By Christine Sismondo
Toronto Star • Feb. 18, 2012
Formerly known for her fatty-sweet recipes, TV cooking show host Paula Deen came out as a closet diabetic last month and announced she was the new spokesperson for a diabetes drug company.
Chef, author (Kitchen Confidential) and TV personality Anthony Bourdain responded with this twitter quip: “thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later.”
You’d think you’d find Bourdain a little more sympathetic. After all, Tony quaffs back foie gras and claims that “life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living.”
But the middle ground between the two is near impossible to find, since, aside from the pork fat and organ meat, Bourdain’s must-haves are restricted to haute eaters. Deen’s indulgences, on the other hand, would be affordable to most, and certainly those who are the subject of Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.
America, apparently, eats according to a fierce class divide illustrated in both McMillan’s book, and Tovar Cerulli’s The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance, though the two approached their topic of how America eats in two very different methods.
In The American Way of Eating , McMillan went undercover and worked in the fields, grocery stores and restaurant kitchens that produce most of the country’s food in order to better understand the entire supply chain — from farm to table. And of the many things she discovered, the first and possibly most important was that almost nobody who works in the American food system can afford to eat even Paula Deen-style, let alone up to Bourdain’s standards.
As we might expect, this is most pronounced in McMillan’s sojourn to the agricultural fields of California, where she is the only American citizen, the only one with any legal rights and the only one who could really demand minimum wage. Not that she does. To get the full experience, she does piece work alongside the illegal crew, who suffer from pesticide exposure (even in the organic fields), sun stroke and repetitive stress injuries for a pittance. Based on what she earned roughing it in the fields, McMillan projects she could have cleared a cool $7,941.05 per annum —not leaving much in the budget for foie gras. McMillan finds herself barely able to afford the occasional fast food meal, while cooking a wholesome meal turns out to require more energy than she has, especially when she lives in areas known as “food vacuums,” where access to good groceries requires a commute.
This is the real cost of cheap food —sort of. McMillan’s book isn’t simply a personal account but, in addition, a good analysis of the systemic problem of food production in the United States (the hard facts are often found in the enlightening footnotes). One thing she demonstrates is that labour is actually a fairly minimal portion of the cost of food compared with the marketing and distribution. If people were paid a living wage, the price at the grocery store wouldn’t increase nearly as dramatically as most people think.
To McMillan, the issue is one of free enterprise gone amok and the solution begs us to consider serious regulation.
Meanwhile, Cerulli, took a more personal approach to the problem of how to fix the system, in his The Mindful Carnivore.
He tackles the same problem —the ethics of eating well —from another angle: self-reliance. A long-time vegetarian, Cerulli had been considering the real cost of food on the planet and the animals for most of his adult life, when he was eventually faced with a new problem: His body (in concert with his doctor) told him he had to start eating meat. Rather than strike out for Wal-Mart, though, where he might have run into McMillan stocking shelves, Vermont-based Cerulli set out to reacquaint himself with his childhood pastime —fishing. And, while he was at it, hunting as well.
But this is no Ted Nugent-like manual-cum-manifesto. Cerulli’s meditative account of this shift is filled with hesitation over how big an adjustment it is to learn to stalk, shoot, skin and clean an animal after years of tofu. Embroidered into the story is some enlightening history about the way we eat and the changing face of hunting over the years.
Of course, this is not devoid of the class divide, either. Hunting and foraging is increasingly the province of the privileged and your average urban worker at Applebee’s can’t exactly plan for a winter’s worth of venison in the freezer by going out and getting her own. And, obviously, while Bourdain would approve of Cerulli’s approach, if everyone suddenly decided to reclaim hunting as the American way of eating, we’d run out of wildlife pretty fast.
So, if we want to talk about feeding hundreds of millions of people, we inevitably have to turn back to McMillan, who concludes that farmer’s markets and local eating is a nice idea but, on the budget of a person who works in the system that delivers most of the country’s food to the table, it’s more realistically Wal-Mart, and even that’s stretching the budget.
If there is a middle ground between Deen and Bourdain, McMillan sure didn’t find it. She found, instead, people who asked why bad food was so easily accessible. And Cerulli didn’t find it, either, discovering that, instead, no matter how fulfilling it might be, eating really well is incredibly hard