In volume one of this collection of Culinary Modernist writings we looked at the broad contours of the terrain of CM. Here we draw our focus on an underpowered part of the discussion. What does improving our diet look like for the consumer who doesn’t want to eat like their great grandparents and how can technology and the food industry develop more sustainable, more nutritious foods for the contemporary eater?
COMESTIBLES: WE NEED BETTER FAST FOOD, JUNK FOOD, AND CONVENIENCE FOODS
TOM PHILPOTT | GRIST
In Praise of Fast Food
“ In 19th-century London, most of whose vast working class was too poor to own much cooking equipment, pie and eel shops must have been a revelation. Nothing could be faster — you order, and someone behind the counter slaps a pre-cooked meat pie, a dollop of mashed potatoes, and stewed eel in parsley broth on top. Here’s one, still operating on London’s East End, that started before Mickey D’s Ray Krok was even born — back in 1862.
My point is that fast food isn’t necessarily egregious. Indeed, I would argue that no society can claim to have a robust food culture without having a robust fast-food culture. On a trip to Austria, whose schnitzels and strudels and sacher tortes are celebrated throughout Europe, the most memorable meal I had was at an outdoor sausage stand in central Vienna. I shouldered my way among bankers in €5,000 suits and construction workers for a simple meal of sliced sausage, mustard, bread, and beer: everything simple and perfectly executed. Taken amid the grandeur of Vienna’s architecture and among the variety of its workers, it was a terrific meal. “
DAVID FREEDMAN | THE ATLANTIC
How Junk Food Can End Obesity
” In virtually every realm of human existence, we turn to technology to help us solve our problems. But even in Silicon Valley, when it comes to food and obesity, technology—or at least food-processing technology—is widely treated as if it is the problem. The solution, from this viewpoint, necessarily involves turning our back on it.
If the most-influential voices in our food culture today get their way, we will achieve a genuine food revolution. Too bad it would be one tailored to the dubious health fantasies of a small, elite minority. And too bad it would largely exclude the obese masses, who would continue to sicken and die early.
… Through its growing sway over health-conscious consumers and policy makers, the wholesome-food movement is impeding the progress of the one segment of the food world that is actually positioned to take effective, near-term steps to reverse the obesity trend: the processed-food industry. “
TOM PHILPOTT | MOTHER JONES
Why The Atlantic’s Defense of Junk Food Fails
” My more fundamental objection to Freedman’s piece is that his basic framework—we’re fatter because we’re consuming more calories, and thus calorie reduction will reverse the problem—is probably too simplistic.
… So what’s my answer to the obesity problem? I agree with Freedman that the movement to convince people to reject convenience fare in favor of “real” (i.e., minimally processed) whole foods faces steep challenges—not least of which is Big Food’s gargantuan marketing budget. I don’t object to a kinder, gentler form of corporate fast food—I would applaud the the industry if it made a serious push to ditch its old “supersize” profit model and promote less caloric foods. But the fact remains that highly processed diets have a history of ruining people’s health, and “real food” diets have the opposite track record. They may yet prove to be the best strategy we have for addressing our mounting diet-related health troubles. “
MARK BITTMAN | THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE
Yes, Healthful Fast Food Is Possible. But Edible?
“ After the success of companies like Whole Foods, and healthful (or theoretically healthful) brands like Annie’s and Kashi, there’s now a market for a fast-food chain that’s not only healthful itself, but vegetarian-friendly, sustainable and even humane. And, this being fast food: cheap. “It is significant, and I do believe it is coming from consumer desire to have choices and more balance,” says Andy Barish, a restaurant analyst at Jefferies LLC, the investment bank. “And it’s not just the coasts anymore.”
I’m not talking about token gestures, like McDonald’s fruit-and-yogurt parfait, whose calories are more than 50 percent sugar. And I don’t expect the prices to match those of Taco Bell or McDonald’s, where economies of scale and inexpensive ingredients make meals dirt cheap. What I’d like is a place that serves only good options, where you don’t have to resist the junk food to order well, and where the food is real — by which I mean dishes that generally contain few ingredients and are recognizable to everyone, not just food technologists. It’s a place where something like a black-bean burger piled with vegetables and baked sweet potato fries — and, hell, maybe even a vegan shake — is less than 10 bucks and 800 calories (and way fewer without the shake). If I could order and eat that in 15 minutes, I’d be happy, and I think a lot of others would be, too. “
TOM PHILPOTT | MOTHER JONES
I Used to Be a Snob About Fake Meat. I Was Dead Wrong.
“ Well, the falafel revolution I tried to foment has not materialized. And now, another piece by an esteemed food writer—Rowan Jacobson, author of American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields—has caused me to rethink my position.
… So why am I abandoning my opposition to fake meat? Jacobson drives home a point that’s been made before, but it’s starting to convince me:
Why turn plant proteins into burgers and dogs? Why not just eat them as peas and soybeans and seeds? To which I say: taco, chimichanga, empanada, crepe, pierogi, wonton, gyoza, stuffed roti, pupusa, pastie, pig in a blanket, croque monsieur, pastrami on rye. Culture is a lump of flesh wrapped in dough. If you want to save the world, you’d better make it convenient.
Companies like Beyond Meat will never be able to introduce pea protein powder into one end of a machine and extrude a convincing substitute for seared steak or roasted chicken from the other. But maybe they can replicate the way most people actually experience meat: As part of some heavily seasoned, hyperprocessed concoction. Brownstone’s devastating description of her experience eating that fake chicken product involved bare strips. But tweaked with “Southwest-style” seasonings, she reports, “they really did taste startlingly similar to what I remember from my pre-vegetarian days.” “
CADE METZ | WIRED
Forget GMOs. The Future of Food Is Data—Mountains of It
“ Backed by funding from Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Li Ka-Shing, perhaps the richest man in Asia, Hampton Creek isn’t out to genetically modify your food. Instead, the 63-person startup wants to reconstruct it using what nature already has given us. “There are other companies using synthetic biology and genetic engineering to create whole new food ingredients,” Zigmond says. “We are exploring the vast world of plants to discover natural compounds that can revolutionize food.”
… That begins by examining the behavior of plant proteins at the molecular level and how they interact to create not only certain tastes but textures and behaviors—whether they can duplicate, say, how an egg behaves when you whip it or how it browns when cooked in a pan. As Gregory Ziegler, a professor of food science at Penn State University, notes, others have worked on somewhat similar efforts for years. But Hampton Creek is taking a far more expansive approach. “We’re trying to be more comprehensive, more rigorous, more systematic,” Zigmond says. “No one has used data in this way before.” “
MARC BRAZEAU | FOOD AND FARM DISCUSSION LAB
Americans in Cars Eating Badly: Why We Need Better Convenience Foods
“Farmers working long, frantic hours can’t find the time to cook, never mind such foodie pastimes as pickling and canning. How can we expect our high achieving professional friends or two job juggling low income friends to find the time to do well planned grocery shopping, to cook, to do dishes, clean the kitchen and manage the composting produce in their crisper drawers?
… Convenience and fast foods are a less than ideal vehicle for increasing vegetable consumption. Frozen dinners aren’t so hard, but the central issue is grab and go foods. What I would love to see are whole grain, veggie packed ploughman’s pies; chickpea flour, veggie samosas; multigrain grilled vegetable burritos; and footlong grilled veggie sandwiches on hearty rolls. It’s not that hard to pile vegetables on a whole grain pizza and garnish it with a healthy dusting of chopped herbs and arugula. Meanwhile Bittman has pointed the way towards a pretty damn good black bean burger that sneaks some mushrooms into the mix.“
MARC BRAZEAU | FOOD AND FARM DISCUSSION LAB
Americans in Cars, Eating Badly: Scale and Scope
“Scale and scope. Consider. In 2010, Subway had 23,850 locations doing $452,000 per location for a total of $10 billion in sales. Meanwhile, in 2013 there were 8,144 farmer’s markets in the US with total sales estimated at $1 billion. Subway alone has triple the locations doing ten times the sales as farmer’s markets. And don’t forget that those 23,850 locations are open all year, seven days a week, day and night. Those 8,144 farmer’s markets are only open a few hours a week, a few months a year. Not only will an increase in Subway’s fruit and vegetable sales impact more people, it will impact those people who are less likely to actively make the changes on their own. The changes that get the food movement’s motor running like more farmer’s markets are more likely to reach the most motivated people.
Focusing on scale or scope is how a lot of people end up talking past each other. I believe the Freedman was addressing questions of scale, while Philpott was focused on scope. The food movement does a good job thinking about scope. Their weakness is in thinking about scale.“
Volume One: Opening Salvos
Volume Two: COMESTIBLES: WE NEED BETTER FAST FOOD, JUNK FOOD, AND CONVENIENCE FOODS
Volume Three: A CORRECTIVE TO [SMALL. LOCAL. ORGANIC.]
Volume Four: ON THE FARM: THE QUEST FOR BETTER
Volume Five: BIOTECH CROPS: A TOOL FOR SUSTAINABILITY