Monday, June 01, 2009

Nikes and lentils

The thread following Mark Bittman's post about how rice and beans is a cheaper meal than fast food hits the predictable points: Some commenters ask (in a reliably insensitive tone) why the poor are said not to be able to purchase good food, when they can afford beer/cigarettes/Nikes/babies/lottery tickets/acrylic nails. Others enter into an authenticity contest centered around what poverty really means, with an interest less in sorting out whether it's actually a problem that Americans are overweight and eat junk, and if so, what to do about it; than in declaring as many people as possible out-of-touch trust-fund brats.

The question of who 'counts' as poor for the purposes of the Great Food Debate is nevertheless worth having, even if the posturing it inevitably elicits is tiresome. 'Poor' in this context, some point out, is not about a temporary lack of funds - a college student who's 'broke' the day before his parents transfer him his allowance, a recent college grad with a low-paid but educational or do-gooder job, these are not The Poor. In a sort of intermediary category would be, say, over-educated adjuncts subsisting on poverty wages, living in crummy neighborhoods, without family money, but with class aspirations or what-have-you. As would be those recent immigrant families, however poor and however uneducated the parents, whose children are on a path towards middle-class status, and whose eating habits have not yet been Americanized, and whose children can thus skip relatively quickly from 'traditional' meals to Whole Foods, with maybe a brief period of McDonalds consumption during high school.

Then at last there are the 'real' poor, the unambiguous cases, and it's in discussing this set that the discussion heads towards either the patronizing, the offensive, or both. If the issue was simply, 'how does one eat well for not much money?', the answer would be easy enough: lots of pasta, lentils, oatmeal, etc., with much smaller amounts of more expensive, perhaps more difficult to acquire, foods - not caviar, but, say, $13/lb. cheese, fresh or frozen berries, etc., without which the bulk foods can start to feel a bit like they belong in a farm animal's trough.

But the question is clearly not whether it is possible to feed one's self on very little money, but what the Alice Waters-ite should do when she sees a 400-pound mother on the subway feeding her kids, who are also overweight, cans of Pringles and non-diet Coke. What's at stake has something to do with money, health, and the environment, but it's just as much about class, race, aesthetic preferences, and liberal guilt at judging Them.

Every generation since god knows when has had it's Poor People's Health and Hygiene dilemmas, in which poverty is conflated with unhealthiness. With real-versus-fast-foods as with previous incarnations of this discussion, part of what's going on has to do with actual health, as in, illness-prevention and lifespan-extension, or, for this generation, the health of the environment, but another, tough-to-separate part is about what happens to be trendy at any given time in the upper classes. Local-seasonal is now a trend. Thinness beyond what's necessary for health is now a trend. The visceral response of the Waters-ite to her fellow subway riders might be an altruistic concern for the obesity-related illnesses the mother and children might face and for the carbon footprint of Pringles production, or it could be an 'ick' reaction to rolls of fat and artificial ranch flavoring. But it's most likely a bit of both, although people do tend to fall into categories of tactless or patronizing, so it will be tough to find the same person admitting to both responses.

It can feel as if there's no way to address health (and environmental) concerns without risking the external, snobbish factors from at least seeming present. And there would certainly be no way for the Waters-ite to intervene at that moment, on the subway, without being an ass. It would help if the Waters-ites were to recognize that it's patronizing to say, 'Now, now, that's just what They eat, we shouldn't judge,' but that it's also patronizing to suggest that anyone who's spent money on any luxury (in Waters's own example, Nike sneakers) rather than local-seasonal-organic farmers-market produce is a fool.

On a similar note, while it would be insane to begrudge the Obamas a fancy night-on-the-town in New York, or a night off, period,I cringed when I read about their clearly-symbolic choice of a restaurant specializing in local-seasonal foods... after arriving in the city via an airplane and a helicopter. I get that there are huge security concerns, and that this is kind of an Al Gore-riding-airplanes-during-'An Inconvenient Truth' scenario - the positive of getting the word out could exceed the carbon footprint of doing so - but the evening's much-publicized itinerary risks reinforcing the belief that local-seasonal is something for the exceptionally privileged, that consuming food from local farms is somehow tied up with what would be, for anyone but the Obamas, extravagance.

So, after heaps of my locally-grown cynicism, I'll end on a positive note: Today I saw a group of schoolkids - racially diverse ('diverse' as in 'not all one race', not as a euphemism for every-last-one-was-black) - getting a tour of the Union Square Greenmarket, learning about what grows near New York, what's in season, etc. It looked like much more fun than any of my own school trips (with the exception of the 9th grade trip to a Hindu temple in Queens), was far more health-promoting than staying inside to watch some Lifetime-esque film about eating disorders, and was an introduction to a major NYC institution that probably some students already knew and others did not, and inasmuch was no more or less patronizing than a field trip to, say, the Met. So, uh, more stuff like that, please.


PG said...

"their clearly-symbolic choice of a restaurant specializing in local-seasonal foods"

I picked Blue Hill for my passed-the-bar celebration dinner because it was late spring and I thought there would be really good food then, making the cost worthwhile (there was and it was). Was the choice of an August Wilson play also clearly-symbolic, or might it have been something that had gotten excellent review that the Obamas just wanted to try?

Also, I imagine people who were trying to use the LIE or BQE Saturday evening were grateful that the Obamas took a helicopter to Lower Manhattan instead of driving in from JFK and mucking up traffic the day before the Israel parade, when the cops already needed to be getting barriers set for 5th Ave.

Phoebe said...


I'm a bit confused by your overall critique here. First you're suggesting that their choice in restaurant wasn't symbolic, then you go on to defend their use of a helicopter - presumably if carbon-footprint symbolism weren't at stake, the helicopter or not would be irrelevant. But the individual critiques I think I understand, so...

"I picked Blue Hill for my passed-the-bar celebration dinner because it was late spring and I thought there would be really good food then"

You do use a pseudonym, but I'm assuming your every action is not reported in the national and international press, and that you will not be seeking reelection in 2012. The Obamas just got done planting a local-seasonal-etc. garden, very symbolically. Does intentional symbolism mean they don't also happen to like local-seasonal? No, for all I know, this would be their preference as ordinary citizens, which is not unlikely for two professionals, politicians or otherwise. But when you're president, particularly a first-term president, you know you're being watched, and, if you have the personality to be in that situation in the first place, you probably just go with it, and, when in public, act, whenever possible, in ways consistent with how you want to be seen.

"Also, I imagine people who were trying to use the LIE or BQE Saturday evening were grateful that the Obamas took a helicopter to Lower Manhattan instead of driving in from JFK and mucking up traffic the day before the Israel parade, when the cops already needed to be getting barriers set for 5th Ave."

Did their date night have to coincide with a major parade? No, although that is sort of irrelevant - I've lived in NYC long enough to know what a disruption it is when important people show up, by car or otherwise, and agree with you that the closest such people (popes, presidents, etc.) come to teleporting in and out, the better. But I conceded in my post that the Obamas are not 'regular folks', even regular rich folks, and that they are, given their situation, excused from taking the Megabus. My issue wasn't with their date as such, so much as with the message it sends to juxtapose 'jetting off to different city' and 'local, seasonal food', in terms of environmentalism, sort of, but primarily in terms of the level of extravagance this would suggest in anyone not named Obama.

PG said...

No, my critique was of the point you made that "the positive of getting the word out could exceed the carbon footprint of doing so." I don't think any Truth, convenient or inconvenient, was being gotten out here; I think the Obamas wanted to see a Broadway show while causing the minimal amount of disruption for NYC (I am betting especially after the disaster of the Air Force One flyover that this trip got coordinated between local government and the White House). Also, the helicopter seems to be getting attacked by the GOP less as a carbon footprint thing and more as "Elites! bad!" thing.

And if the Obamas are committed to a local seasonal food message based on their publicized dining choices, Obama needs to stop hitting the D.C. burger joints, which are not Alice Waters approved. That's been getting a ton of hype and attention in Washington, and is a Very Bad Message For The Children. On the other hand, if the Obamas may dine out based on what they'd like to eat, whatever kind of message is sent by it is our problem and not theirs. It just seems unjust to read all these elaborate justifications into their behavior that may not actually exist.

Or maybe I'm naive not to think that someone in the White House ran a cost-benefit analysis of "sending message about super-pricey local seasonal food" plus "support art about black folks" minus "using huge polluting jet and helicopter." And also calculated it on those hamburger runs: "showing president is regular guy" minus "sending message that burgers are tasty for Obama too."

I'm just grateful that Michelle Obama is sane enough to recognize that when we seem to be talking about her, we're actually talking about ourselves.

But if you're comfortable in the choice and it resonates with you, then all that other stuff ... it's just conversation. People have the right to have conversations. [...] You know how I looked at ... those conversations had nothing to do with me. Those conversations had to do with how oftentimes, I think, women feel ... which are legitimate.

Phoebe said...


"Also, the helicopter seems to be getting attacked by the GOP less as a carbon footprint thing and more as "Elites! bad!" thing."

Right. I tried to be clear in my post that that was not my critique - that he's the president, so what would be elite or extravagant for someone else could well be, for him, the most convenient.

But, I'll certainly agree to disagree with your take on the symbolism of the choice of a local-seasonal restaurant, and of public behavior of presidents generally. (Does every last thing they do have Meaning? No. But they just planted this garden. Maybe what I think is about the Obamas is really about myself, as per the Michelle Obama quote, but I'm not sure what the angle is on that one.)

Anyway, I could be way off re: the symbolism, but I just hope that sidenote didn't detract too much from the main points of my post, which have nothing directly to do with the Obama's dining habits.

Matt said...

Maybe they thought, "man, local seasonal food is really good. We like that stuff, and we'd like to have some of it there, too." My understanding is that it's questionable whether such food is always, or even usually, lower in "carbon impact", but it does usually taste better and I enjoy meeting the people who grow it. That's good enough for me and explains why I eat it when I can. I'd not be surprised if it were at least part of the reason here, too.

Phoebe said...

OK, how about I concede the Obamas-are-innocent-of-self-conscious-self-promotion-at-least-in-this-instance point, even if I remain somewhat unconvinced? While I think it is an interesting question in its own right, the deliberate attempts to act symbolically on the part of politicians really wasn't the main point of this post.

PG said...

The garden was planted over 2 months ago, a long time in media cycles. The Obama food story of the end of last week was that the First Lady isn't modelling home cooking!!! If she begins ostentatiously cooking the produce of that garden herself, I'd believe that she's given in to what the media demands of a Role Model, but her going to a restaurant to have other people cook for her is exactly what the critics bemoan.

And people's judging others' eating habits actually did seem to be the main point of the post, at least as measured by words devoted to a subject, whether it's Bittman commenters judging teh poors; your hypothetical "Waters-ite" judging fellow subway riders; or you judging what the Obamas were communicating by wanting to try a kind of restaurant that doesn't seem to exist in D.C. or Chicago.

Phoebe said...


Agreed that my post was about judgment. What I think we could agree is that there's a difference between discussing the Obamas' public actions (whether or not they were intended for whatever symbolism people interpret into them) and judging The Poor, or an individual poor person, or The Rich or an individual rich person, for their food choices. And, again, I wasn't even saying the Obamas were wrong to eat where they did or travel as they did, but that the behavior could send a message that would ultimately be detrimental to the food-movement cause.

The reason I included the sidenote re: the Obamas was (back to what I'd imagined, at least, was the point of my post) that it's not clear to me whether or how the whole local-seasonal-don't-be-obese message can get out to more than the set already aware of it, and, along those lines, that this question is a subset of a long line of similar questions of health as they relate to class, and have for many generations.