2010: The Year Real Food Makes a Comeback?

Will 2010 be the year that real food triumphs over “edible foodlike substances?” I don’t want to get overly optimistic, but real food certainly had a good first week, at least on cable TV.

On Monday, Daily Show host Jon Stewart kicked off the new decade by inviting Michael Pollan on to discuss his latest book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, a slender guide to healthy eating.

As Stewart noted, you can read it in an hour; it’s a pocket-sized distillation of his last book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, which was itself an appetizer-sized portion of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It reminds me of those Russian nesting dolls that open to reveal ever-tinier incarnations. Presumably, Penguin’s next plan is to publish the bumper sticker: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”

Pollan shares my cautious optimism that we may be on the verge of seeing real changes in our food system. Is he basing this hope on the brisk sales of his books? Maybe, but Pollan also sees promise in that much ballyhooed-and-booed piece of legislation, the health care bill.

He predicted that health insurance reform could spell the end of “the disconnect between what you pay for a cheap fast food meal and the ultimate price of eating that way”:

Pollan: I think what’s about to happen, if we get this health care bill passed, and there are some kind of minimal rules, no more pre-existing conditions, they can’t throw you off the plan, they have to take you — suddenly, the health insurers will have an interest in your health that they don’t have now.
Stewart: That may be the worst sentence I’ve ever heard said! “Suddenly, the health insurers will have an interest in your health. Which, right now, they don’t.”

Pollan: Their business plan, now, is to keep you out of their business plan, if you’re likely to get chronic disease. And the Western diet creates a lot of chronic disease. Right now, the food industry creates patients for the health care industry; they have a very sympathetic relationship. But that might change. And, I think if that changes, you will see this very powerful industry getting on board with this growing national movement to reform the food system.

On Wednesday, Stewart’s Comedy Central Colleague Stephen Colbert struck a blow against a notoriously inedible food-like substance, Domino’s Pizza. Colbert declared Domino’s his “Alpha Dog of the Week,” in recognition of the “great new recipe” the pizza chain’s touting. Colbert played a clip from its “game-changing ad campaign,” featuring some damning assessments of Domino’s previous formula:

“Domino’s pizza crust is, to me, like cardboard.””Worst excuse for pizza I’ve ever had.”

“The sauce tastes like ketchup.”

“Totally devoid of flavor.”

Colbert: Folks, it takes alpha meatballs to stand up and say, “America, we suck”. But now, the company that brought you the Philly Cheesesteak Pizza, the Cali-Chicken-Bacon-Ranch Pizza, and the Oreo Pizza, has a radical new product: pizza that is pizza.

Cue another clip featuring the folks at Domino’s extolling the virtues of the new version:

“We changed everything: the crust, the sauce, the cheese, now it tastes better…we started working on the cheese…we’ve got shredded cheese, it’s tastier. When you smell it, it’s got an aroma to it…it’s cheese, it’s cheese!”Colbert: So, to recap, Domino’s old pizza cheese did not taste good, had no aroma, and was not cheese. And, because they are an alpha dog, folks, Domino’s is not apologizing. After all, we’re the human garbage cans who bought these trash discs by the millions.

Speaking of trash discs, the segment trashing Domino’s was followed by a visit from sea captain Charles Moore, discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He described how our disposable culture’s turned the ocean into a “disgusting plastic cesspool.” And we’re inadvertently consuming this toxic plastic soup:

Moore: It’s a sponge for our pollutants, absorbing all the toxics floating around in the ocean and transmitting them up the food web back to us…Colbert: Are you suggesting that we do without plastic gee-gaws and doo-dads and beer can holders?

Moore: Whatever happened to “A place for everything and everything in its place?” Or “Waste not, want not?”

Moore’s comment drew cheers from the audience; another sign of a possible sea change?

Lastly, if you missed Sunday’s much-anticipated Iron Chef America Super Chef Battle, the Food Network’s repeating it this Thursday at 8pm. It pits celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse against Bobby Flay and White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford, but the true star of the show was supposed to be the secret ingredient, which turned out to be fresh produce harvested from the White House kitchen garden.

It may not have been “The Culinary Event of the Decade,” as the Wall Street Journal‘s Speakeasy blog declared. But it was cool, nonetheless, to see lovingly shot close-ups of vegetables, especially exotic ones such as watermelon radishes, lacinato kale, and kohlrabi.

“Maybe not two hours worth of cool,” as Kim Severson noted on the New York Times Diner’s Journal blog, referring to the show’s blatant padding, “but the show will serve as a cultural bookmark. See Mario’s naked calves there in the White House vegetable garden? The times, they are a changin’.”

As everyone knows by now, Batali and Lagasse lost out to Flay and Comerford, in large part because they disregarded the mandate to showcase the vegetables, whereas Flay put the veggies front and center on his plate.

I was disappointed that no one bothered to feature the under appreciated, misunderstood kohlrabi, which is my favorite (and perhaps the only) above-ground-vegetable-that-looks-like-a-root-vegetable. This omission was also noted and lamented by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

However, I have it on good authority that Batali and Lagasse did, in fact, employ the kohlrabi in one of their dishes, but it got lost on the editing floor. Perhaps they should demand a recount?

Originally published on The Green Fork

3 thoughts on “2010: The Year Real Food Makes a Comeback?

  1. Great piece and I hope you’re right. But I watched Iron Chef and I feel the need to point out that those vegetables they cooked with weren’t actually from the White House garden. They were substitutes, which Marian Burros wrote about in the New York Times. But everyone from the host to the chefs to the judges kept saying they were White House vegetables on the show. At a time when we’re fighting over truth in food and transparency in labeling, this is a mean, weird trick to pull on the American public, because nowhere is it mentioned on the show that the vegetables aren’t from the White House. Which makes me think that why should I believe the rest of the food on the show was local or organic either.

    Here is Marian Burros quote on fake vegetables:

    “On Tuesday, the chefs reunited in New York to tape the competition in the studio known, in “Iron Chef” parlance, as the Kitchen Stadium. The show picked up Mrs. Obama’s theme, with Mr. Brown frequently reminding the audience that the vegetables were fresh and local. They were also organic. (They were not, however, grown in the White House garden; these were stand-ins.)”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/04/dining/04iron.html

    This makes me worried because do the Obama people think its okay to lie about food? Are “edible foodlike substances” going to win? Because if they’re telling this kind of lie on national TV, they’re sure going to be willing to tell other lies about food. And where did the vegetables go that the celebrity chefs took from the White House garden? I hope you all can follow up on this.

  2. I really hope this is true. It seems like there is definitely some momentum now relating to actually tasting food, and knowing where it is coming from. I thoroughly enjoyed the Iron Chef episode!

  3. i totally agree about the kohlrabi. especially when you harvest it…slice it open and eat it raw. it is so sweet and watery. the mistake most make is cooking this wonder bulb as a root vegetable. it is perfect as is, straight from the ground.