Life Intrudes

I watch very little unscripted reality TV outside of the Great British Baking Show. I am too young for the Real World phenomenon and have a vivid memory of walking in while my brother and mother watched an early season of Survivor but never really watched that show. I have seen the odd episode of a lot of shows, but I generally don’t find either the contestants or the “game” compelling.

I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to watch the current season of Top Chef from the beginning, never having seen a single episode to this point. As I wrote several times, I fell in love with this show. In part, the focus on simple excellence and limited direct competition appeals to my sensibility, but I also found the judges and competitors charming — sometimes because of and sometimes in spite of the reality show editing of each episode.

Top Chef: Portland was filmed last year in a bubble and the editing gave the season an isolated quality that reminded me of the GBBO tent. The competition obviously put mental and emotional strains on the chefs, and talking about how much they missed their families were poignant vignettes at a time when travel restrictions kept many people from their families.

Striking this season was the lack of a villain. The contestants seemed to genuinely like one another, particularly by the time the show reached the back half of the season when the smaller number of chefs allowed more air time for each one.

The season finale, which aired this past Thursday, maintained this same atmosphere. The finalists chatted with one another, they each got an assistant from the last three eliminated to make their dream meal, and the all-star guest judges who had joined the bubble made them a meal on the night before judging.

Oh, and they all made incredible food.

The illusion was complete and a winner was crowned. He calls his family and shouts out the largely Latinx kitchen staff at many American restaurants.

And then real life returns.

Reports recently came out that Gabe Erales, this season’s champion, had been fired last December from the Austin restaurant Comedor where he was executive chef for repeatedly violating sexual harassment policies.

(He maintains that he had a consensual relationship with the woman and then reduced her hours because of performance issues, but the restaurant’s owner disputes this account.)

At the same time, Top Chef edited guest diner Eduardo Jordan out of the final altogether after recent allegations of unwanted touching made by fifteen women.

I genuinely enjoyed this season. I was blown away by Dawn’s Nashville Hot Fried Tofu, I want to learn to make some of Gabe’s Moles, and even when they cooked things I never could I appreciated the skills and techniques on display. I also liked that the contestants came off as likable people.

But what one sees on Top Chef — like any reality show — is a fantasy created in the editing room.

This is not to say that it was all feigned. Some aspects of personality are going to shine through, but everyone was also likely on their best behavior throughout filming, knowing that the cameras are rolling. At the same time, the artificially level playing field of a show like Top Chef is going to eliminate the power disparities that can lead to some of the most toxic behavior in restaurant industry — even taking Gabe’s story at face value, his sexual relationship was with someone whose hours he could cut. The result is that Top Chef did not face the same concerns on set that reared their heads back at the restaurant.

Production had wrapped by the time the allegations came out and they couldn’t very well edit the winner out of the show.

Top Chef is great television, but these stories break that illusion. Real life inevitably intrudes on the most idyllic scene. The food might be great, but there is a long way to go in these other areas that, ultimately, matter much more.

What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Top Chef

As much as I like food, I have never been a fan of cooking shows. Baking, yes, and shows that connect food and travel, but not cooking.

Years and years back I would occasionally watch Iron Chef and a few episodes of Beat Bobby Flay, but always I came back to the deep gulf between the food they prepared and what I ate. More than a matter of techniques, all of these shows built their dishes around an animal protein (fish or meat). While I enjoy the taste of meat, I have never enjoyed cooking it to the point that I phased it out of my home diet nearly a decade ago. The result is that the work to bridge the gulf had never seen worth the effort.

I knew of Top Chef as a cultural phenomenon. I have heard Padma Lakshmi give interviews and listened to people talk about the show, but I had never seen an episode before deciding on a whim to watch this season.

Coming in, I knew loosely what to expect. Each contestant competes in two events each week, a quick fire challenge in which the winner gains immunity for the week and/or a bonus like an advantage in the main event or money. At the end of each episode, one chef is eliminated from the show, shunting them into the Last Chance Kitchen mini-show (more on this in a minute). I also knew that Top Chef would find ways incorporate the setting (Portland, OR), albeit modified for the pandemic, and that the show has diversified its culinary standards over the course of its run.

What I didn’t know was whether I would still be left cold for the simple fact that most of dishes are far from anything I would want to make.

I could do without the corporate tie-ins and a few heavy-handed reality TV edits, but I have found Top Chef utterly delightful to watch nevertheless.

In part, I think the fact that my own cooking has matured in the past few years has put me in a better position to appreciate the skill of the contestants. They are far out of my league in terms of skill and technique — as proprietors and executive chefs, I would hope so — but I can recognize echoes of foods that I make at home now in a way that was not always true. But I was also turned off by the competition side of reality cooking shows. What I like about Great British Baking Show isn’t merely that I make some of the recipes, but the camaraderie among the contestants. They want to win, obviously, but they are also willing to help each other plate a dish rather than hide ingredients from each other. At least in this season of Top Chef I am recognizing that same atmosphere among the contestants. Yes, personalities can clash on team challenges and some chefs are cut to come across as anti-heroes, but only in the mildest of senses.

I can’t speak to the history of Top Chef, but I suspect that this was not always the case. From what I gather, the show started out with lots of contestants who were classically-trained sous chefs and challenges that required them to perfectly execute classical techniques. The result was competition with a harder edge. What I see in this season, by contrast, is a slate of executive chefs and urging from the judges to cook their food. They are still aiming for perfect execution, but what that looks like varies because of the range of food that comes to the table. Multiple chefs bring Mexican food (Maria, Gabe), one is interested in scientific approaches to food (Avishar), one whose professional training was in Japan (Shota), and another who primarily brought Sicilian flavors (Sasha). One seems to use yogurt in most of her dishes (Sara)—to name just a few. I suspect that this emphasis simultaneously makes the food more personal and intimate and reduces some of the direct competition because they are cooking from different backgrounds.

I like to say that most of my favorite podcasts are the ones where I feel like I’m hanging out with my friends chatting about whatever is going on, even if I’m not actually saying anything. I want the same sense if I’m going to be watching reality TV.

Top Chef does a lot of this work, but my favorite part has been Last Chance Kitchen.

As contestants are eliminated, they are shunted into the side competition where they can compete for a chance to return to the show. Each ten minute episode consists of a head-to-head competition that pits the previous LCK victor against the person most recently eliminated in a short challenge judged by Tom Colicchio. Winner stays on, the loser goes home. Two things make these episodes particularly engaging. First, the challenges riff on what caused chefs to get bounced from the competition. When one person served raw chicken, the next challenge requires them to serve a raw protein. When someone serves rubber chicken, they have to gamble on how many parts of a chicken they can serve. Second, though, the eliminated chefs don’t actually “go home,” but stick around in the Last Chance Kitchen, where they cheer on the two people competing. Basically, I get the sense that everyone there is rooting for everyone to make great food. They’re disappointed not to win, they’re also happy to continue to hang out.

Some of what I’m enjoying about Top Chef could be a fluke of this season given the pandemic logistics that it was produced under. The judging table this season has a lot of former contestants on it, which I gather gives the show a different feel that may or may not continue under normal circumstances. Even so, I am hooked.

Eat a Peach

David Chang’s Eat a Peach cover

David Chang is probably best known for his culinary empire Momofuku, which Wikipedia tells me includes at this point dozens of restaurants. I have only eaten at one, the dessert-themed Milk Bar in Washington DC. In Eat a Peach Chang readily admits that everything else that he does—this memoir, his cookbook, Ugly Delicious, and a dozen other endeavors—are designed to put butts in those seats. At least under normal circumstances since, like so many food establishments, Momofuku’s business has been entirely upended by COVID-19.

Eat a Peach, written with Gabe Ulla, is thus an advertisement for Momofuku that puts Chang and his theories of deliciousness front and center. Obviously, food is everywhere—Chang is a chef and his public persona on shows like Ugly Delicious filters the world through food-colored glasses as an heir to the late Tony Bourdain.

But what particularly stood out to me about this memoir is how it is a study in binaries.

Eat a Peach is divided into two parts. Its first half is a roughly linear narrative of his upbringing in a Korean-American household, his successes with golf that helped get him into Georgetown Prep and subsequent flameout of the sport, and his brief period working in finance, before finally getting to his entry into the restaurant industry. Chang readily admits that he was not good at being a chef, which makes his decision to found Momofuku in 2004 and his chance partnership with Quino Baca—the first and only employee at the Noodle Bar when it opened—even more of a radical gamble.

Chang writes about Momofuku like it is a revolutionary movement. There was a vision behind the original Noodle Bar, yes, but there was also a willingness to overhaul the entire menu when things weren’t working. The employees worked in cadres that participated in a company-wide email list with one objective: how to make their product more delicious. As the company grew and expanded, they formed new cells that oversaw Momofuku Ssām Bar and the Milk Bar.

Woven through this narrative is reflection on mental illness and depression (Chang is bipolar) that manifested in self-destructive tendencies such as drug use and overwork.

These themes come more thoroughly to the fore in the second half of Eat a Peach where Chang tells stories from a time after Momofuku and his public persona had become fixtures of the food world. Food and the restaurants still feature, but in more complicated ways.

For instance, in part one, Chang wraps the reader up in the energy and chaos of starting a restaurants—fights with critics and inspectors, problems of staffing, and the thrill of designing the most delicious menu—that captures difficulties, but also sees the enterprise with rose-colored glasses.

By contrast, Chang takes an introspective turn in part two. His ideals remain the same, but now he interrogates where his instinctive “fuck-you” attitude came from, who it is directed toward, and its relationship to his mental health. He talks about his experience with an executive coach who helped him see both how special the thing he created was and how his behavior caused those around him, including customers and staff, to live in fear of his anger. Far from leading a food revolution to bring high-end food to the masses, Chang realized that he was leading a cult. Followers were expected to give up their personal lives and commit their entire beings to the restaurant.

Ultimately, Eat a Peach is a reflection on growth—of the Momofuku empire, yes, but also personal growth in a way that I found particularly satisfying. There were times that Chang’s story resonated a bit too much (my anxiety manifests in a tendency toward overwork as well), but what elevates this memoir for me was how Chang works to de-center himself. He talks lovingly about his wife Grace, his son, and how they learned of her pregnancy the day after his close friend Tony Bourdain died. He lavishly distributes praise for Momofuku’s success. He talks endlessly about his long-standing relationship with his therapist. But more than all of that, I appreciated how Chang talks openly about his mistakes and blindspots, whether in cavalierly dismissing the chefs of California or contributing to a kitchen culture that was hostile to women, and that he acknowledges that talk only goes so far. Proof comes in the form of actions, and it is no coincidence that the cover art is meant to evoke Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus.

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I’m still making my way through a backlog of books I want to write about, including N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

Planet Taco

In the fall of 2016, a co-founder of Latinos for Trump went on MSNBC and warned:

My culture is a very dominant culture. It is imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”

The comment came in the midst of a contentious election and was meant to conjure images of a flood of immigrants from Latin America that would scare the sorts of people for whom Ron Swanson’s skepticism about ethnic food was no joke:

Ron Swanson: "I don't much go for ethnic food."
Ron Swanson, Parks and Rec 3.2, “Flu Season”

For most of the people I know, this sounded like a promise and we’re still waiting.

Jeffrey Pilcher’s book Planet Taco unfortunately predates this political context. Instead, it tackles a different, but no less contentious, issue: what even is Mexican food?

Pilcher’s argument, at its most basic, is that authentic Mexican food doesn’t exist. Or rather, that any claim to authenticity is fundamentally a political statement.

The book opens with an introduction, “A Tale of Two Tacos.” The one of those is a Mexican street taco made fresh on the spot off the beaten path in a small Sonoran city, served with beer and with some lawn chairs as a dining room. The second is a Taco Bell taco, served off a production line into pastel-colored dining facilities at about the same price point.

To ask which of these two is more authentic, Pilcher argues, is to miss the point. As much as authenticity is meant to appeal to a particular sort of identity, it also creates that identity and, ultimately, serves as a marketing buzzword. Pilcher’s core contention, therefore, is that “Mexican food” is actually a range of regional cuisines in and around the modern nation-state of Mexico. These regional dishes might have overlapping flavor profiles and some common ingredients, but they are the product of distinct historical, environmental and technological processes (including immigration) that gave rise to distinct traditions that are each as authentic as the next.

This is the sort of history that I eat up (pun intended). Pilcher punctuates each chapter with contemporary recipe cards for the recipes that he’s talking about, and covering topics as diverse as nixtamalization, the process designed to counteract the nutritional deficits of maize, to the invention of the hardshell taco and the spread of Mexican restaurants in the United States and around the world.

I will admit that I am geared to be sympathetic to Pilcher’s core arguments. While I cannot speak necessarily to the specific details of how these regional cuisines came into existence, the appreciation of the regionality of individual cuisines and lending to each of those an authenticity of their own was a welcome pushback against the impulse that identifies and canonizes a single original, using that to discredit all other comers. As Pilcher rightly points out, this impulse becomes particularly toxic when it becomes bound up with a particular national project that normalizes the group in power and is used to further marginalize everyone who dose not conform.

Naturally, things become even more complex in a country like the United States that both has “-mex” traditions and where there is a long history of people from one tradition cooking and owning restaurants that purport to serve cuisines that are not their own.

All of this to say, I really liked Planet Taco. It is an academic history book so its tone might be a little esoteric for some readers, but it also gave me a lot of food for thought, as well as a new appreciation for one of my favorite restaurants I’ve eaten at in the past couple of years.

Two summers ago my partner and I had just finished an exceedingly hot day at the Kansas City Zoo and just wanted some food before crashing into our air-conditioned hotel room and be ready for a flight the next morning. We settled on going to Ixtapa, a restaurant in a strip mall on the north side of the city (it now has a second location in Overland Park). We drove around the parking lot a couple of times to get a spot and then had to wait as they finished up an early dinner rush, but soon enough were seated and handed menus. We had barely started to look when a man—the owner, it turned out—came over to ask us if we knew what we wanted.

Guacamole, we said, as an appetizer while we looked at the menu.

I don’t know what he saw in us or what was going on in the kitchen, but he immediately responded, “No, no, no. You don’t want guacamole.”

We stole a glance at each other, but he continued “our guacamole is great, but you can get guacamole anywhere in this country. I’ll serve you.” He grabbed the menus, making some more jokes about generic Mexican food and asking what we wanted to drink.

At this point I stopped him with some dietary restrictions and preferences, which he received with perfect calm and began bringing us food. First he brought quesadillas de flor de calabaza (squash blossom quesadillas), followed by mains of enchiladas nopales (cactus) and a pork special with a raspberry chipotle sauce.

After a while we got to chatting with him and it turned out that this was his restaurant and he was immensely proud of the recipe that he put on the menu. We had managed to avoid some of his favorite dishes, I think, because I’m not wild about seafood, which was something of his speciality, or at least composes the largest single section of the menu. Sure, there the menu has basic Mexican fare, including cheese nachos, but such is the restaurant business. What made Ixtapa special were all of the dishes you can’t find at every taco joint and the clear pride he had in the cuisine of his specific region.

I love generic tacos, too, and have fond memories of finding a fabulous hole in the wall in south Houston for exactly that purpose, and one of my favorite spots in Columbia, Missouri is a Korean taco fusion joint, but each of these examples speaks exactly to the point that Pilcher makes in Planet Taco. Food is an expression of culture that is intimately and inextricably intertwined with the people who are making and consuming it. Rather than indulging in the authenticity wars that use it as a cudgel, let’s celebrate the wide range of possibilities and indulge in the deliciousness of them all.

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Book reviews had been a staple of my content here for a few years because it made for an easy writing prompt and gave me a chance to collect my thoughts on each book. One of the consequences of trying to teach during a pandemic is that I entirely got away from writing those reviews such that I wrote about fewer than a third of the books I read between September and the end of the year and none of the books I have plowed through so far in 2021. I doubt that I will get back to where I write about every book I read—I have too much other writing I need to do, not to mention teaching, and only have so much brain power these days—but in fits and starts and modified ways, I intend to get back to writing about books.

On my list to write about in the near future include: N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became; Yoon Ha Lee’s series The Machineries of Empire, and John Le Carré’s Absolute Friends, and David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach. I am currently reading Kathleen Fitzgerald’s Generous Thinking.

The Food Explorer

In the second half of the 1800s, at a time when most Americans were farmers, the Department of Agriculture was a tiny outfit mostly charged with discovering ways to make crops more resilient. David Fairchild, the child of an academic in Kansas, joined this small outfit at the same time that the United States was launching itself as an industrial power, with exhibitions such as the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. On the advice of a friend, Fairchild applied for a job at the Smithsonian for a position in Naples, resulting in two fateful encounters. First, on the voyage across the Atlantic, Fairchild met Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy and over-the-top globetrotter. Second, on a trip to Corsica, Fairchild stole cuttings from the citron tree.

These two encounters, according to Daniel Stone’s book, revolutionized the American diet. Fairchild believed that the future of American agriculture was the import of new commodities and Lathrop underwrote the creation of this new program when the US government would not because he decided that Fairchild was his preferred traveling companion. Despite its opponents, the food importation program grew both in the number of explorers scouring the globe and in the bureaucracy to manage the imports, and is responsible for a number of the most recognizable products on the produce shelves, including the navel orange and Meyer lemon.

There are a number of interesting stories at work in The Food Explorer, including about the growth of the American bureaucratic state, about the history of food and food safety, and a unique lens on the US and the world, leave alone Fairchild’s biography, but I found it an immensely frustrating book. Part of my frustration came from quirks of Stone’s writing. Some readers might be interested to learn that the walnut is technically a fruit, but I found the persistence in explaining things were fruits rather than whatever their name or common wisdom suggests about as tiresome as people reminding you that tomatoes are fruit. However, there are also a couple of more substantive complaints.

First, The Food Explorer is a book that can’t decide what it wants to be. The main arc of the book is Fairchild’s biography, which means that by the second half of the book he is no longer an explorer, but a bureaucrat overseeing the work of other explorers, including Frank Meyer, who I found more compelling than Fairchild himself. But this section also becomes mired in accounts of his courtship of and marriage to Marian Bell, the daughter of the inventor Alexander Graham, as well as Bell’s aeronautical competition with the Wright Brothers.

Such stories give a fuller picture of Fairchild’s life, but they sit awkwardly beside the frame of this as a story about the massive changes going on in American society or about the fascinating institutions that Fairchild helped create. In fact, the most iconic plants Fairchild had a hand in bringing to the US were either inedible (Washington DC’s flowering cherry trees) or not his finds (the Meyer lemon). Similarly, I was struck by the vast number of imported plants that were almost immediately supplanted or simply discarded. Fairchild and his program did change the way Americans eat in significant ways, but behind the glitz and glam of Fairchild’s life is a more compelling story about the growth of the commercial agriculture industry and the role of the federal government in both facilitating and inhibiting the import of new crops.

Second, this is a particularly American book. Stone frames the story against the backdrop of American industrial power and the story is built around the privilege of American interlopers cavalierly begging, stealing, or buying whatever they want to populate their new garden of Eden. I don’t want to pass any aspersions on Stone since he periodically offers light critiques of American ignorance, such as during a potential row between US and Japanese officials after the first batch of cherry trees had to be burned. Nevertheless, his sources are swept up in the potential of the US and the backwardness of most of the rest of the world and he is generally happy to echo their sentiments, and makes a few truly egregious gaffes along the way, such as in identifying Egypt as both “Mesopotamia” and “the birthplace of civilization.”

As noted above, there is a compelling story here and I can understand why so many people and at least one podcast I listened to raved about the book. The decision to follow Fairchild’s charmed life keeps it from getting too heavy with either discussions of institutions and business or war and death, but I closed it more more frustrated than enlightened.

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A short discussion of Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, since I am likely not going to do a full summary: The first half of the book consists of non-stop action of a fateful night when a socialist politician is assassinated after a gathering in Thessaloniki by ruffians hired by the police, who simply stand by and watch. Much stronger, in my opinion, was the second half, which explored the inquests that followed and is highly critical of political officials who seek to sweep their complicity under the rug. My failure to write this up earlier has dimmed the individual characters in my memory, but I was repeatedly struck by the resonance with contemporary political agendas.

I have also finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats and am now reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a strange and sensual novel about a group of young poets who call themselves “the visceral realists.”

Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat

My favorite random food trivia question asks which restaurant was the biggest consumer of kale until about 2013.

The answer is Pizza Hut, which used the leaves to garnish its salad bars. The idea of using a popular superfood for decoration now is unthinkable, but this small change is exemplary of a broader revolution in the American food scene. In Columbia, Missouri, my favorite bakery and cafe is around the corner from the Korean taco place and down the street from the brown-rice vegetarian restaurant. My favorite pizza shop offers the option of vegan cheese, and the local biscuit food truck offers the option of replacing bacon or sausage with tempeh. Tofu, nutritional yeast, and kale are all available in the grocery store alongside brands like Stonyfield Farm and Garden of Eatin’. In Hippie Food, Jonathan Kauffman makes the argument that many of these changes can be traced back to the counter culture of the 1960s and 1970s.

The seven chapters of Hippie Food take the reader from the communal origins of the food movement in Southern California following World War Two through the emergence of industrial food systems epitomized by, for instance, Whole Foods. Kauffman takes a lively, journalistic approach to the story, focusing in on a couple of characters that exemplify the theme of that chapter while also making nods at the wider changes taking place. The first chapter, for instance, follows Robert Bootzin (aka Gypsy Boots) , the proprietor of the Back to Nature Health Hut, and Jim Baker, whose food career began with the Aware Inn, though the latter became better known as Father Yod of the Source Family.

Kauffman emphasizes how the food of the counter culture had twin motivations: matching the larger philosophical principles of the movement and health. The prophets of the health movement took their inspiration from eastern philosophy, including pioneers of macrobiotics like George Ohsawa, who claimed his diets would cure disease by bringing balance to the body and whose advice ranged from the beneficial (whole grains, alternatives to meat like Seitan) to the potentially deadly (consume no vitamin C). Other movements, like the Tessajara Bread Book espoused the latent zen potential of baking bread.

Following these principles was not easy. At numerous points, Kauffman notes that it was easier to start a farm, a co-op or counter-culture cafe than to sustain one. Most of these initiatives were the province of the young and energetic, and even when they could attract a following, selling goods at cost––or even giving it away––had a way of interfering with paying rent, let alone employees. And yet, healthy food and organic farming matched the broader cultural concerns, particularly over chemicals, opening the door to big business.

Hippie Food is the food of my upbringing. My kitchen is stocked with rice, beans, whole grain flour, and tofu and we eat Seitan at least every couple weeks. I grew up working inventory at the local co-op. Kauffman name-checks a bakery my parents were involved in in Ann Arbor, Michigan and one of the Vermont communes he talks about was in the town where I went to high school. Beyond the personal connection, though, Kauffman spins a lively story filled with colorful characters as he supplemented the recent surge in academic interest in this history with interviews with more than a hundred people.

For as much as I loved Hippie Food, I kept coming back to one issue. Kauffman acknowledges in the introduction that his is a largely white story, offering a few explanations, including the demographic makeup of the United States at the time, the segregation and racism in areas where the back -to-the-land movements took root, and the “pervasive nostalgia” and romanticism that did not appeal to particularly African American audiences (14). I don’t dispute any of this, particularly in terms of the racial issues with regard to African Americans and found Kauffman’s explanation of how this movement went ended up going commercial compelling, but nevertheless couldn’t help but note the absence of immigrants other than the pseudo-spiritual guides of the movement. This meant that Kauffman’s central thesis about how the counter culture shaped how millions of Americans eat is undeniable, it nevertheless fell short of capturing the full extent of the diversity of the current American food scene.

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The normal course of the semester caused a slowdown in my reading, so I’m still working my way through David Gooblar’s The Missing Course, and started reading Z, Vassilis Vassilikos’ formerly-banned novel about a conspiracy to kill a left-leaning Greek politician.

Fast Food Nation

“There is nothing inevitable about the fast food nation that surrounds us –– about its marketing strategies, labor policies, and agricultural techniques, about its relentless drive for conformity and cheapness. The triumph of McDonald’s and its imitators was by no means preordained.”

“Our competitors are our friends, and our customers are our enemies” – the former president of Archer Daniels Midland

The most recognizable symbols of Americana are brand names such as McDonalds, Subway, Coca Cola, and now Starbucks. Fast Food Nation is Eric Schlosser’s classic work of investigative reportage that looks at the food and labor systems that led to the first major wave of these corporations.

Schlosser traces the fast food phenomenon to California in the 1940s and 50s where drive-in hotdog and burger joints began to pop up, catering to the newfound car culture. At the heart of these restaurants was the “Speedee” system that applied the principles of the assembly line to food service, simultaneously ensuring a consistent product across locations and reducing the need for skilled staff.

Allowing for some variation––Ray Kroc, for instance, expanded McDonalds by purchasing land for new franchisees and becoming their landlord––the model is simple: offer large quantities of tasty food to consumers at the lowest possible price point, while making a profit through a) volume and b) reducing the cost of both labor and supply. The superficially-attractive combination of taste, quantity, and cost feeds into the first, while the second is accomplished through increased efficiency, industrial supply chains, and anti-union activity.

From the point of sale, which takes up the entirety of part one, in part two, Schlosser works backward through the supply chain, profiling the conditions in the potato and meat industry in a reprise of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The common thread in Schlosser’s account is the overwhelming priority on corporate profit that pushes the speed in slaughterhouses past the point of safety for either workers or consumers.

Fast Food Nation is dated. Schlosser does not predict, for instance, the meteoric rise of pizza chains and Starbucks (admittedly, the story of coffee supply chains follows a different form of exploitation) or the local and slow food movement, and his cautionary tale about mad cow disease is more at home in the 1990s than in the 2010s. Public discussion of the industry also continued after 2001 when this was published. In 2004, the documentary Super Size Me set out to demonstrate the catastrophic health consequences of eating a McDonalds-based diet, in 2012 there was outrage surrounding “Pink Slime,” a finely processed meat product added to hamburger meat, and in 2016, The Founder dramatized Ray Kroc’s takeover of the McDonald’s franchise.

And yet, while non-historical details have changed, the broad strokes of Fast Food Nation remain relevant.

Fast food, both of the sort Schlosser profiles and of the so-called fast-casual variety, remains ubiquitous in the American foodscape. Reading about the corporate systems gave me flashbacks to the years 2009 through 2012 when I worked in Quiznos restaurants. Everything about the menu, from the recipes to prep to the script with customers was finely choreographed. The production line had four stations even though by the time I worked there we almost never had even four people working at the same time. Every station assembled food from prepared ingredients according to recipes on easy-to-follow job aids. Drinks were the largest profit item on the menu, at the time a $1.99 drink cost $.27 in paper and syrup––the credit card transaction fee was higher––and most skilled job (other than customer service) was handling the bladed tools for slicing meat, cheese, and tomatoes.

Quiznos marketed itself as a cut above fast food, with quality recipes, ingredients, and sauces, putting it in a class with the likes of Panera. In some ways this is true, but its primary competition was Subway, a fact immediately apparent in the handful of regional corporate meetings I attended. Most notably, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash (the year I graduated college, which, in part, led to this employment), Quiznos was trying to stay competitive with Subway at a time when it worried that a premium price point was driving customers away. Their solution introduced 5-dollar large sandwiches: basic subs without fancy sauces to match the Subway 5-dollar footlong.

Quiznos had already peaked by the time I worked there, beginning a decline that saw it lose more than 90% of its locations in about ten years. Cutting corners on supply and labor couldn’t compensate for discounted prices and the restaurant was no longer profitable for franchisees. Nevertheless, the fingerprints of the fast food revolution were all over the Quiznos experience, from the shiny but sterile veneer designed to draw people in while being easy to clean to the Taylorization that had inspectors time how long it took employees to make a sandwich at each station. The only things lacking were cars and the overt marketing to children.

As Fast Food Nation approaches its 20-year anniversary, I am left reflecting on how the financial crisis of 2008 might have contributed to its continuing relevance. There has been a renaissance in food culture in the past decade, with food competitions and explorations splashed across the television landscape and waves of excellent food––high class, diverse, local, ethical food–– have sprung up across the country. We don’t yet have a taco truck on every corner, but we’re inching in that direction.

Yet, it seems that the only thing that millennials are not killing is fast food, with the possible exception of McDonalds (depending on who you believe). Fast food continues to dominate the restaurant marketshare, with particular growth in pizza restaurants.

(A few years back I read an investigative feature on fast food pizza that looked at cheese consumption and how the industry’s demand for cheap tomatoes was warping the Nigerian economy, but I can’t remember which outlet had it and can’t find a link. Sorry.)

The war for which company can offer the greatest combination of taste and quantity at the lowest price…while paying workers as little as possible, rages on. Schlosser’s story details how entrepreneurial innovation can metastasize into runaway greed and remains relevant at time when fast food workers have been protesting for a living wage. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But there is also a larger point. The ubiquitous fast food restaurants that dot American highways, cities and malls are just one manifestation of the larger systems that lie behind the American diet. These corporations might have started a seismic shift in US food systems, but these same systems lie behind the American diet from readily available processed foods in stores to innumerable restaurants that all purchase from the same suppliers. In short, the US remains a fast food nation.

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I have since finished another of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunthor novels, 2017’s Trace, and have begun reading A Long Day’s Evening, a Turkish novel by Bilge Karasu. Largely set in 8th century Byzantium, the novel offers a meditation on the obligations between the individual and authority.

Going to Parts Unknown

More than once this afternoon I’ve had to wipe tears from my eyes over the death of a rich man I’ve never met. I’ve mourned the passing of celebrities before, but never to this degree, which rivals the emotional reaction I have had to family members passing.

I am, of course, reflecting on the the death of Tony Bourdain and trying to articulate why this one hit me so hard.

I have been travelling the world vicariously with him for a long time, revisiting places I’ve been fortunate enough to see myself and getting to travel to places I haven’t been able to go, whether for lack of time or money.

I was hooked by Kitchen Confidential and sucked into the craft of No Reservations. I’ve had some of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown on in the background today, including the Punjab, Sichuan, where he force-feeds eminent chef Eric Ripert spicy peppers and alcohol, Massachusetts, with its powerful look at the narcotics epidemic, and now Charleston just so that I can chuckle at the Chef’s Table music played over B-roll of a Waffle House meal being prepared. Each episode is different, but they are all approached with sincerity, curiosity, and humor, as well as an attention to the craft of film-making and even literary stylings that I find particularly appealing. The shows are approachable, but not stupid, smart but not arrogant—that is, unless you are a vegetarian watching anything but his shows on India.

Tony Bourdain reminded me that success is not something that is the sole purview of the young. Tony was not perfect, but neither did he pretend that he was.

But with rare exceptions, it isn’t so much what Bourdain produced that I have found so moving, but the outpouring of anecdotes and stories online from friends, professional acquaintances, and random people who happened to meet him once. The people who have said that Tony’s enthusiasm convinced them as picky eaters to go try something else; the people who related anecdotes about a passing conversation with him in line to get food at some food stall; his hatred of Henry Kissinger; stories about his unwillingness to tolerate people who don’t treat waitstaff with respect or for food waste or for Harvey Weinstein. Above all: the sheer number of people who posted about how his show about a place or people who were theirs, including Arabs, West Virginians, Louisianians (to name a very small few), did right by them. How this aging white Yankee from New York working for multi-million dollar companies came to their place and embraced their food, their traditions, and them in a way that allowed their stories to be told.

As many people pointed out on Twitter, Tony Bourdain pushed a product that encouraged Americans not to be afraid of the world and all that it contains. Without trivializing the Tony’s loss to his loved ones, the supreme tragedy as I see it is that this message of curiosity, openness and enthusiasm stood opposite the dominant political narrative in the United States, which has been hijacked by people who peddle fear and who exploit position of power for selfish ends. It isn’t that he was the only person carrying this standard, but a picture is worth a thousand words and Parts Unknown every week delivered warmth and humanity from some small pocket of the world .

We are fortunate there is such a catalog of Tony’s voice already available, but that doesn’t diminish the sadness at his passing at a time when the relentless cacophony from the other side threatens to drown out the basic decency that he stood for. That voice will be missed.

Plebeian Gourmet

You are a gourmet, sir, a plebeian gourmet, a peasant with taste.

What I have said is not abuse: I am merely stating the formula, the quite simple psychological formula of your simple, aesthetically quite uninteresting personality.

So Detlev Spinell writes to Anton Klöterjahn, the husband of Gabriele Klöterjahn in Thomas Mann’s short story “Tristan.” The letter and its setup are farcical; the story takes place in a sanatorium where Frau Klöterjahn is recovering and where Spinell lives. When this letter is written, Herr Klöterjahn happens to be visiting, so envelope returns straightaway to the institution and provokes an immediate confrontation that does not suit Spinell’s strengths.

The story is ethereal and sad, even in its somewhat cliched presentation of an artistic spirit that gravitates to an older style of building now reserved for sick people. Unlike the other patients, Spinell doesn’t suffer from a particular illness or defect, but he likes the decor and the solitude, though not to write for publication since his only production are of letters. On the one hand this description of a wastrel litterateur struck too close to home, but, on the other, the presentation of separate spheres is, even accounting for the date, too much a caricature.

Nevertheless, this particular passage had me laughing aloud, all the while being fixated on the term “plebeian gourmet.” It is evocative, dismissive of the man’s origins and complimentary of his taste. In general one might look at “gourmet” as applying to food, although the letter makes clear that Spinell uses the term more broadly to mean taste in all things, and, particularly, in choosing his wife. Plebeian also evokes a range of meanings: lower class, healthy and robust, of a non-aristocratic family, uneducated. These are phrases that are equally applicable in Europe or America, but in the latter the racial politics of class structure are more pronounced than in the setting of the story.

What sent me down this path was thinking what such a phrase would imply in twenty-first century America. The lack of a traditionally-titled aristocracy per se feeds into an American vision where we are all plebeian, particularly because technology has unmasked a great deal of the mystique of individuals who might have otherwise qualified. Some people have more money than others, but their foibles are exposed for the world to see, too. Some of these same technological innovations have leveled the playing field in terms of platform for people who aspire to participation in the cultural discussion and opened access to the “gourmet,” whether of clothes, essays, books, food, drink, etc. [Taste in people is something else, and I’ll leave that out since both parties have agency.] Certainly not everyone has access to the gourmet, and others choose deprivation from for reasons from philosophical to practical. In other cases, individuals of one temperament condescend those of another, for picayune reasons. The point is that, for most, “plebeian” is a baseline and the “gourmet” is an aspiration. In other words, “plebeian gourmet” is an archaic description, but not an antiquated one.

There are plenty of issues I’ve ignored here, from exploitation of labor in developing countries, to rape of the environment and the temptations of junk food. Spinell certainly sees himself (and Frau Klöterjahn, hence the tension of the story) as being better than other people on the virtue of their artistic sensibilities. The same fissures exist in the average high school, but if one were to hurl “plebeian gourmet” at another, even if actually believed, would be an affectation.

Let me confess to you, sir, that I hate you…You are the stronger man. In our struggle I have only one thing to turn against you, the sublime avenging weapon of the weak: intellect and the power of words. Today I have used this weapon. For this letter–here too let me make an honest admission–is nothing but an act of revenge; and if it contains even a single phrase that is biting and brilliant and beautiful enough to strike home, to make you aware of an alien force, to shake your robust equanimity even for one moment, then I shall exult in that discomfiture.

Taking a moment on a holiday

I like food a lot, and today is one of, if not the premier food event across the United States. Standard, not metric, tons of Turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, potato, and pumpkin pie will be made and consumed today, to go with cider and adult beverages. I like all of these things, and even have a soft spot for the traditional fare, which is sometimes derided as boring. After that preface, however, I must admit that I am not particularly fond of Thanksgiving, and not because of its historical connotations. In part, I don’t have the facilities to host and while there are some friends in town, family and other friends are scattered from coast to coast, so my interest in the day is somewhat muted. Yet have a more philosophical opposition to specific gluttonous days: rather than a single day to eat well and eat too much, would it not be better to eat well and to satiety every day? Time is precious, but good food is worth it, and my ideal is to host gatherings [see the above limitations] with more frequency.

On this Thanksgiving day, I have the added limitation of having just gotten back from a trip to Minneapolis, and am therefore laying low–cleaning, baking, and generally putting things back together. More than that, I didn’t get to spend enough time writing on this particular trip, and (in so doing) realized that what I really want to do is to spend time working on my dissertation. I also fully intend to spend Black Friday the same thing.

There is a risk that publicly acknowledging thanks on a dedicated day implies that one need not do so any other day, but I think it is still worth doing so. In the macro level, I am thankful for my health, my loved ones, including friends and family. More specifically, though, I am thankful that I still really enjoy my research and am still getting an opportunity to read and write for my job (as much as I am looking forward to getting back to teaching).

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I hope to write more here, but between job applications, dissertation, teaching, and the various protests that have taken place at the University of Missouri, it has been a busy several months.