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Tired of the Alice Waters Backlash - Are You?


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Someone said in one of the posts above that AW is touting super-expensive, farmer's market foods.

Her message to the kids in my daughter's class was certainly not that simplistic. What she told them was that AT THIS TIME locally grown organic foods are in short supply and are more expensive than they could be because there are so few producers. However, as more growers turn to organic gardening (and it does take a long time to convert the soil itself) the price will drop as it has in many areas. Competition drives the market price.

Also, she told them that there are programs to teach people how to grow vegetables in very limited areas and this includes schools.

My daughter showed me a clip from a school in central Tokyo, Japan that has established a garden on the roof of their building to provide better nutrition for the students and faculty and the impetus was generated by information provided by AW's foundation.

And in regard to the "price" of moving produce - there are programs to assist farmers to in leasing or purchasing and using alternate fuel vehicles, from recovered vegetable oils to natural gas.

Until there is universal acceptance that childhood obesity is a serious problem and one small way to help mitigate it is with improving the foods in schools, the problem will continue to escalate.

One of the things that bothered me was the fact that the same network that produced the segment on AW had, a few months ago, produced a segment that deplored the "explosion" of obesity in young children and pointed out the overwhelming availability of vending machine offerings of high-calorie snack foods and the high-fat and high-calorie offerings in school cafeterias.

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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It seems to me that much of the criticism directed towards AW has a lot to do with projection. Yes, she can come off as condescending or "out of touch". So what?

Is it because her statement about buying $4/lb. grapes comes off as a value judgment and people find that threatening? It's a factual statement nonetheless. People make choices everyday about what they want to do. They already have the information they need to live better. Whether they have the will to use that knowledge is another story altogether.

Instead of focusing on the negativity, a better use of one's time could be spent on trying to find ways to bring about the change inherent in AW's message. This doesn't mean you need to radically alter your life immediately. You can make subtle shifts in small, meaningful ways over time depending on your income and personal situation. The net effect will still be the same.

Life is short. Who has time for bad food and ill health?

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I'm not going to say that I don't think Bourdain has it in him to be hypocritical for effect.  But I'd sure like to see you post some side-by-side statements by Bourdain that "totally contradict his own printed word."

Here's the complete context what he said...

Any advice about food?

I'll tell you. Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We're all in the middle of a recession, like we're all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market.

What he wrote:

If there is even a nascent greenmarket near you, it is wise to cultivate a relationship with as many growers, farmers, vendors, and even activists as possible.  Eventually, as this movement gains strength and influence, you can tap into whole networks of production and supply - whether they achieve their goals of agrarian wonderland or not...it is hard to argue with the proposition that slow food is more often than not good food.  You don't have to switch to Birkenstocks, or save Flipper, or buy into the philosophy.  You can just buy their cheese.  Your local greenmarket vendors may currently offer only fngerling potatoes and bran muffins, but if you patronize them, encourage them, and support them, others will follow.

Is that contradictory enough?

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

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Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Not contradictory.

In the first example he is saying that Alice Waters annoys him for suggesting in the middle of a punishing recession that everyone should be buying expensive organic food at the farmer's market.

In the second example (not written in the middle of a punishing recession, I should hasten to point out) he says that greenmarket food and "slow food" is often among the very best food and that it's worth your while to cultivate these people if you're looking for the best. These two statements are, in fact, not speaking to the same point at all. Just like your apples-to-oranges attempt to position Josh Ozersky as advocating "$26 hamburgers for the masses."

Meanwhile, the full context of what he says about Waters is quite a bit more equivocal than what you have excerpted. In the full context, he acknowledges that she has a point about much of what she says. For example, he says, "I'm not crazy about our obsession with corn or ethanol and all that" and mentions his "revulsion at what we as a country have done to ourselves physically with what we've chosen to eat and our fast food culture." What makes him dislike Waters is that "there's something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic," that he's "a little uncomfortable with legislating good eating habits" and that he doesn't "know if it's time to send out special squads to close all the McDonald's" -- all of which are positions (or rather, caricatures of positions) he perceives Waters as advocating.

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I think this Salon article is really interesting.

The author challenged herself (and her husband) in response to what she calls the "elitism of ethical eating" to

eat conscientiously for a month, not just on our regular grocery allotment but on the government-defined, food-stamp minimum: $248 for two people in our hometown of New Haven, Conn. We would choose the SOLE-est products available -- that is, the sustainable, organic, local or ethical alternative. We would start from a bare pantry, shop only at places that took food stamps and could be reached on foot, and use only basic appliances. The test would mean some painful changes; gone was my husband's customary breakfast of Honey Nut Cheerios and our favorite dinner of pepperoni pizza. But it would answer that nagging question: When shopping for food, did I have to choose between my budget and my beliefs?

She ends up with $1.20 left over.

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Is this an argument, or a Monty Python sketch?

Only because you keep on putting up strawmen.

I don't see what's so hard to understand. Alice Waters has been, and continues to be very influential. Most of her ideas and philosophies are good ones. But she can seem out of touch with the realities of working people, especially in the middle of a touch recession, and she comes across as self-aggrandizing, overly pleased with herself, condescending and absolutist. This is why, despite all the great things she does and has done, she can seem so annoying.

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She ends up with $1.20 left over.

It's not hard to eat cheaply if you eat rice and beans, or a mostly vegetarian diet. From the article:

I bought a small free-range chicken for about $9 and a scant pound of local ground beef for about $6, knowing that this, along with some sustainable canned fish, was our allotment of animal flesh for four weeks.

Whether you can eat your fill of $4-a-pound grapes is another question. The point being, even though this article was contrived to support a certain conclusion, and written in the most self-serving possible manner, it doesn't demonstrate anything beyond the fact that if your only meat for a month is a chicken, a pound of ground beef and some cans of fish, you can spend the rest of your money on Alice Waters-approved foodstuffs and be fine.

It's not that working people can't afford, in the abstract, to eat organically if they too eat only a chicken, a pound of ground beef and some canned fish each month for their animal protein allotment. It's that, in order for them to afford to eat that way, they'd have to be forced to eat that way. They'd have to alter their diets radically, and most people don't want to do that. And to try to gloss that over is, to me, exactly what Bourdain is referring to when he says "there's something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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It's not that working people can't afford, in the abstract, to eat organically if they too eat only a chicken, a pound of ground beef and some canned fish each month for their animal protein allotment. It's that, in order for them to afford to eat that way, they'd have to be forced to eat that way. They'd have to alter their diets radically, and most people don't want to do that. And to try to gloss that over is, to me, exactly what Bourdain is referring to when he says "there's something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic."

First all, you keep saying "organics," which this is not just about. So stop.

Your original argument was that people can't afford to spend a lot of money on food during a recession so AW is irritating and unrealistic. Now you're saying that they don't want to "alter their diets radically" so that's why she's irritating and unrealistic. Fine, so don't listen. Your arguments against sustainable, local food still make zero sense to me. You can join the rest of the country in feeding meat raised in concrete food lots to a bunch of obese 10 year olds with diabetes. I'll spend my money on eating well.

I'm done.

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Your original argument was that people can't afford to spend a lot of money on food during a recession so AW is irritating and unrealistic.  Now you're saying that they don't want to "alter their diets radically" so that's why she's irritating and unrealistic.  Fine, so don't listen.  Your arguments against sustainable, local food still make zero sense to me.  You can join the rest of the country in feeding meat raised in concrete food lots to a bunch of obese 10 year olds with diabetes.  I'll spend my money on eating well.

I'm done.

This is a perfect example of the kind of rhetoric -- not to mention a willful failure to consider valid arguments raised against orthodoxy -- that many people find annoying about Alice Waters.

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Your original argument was that people can't afford to spend a lot of money on food during a recession so AW is irritating and unrealistic.  Now you're saying that they don't want to "alter their diets radically" so that's why she's irritating and unrealistic.  Fine, so don't listen.  Your arguments against sustainable, local food still make zero sense to me.  You can join the rest of the country in feeding meat raised in concrete food lots to a bunch of obese 10 year olds with diabetes.  I'll spend my money on eating well.

I'm done.

This is a perfect example of the kind of rhetoric -- not to mention a willful failure to consider valid arguments raised against orthodoxy -- that many people find annoying about Alice Waters.

I've thoughtfully considered your arguments, and I have rejected them. Am perfectly comfortable with you finding me annoying, as I'm sure Alice is.

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Well, certain arguments against "sustainable*, local" orthodoxy strike me as indisputable.

I believe there are plenty of good reasons to buy locally-grown food, for example, but the carbon footprint differential is what it is. Either you stick your head in the sand about the sometimes radically larger carbon footprint of the locally-grown food you buy in the greenmarket or you don't care. I fall somewhere in the middle myself: I acknowledge the fact, and I care a little. From a culinary standpoint, I appreciate the fact that locally-grown foods taste better. And I believe that there are traditions there worth preserving. But I don't fool myself by supposing that it's "better for the world" in some kind of absolute ecological sense to eat NY State lamb as opposed to New Zealand lamb. Because it isn't. If anything, it's worse to eat the NY State lamb because the carbon footprint is many times larger. This is not a matter of opinions. It's a matter of fact. So I don't see how someone who has truly "thoughtfully considered" these facts can reject this kind of criticism.

* I challenge the notion of "sustainable" altogether, although I do believe very strongly in more responsible ways of growing food.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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It's not that working people can't afford, in the abstract, to eat organically if they too eat only a chicken, a pound of ground beef and some canned fish each month for their animal protein allotment. It's that, in order for them to afford to eat that way, they'd have to be forced to eat that way. They'd have to alter their diets radically, and most people don't want to do that.

The author of the Salon article and her husband apparently don't have children, either. Don't get me wrong--I thought the article was worthwhile. But parents of kids face other issues. Do they want their kids to be the only ones hauling beans and rice in their lunchboxes, when the other kids are eating sandwiches filled with meat, cheese, or tunafish? And what happens when the other kids are eating cupcakes for lunch and their kids are eating carrot sticks? As the people on EGullet know, there's a strong social component attached to what you eat, and kids face different peer pressures compared to adults--and react to them differently, too.

Then there's something called the adolescent growth phase. My friends with teenagers notice how their kids vacuum the fridge for a few weeks, then grow an inch. These parents do the best they can, and buy healthy organic food as the budget allows, but the bottom line is, they have to fill up that fridge.

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People who don't get it should try the following experiment:

Find a couple you know with a kid. What will really be best for this experiment is if the one of the members of the couple just lost his or her job and they're worried about finances and the future.

Go over the kinds of food they prepare and eat on their food budget. Then explain that what they really should do is reduce the amount of food, eliminate most of the protein and so on, and eat mostly things like lentils and PB&J sandwiches and black beans. They should do this because they should use the same food budget to buy locally grown, organic, "sustainable" foodstuffs only.

While you're at it, be sure to mention all the times you -- a single, young, childless person with a job -- go to Momofuku and drop big bucks at PDT, and spend six dollars a dozen on organic free range eggs. They should know that you spend this money because food is important, and these places all use local, organic, sustainable products.

Then make a "greenmarket salad" for them. This should take around 45 minutes to make, involving the preparation of various farmer's market produce. In the end, top this salad with one of those expensive farmer's market eggs, which you should cook by cracking it into a ramekin and putting it into a stovetop smoker with hickory shavings. (It goes without saying that this salad will be delicious.) Explain to them that this is dinner, and that you cook like this every day. Explain to them that they need to be more like you and cook like this every day themselves, even if it means making various sacrifices to the other aspects of their lives as they struggle to make ends meet.

Then go ahead and ask them whether or not they think you're being condescending or unrealistic. Or whether they find this attitude a bit preachy and annoying.

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People who don't get it should try the following experiment:

Find a couple you know with a kid.  What will really be best for this experiment is if the one of the members of the couple just lost his or her job and they're worried about finances and the future.

Go over the kinds of food they prepare and eat on their food budget.  Then explain that what they really should do is reduce the amount of food, eliminate most of the protein and so on, and eat mostly things like lentils and PB&J sandwiches and black beans.  They should do this because they should use the same food budget to buy locally grown, organic, "sustainable" foodstuffs only.

While you're at it, be sure to mention all the times you -- a single, young, childless person with a job -- go to Momofuku and drop big bucks at PDT, and spend six dollars a dozen on organic free range eggs.  They should know that you spend this money because food is important, and these places all use local, organic, sustainable products.

Then make a "greenmarket salad" for them.  This should take around 45 minutes to make, involving the preparation of various farmer's market produce.  In the end, top this salad with one of those expensive farmer's market eggs, which you should cook by cracking it into a ramekin and putting it into a stovetop smoker with hickory shavings.  (It goes without saying that this salad will be delicious.)  Explain to them that this is dinner, and that you cook like this every day.  Explain to them that they need to be more like you and cook like this every day themselves, even if it means making various sacrifices to the other aspects of their lives as they struggle to make ends meet.

Then go ahead and ask them whether or not they think you're being condescending or unrealistic.  Or whether they find this attitude a bit preachy and annoying.

WAIT A SECOND: who's condescending?

I don't lecture my friends about what they should spend their money on. EVER. I also don't buy "locally grown, organic, "sustainable" foodstuffs only" (and I would never use the word foodstuffs) and I also never make salads with eggs on them. I also don't doubt that people are struggling in this economy. What I DO DO is read as much as I can about food and try to make educated choices about what I consume and I encourage others to do the same. What I do care about is cultivating a love of good food in children, and supporting local farms, and knowing to a certain extent where my food comes from. These are not radical notions. I'm pretty sure my first post on this thread said very clearly that I don't see eating well as an all or nothing proposition. People can make better food choices incrementally, in small steps, and where they choose. Or not at all, which seems to be the way others would have it.

Edited by daisy17 (log)
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daisy17, I'm not talking about you. I'm putting people who don't get it in the position of "playing Alice Waters to their friends."

You say that you "don't lecture [your] friends about what they should spend their money on." I believe you. I don't either. Why is it that we don't do this? Could it be that one reason we don't do it is because they would find this behavior annoying, etc? Well, you may not lecture your friends about what they should spend money on, but Alice certainly does. And this is at the heart of why some people find her attitude annoying.

Going full circle to the original reasons given for this perceived backlash is the feeling that Alice Waters is telling people that they should be spending money on expensive farmer's market foodstuffs (if you have a better word that describes meat, fish, produce, bread, etc. I am happy to use that instead) in the middle of a punishing recession. I can virtually guarantee you that this wouldn't be happening if we were in the economy of 1998 instead of 2008.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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It's too late for me to get into this argument, especially as it relates to Ms. Waters. One point I would like to make is that the more people that support quality, artisanal farms and farming the cheaper their products will become as these farms then get to benefit from what is good about scale. The more people that are able to sell their heritage breeds, the greater the market will be to sell to them. The other side of the pricing issue is that these farms and big agribusiness are not playing on the same field. big agribusiness gets a lot of support from the federal government involving pricing subsidies and supports that simply aren't there for the smaller, artisanal farmers. Don't even talk about "organics", a term that has been largely co-opted by larger agricultural entities since smaller farmers can rarely afford the high cost of organic certification despite the fact that the approach of many is ,ore pure in that regard than many a "certified" organic farm.

Perhaps not everyone can afford to buy quality farmers market produce at this time. That doesn't mean that this isn't a laudable goal and that we as a society shouldn't strive to bring wholesome, quality foods to all. One way for that to happen is for those who can afford to buy these food items to actually do so. Not only are they likely to get superior product, they will also contribute to the ability of others less fortunate to ultimately do the same.

As for the issue of "sustainability", there are clearly agricultural practices that are not "sustainable" and weaken the earth's ability to produce and there are clearly agricultural practices that allow for continued productivity. No practice will be sustainable, however, so long as human population increases and we continue to over-run our resources. The question becomes, how long before a particular system falls apart. If we all do what we can, the time for falling apart will perhaps be delayed maybe even allowing time for other solutions.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Dare I wade into this debate? The temptation to respond to earlier comments is great but I'll simply say this:

I can't stand listening to her, in any media. So I read her cookbooks instead. Skim past the lifestyle lectures and get down to the good culinary advice and recipes.


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I don't find Alice Water's annoying, but I can understand how her challenging someone's lifestyle would be annoying. I think that people are being intellectually dishonest when they say that she is annoying, because she is saying that poor people should go out and spend more money on food. She is annoying because her message makes people feel uncomfortable about their own decisions.

Certainly the message of slow food and I think Alice Waters, is that is is a Right for Everyone to have food that is good, clean, and fair. Fresh seasonal local food is hands down the best example of this type of food.

I don't think anyone, including Alice Waters, is really asking people who absolutely can't afford good local food to go out and buy it, but there are plenty of people who can make choices to buy this type of food instead of something else. These people can help start making a difference. As John says just above, if more people support farmers growing local good, clean, and fair food then the prices will come down and the methods of distribution will improve. Then everyone will be able to afford it.

And Sam, maybe I missed something earlier in this thread, and I am not all that familiar with the data about carbon footprints and food miles, but since the greater carbon footprint for local food is "not a matter of opinions. It's a matter of fact." Could you please point me in the direction of where to read about this? I imagine it has to do with inefficiency in distribution of locally grown food,which again would likely improve with further increased demand of these goods.

Mike

The Dairy Show

Special Edition 3-In The Kitchen at Momofuku Milk Bar

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It's very funny that, while this discussion is going on here,

this thread is going in another section of this site. This site: a site for people who care about what they eat. That other section, though, is rooted in an everyday reality that some here seem to be able to avoid.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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And Sam, maybe I missed something earlier in this thread, and I am not all that familiar with the data about carbon footprints and food miles, but since the greater carbon footprint for local food is "not a matter of opinions. It's a matter of fact."  Could you please point me in the direction of where to read about this?

Not Sam, but here is a link to a recent peer-reviewed article: Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2008, 42 (10) pp 3508-3513. Scroll down and click to view the full-text HTML version of the article.

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You see, on this topic Alice Waters has won, hands down, and I hope she grins tomorrow when she dons her beret.

She's stirred up controversy and smart thinking about her issues and mission. I am in no way an Alice acolyte. But however I might want to take the messenger to Chipotle for lunch and force her to eat the pretty damn good Ontario hydroponic tomato I had in my salad tonight, and try to explain the ways I can't hold to her message... I won't kill the Messenger.

This topic has expanded debate and understanding about the issues she stands for. I'll never sign up for the Alice Brigade, but her influence is undeniable and mostly sensible and positive.

Edited to add: There is no way I'd ever spend 10 bucks in a restaurant for a plum, no matter how great the plum and how high-minded its place on the menu.

Edited by maggiethecat (log)

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

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the more people that support quality, artisanal farms and farming the cheaper their products will become as these farms then get to benefit from what is good about scale. The more people that are able to sell their heritage breeds, the greater the market will be to sell to them.

Were this true, it would change the playing field here. It might even justify some of the hectoring we hear from Team Waters. But it's only true in a very limited sense. Again:

it is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production — food will always have to travel

That same statement (from McWilliams, who has been attacked ad hominem but not refuted, because most of what he says is irrefutable) has several related variants, e.g., we can't feed the world with heritage breeds, etc. -- not unless we implement authoritarian structures and force people to be mostly vegetarian.

It's true that industrial agriculture has some unfair advantages in terms of subsidies and ability to externalize some costs. But when it comes down to it, no matter how much heritage-breed product we buy, it's mathematically impossible for it to compete seriously on price with the industrial product. Quite simply, if an animal takes twice as long to reach maturity, it's going to cost more. Even if other cost savings occur (like perhaps the heritage breed is more disease resistant, or has better mothering skills) they're not going to offset that.

A good example would be Murray's. I think Murray's has achieved just about all the benefits of scale that a conscientious local farming operation can achieve. It's a fairly big operation, yet raises Certified Humane chicken without antibiotics etc. You see a whole lot of Murray's chicken around the New York area. I like Murray's and support Murray's. I think Murray's chicken tastes better. But Murray's chicken costs very nearly twice as much as the industrial chicken next to it on the rack. Maybe with an increase in scale and a change in agricultural policy we could get the differential down from 100% to, what? 80? 75 percent? Whatever the exact numbers, industrial mass agriculture is going to produce cheaper food.

In addition, can operations like Murray's be extrapolated to provide all our food of every kind? What those of us who think Alice Waters is wrong (to be clear, some find her annoying, some find her wrong, some find her both) are saying is: no. The argument "the more people that support quality, artisanal farms and farming the cheaper their products will become" only works up to a point, because at some point without the efficiency of industrial agriculture we'd run out of space, resources, etc., or we'd need to become a mostly vegetarian society, not to mention a vegetarian society where 45% of the population works on farms.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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