Food 2009: Profound, Profane and Captivating
For better or worse, this year in food has been anything but dull.
A trail of breadcrumbs comes to mind. We’re in the deep dark forest, except this forest is de-forested, and the big bad wolf and his no-good gang of vultures have us surrounded. We haven’t eaten for days, but we don’t know if anything is safe to eat. The river is littered with dead fish and the trees are hanging with mad-cow carcasses, where fruit once grew.
Other than a flashlight and a prayer, we’ve got a Twinkie circa 1988 in our pockets, which we decide, instead of eating, to tear into small cream-filled pieces, and drop onto the earth, as an edible GPS, if you will. We’ve got to find our way of this place. But how?
I’ve been trying to come up with a culinary metaphor for emotional rollercoaster, and I’m stumped. And hindsight, instead of 20/20 vision, hurts like hell this time ‘round, but it sure has opened our eyes – and mouths and minds.
Here’s how I see it.
First, the unsavory bits:
2009 is the year….
…of many hungry people. Worldwide, the “undernourished” (consuming less than the minimum calories necessary to maintain minimum bodily functions) has topped 1 billion, the highest number in 40 years.
…Endless food safety calamities. Here are this year’s top two:
Nearly 4,000 peanut products that contained peanut butter or paste from the Peanut Corporation of America were recalled, due to a massive salmonella outbreak connected with nine deaths and 714 illnesses in 46 states. According to the US Food and Drug and Administration, which has been leading the investigation, this is one of the nation’s largest food recalls.
More than 2.5 million pounds of ground beef from several different processors were recalled (including 248, 000 pounds on Christmas Eve) for E.coli, and in three instances, salmonella contamination.
We continue to overfish the oceans (bluefin tuna is nearing extinction — literally) and, as sustainable seafood activist Casson Trenor recently put it, “we are on pace to empty the oceans of all seafood in less than forty years.”
Trenor goes on to say: “The single most powerful and meaningful thing that happened to our oceans this year is that we truly began to wake up to the truth of what we are doing to our planet. We are more aware. We are more alert. And we are much more energized and focused.”
Which leads me to the year’s more palatable bits.
2009 is the year when….
…For the first time since World War II, when Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt were running things, there is an edible garden on the White House lawn.
…And for the first time since the Thomas Jefferson administration, there is a farmer’s market within earshot (and approval) of the White House.
“One of the things that we’re trying to do now is to figure out, can we get a little farmers market—outside of the White House,’’ President Obama said at a health care forum in August. The following month, such a market launched a block away from 1600 Pennsyvlania.
….the USDA launched a “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, a $65 million program that supports small farmers and local food systems.
…when school lunch was put under the microscope. As Congress prepared to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act (it gets reauthorized every 5 years), a lively debate ensued on the financial constraints of the National School Lunch Program and the resulting quality and standards of the food that’s served to our kids.
Reauthorization has been postponed til 2010, with appropriations remaining the same for the time being, but the conversation seems to have spurred much activity, including an amendment to the Healthy Food for Healthy Schools Act, introduced by Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark) and an investigative series by USA Today about the sub-par food safety standards for meat purchased for school lunches.
…the proverbial cat was let out of the bag about industrial agriculture and the state of our food system with food documentaries such as Food Inc. and Fresh that got people talking and asking hard questions. Fresh in particular celebrates the work of alternatives to the status quo, including Will Allen, farmer/founder of Growing Power, an urban farming project in Milwaukee.
End of the Line helped to create awareness about the state of our seas, with particularly emphasis on the aforementioned endangered bluefin tuna.
And big media listened; Time magazine did a cover story about tuna and the New York Times ran a front-page story on Stephanie Smith, the 22-year-old woman left paralyzed after eating an E.coli-contaminated hamburger patty last year (which caught the attention of Larry King). On New Year’s Eve, NYT reporter Michael Moss wrote a story investigating ammonia fillers in frozen hamburger patties, an industry practice explored in Food Inc.
It has been a year of way too much shit-in-the-meat, but it has also been a year of awakening – for consumers, media, farmers and decision makers.
When the news got to be too much, we allowed our “Top Chef” friends such as Carla and Fabio to steal our attention, much like we did with the release of “Julie & Julia,” because after all, at the end of the day, food is about pleasure, right?
P.S. Thanks for your understanding for less-than-usual dispatches of late; I am in the final stretch of writing my cookbook, “Licking Your Chops,” and should be back to a more regular schedule by late January.