A member, and hoping to stay that way, of the reality-based community

29 August 2011

Of False Dichotomies

Frank Bruni, if you do not know, is a columnist for the New York Times, among other duties there. He used to be a restaurant critic. This information will be important later.

Lately, he published a column in which he, in a transparent attempt to appear "balanced" (as best as I can tell), by setting against each other the chef-turned-monster-celebrity Anthony Bourdain and the "deep-fried doyenne of a fatty, buttery subgenre of putatively Southern cooking," one Paula Deen.

Bourdain, in his less-than-charitable way, said some apparently unprintable and mean things about Deen whilst calling her out for, "telling an already obese nation that it's O.K. to eat food that's killing us." Bruni then quotes Deen's response to the effect that she and her friends "cook for regular people who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills" and further defends her thus:

She’s otherwise 100 percent justified in assailing the culinary aristocracy, to which even a self-styled bad boy like Bourdain belongs, for an often selective, judgmental and unforgiving worldview.

And her retort exposes class tensions in the food world that sadly mirror those in society at large. You can almost imagine Bourdain and Deen as political candidates, a blue-state paternalist squaring off against a red-state populist over correct living versus liberty in all its artery-clogging, self-destructive glory.

Well, yeah, you can. But that completely misses both Bourdain's point and the actual issue at hand: eating like a "traditional" Southerner (minus the ridiculous volume of greens, and plus the many, many calories provided by all of the biscuits, gravy, pork, and the endless desserts-- cf. Deen's appearance on NPR's "Wait, Wait! Don't Tell Me") will probably kill you. And it will kill you by giving diabetes and the many other afflictions that derive from profound obesity, which are bad enough by themselves. The people who invented the food Deen celebrates worked like animals (in the case of the slaves and tenant farmers nearly literally), and generally died from things that killed them long before heart disease could set in. Unless you're out walking in a field all day every day, you don't get to eat like them with impunity.

So, Bruni's point is also that Bourdain is an ass. But if you've read "Kitchen Confidential" you knew that. What else is new? News Flash: Celebrity chef has gargantuan ego!

Tell something new.

He then tempers his criticism:
To give him his due: we are too fat and must address that. But getting Deen to unplug the waffle iron doesn’t strike to the core of the problem any more than posting fast-food calorie counts or taxing soft drinks do. A great deal of American obesity is attributable to the dearth of healthy food that’s affordable and convenient in low- and even middle-income neighborhoods, and changing that requires a magnitude of public intervention and private munificence that are unlikely in such pinched times.
Which is a bunch of bullshit excuses.

Don't get me wrong. Inner cities largely are "food desserts". But the bulk of America's obesity problem isn't among the poor. It's among the middle class (even if it's the lower middle class). And if you believe it's not possible to eat healthily on low wages, I'm here to prove that you're not paying attention. Eating healthily is not easy, mind. It requires work, and time, and sacrifice. But it's not impossible. And it doesn't require intervention (except maybe to modify tax policy for processed food).

This is Bourdain's point: if Deen really cared about families struggling to feed their families good food, she would use her celebrity to promote healthy cooking and eating. Not an endless parade of cakes and brownies, tempered only by roasted beasts.

Eating healthily means you have to cook for yourself. You have to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, and cut them and chop them and steam, blanch, or saute them. I did it on what is now $7/hour. You can do it. You may have to give up watching TV in order to shop and cook (without slicing off a finger). You may have to learn a lot about how food works when it's in your pan or pot. You may have to eat a lot less meat and potatoes and a lot more rice and beans. But, if you have fresh vegetables and fruit available to you at a distance comparable to that you go to get your Mickey Ds (or whatever is your particular poison), and you are paying for anything beyond shelter, transportation, and power for your stove, you have no one to blame but yourself if you are not eating healthily.

Once you make this transition, you might even be able to afford a bottle of wine to go with it once in a while (I hear there's something called "3-buck Chuck"; I'm guessing there's competitors....).