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.
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.
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.