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What is being ignored?


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Marian, thanks for being with us. With your background writing about food & nutrition, have you noted any trends, science or other food topics that are just plain ignored or missed by the mainstream media? If so, are the topics not covered because they're too complex? Not sexy enough? Not sufficiently controversial?

Chad

Chad Ward

An Edge in the Kitchen

William Morrow Cookbooks

www.chadwrites.com

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As much as I love food and its romance, I wish we did more about the down side of our food supply, its safety or lack of it, its degredation at the hands of agribusiness. Because, in the end, what happens to the larger world of food has a big impact on those of us who care deeply about food and are willing to spend the extra money and time it takes to produce it.

I wish we could do more to promote local growers, for example, doing taste tests of locally grown food compared with supermarket availability.

And I wish we had enough time and staff so that we didn't reprint press releases.

I think some of these subjects are very complex and require some background and I certainly think some of them are not particularly sexy but, you must admit, the reporters writing about mad cow right now are getting quite a ride.

Having said that, we have certainly come a long way since the days when Craig Claiborne could include canned gravy in a recipe and no one blinked an eye. We are certain more discriminating and more sophisticated.

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As much as I love food and its romance, I wish we did more about the down side of our food supply, its safety or lack of it, its degredation at the hands of agribusiness. Because, in the end, what happens to the larger world of food has a big impact on those of us who care deeply about food and are willing to spend the extra money and time it takes to produce it.

Marian, although this is hardly a revolutionary idea in 2004, I am stunned by the number of self-identified "food people" who still resist it.

But I think you have done some great work to this end -- and you know, writing for the Times is not exactly a low-impact proposition.

Thanks.

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I think some of these subjects are very complex and require some background and I certainly think some of them are not particularly sexy but, you must admit, the reporters writing about mad cow right now are getting quite a ride.

Marion, I absolutely agree with you on the importance of these issues. The only problem is that so much of the journalism centered around these issues is based on sensationalism - including that surrounding BSE. You do a good job resisting the urge to sensationalize these topics, but is there a way to get the rest of the media to do so as well, or is it simply "good business?"

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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Several people have suggested that when I wrote :"And I wish we had enough time and staff so that we didn't reprint press releases" that they thought I was referring to the New York Times. I most assuredly was not. Around here that would get you fired. I meant we food writers as a generic group, but was misunderstood by some.

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Nah, we knew what you meant.

Thanks for taking so much time with this issue. Food topics are certainly gaining greater notoriety in the mainstream press, yet there are still many issues that are oversimplified, sensationalized or simply ignored. It's great to see someone who is willing to take on those kinds of stories.

Chad

Chad Ward

An Edge in the Kitchen

William Morrow Cookbooks

www.chadwrites.com

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Thanks for taking so much time with this issue. Food topics are certainly gaining greater notoriety in the mainstream press, yet there are still many issues that are oversimplified, sensationalized or simply ignored. It's great to see someone who is willing to take on those kinds of stories.

Chad

Especially in a way that is level headed, balanced and not sensational. Thanks.

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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Ms. Burros, thanks for the Q&A.

On food, there is a lot I would like to see in the media we are not seeing:

Broadly, I would like to know what is going on. If everything seems okay, then I would like to be well enough informed to see this. If things start to drift from okay, I want to know this. If there is a big problem, then I want to know about it but very much will have wanted to have seen it coming. In what's going on, I'd like the point made clearly and supported mostly with numerical data supported with references to primary sources.

So, there are fruits, vegetables, and meats. Under fruits there are lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruit. Okay, take lemons. Tell us what's going on with lemons. What is the basic science of lemon growing, where is it done, and how is this science disseminated in the industry? Where and how do people learn the practical aspects of lemon growing and the rest of the lemon industry? What are the varieties, and how were they found? For a given variety, what are the characteristics including pros and cons? What constitutes a 'good' lemon? Where and how are lemons grown? What are the seasonal issues? What are the economics of lemon growing, e.g., in terms of a Leontief input, output model? How are the lemons stored and shipped? What is the 'supply chain' for lemons? What are the diseases of lemons and the responses to them? What are the main uses of lemons? What is the chemistry of lemons related to nutrition, flavor, preservation, synthetics? How are all these subjects changing with time, the US economy, globalization, etc.?

Then move on to limes, ....

Higher levels? Sure. Tell us about the US restaurant industry, mostly from the point of view of business. Cover topics much as for lemons.

A higher level? Sure, given several articles at lower levels to use as background, tell us what people in the US are eating. Restaurants? Frozen? Canned? Cooked at home from scratch? What? Nutrition. Cost. Preparation time. Flavor.

More broadly, get some base articles. Then, over time, do updates and reference the base articles.

Mostly what I would like to see from the general media would be such information about politics, the economies of the US and the world, business in the US and the world, and technology. Food is just a small interest, but I would like to know about food, as outlined above.

What would be the right food and wine to go with

R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

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So, there are fruits, vegetables, and meats.  Under fruits there are lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruit.  Okay, take lemons.  Tell us what's going on with lemons....

David Karp, in fact, does this kind of journalism for the Times now, albeit not as rigorously as you seem to be suggesting. Although I would appreciate that kind of rigor, I'm not sure how much sense it makes in the context of a weekly newspaper section. But the point is well-taken.

The problem that I think you are getting at here is total conceptual divorce between the production of food (agriculture -- mysterious, foreign, and dirty), and its consumption (lifestyle "choice"). One could talk of the alientaion of agricultural labor. There is of course a powerful countemovement, symbolized by Slow Food, which has penetrated the better food sections, including, of course, the Times's, more and more.

There is an article in the new American journalism review on precisely this development:

In the end, much of what passes for food writing remains "lifestyle journalism," says Warren Belasco, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who studies food issues and food media. "I see it as a handmaiden to consumer culture, helping people refine their choices, become more expert as consumers, more discriminating."

What's been sorely lacking, Belasco says, is more incisive coverage of agriculture, "which is the world's largest industry and yet virtually invisible for the most part."

[link thanks to Bruce Cole's sauté wed.]

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Ms. Burros:

Thanks. Please do pass on to your editor. But, might want to be sure he (she) is sitting down first!

badthings:

Wow! Once again eGullet rocks!

Wow! You understood, in more subtlety than I intended, and found a detailed reference. Wow!

For part of what you explain, I did have a longer first draft with some of that in there, but that material tended to be provocative, pejorative, and negative; so I removed it. Or, in my post, I tried to be positive and concentrate on what I did want and not be negative and say bad things about what I didn't want. Thumper: "If you can't say anything nice, then ...."

My explanation for Belasco's remark would be similar but a bit different:

My explanation falls under my broad theory of the media. In this theory, the media -- in the educational backgrounds and personal interests of the people, in their values, standards, and norms, and in nearly all the work they do -- is part of literature as in 'fiction'. Although mostly the stories are to be factual, the techniques and intended reactions are to be those of fiction. Or, the goal is to be the smelly bait for the advertising hook; next, the tactics are to grab people by the heart, the gut, or lower still, nearly always below the shoulders, rarely between the ears.

In this grabbing, the techniques are the same as in fiction -- communication, interpretation of human experience, emotion via vicarious experiences with personalities with passion, pathos, poignancy.

Ah, it's just a first-cut intuitive guess at a theory, something hardly beyond 'Citizen Kane': Clearly anything so simplistic, irrational, and dysfunctional would have been criticized and excoriated decades ago -- but, it's the best theory I've got for now!

So, how do we get to Belasco's remark? Well, one of the better succinct explanations of people is:

Erich Fromm, 'The Art of Loving', Harper and Row, New York, ISBN 0-06-080291-X, 1974.

where he explains that the greatest concern of people is getting security in the face of the anxiety caused by the realization that we are vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature and society. One of the best responses to is to join a group, be devoted to the group, and get support from the group.

Well, style and lifestyle are ways to make a statement about membership in such a group, ways to be better protected by having stripes like all the other zebras in the herd.

Then writing about food can emphasize elegant damask napery, redolent bouquets, rare old European wines, etc., and thus provide a feeling of security from a vicarious experience of membership in a desirable affluent group of emotionally sensitive, sympathetic, empathetic, and supportive people. I am guessing that this, then, is what Belasco called "lifestyle journalism".

Rather than say that I didn't want such stuff (Thumper), I just said "I would like to know what is going on."

I don't fully agree with Fromm: To me, there are three important sources of security he did not mention (1) money in the bank, (2) good health, and (3) knowing what's going on, and I do believe that these three are synergistic.

So, I was trying to tell 'The New York Times' that in politics, economics, business, technology and also food, from them I very much want to know what's going on.

E.g., Templeton make a killing shorting high tech stocks and then bought some bonds from Canada and Australia and did very well -- NOW we learn about it (currently in 'Forbes'). At times interest rates have been set by the Fed to be less than the rate of inflation (almost literally free money); sometimes I didn't learn about it until later. So, I want to know what's going on right along to see things coming.

Lemons? Sure: I bought a bag, used about three, and have had to throw half of the rest away as they quickly shrank covered with some huge quantity of black powder from some disease. So, I'd like to know what the heck is going on with lemons, and for such a disease not as the only focus but just as one special case. E.g., is there an effective way to preserve lemon juice? I didn't notice this disease years ago; why now?

I'd rather learn about lemons than have a vicarious experience with elegant napery while my lemons are rapidly shrinking and generating a huge cloud of black powder!

For your:

"The problem that I think you are getting at here is total conceptual divorce between the production of food (agriculture -- mysterious, foreign, and dirty), and its consumption (lifestyle 'choice')."

Right. You did see this! Again, broadly, from the news media, I just want to know what's going on. I'm no more interested in a vicarious experience, with damask napery or anything else, than I'm interested in bathing in a pig pen. Ah, gee, it would be crude and outrageous of me to imply connections between porcine scatology (PS) and English literature, and I should be ashamed, I really should be!

One reason is your:

"What's been sorely lacking, Belasco says, is more incisive coverage of agriculture, 'which is the world's largest industry and yet virtually invisible for the most part.'"

Right. It's huge, far larger and more important than damask napery! It really is "invisible", and, instead, for anything so important, I want to know what's going on. I've seen parts of it: My father in law was clearing $5000 a month raising chickens on 88 acres in Indiana in the 1950s (good money then); I have a friend that used to kill 5000 hogs a day (at times they could clear $10 a hog) in a small family owned operation. So, I tried to illustrate for Ms. Burros and her editor the huge opportunity there. One could spend six months just on lemons; nearly as long on limes; one could spend years just on the first pass for the base material and accumulate parts of an encyclopedia and, then, get a unique intellectual property franchise by continually bringing the base material up to date, and 'lifestyle' has next to nothing to do with my interest.

Maybe I should hate to be sexist, but hate it or not, it may be a man, woman thing: Somehow I have to guess that the 'male hunter' really did want to know what was going on outside his cave, what caused those tracks in the snow, what that sound was in the night, what was going on over the next several hills, how the water level and flow rates were doing in the river down the hill, etc. Sometimes he was happiest hidden in a tree in the night just observing in detail everything that was going on (that's how he got his winter coat, from the too predictable actions of one unfortunate bear). He just wanted to know what was going on. It was a compulsion related to survival from seeing both opportunities and dangers coming and taking advantage of the first and avoiding the second. As a lone hunter, he was not trying to join a herd or even impress the family back in the cave or others in a tribe; he was just trying to make it from his own efforts. He wasn't interested in vicarious anything. It's the fundamental compulsion of the curious scientist that wants to understand what's going on; ignorance, mysteries, loose ends, things that don't fit, and sudden surprises are causes of lost sleep!

And, he didn't give a weak little hollow hoot if his stripes matched those of the others in a herd!

To me, those shrunken lemons and Tempelton's bond gains were surprises; I don't like surprises and want to be well enough informed to see such things coming. For 'style', well I should remember Thumper.

What would be the right food and wine to go with

R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

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