“Edible Media” is a biweekly look at interesting or deplorable food journalism on the web.
The left has always had an uneasy relationship with pleasure — and thus with food. For every freewheeling beatnik or free-loving hippie, there must be 10 dour left-wingers who see personal pleasure as an obscene indulgence in a world wracked by war, hunger, oppression, and environmental ruin.
Yet one of the most powerful critiques of consumer capitalism is that it drains life of vivid pleasure and offers instead “pleasure.” A handmade dark-chocolate custard becomes a dull, corn-sweetened “chocolate” shake. Peddling boundless diversity and freedom, mass-market consumerism delivers regimentation, sameness, and mediocrity. As Michael Pollan showed in Omnivore’s Dilemma, the dizzying variety arrayed on U.S. supermarket shelves boils down to endless combinations of two ingredients: corn and soybeans.
By treating pleasure and food as beneath responsible discussion, the left cedes too much to the hucksters who run the show. Rather than deride pleasure as a vice of the rich, the left should try to revive it as a principle for all.
That’s why I was happy when the left-liberal weekly The Nation came out with its first issue devoted to food this week.
Presided over by that grand dame of the U.S. sustainable-food movement, Berkeley restauranteur (and ’60s protester) Alice Waters, the issue bristles with the sort of high seriousness one might expect from the venerable political weekly.
But that’s okay; food and pleasure are many things, including serious topics. In the issue’s introduction, Waters sets the tone:
The pleasures of the table also beget responsibilities — to one another, to the animals we eat, to the land, and to the people who work it. It follows that food that is healthy in every way will cost us more, in time and money, than we pay now. But when we have learned what the real costs of food are, and relearned the real rewards of eating, we will have laid a foundation for not just a healthier food system but a healthier twenty-first-century democracy.
That’s good stuff. The rest of the issue fleshes out those ideas beautifully. There’s Eric Schlosser’s blistering exposé of how the government coddles Smithfield Foods, that corporate villain; there’s a blunt assessment of Wal-Mart’s move into organic food by Liza Featherstone, perhaps the retail giant’s most insightful critic; and the most nuanced and thoroughly reported piece I’ve seen yet on working conditions on California’s organic farms, by Felicia Mello.
Most importantly of all, the issue illuminates what I see as the most hopeful sign of all that the U.S. might be poised at the edge of a mass real-food revival: the urban food-justice movement. Check out (among others) Habiba Alcindor’s piece about how black farmers, who as a group have had a much tougher 50 years than even white farmers, are creating markets in black urban neighborhoods.
These are all topics dear to my heart, and the articles taught me much.
I wonder if the issue’s publication date, Sept. 11, 2006 (like many weeklies, The Nation dates its issues weeks ahead) was intentional. Since September 11, 2001, the magazine has seemed even more inhospitable than ever to food coverage, as the president moved the country into war without end. But to paraphrase Bush himself, such an attitude lets the warmongers win. Here’s hoping that food becomes a regular Nation topic.