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Friday 4 April 2014



Radish Queen (Oaxaca): photo by colin, 24 December 2011

And when Barack Obama arrived at the White House, Alice immediately wrote to him. "At this moment in time, you have a unique opportunity to set the tone for how our nation should feed itself. The purity and wholesomeness of the Obama movement must be accompanied by a parallel effort in food at the most visible and symbolic place in America -- the White House."

In the sixties, most Americans ate more or less the same: bad things. Chicken à la king with a wedge of iceberg lettuce was a popular dish, while fondue made its way among the more daring. But in the new millennium, food divided Americans as rigidly as just about everything else. Some people ate better, more carefully than ever, while others got grossly overweight on processed foods. Some families, usually intact, educated, prosperous ones, made a point of sitting down together to a locally sourced, mindfully prepared dinner at home several nights a week. Others ate fast-food takeout together in the car, if at all. Alice helped make food into a political cause, but in the age of Chez Panisse, food could not help being about class. Her refusal to compromise her own standards led others to turn her revolutionary spirit on its head.

For some Americans, the local, organic movement became a righteous retreat into an ethic defined by consumer choices. The movement, and the moral pressure it brought to bear in parts of society, declared: Whatever else we can't achieve, we can always purify our bodies. The evidence lay in the fanaticism of the choices. A mother wondered aloud on a neighborhood Listserv whether it was right to let her little girl go on being friends with another girl whose mother fed them hot dogs. This woman was sanitizing herself and her daughter against contamination from a dangerous and disorderly society in which the lives and bodies of the poor presented a harsh example. Alice hated the word elitist, but these were elite choices, because a single mother working three jobs could never have the time, money and energy to bring home kale with the right pedigree, or share Alice's sublime faith in its beneficence.

Alice wanted to bring people to a better life, but she had trouble understanding that the immediate comfort of a walking taco might be exactly what a twelve-year-old wanted. When she heard the criticism, she turned away, to the radishes and flowers. Anyone who was passionate enough about organic strawberries, she believed, could afford to buy them. "We make decisions every day about what we're going to eat. And some people want to buy Nike shoes -- two pairs! -- and other people want to buy Bronx grapes, and nourish themselves. I pay a little extra, but this is what I want to do."

George Packer: from Radish Queen: Alice Waters, in The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013)

Chez Panisse menu: photo by Misty Smith, 3 January 2012

Heirloom Tomatoes: photo by Amy, 16 August 2013

I think it’s become almost a form of class prejudice. This hysteria that people in my class have about what they eat, and what they allow their children to eat -- it’s almost as if they’re afraid that the world out there is going to contaminate their family. It also feels a little bit defeatist for that much effort to go into heirloom tomatoes. Since we can’t solve any other problems at least we can keep our bodies purified.

George Packer, author of The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013), from an interview by Dan Oppenheimer in Salon, 26 May 2013

Nike Air Force III: photo by Edgar Alejandro Romo Magdalena, 21 December 2010

2525 -- design by Gerardo Rodriguez (grodz): photo by Raul Lopez Mestres (rOlo). 3 November 2010

CREATIVELY -- design by Gerardo Rodriguez (grodz): photo by Raul Lopez Mestres (rOlo). 3 November 2010

JUST DID -- design by Gerardo Rodriguez (grodz): photo by Raul Lopez Mestres (rOlo). 3 November 2010

Last week's menu -- Chez Panisse, Berkeley:
photo by dogenfrost, 2 February 2014

Aparatif: Kir. A pre-dinner aperitif is served for each dinner as part of the Friday and Saturday Chez Panisse menus: photo by ulterior epicure, 9 June 2006

Chez Panisse Café: photo by _e.t, 7 July 2007

Chez Panisse -- Vino. That bottle of wine :). At Chez Panisse: photo by Your Hauness, 25 September 2009

Chez Panisse -- Glass Cup! So cute! They have their own glass cups for water!: photo by Your Hauness, 25 September 2009

At Chez Panisse -- With the check! Chocolate-dipped tangerines, and an Italian cookie (forgot the name :(): photo by Your Hauness, 25 September 2009

Busker and missionaries, Downtown Berkeley BART station: photo by dgollub, 27 February 2014

Busker with homemade drum kit, Center Street at Shattuck Avenue outside Downtown Berkeley BART station: photo by dgollub, 20 February 2014


Poet Red Shuttleworth said...

Who was it who wrote that luxury is a form of obscenity?

TC said...

Red, can it have been that famous food critic who suffered a fit of temporary insanity after overindulging on the chocolate-covered kaleidoscope greens, and had his mouth taped shut as a form of penance?

Emergency vehicles double-park outside the joint, jockeying for position with the stretched limos. One evening some years back I saw a portly, dazed diner taken out into a waiting ambulance. Asked one of the first-responders what was up. "Oh, the guy just ate and drank too much. He's taking a breather."

A triumphal celebration at the cathedral of food

For another cultural perspective on "eating as a sacred activity": V.S. Naipaul quoting a Bangalore Brahmin (from India: A Million Mutinies Now, 1990):

"In the older society, you would keep your purity both genetically and externally. You would only marry certain people, and you wouldn't have contacts beyond a certain point with people of a lower caste. You wouldn't be able to eat food cooked by someone of a lower caste. Eating was considered a sacred activity. Food was looked upon as a sacrifice to the gastric juices. There were rigid prescriptions about the time you could eat, in what direction you faced while eating, who served, and how much you ate. Food was dissected to the last detail. Different classes of people ate different amounts. For instance, in the scriptures it is prescribed that for intellectuals doing very little physical work the right amount of food would be the rice cooked from a handful of rice grains held in the fist."

Hazen said...

Schopenhauer said that ‘wealth is like sea water, the more you drink the thirstier you get’.

Forty-six million Americans live in poverty today.

Curtis Faville said...

Marlon Brando, on being interviewed by Connie Chung--he was about 300 pounds at this point--

"I've been fat before, and I'll be thin again."

Maybe he got thin before he died, but I doubt it.

Food is a complicated subject, and not to be simplified as a contest between those who like to indulge in the most effete elaborations, and those who can't afford anything, not even a shirt on their back(s), much less a square meal.

It is possible, on a modest income, to eat a very healthy diet. But most people don't want to do this.

Is Chez Panisse a symbol of the decadence of those who eat there? Probably, but it's a cheap shot to characterize all "comfortable" or "fancy" eating as a symptom of economic imbalance.

The Paris Review now sells for $20 an issue on the newsstand. Are there any newsstands anymore? I haven't noticed any lately. Could you afford to get a round meal for $20? Probably.

The government tells us the cost of living isn't rising much at all. It's a lie, of course.

The American middle class is shrinking, and with it, the lower classes as well.

We all have our prescriptions for a cure. I'd like to see incentives for domestic employment, and severe penalties for sending investment capital abroad. But the corporations will see to it that those things don't happen.

These are political issues. Food is a political issue, too, of course. I've been thin before, and I'll be fat again. In the meantime, let's bitch about the world's problems. It's a favorite pastime.

ACravan said...

It's funny (to me) the way the Chez Panisse single meal menu looks kind of rational and in control in comparison to the "week of" menu, which really is nausea and headache inducing. I'm not certain that purity is the issue (and I know that heirloom tomatoes are not the enemy), but the fetishism on display is disturbing and offensive. Still, what bothered me most along these lines recently occurred during the government shutdown last October when the White House let the Alice Waters inspired and curated White House organic Kitchen Garden waste away and go to seed because no National Park Service gardeners were there to harvest the produce and the White House’s residents and non-furloughed staff couldn’t bestir themselves not to let the “artichoke, okra, sweet potatoes, lettuces, squash, tomatoes, peppers, kale, carrots, rhutabaga, garlic, cabbage, exotic herbs, Swiss chard, collard and mustard greens, spinach, garlic, turnips, jalapeno and chili peppers” die on the vine, go to seed and be wasted. (For what it's worth, it's said that the squirrels and a fox moved in and had a field day.) It was such an odd event and I was really surprised that there were no enterprising adults or even schoolchildren who wouldn’t take on the pleasurable chore of gathering and distributing the food on a volunteer basis. I’m sorry that Alice Waters, a talented woman in her field, has become such an obnoxious and annoying public figure. Curtis

TC said...


Thanks for that reminder. It's a fact. Though of course not a fact that would be of much interest to your average foodie.

Thanks (I guess), Curtis Faville.

"...and not to be simplified as a contest..."

Always good to be advised.

"'s a cheapshot to characterize all 'comfortable' or 'fancy' eating as a symptom of economic imbalance..."

"... I've been thin before, and I'll be fat again. In the meantime, let's bitch about the world's problems..."

"It is possible, on a modest income, to eat a very healthy diet. But most people don't want to do this."

Well, actually many people on a modest income live in neighborhoods where there are no upscale pure-food markets, and as a matter of fact there are actually many people on a modest income who don't have cars in which to transport their organic groceries, even if they were able to afford them (dream on).

What most of those latter people would want, most other people -- that is, people "of means" -- couldn't care less about. So how could anyone expect them to know?


Curtis the Second,

"...a talented woman in her field..."

I would take that to be the great battlefield of the class struggle, in which those who have found a useful instrument of self-enrichment -- in this case, food -- continue to deploy it to keep themselves comfortably afloat... while at the same time keeping the poor well away from the lifeboat.

You know, with their Nikes and all.

Ed Baker said...

just back from the grocery...
went for bananas...

the hard, green ones with not a black blemish on them where sixty-nine cents a pond.... hard-as-a-rock !

on a tray nearby several bags of perfectly ripened bananas... a little spotty... soft and sweet and tasty...

takes time and energy and "smarts" to get beyond all of the propaganda (about everything) and use and prepare things (especially food) from 'scratch'

for instance... take chicken... at this same grocery
two bone-less, skin-less chicken breasts were ON SALE @ $2.99 per lb.... which made it $3.27


around the corner, at the Hispanic Grocery got an ENTIRE chicken
with about the same size breast-parts for $3.50

so.. knowing how to cut-up and skin a chicken
I got the two breasts, two legs & thighs and "stuff" for an huge pot os chicken soup

the other thing about food prep... ever notice that guy on tv from N'Orleans... the big fat guy who can't stand up... cooks sitting down ? He lost over 125 lbs and is STILL 100 lbs over weight ...

if you want to learn how NOT to eat watch him, and Emirl and Paula... and whatever they cook... don't

TC said...

Thanks for that, Ed -- the voice of what I suppose the author of this text (a New Yorker feature writer, by the way, and you can imagine what a New Yorker expense account will do for your gourmandise), calls "people in my class" -- though of course he means his, not yours and mine.

Curtis Faville said...


I may be hopelessly benighted, but I believe that no one actually dies of hunger in America. Many are hungry, and many eat an inadequate diet, but our social safety-net does work, and people don't literally lie dying in the street the way they still do in some parts of the so-called "third world" (i.e., India).

Living in a relatively prosperous part of the world, as we do, the immediate evidence of economic hardship might seem harder to find, but it isn't. I wonder what proportion of the population of Alameda and Contra Costa counties is officially "below the poverty line"?

Volunteerism is a good thing. I've done some. It's a concrete thing, as opposed to just grumbling.

TC said...

Curtis the First,

I've had all too much acquaintance with people who've landed in that famous "safety net" -- and just kept right on falling. Until they hit real concrete.

Ed Baker said...

speaking of those who have "fallen through the safety net"
according to our Trusty Government's number-crunchers who can really count fast.... and accurately

of the 7 million people, cats, dogs, squirrels, & rats
who have dined up for this new insurance boondoggle

of those 7 million .. 3 million have signed up for Medicaid ...

hard enough finding a doctor/health care that will take "new" Medicare patients, much less those on Medicaid

only place to go ? the nearest emergency room.... they have to take patients.... and all of the hospitals have great food in their cafeterias....

catered by the lowest food-vendor bidder.

Ed Baker said...

OPPPS... forgot my source:

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...


Here we are, trying
Our best to save

Future generations
From being pummeled

By inferior tomatoes.

TC said...

Ed, all painfully true, though to the list of illusions ought to be added the illusion that you'll be helped in the emergency room. Unless, that is, you consider it helpful to be waiting for nine hours behind the 129 emergency cases ahead of you.

At the County Hospital in Oakland, at least they come right out and call it the Triage Unit.


And a hard fate that would be, almost as bad as being crushed by a ton of day-old butternut squash.

(The not so funny part, or better to say one among the several not so funny parts, of this equation, is the fact that every night tons of perfectly edible pure and not-so-pure food from the markets and eateries of the so-called Gourmet Gulch are loaded into bins to be "compacted", and often then hid away behind chain-link fences, to keep the dumpster divers from getting at them. Of course, those dumpster divers aren't REALLY hungry, they're merely pretending.)

Barry Taylor said...

Dungeness crab fritters with Cecilia Chiang's three-shredded salad -

This is a brilliant post - I'm bowled over by the images. Particularly loving those delicious trainers. The discussion powerfully draws out the inescapable politics of food, which can only become more sharply visible as global warming advances. My only regret is that the Roland Barthes of Mythologies can't be here to subject the prose of this class of menu to a blast of withering rhetorical analysis (I'm thinking of his essay there on Cordon Bleu). How he'd have savoured the air of arcane, alchemical precision in that 'three-shredded', or the way that the meaningless specificity of 'Dungeness' crab offers the diner a fantasy of earthy localist authenticity, of having shaken the briny hand of the old Kent seadog who wrestled the little blighter to shore. The shakiness of the self that seeks social and existential validation from a choice of dessert. Or these days, from the photo of his dessert he posts on Facebook.

Really tasty - thanks Tom.

Mose23 said...

The relationship between food and class is fascinating.

We should all bear in mind our bodies are temples.

TC said...

Mark E. Smith, a prophet of perhaps even greater vision than the Radish Queen (dare one say it), also believes in local organic sourcing. Taking a song title from the back of a Kellogg's Cornflakes packet makes for a lovely recycling model.

Barry, that glass-box menu posted out front is routinely crowded-about by gaping seekers whose ultimate ambition is one day to be able to afford the Monday "cheap" night -- that is, the one night of the week when, for about the amount a plausible family in Latin America (that remote place whence come all the "illegals", here, that is, the servant classes) would be expected to spend on food in an average week, you might actually be able to sit down and sip from one of those unique branded house water cups.

The more fortunate visitors -- the major celebs, the expense account types, the Japanese tourists battling for snapshot space in the hallowed doorway, et al. -- are allowed to pass through the antechamber to become temporary accessories in what the owner of the joint has often described as her long love affair with food.

You're dead right, Barry, the outright snobbism in the insistent foregrounding of the branded food sources is a brilliant exposition of the incurable vulgarity of the American moneyed classes.

But some things do matter, to a foodie.

You're going to want your prosciutto conveyed by carrier pigeon from La Quercia, your shrimp hoisted fresh out of the Gulf, your lettuces plucked wet and dripping from Lee Ann's garden, your scallops still tangy with the salty savour of Nantucket Bay, your grilled lamb raised to become part of you on not just ANY ranch, your artichokes 100% Jerusalemic thanks very much, your pan-roasted black cod hauled up from the deeps by the heroic mariners of Bolinas, your lemons squeezed out of Meyer, your quail flushed from the the hidden coverts of Wolfe Ranch, your radicchio spiked with the unforgettable smoky bouquet of Castelfranco, the puntarelle on your Yellowtail jack carpaccio sprinkled through a fine mesh of gold cloth by the quaint dwarves of Chino Ranch, your spit-roasted pork loin torn from the haunch of a formerly living animal at Becker Lane Farm, your life-long noodle soup washed down by a hearty flagon of matchless Shaoxing wine, your bok choy totally Cannard Farm, your beef loin cut from the haunch of a peaceable ruminant at Stemple Ranch -- and not to forget, here comes that crowning thimble-size portion of apple millefoglie -- so tasty, who would wish to spoil the moment -- Pink Lady, naturellement!' The sheer delirium!

And of course this is not even to begin to speak of those Dungeness crab fritters, O the desecration! -- or the Cecelia Chang three-shredded salad. Cecelia will come down to the shop in person with her fourth shredder, the Charlotte Corday fine-point model, and dice up those greens for you personally, if you are the head of state of a nation of sufficient gross national product, so long as its communications are effectively monitored by "our" government. One can never be too safe.

TC said...

Which reminds me, unfortunately...

This whole grotesque circus of ostentatious consumption has brought with it some curious secondary comedy, over the years. The saddest, and this really wasn't in any way comic at all, was the time the police, who protect that charmed block as though it were a sort of private principality, an appointed citadel of privilege (did I say "as though"?), responding to an anxious call about a big cat seen lurking, came out armed and firing, and soon enough, a large, beautiful female mountain lion lay dead behind someone's house a block away from the restaurant, its body full of lead.

Not that that mountain lion was any more or less fortunate than any of those other animals sacrificed in the ongoing rites at this great Temple of Food. The body (perhaps the social body as well?) is indeed a temple, by some ways of thinking anyhow. But, the karma -- just saying. If the body of a human is a temple, why not also the body of a cow, or a pig, or a lamb, or a mountain lion?

Memorial for Majesty

Ed Baker said...

the pastry chef at the White House quit last week...

Seems like he was told by Mrs. Obama to stop using
butter, eggs, sugar and lard in the making of, especially, French Pastries

the substitutes for those now banned ingredients far worse for one's health than what they are replacing...

off to Mickie D's for an Egg McMuffin Death Breakfast !

Curtis Faville said...

Expensive restaurants are selling illusions, as well as good food.

And, of course, much of it ISN'T healthy, either.

Could Alice Waters exist as the purveyor of reasonably priced healthy food? Certainly not. The air of social exclusiveness is clearly a crucial component of her enterprise.

Your mimicry of the poetic fake exoticism of the foodie language is brilliant. But the illusion is the whole point. No dinner could be worth $175, and anyone who would pay this is buying into an illusion, that they are somehow participating in a privilege that passes for aspiration and attainment, but which you read as complacence.

I guess I'd be interested to know what your recipe would be to rectify this complacence. The rich, like the poor, are always with us. They are repugnant in some of their recreations. In a capitalist society, this is slavishly remarked as fulfillment. There are some well-known poets and artists who dine at Chez Panisse. Woe be to him who would mention them by name.

I've eaten at the cafe upstairs on occasion, so this may disqualify me from the discussion. I'm always amused at the look on the maitre'd's face when I present myself for seating. "Who the Hell do you think you are?" is always the sentiment that comes immediately to mind.

The cost of a lunch for two at the Chez Panisse Cafe is probably about what it costs a family of three to attend a Giants game at Pac Bell Park, when you add in refreshments and parking. Someone has to pay Tim Lincecum's salary.

Curtis Faville said...

Often, when I'm on the road, the best breakfast will be a McMuffin, orange juice, and a cup of very bad coffee. Unless you really bite the bullet and pick up a month-old yogurt cup at a local convenience store.

TC said...


Couldn't agree more about the illusion being both the occasion and the commodity, in this case.

A fantasy recipe to cure the complacence of the moneyed classes (as you've asked) might be for them to immediately divest themselves of all their material assets, and "hit the road", à la Sullivan's Travels.

(Though this variation on the theme does also come to mind.)

Curtis Faville said...

Re: The mountain lion incident - -

It reminds me of my old post on the tiger at the San Francisco Zoo, which was "put down" after she leaped from its cage to attack her taunters--who later, of course, successfully sued the city for damages--here--