Sunday, October 09, 2011

Brooklyn Berkeley Alice Waters Recession Parenting Grow-Your-Own NOW WITH LINK, PROGRESS!

The NYT has hit yet another jackpot. A divorced mother in Brooklyn, but from Berkeley originally, decides that the correct response to being a freelance writer in an age of this not being a viable source of income isn't to demand child support while looking for some dull yet reliable office-job route to earning an income, or even signing on as the token older barista at the local coffeehouse. No, it's making everything she and the kids eat from scratch. And she was onto something! Now she has a book out about this, and, as we see, an article in the Times.

First, the petty-but-pertinent: I don't know where Susan Gregory Thomas was doing her grocery shopping, but an Eli's health loaf for $10? Fancy cereal for $14 a box? I know my New York schlepping, and this is just bizarre. The only possible explanation is hyperbole to make the point about how aloof she once was. That bread is totally $5 or maybe some places $6 a loaf, which is still expensive enough to feel embarrassed about buying it, even if it holds up remarkably well (years, quite possibly) in the freezer. And non-store-brand cereal at Whole Foods in NY is, what, $4-something? Again, not cheap, but the $14 variety had better include some cruelty-free foie gras.

Now, the practical: even shopping only at whichever store was nearest (even, yes, Whole Foods), she could have bought a bunch of rice and dry pasta, supplemented that with a mix of cheap and less-cheap ingredients, tossed in some peanut butter, and problem solved.

Or not, because the problem, if I understand correctly, was: how to eat at Al Di La, but at home and without much money for groceries. In other words, how to be at the cutting edge of yuppie cuisine, without the yuppie income. How to deal with a massive (David Brooks, apologies) status-income disequilibrium.

And I sympathize, to a point. I'm trying to eat like someone with access to NY levels of food variety, if not any spectacular income, while out in the woods of NJ with limited access to groceries, period. It takes up some but not all of my time. Cookbook/memoir contracts welcome. I even have a title and everything.

But this is like the part of Vérité I'm at in my current reread - this nice bourgeois family is flat broke but really concerned with making sure their clothing is clean because otherwise OMG the neighbors might find out, which would be a problem on account of the neighbors are already ticked off because this family's on the wrong side of the novel's version of the Dreyfus Affair. I mean, can't someone who's lost their money kind of turn this off? Does there really need to be homemade ricotta?

OK, probably not - once you've accepted certain items as definitive of "food," it can be tough to all of a sudden eat like someone with utterly different life experiences from yours. It probably would have been more difficult for the author to have hauled her family to the nearest McDonalds than it was for her to start raising her own chickens.

What's off, then, is that the intended takeaway here is that see, it is possible to eat like a fine, upstanding yuppie, even without the cash. Take that, people who claim to be too poor to eat Chez Panisse-style every night! When it is possible to do so, assuming you have all the time and Brooklyn garden space in the world, and when you're the class you are and would not find it acceptable to eat otherwise. So all the commenters explaining how this article doesn't speak to the single mother who lives in the projects and works two jobs are right, but not for the right reason. The issue isn't so much the author's time and space, or even cultural knowledge - knowing what all these ingredients are and so forth. Rather, it's that she was as hooked on Food Movement-approved meals as others are on Burger King and the like.

Meanwhile, the message ought to be that devoting all one's time and energy to eating as though one had lots of money is, while possible, not heroic and actually kind of a waste of resources. But there's the complicating factor of, she got a book published about her experiences.


PG said...

OK, probably not - once you've accepted certain items as definitive of "food," it can be tough to all of a sudden eat like someone with utterly different life experiences from yours.

My mother just mentioned something like this, but a bit different: she no longer likes the Chinese restaurant at which she and my dad were regulars when I was growing up. She doesn't think the food itself has necessarily changed, and concedes that it may be that her own tastes have changed; that the cook seeing Mrs. G come in and dumping a lot of extra pepper into the same food he serves everyone else no longer quite cuts it in satisfying her.

My parents' life experience is probably about the opposite of Berkeley-Brooklyn's. They grew up on a single very subregionally-specific cuisine, moved to the U.S. when they had little money, and only started having significant disposable income after settling in a small town where the predominant culinary preferences aren't sophisticated. Their concept of all non-Indian food was thereby shaped by McDonald's, Pizza Hut, the local Chinese. Chili's was a wonder when it opened.

Now all their kids live in cities and Dad acts defrauded if there isn't a reservation at a good restaurant lined up every time he visits. Their situation hasn't really changed in the last 10 years in terms of their own location and disposable income; they've just visited enough good restaurants that what used to be deemed good, or at least good-enough, no longer is. Since this leaves them in a constant state of disappointment when they try to eat out locally, if it were possible for them to stop having high expectations, that would be the rational thing to do. But I don't think it really is possible for them, or for Ms. B-B. If you have high quality food and you appreciate it (as opposed to just eating it because it's what's in front of you, which is how I'd regard my consumption of other quality-of-life things like square footage of living space), you can't just make your mind think that McD's is still good food.

Dan O. said...

Not convinced that someone so organized, capable, and (in all likelihood) able to go for long periods of time on very little sleep wasn't also capable of hatching a plan to get a book published to make a name for herself, and seeing it through.

I'm not dissing her either. That takes serious chops, not to mention having a finger on the pulse of the market.

I wonder how old her kids are. I assume they must be public school age. Otherwise, I don't get it. WAY too much work.

Phoebe said...


"If you have high quality food and you appreciate it [...]"

Yes, it has to be that this kind of food is available and you prefer its taste to that of McDonalds.

While descriptors like "high-quality" make it seem obvious that anyone who knew both would come to prefer from-scratch, fresh, etc., I don't think it should be taken for granted that everyone would enjoy an Alice Waters meal (let alone a home-cooked "healthy" one - most nutritious, seasonal-local dishes are not going to taste as good as what a professional would come up with) more than fast food. And that's the food movement starting point - that the only obstacles are low incomes, food deserts, and, if we're talking anyone not incredibly poor, laziness.

It just strikes me that the obstacle here is less the inaccessibility of dry beans or even fresh produce, and more that not everyone thinks from-scratch ricotta sounds good, and even that maybe there's such a thing as taking this all too far. The food movement misses the point, I think, when it emphasizes what can be eaten on $5, $10 a day, without ever considering the possibility that there are good reasons might not go the Budget Alice Waters route. And I don't even mean the 'greasy food is the only fun the very poor in this country get to have' argument. Just that a lot of people, not only poor ones, really do prefer the taste of fast food, and are aware that another diet would be better for them health-wise, but even if Alice Waters herself came over to prepare it, would not be interested.


Clearly! There are, like I said, some far more obvious routes to escape from brokedom for someone whose freelance-writing career isn't going great, namely in this woman's case seeing what the ex could pay for when it comes to raising their kids, and getting a different kind of job herself. That this isn't the story of many failed attempts at getting a job In These Economic Times and only then resorting to backyard agriculture suggests that she did see a book in it all along. No shame in that. As I see it, the problem is only that a not-so-ideal message comes out of it. Unless there's a book in it, what she did makes no sense.

Dan O. said...


To be fair, it's not clear that child support was not sought or that, if it were, it would net anything. So many marriages dissolve as a result of financial stress to begin with.

Phoebe said...


The point here is that she makes no reference to having sought child support *or* some job more lucrative than freelance writer. It's obviously possible she did and failed, but you have to go by what's in the essay. And this is an essay about someone's obvious next step when broke being to go all homesteader in her Brooklyn backyard.

Dan O. said...

Funny, but it turns out I have one of her books (Buy, Baby, Buy). Of course, as a Yuppie Brooklyn Parent, I own an anti-consumerist book about parenting... and only skimmed it for a couple of minutes once. And, now, my two-year old daughter is obsessed with Thomas, Elmo, and won't eat much more than hot-dogs and macaroni and cheese.

If only I had a backyard in which to grow hot-dogs.

PG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PG said...

I thought you might be interested in this latest submission for the "There's no good reason for people not to be living on beans and rice" theory:

I think my two favorite aspects of the piece were:

(1) The assertion that "People who eat lots of unhealthy food aren't doing so because they lack cheap, healthy options. Instead, it's because they like junk food." (What about cheap, healthy options that taste as good as the junk food that's been exhaustively tested by multinational corporations to appeal to various spots on your taste buds?)

(2) Summarizing studies on labeling's effect on people's behavior as "Studies consistently find that menu labeling doesn’t result in healthier choices." (This ignores the studies that show middle- and upper-class people -- many of whom also struggle with obesity! -- do pay attention to labeling when choosing what to eat. There's also research indicating that people of all classes are more conscious of what they're consuming and thus of the possible need to eat better for the next meal or exercise more to balance out the "bad" stuff if there's clear, prominent labeling. If you're meeting friends at Shake Shack for lunch, the 740 calorie posting may not stop someone from ordering the shake, but it may well cause them to refuse dessert with dinner, or walk instead of taking the subway home.)