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  • Archive | March, 2011

    The Food Writer’s Bubble

    So, yes. Apparently a fair amount of food writers and food bloggers are now up in arms about the brouhaha between Anthony Bourdain vs. James Beard Awards vs. Eatocracy (a name which I find just shy of “(rī)¹” in terms of sheer silliness. But considering the glass house of “Accidental Hedonist”, perhaps I shouldn’t be tossing pebbles too hard.) Others are involved as well, but really? It’s difficult for me to get myself too riled up to care.

    The basic premise of the argument is this – one side believes that The James Beard Awards are little more than an excuse for wealthy patrons to mingle with up-and-coming chefs looking for quick and easy PR, and food writers looking for handouts, none of whom would know the “real” status of the food world if a book of food stamps hit them in the face. As you can guess, Bourdain represents this side.

    As far as I can tell, the other side, represented by Eatocracy, is saying “Well, yes, part of that may be true, but don’t paint everyone with the same brush.”

    There are other side arguments here, including the validity of Ruth Bourdain’s nomination in the humor category, the scuzziness of John Mariani, and the hypocrisy of Anthony Bourdain in writing his screed whilst galavanting in Italy. Most of that, as far as I am concerned, is little more than white noise.

    The part that I find humorous in all of this, is the complete lack of defense to the initial charge by Bourdain – that there are those in the food media who live in a world that is contrary to what is actually out there, and that the James Beard Awards help propagate that insular world-view.

    We see evidence of this all the time in food writing. Just the other day, on a food site that shall go nameless, a published author stated that they didn’t understand why organic foods were more expensive than most produce, that the problem was far too difficult to answer, and that we should all (well, those of us who made enough money and cared enough for our children) buy organic. The fact that we live on a planet that has to feed 7 billion people, and needs foods that have long, stable shelf lives in order to help accomplish this goal, was completely lost on this writer.

    I’ve alluded to it many times before, but let me come out and say it direct. Many of us in food media live in a bubble. Writers, chefs, marketers, and publicists, all groups have people who, when you mention food culture, majority privilege, or the effects of poverty on consumption patterns, you may as well be mentioning quantum physics or string theory.

    Is this a problem? Only if you take the food media seriously. If one believes that food media equates to journalism, then yes. This is a problem. But the majority of food writing out there isn’t journalism, not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s entertainment. For many out there, regardless of if they are writers or chefs, their goal is to titillate, not to inform. Yes, there are exceptions. But for every one of them, there are ten who are looking to, as Bourdain says, “spend their hours and days writing about ‘kicky new muffin recipes’ , ‘Pie: The Next Big Thing’ or attending launches for bottled water, restaurant openings, and anywhere they can fill their plastic lined pockets with free food and swag.”

    Most days, I feel a great sense of disdain for this ratio of 1 to 10. The reasons are personal more than professional. However, the more I think of it, the more the arguments start to sound like the type of arguments I heard in the mid-90′s. “What, you like Pearl Jam? Pfff. They’re nothing. You haven’t heard real grunge unless you saw Mother Love Bone back in the day.” If given a choice between reading another Beer-Can Cookbook versus talking to that guy? I’ll take the Beer Can Cookbook, thank you very much.

    In fact, the music analogy works for me. We food folk have the James Beard Awards, the music industry has the Grammy Awards. Both are meant more to promote as much as they are to acknowledge. And for the life of me, I can’t tell you who won in any of the categories over the past five years.

    More Food Porn: Profiteroles

    For the record? These aren’t that healthy for you either. But I would argue that they are still good for the soul.

    Coca-Cola and Their Obesity Response

    Riffing off of Marion Nestle’s recent post about Coca-Cola, marketing, and obesity, I think that it’s not a problem that Coca-Cola should be a participant in the conversation about the growing of America’s waistline. Hell, the more companies involved in such discussions, the better off we would all be.

    That being said, the Coca-Cola company, nor any corporation for that matter, should solely drive the discussion, at least not without chance of proper questions to be asked of them and their own presumed culpability in the matter.

    There in lies the dissonance. Companies like Coca-Cola don’t want a dialogue. It might put the company at risk, which in turn, puts their stock at risk, something that is a big no-no in the corporate world. It’s far, far better, from their point of view, to get in front of the debate, and lead it in the direction where questions surrounding their marketing, health claims, and pricing strategies simply do not get asked.

    The result of this is silliness such as Coke’s Live Positively website, designed to give the impression that they care about the obesity issue. Yet, if you look around this site, the one unequivocal answer to helping consumers reduce caloric intake, i.e. drink less soda, is not mentioned once.

    In fact, the opposite is true. Looking at their section on Active Healthy Living, Coke promotes guiding principles: Think, Drink, and Move. You’ll note that “Drink” comes before “Move”. You’ll also note that when clicking on the “Drink” link, it takes you to one of their many branding pages, where they boast of their “500 beverage brands inclusive of more than 3,500 beverages”, many of which are no where near what one would consider a healthy choice for consumption.

    I’ve said this before about McDonald’s, and it holds true for Coca-Cola: Creating an illusion that their products are healthy is a difficult one to maintain in the long run. When your primary product is sugar water, and you major goal for your sugar water is to have people consume it in excess, it’s difficult to hold the position that Coke’s interest is equitable to the interest of those trying to be healthy.

    It has to be a difficult position for Coke to be in. After all, they can’t just say that their products are little more than empty calories. They can’t imply that their beverages are little more than an affordable luxury item. But this is exactly what they are. They have the science to prove it. As do we.

    They know this. They just can’t say it. And when a company cannot be free to speak to the facts when engaging in dialogue, for fear of adversely affecting their stock prices, they become a dishonest broker of information in the national discussion.

    Kate’s Laws of Food

    (NOTE: Republishing, as I had actually forgotten about them, and want to revisit this idea)

    RIP Slashfood.com (2005-2011)

    It’s not a big secret that I’m not a huge fan of the more institutional food blogs out there. My reasons are varied, with most of them boiling down to the fact that due to the constant need to churn out content, they end up lacking the sense of character and personality that one gets in a personal blog.

    That being said, there are many writers out there whom I respect who happen to supplement their income by working these sites. So when I read yesterday that slashfood.com would be going away due to the content restructuring at AOL, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of sadness at the news. Having lost a job due to AOL restructuring myself back in 2001 (jeez, ten years ago!), I have a fair amount of empathy for the editorial staff and the freelancers who work hard to provide content on a daily basis. It’s a tough racket, this, and it’s never fun to lose a source of income, however marginal it may or may not be.

    That being said, I have to admit that there’s a part of me that’s thinking “I told you so!”. When one chooses to write the fourth post in a week about the flavor of the month on the Food Network in order to make somebody else money, one must understand the risks involved. These risks include everything from sacrificing one’s personal voice to working under the belief that your investors are working for your best interest.

    This is unfair, I know. The media landscape has been shifting now for over a decade and has shown no signs of settling. Add to this the recent economic environment, and choices have to be made back on the individual level, and inevitably one has to decide to do what’s best for them. Sometimes that means taking the risks mentioned in the above paragraph. When one chooses to be a food writer, this is reality that one faces, usually on an everyday basis. I’m no different. I have goals and ideas regarding food writing, but still find myself working full time for someone else. Yes, this makes me a hypocrite.

    Here’s the weird thing for me – I didn’t get this reflective when Gourmet folded up shop, even though it’s the same event, simply repeating itself in the digital world. Perhaps I felt that the Slashfoods of the world were the answer. And now? Now I’m not so sure. And in an unstable environment, questions must be asked.

    But that’s for tomorrow. Today, we remember the first institutional food blog that hit it big.

    Rest in peace Slashfood. I didn’t think of you often, and read you even less. But when I did think of you, I believed that you could change the world for us food writers. I’m truly sorry it didn’t work out that way.

    I’ll raise a glass for you tonight when I get home.

    Things I Learned Today

    Today I learned that a cup of oatmeal, one orange, a small container of yogurt, and a coffee will cost me over ten dollars at the Courtyard of Marriot. Sheesh.

    This is what I get for not going to the supermarket.

    Does Grapefruit Expedite Weight Loss?

    You’ve heard the legend. You burn more calories eating grapefruit than what the grapefruit provides. You scratch your head. “Doesn’t the grapefruit have 42 calories per 100g?” you ask. “Sure, it isn’t a lot of calories, but surely chewing foods doesn’t take up 42 calories.”

    “No, no. You’ve got it wrong,” you are told.” Grapefruit has a special chemical property which increases your metabolism. Not only does it allow you to get what is essentially calorie free nutrition from the grapefruit, it will help you out with fat burning as well.”

    You are stunned.”This surely is a miracle fruit, this grapefruit. What is this super chemical found within?”

    “Naringin. It’s a secondary plant metabolite,” is the response.

    The logic here is a bit stunning. Surely, if they were aware of the fat-burning properties, the medical community would be shouting it from rooftops. You decide to do some research. It does not take long to find your answer.

    In the April, 2006 release of the journal Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiologynd a report entitled “Naringin does not alter caffeine pharmacokinetics, energy expenditure, or cardiovascular haemodynamics in humans following caffeine consumption”.

    You smile at the title, but read on. The conclusion is fairly clear. Naringin does a lot. What it does not do is increase one’s metabolic rate to the point where caloric expenditure is significantly altered.

    You print out the report, take it to your friend, and smack them over the head with it.

    Eat fruit. Please. But please know that there are little to no miracle fruits that will burn calories faster than any other. Not unless there’s a known stimulant (such as caffeine) within.