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Food and Class: Julie Powell’s Attack on the Organic Food Movement

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One

I remember when I read Amanda Hesser’s wonderful profile of Julie Powell, a then-secretary who took on the daunting and heroic project of cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a tiny Long Island City apartment kitchen. The article was utterly charming and I was won over by Powell’s indomitable spirit.

julie powellJulie Powell cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking in her tiny kitchen (credit: Christopher Smith/NYT)

Powell has apparently become a food writer for the Times. As such, she has written a remarkably outspoken, politically incorrect and in your face column, Don’t Get Fresh with Me, in the New York Times in which she savagely attacks nouvelle cuisine, Alice Waters, Brillat-Savarin, farmer’s markets, Whole Foods and Julia Child among others. It’s quite a tour de force of culinary knife-wielding. No one who’s embraced the Slow Food movement comes out unscathed.

She argues that the high priests and priestesses of American food are snooty, elitist, rich, affected, overly fussy and classist. She claims they are self-centered and monomaniacal in their pursuit of the purest ingredients, caring only for themselves and other likeminded members of their class. All to often, she claims, food mavens ignore the “lower classes” in the missionary zeal to spread the mantra of Slow Food and nouvelle cuisine. The movement, she says, is not meant for poor people or minorities. It is meant for the kind of people who can look a Whole Foods price tag in the eye and not blanch at the expense.

First, we have to concede that those who love food CAN be a snooty, opinioniated, overbearing bunch. And it’s also true that if you obssess about getting the best of everything food-wise then chances are you may lose sight of the fact that others do not have the time, money or inclination to be as much of a fetishist as you. And when we divorce ourselves from our fellow human beings in this way, we are being elitist and classist.

But who’s to say that because I love good food, shop at Whole Foods and several local farmer’s markets, eat in fine restaurants (though infrequently now with three little babies), and admire Alice Waters that I’ve lost touch with my fellow man?

And as far as farmer’s markets go, how did they all of a sudden become symbols of privilege and snobbery? I shop at two local farmer’s markets here in Seattle, one of which (Columbia City) is in the heart of South Seattle, where the bulk of the city’s ethnic minorities live. This market is a celebration of economic, religious and culinary diversity. You see African women in flowing robes, women in hijabs, poor people, rich people and everyone in between. Do only Whole Foods shoppers shop at the farmer’s market? Come on. In fact, the prices at Powell’s local farmer’s market are probably lower than at the Key Food or Western Market stores she highlights in her article.

Do enough of the poor know about farmer’s markets and the benefits they might provide them and their children? No. That’s why local and state governments need to do more to publicize this culinary asset to the economically disadvantaged. We need to figure out how to better get this message to those who aren’t media sophisticates. The way to do this is not to accuse farmer’s markets of being the bastion of privilege.

Regarding the snootiness factor she notes–who’s to say that because I love a good French meal (very rarely) that I don’t also love downhome simple cuisine as well. I couldn’t put it any better than Alice Waters does is the quotation below. Loving food doesn’t mean looking down your nose at those who are of a lower class than you. Loving food means loving good food everywhere and from whatever origin it derives. And it means loving the people who’ve created the cuisine whatever their class or economic background.

And how about this gratuitous slap in the face of the organic movement:

What makes the snobbery of the organic movement more insidious is that it equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics. Eat wild Brazil nuts and save the rainforest. Buy more expensive organic fruit for your children and fight the national epidemic of childhood obesity. Support a local farmer and give economic power to responsible stewards of sustainable agriculture.

This passage is, of course, a coarse reductionist version of the tenets of the organic movement. Who is their right mind believes that you can eliminate child obesity by paying more for your fruit? No, you eliminate obesity by finding sources for good healthy food for your children. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to do this as any farmer’s market shopper can tell you. It’s a cheap shot, Ms. Powell.

Slow Food(The Case For Taste)

Let’s return to Alice Waters–she has not only donated much money and food for philanthropic causes, she’s spearheading a national project, the Edible Schoolyard, to place youth gardens in as many public schools as possible. That’s public schools, Ms. Powell, not Choate or Exeter. And guess who those students will be? You guessed it–Anglo, Latino, African-American, Chinese-American, etc. And they will be from diverse economic backgrounds as well. Waters’ goal for the gardens is to teach children how to enjoy gardening itself and also to enjoy the fruit of their labors. Most American children know no more about a vegetable than what their parent places on the plate in front of them. The doyenne of nouvelle cuisine reckons that a boy or girl who grows aspargus, artichoke or baby greens will be more likely to eat them. She wants to widen the palate of the average American child so they will eat healthier and be healthier. Since when is that snobbish or elitist? In fact, read this passage by Waters on the Edible Schoolyard website which deplores the demise of the family meal in modern society:

“Dinner rituals have nothing to do with class, or working women’s busy lives, or any particular family structure. I’ve had dinners of boiled potatoes with families in Siberia, suppers of deli cold cuts with single welfare mothers in Chicago, bowls of watery gruel in the Sahara–all made memorable by the grace with which they were offered and by the sight of youngsters learning through experience the art of human companionship.

So there, Ms. Powell!

To learn more about Alice Water’s campaign to improve the culinary education of all America’s children (not just the rich and white among them), read R.W. Apple’s wonderful profile of Waters’ attempt to bring the Edible Schoolyard to the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Barbara Fisher July 26, 2005, 6:25 AM

    I really think that Ms. Powell was stirring the pot with her column. She wanted to write something irreverent and un-PC, but she didn’t do it well. Her blog of her adventures with Mastering the Art of French Cooking was irreverent as hell, but it was also charming, well-written and interesting, written about personal experiences.

    When it comes to making declarations about something which I suspect the author knows very little about, well, she falls short. Because it was patently obvious to me that she just took her cheap shots where she could and either never knew any facts behind her assertions or simply ignored them. This is a hallmark of poor reasoning and lack of thought, which means that in the future, if an author’s opinion pieces are equally as factually unsupported, I will ignore what the author says, even if I agree with them.

  • Jennifer July 26, 2005, 11:06 AM

    I followed Julie’s “Mastering” blog for months, and was highly entertained by her daily triumphs & tribulations. I was thrilled (if a little envious) when she landed the enormous book deal, a spot in the Times roster, etc.

    This article made me feel like I’d been slapped. I’m not rich or snobbish or classist – my pocketbook FEELS the extra money it takes to buy organic, but my body feels the difference, too, and there’s no going back. There are so many reasons to eat fresh, local and organic – none of which were conveyed in Julie’s article.

    This article seemed to me a reflection of her own deep-seated insecurities, writ large.

  • Curtis July 21, 2008, 10:30 AM

    I totally agree with almost everything you say. Good for you for being so high-minded about culinary diversity.

  • Rachel August 26, 2008, 12:12 PM

    I have to say I, along with a growing number of discontents, find myself agreeing with Julie Powell more often than not.

    Perhaps in major, progressive cities like Seattle, it’s easy for people to go to farmer’s markets, but it’s not true for everyone. I live in suburban NY. I often have to drive out of my way, often more than an hour, to get to an area where there are the farms that regularly sell their produce. Weekly famer’s markets in the area have schedules where I, a woman who works one 9-5 job, have trouble getting to them. How can someone who works long hours at multiple jobs possibly have the time? How do you you expect people to get to these markets if they don’t have a car? I’m priveledged that I have the time to drive upstate on weekends to persue the best the local farms have to offer. So many people are not so lucky.

    There also seems to be a growing movement that says, “If you can’t get to the farmer’s market, grow your own.” That assumes that everyone has the property to grow food on and the time to tend the garden. Many people have neither. I live in an apartment myself. All I can grow are some herbs in pots on my balcony. “Just start a community garden at your buidling” say the people who don’t know that my building doesn’t have much land. Obsessed locavores also don’t seem to have much familiarity with condo boards.

    Also, home-cooked meals are great if you aren’t working three jobs and have plenty of time to cook (and clean up after yourself).

    Words like “local” “organic” “home-cooked” “whole” need to also be paired with “universally accessible” if the movement wants to stop being considered elitist.

  • June July 13, 2009, 2:11 PM

    I totally disagree with Ms. Powell. Whole foods don’t have to mean expensive or time consuming, and it’s often cheaper. You come across many families buying in bulk and cooking their own food to SAVE money, not spend it. And there are a number of movements to turn city blocks into community gardens, and educate people in the inner city who to date, have only been offered fast food (and when that’s all you have, and no money for transportation, that’s all you eat). The reasons for buying organic are because of the dangers of the pesticides and poisons. Now, even Walmart is offering organic. I don’t think any of us who strive for organic and whole (and I do) expect everyone to have a backyard garden. I do know though, that the efforts and purchasing power of a growing number of us have increased the amount of organics available to people because now it’s “trendy,” and the big corps have seen the economic wisdom of making it available. Personally, I HAVE to cook whole and at home because my son has Celiac’s disease. I am barred from shopping in about 70% of the aisles at the grocery store. It doesn’t take much time or clean-up to throw a small chicken in the pot, or saute a few chicken strips with some rice or cook some pasta not out of the box….the cooking time is the same on that one. Of course, I grew up in the country and lived my grandparents who barely ever made over 20k a year if that. We never owned anything “new,” but my grandparents had survived the depression, so making it on nothing and putting the rest away for a rainy day was the order of the day. Hardly elitist. We just need to educate people to focus less on getting the big screen tvs, ipods, and blackberrys and more on eating for health.

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