When my info-larder gets too packed, it’s time to serve up some choice nuggets from around the Web.


Sandor KatzLet’s get buggy

Like many food lovers, I eagerly await The New Yorker’s annual food issue, which always hits the shelves right before Thanksgiving. In this year’s edition (dated Nov. 22), I got transfixed by the lavishly detailed profile of April Bloomfield, chef/owner of instant-classic NYC restaurants The Spotted Pig and The Breslin. (Evidently, including articles in restaurant titles is The Thing to do). I am impressed by the revelation that Bloomfield and her business partner plan to start a farm, to serve, among other uses, as a “sign of clout and longevity, the breadbasket of an empire.” I’m reminded of the immortal line uttered by the rich guy in Citizen Kane: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”

Another highlight of the issue, not (directly) related to food: the peerless environmental reporter Elizabeth Kolbert has a chilling piece on the fate of climate policy in an age of of Democratic fecklessness and GOP Tea Baggery.

But what really makes the issue sing for me is the profile of home-fermentation wizard Sandor Katz by Burkhard Bilger. Sandor’s passion is for the small stuff: the microbiota that make up so much of the world, so much of our bodies, and, as Sandor is always reminding us, play a key role in creating our most prized foodstuffs: beer, wine, cheese, chocolate, charcuterie, coffee, etc.

I’ve had the good fortune to spend some time with Sandor. He is at once humble and supremely confident, rock-solid yet effervescent in his enthusiasms: in short, a wonderful human being. Bilger captures some of Sandor’s antic spirit and well-earned authority, and delivers a respectful and clear-eyed view of the scrappy “underground food movement” Sandor helps lead. The article rounds up new science on the importance of respecting, and not trying to obliterate, the bacteria that surround us and, in fact, are us. All in all, a great read.

Want more Sandor? Here’s an interview I did with him three years ago.

The food-politics writer as savior of mankind

Speaking of acquaintances I admire getting profiled in The New Yorker, the new issue (dated Nov. 29) has just arrived, and it includes an article on Raj Patel, an eminent writer on the political economy of the global food system and … according to some — well, he’s the Messiah.

The article, by Lauren Collins, tells the strange tale of how some members of a New Age cult have fixated on Raj as the “supreme spiritual being” who will “overshadow” all of mankind. Raj has handled his startling new role in life (complete with backlash: “Raj Patel is the wrong prophet!”) gracefully and with good humor. The article is hilarious, but I wish Raj’s ideas, and not his unwanted cult status, could get a full airing in The New Yorker.

Unwitting false prophets are funny; but the ill-gotten profits Raj spotlights in the global food system are anything but. Bonus 1: See if Raj was exhibiting messianic tendencies when I interviewed him on camera two years ago. Bonus 2, non-directly-food-related: Speaking of false profits, John Cassidy’s article in the same New Yorker issue on the dubious social utility of Wall Street is well worth reading. I’ll only add that Doug Henwood has been making the same argument since the 1980s, in the pages of The Nation, in his books, and in his newsletter, Left Business Observer. I guess it took a full-on financial meltdown and a protracted unemployment crisis to get these ideas into our nation’s most august magazine.

365 Everyday Value: Whole Foods cuts back on employee health-care benefits

Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey has made no secret of his disdain for universal health care, and once presented his own company’s employee plan as a proof of the genius of private insurance. But now, Mother Jones‘ John Harkinson has gotten hold of internal company documents showing that  the company’s employee scheme is faltering under the burden of rising costs, and Mackey is speciously blaming Obamacare. Moreover, he’s resorting to that time-tested corporate method of skimping on health costs: he’s hoping to shift to more part-time labor to avoid paying benefits. Classy!

All in all, the employee health-care debacle marks the most ignominious behavior from Mackey since he got busted inventing fake identities with which to shill Whole Foods stock in online forums.

Class is in session

In a Newsweek piece ahead of Thanksgiving, Lisa Miller dives into the vexed question of food and class in the United States. Miller deftly mixes personal storytelling with reporting, and gets good quotes from several important authorities on food and poverty. I like how she doesn’t try to neatly tie the story up: there’s no easy answer to the class- and income-based disparities in diet quality in the United States, and she admirably doesn’t pretend there is. And she addresses head-on what I see as the key and often overlooked facet of this story — stagnant wage growth:

Among the lowest quintile of American families, mean household income has held relatively steady between $10,000 and $13,000 for the past two decades (in inflation-adjusted dollars); among the highest, income has jumped 20 percent to $170,800 over the same period, according to census data. What this means, in practical terms, is that the richest Americans can afford to buy berries out of season at Whole Foods — the upscale grocery chain that recently reported a 58 percent increase in its quarterly profits — while the food insecure often eat what they can: highly caloric, mass-produced foods like pizza and packaged cakes that fill them up quickly.

In their recent book The Spirit Level, Kate Picket and Richard Wlikinson show that various forms of social dysfunction — homicide, mental illness, substance abuse, diet-related diseases, anxiety, teenage pregnancy, high school dropouts — rise and fall not based on a nation’s level of wealth, but rather on how equally that wealth is distributed. I’d argue that we can’t fix our unfair food system until we fix our unfair economic system. And that’s no easy “solution.”