notion of) necessary to the idea of a movement? Do non-hierarchical movements face a detriment when they go up against highly hierarchical and structural institutions? And finally, does the notion of hierarchy contradict with the ideology of the food movement itself?

This summer I had the privilege of seeing the distinguished Italian professor Giorgio Agamben speak at The European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. His talk was entitled "Liturgia and the Modern State" and he spoke about the inherent nature of hierarchy within social constructs. He touched on the idea of 'movement' and I was able to ask him to elaborate after his talk. Specifically, I wanted to know whether he thought the notion of hierarchy was necessary to movements or if we should simply do away with the idea of 'the movement' altogether. I suspected, as one might from a blatant anarchist, he would throw the notion out. Here is me asking my question (you can only hear my voice) and his response. It's quite great! Go to mark 4:30.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mob-Free Labeling in Italy

From Marion Nestle's blog:

Love it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Taste of School

I am taking a great class called Food Sociology. We are breaking down the food movement and its opposition. We just started a discussion board online for thoughts we have that we don't have time for in class and my professor (who is quite famous and an idol of mine but for now I will leave nameless) posted this article about how the film Food, Inc. is 'scaremongering' and, well, wrong. My professor then asked us to discuss why the intense reaction to the idea that food might be connected to many other things (i.e. climate change, health and immigration). Here is my response for those interested:

Calling the issues of the environment, health, climate change, immigration, etc "unrelated" to the food biz is blatantly inaccurate on even the most simple of levels.

Ironically using propagandist terminology such as calling people "scaremongers", "perishing" and "foodie elitists", using emotive persuasion with sadly flawed logical conclusions based on an appeal to family fidelity ("our parents gave us pesticide-laden foods, so how can they be so bad, because our parents are not bad people, right?") is just banal rhetoric meant to propel profits at the expense of people's happiness and health.

I think the reason that there is such an intense reaction to Food, Inc. in this piece has very little to do with food itself. I will start here and argue time and time again in class (and elsewhere) that people are not afraid that their food will be different--they are afraid that they may have to actually make a systemic grand revolutionary change. This is a reaction to socialism and to democracy and to equality. It is a reaction to giving and sharing. It is a reaction to a potential loss of complete control and a holding on to the neo-imperialist corporate social control that has over taken our economy (and, of late, with catastrophic result and implication).

And, in this sense, I would argue that the food movement needs to begin from a place that considers the politics of the aesthetics that surround food--meaning, how much does food imply choice, freedom, agency and money and what is it that the opposition truly reproaches? Is it organic food itself or is it the political and social implications (of what is really a necessary systemic change)?

For me, I see the opposition as fear of true democracy and equality. And I think we in the food movement need to begin not only from smaller, individual change, but as well recognize the greater economic/social/political implication behind our work in this regard--to have in mind an idea of true democracy or social equality behind our idea of organic food or when we make that trip to the farmer's market.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Interview with the Parents. One Question.

I sent this email to both my parents today and I am posting it and their responses (I am reading a lot about the connection between the environmental movement, technology and agriculture and how these have affected the social movement in regards to food that we see happening now):

Subject: Question

How much did the issues of pesticides and chemicals with farming come up in your life during the 1970s and 80s?

Do you remember being concerned about these things or hearing much about 'organics' or 'organic farming'?

Dad's Answer:

A cogent question.

Once in college, mid-60's, I was vaguely aware or Carson's "Silent Spring." A major breakthrough, however, was the first Earth Day in 1970, from that point on one's consciousness had been raised to all sort of infractions. At that time, I first became aware of the poisoning of our rivers and dangers of agricultural runoff. One of the first rivers to "die" in MN was the Minnesota which ran just outside of Sleepy Eye and was totally killed by farm pesticides, your pharmacist grandfather confirmed this for me. I also remember having a faculty room argument circa 1975 with a math teacher who also farmed concerning this issue. He maintained that the biological make up of the plant mitigated the chemicals (?). Organic farming expanded in response and had previously been reference indirectly by people aware that home grown tasted better than store purchased. Again, the Carson book and social questioning of the late 60's and 70's was huge in raising personal awareness.

The use of farm pesticides ( to increase yield) was deployed hand in hand with the increased use of mechanized farming during the demands of WWI and into the twenties. Yield ran far ahead of consumption during the twenties and threw the agricultural sector into economic chaos before the crash of 1929. Remember, the New Deal (Ag. Adjustment Act) paid farmers to plow up planted fields in 1933 and not to plant in subsequent years do to overproduction - pesticides a major player in increasing yield per acre.

Hope this helps.


Mom's Answer:


Going back even earlier, I grew up with pesticides and chemicals being routinely used in farming and on our lawns. Grandpa Ray sold them at the drugstore and Uncle Ron did crop-dusting around the countryside as a job. I and everyone in our community was exposed to A LOT of these chemicals. I was a child, so I didn't have much of a reference point at that time. However, when I got to college and the whole "back to the land" movement began, there was much discussion about natural foods. We also linked the development of pesticides and other chemicals by big companies like Dow to chemical warfare, like napalm and Agent Orange. I protested with many other Macalester students against Honeywell because Mac had a lot of stock in Honeywell and most of us were not only against the war, but against the specific use of these terrible chemicals that caused deforestation, water pollution, and disease and death to people and animals.

I was highly aware of organic farming in the 70s and shopped at the earliest co-op in Minneapolis (Seward), Boulder, and in Brainerd once I lived there. I also helped start a paper recycling center with my philosophy students at BHS because of our concern about clear-cutting of forests and a paper shortage. All of these issues seemed to be linked in my mind because of the corporate approach to abuse of resources and the growth of agribusiness, etc.

Does that help?


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stumptown Arrives in NYC

So happy. So happy. So happy that I might even go out for a coffee after work rather than a beer! Shocking, I know.

Brief synopsis before I direct you to the brief article in the NYT: Stumptown, started in Portland, is a direct trade coffee importer, roaster and distributor. Their dedication to the bean is unparalleled as far as I have found. Direct trade, going beyond what people consider so great called fair trade, means that the people that own this company (yes, the actual owners of Stumptown) travel to South America/Central America/Africa/Indonesia to meet with growers and farmers of coffee beans, negotiate a good price for their worth and continue a relationship with them for years.

Genius subversion of traditionally horrible capitalistic principles. Oh, and guess what, if you're literally in a relationship with someone who is growing beans mostly for you and your company, you're probably going to be able to tell them what you like, tweak the amount of shade the beans get for example or say, you know, please don't put pesticides on the beans.

In the end, this is not an elitist pursuit--it is quite the opposite. Their espresso a their coffee shop in the new (and wonderful, had friends stay there and checked it out) Ace Hotel on 29th Street is 10 cents more than at the Starbucks around the corner.

They roast the beans at a facility in Red Hook (Brooklyn) and my co-worker met with the owner (friends of friends) to hear all about the company and its pursuits. I can tell you, at least second hand and from taste/sensual experience, this stuff is the real deal. These guys are an amazing example of shifting the traditional paradigm in beverages.

NYT Article here.
Stumptown website here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Bento Boxes

I always thought the concept of the bento (obento?) box was great, because of its natural portion control and generally speaking healthy items contained within, but when I moved to New York I found that, often, a bento box consisted of rice + greasy teriyaki meat dish + a california roll sometimes + miso soup, etc etc. And they usually weren't that economical in comparison to what I thought was a decent 'deal'--the very common in NYC two rolls of maki + miso for usually around 8 bucks.
Point being, I haven't bentoed it up so much in this city. Well, any city really, but was aware of the potential power of the bento. I unfortunately overlooked home bentoeing! Which is too bad, since my first awareness of the bento was watching The Breakfast Club as a young girl: One of the absolute best scenes in the world, but also super telling because every person in Saturday detention pulls out a befitting lunch to match their personality/high school caste status. The geek has like crustless PB+J, tomato soup. The bag lady has white bread which she sprinkles with pixie stix and crushed Cap'n Crunch cereal (I think also Diet Coke is involved). The jock has a giant bag of potato chips, three sandwiches and like two Cokes. And then we get to the class, preppy homecoming queen Molly Ringwald's character who busts out this totally proper, totally beautiful bento box full of sushis. The rest of the crew then proceeds to ask her what the hell she's eating.

Anyway, the image of that lunch was vivid and, well, who didn't want to be like Molly Ringwald? Too bad I was more into being like her fashion-wise and in the regard of chasing boys who didn't notice me than adopting these interesting eating habits. Sigh.
Thankfully, the New York Times has picked up the ball once again on an interesting trend. Now, as usual also, the New York Times has annoyed me. They wrote an article about the fad of the bento box, but in doing so, assumed that (I guess since we're all foodies these days and don't have jobs?) we all have seven hours a day to make carrot sticks heart-shaped and we know how to make an olive into a flower, blah blah blah.
But let's use this as an opportunity to be inspired by that which was good: The idea of a small plastic box going with us to work or school every day filled with fresh + beautiful + relatively small ingredients.
This is a great idea for schools. This is a great idea for me to bring to work. You get the idea. Please read the full article here.
I'm working on sourcing a really cool and inexpensive bento box to buy. Sayonara.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Frenching August

I'm taking August off, in case anyone is still reading this, to spend some time here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sad Truth

USA Today reports that last year we Americans spent $147 billion -- billion! -- on conditions related to obesity. Obese persons have medical bills 42 percent higher than those of normal weight. The surge in obesity may be related to modern industrial agriculture, including the use of chemicals such as endocrine disruptors. So the ag system produces cheap food, yes, but may impose other costs -- time for a rethink.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Attempted to make hummus this weekend. Succeeded. For the most part. Our Cuisinart makes anything pretty idiot-proof, but as it turns out, I am able to muck anything up. Even hummus in a food processor. The recipe we completely nuanced without consulting any (oh, thousands of years of) recipes was simple. We knew we wanted white beans. We could not find dried white beans, which was the original plan, and, given the blazingly disgusting heat of the weekend, we settled for not boiling our own and buying two cans of cannelini beans.

First things first, you probably don't need two full cans of beans. It filled our food processor to the top and made way too much hummus. I always over-make. But, as we started to add stuff I forgot about quantity and focused on quality. We simply added fresh lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic.

Then we added more garlic.

Then more garlic.

Then more. When he wasn't looking, I would throw more in and when I wasn't looking, he'd throw more in.

The whole head of garlic went into the hummus in the end. While delicious, it was way way way way too garlicky. And also the consistency wasn't up to snuff--a bit too runny. I like thick hummus. If anyone has suggestions, they are more than welcome. Attempt number two will certainly involve dry beans and less garlic. But it was hummus! It was definitely hummus. And it was eaten on the stoop with cucumbers, tomatoes, pretzels and toasted peasant bread on a classic NY summer day.

Friday, July 24, 2009


My birthday dinner last night was absolutely impeccable. The best thing in the world is when a restaurant opens in your neighborhood, doesn't have their liquor license yet (and is therefore BYOB) and serves amazing Italian fare, including brick oven pizzas. Um, oh yes. I was a happy gal.

The service was sweet and genuine, the server made great recommendations and the atmosphere is carmely soft and dreamily fuzzy. I could not find, online, a great picture of the bar, but they have done a bang-up job fixing up what used to be Queen's Hideaway. The kitchen is right out in the open, the chefs cooking behind a pretty low counter, a beautiful wood-fire oven blazing away behind them. It is all remarkably lovely. They have a great garden (weather did not so much permit last night, so we sat inside).

For an appetizer, we chose the bruschetta of the day -- three gorgeous toasts tiered with traditional chopped tomato bruschetta topping, then eggplant parmagiana slices, then melty mozzerella, then topped with a fabulous fresh pesto, all drizzled with olive oil and fresh basil tearings. There was nothing done wrong here.

I love the little perks at Anella too... they bring you, unfailingly, a small teaser plate before your appetizer arrives. This time it was a crostini topped with a hummus-like white bean puree. Completely inspired us to use the Cuinsinart to make white bean hummus this weekend. Terribly delish.

Main courses, we chose pizzas! Though they do have fish + meat + pasta selections that I am sure are lovely.

I had a meatball pizza with the softest, must succulent slices of meatball flayed down the center of the pie, combined with a concentrated garlicky tomato sauce and mozz. The crust is slightly salty (in a good way), thin and crispy-soft at the same time. Adored this pizza. H had yummy three chese topped with beautiful parsley.

The best part of all, maybe, however, was the roasted rooftop vegetables we ordered as a side! Yes, many of the veggies/herbs we ate came from the rooftop garden and they were just so damn good.

Happy birthday to moi. :)

Pics of Anella courtesy of NYMag.