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James Beard Awards: A deep if problematic honor

3 May

Here’s what I”m thinking on my way to the James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards tonight, where The American Way of Eating—as well as a feature I wrote on farm labor contracting for The American Prospect—is up for an award::

(1) Awesome: These nominations suggests that maybe, just maybe, the gamble I took in writing these works is paying off. Maybe this means we’re entering an era where food isn’t just a cultural touchstone, but can yield common ground to build a food system (and world) aimed at helping us all, not just affluent consumers delighting in fine meals. To be given recognition for the kind of work I do suggests that the things that I care about — class and race and improving the world — are becoming part of mainstream thinking. That’s awesome and hugely gratifying and gives me real hope.

(2) Problematic: All awards are a bit onanistic, rewarding inner circles and connections as much as quality work. And the elite food world—as everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Malik Yakini have pointed out—is part of that tradition. Most of the people working in kitchens aren’t white, but the cross-section of people at these awards (at least, the cross-section that showed up the last time I was nominated, in 2006) doesn’t reflect that. Fine cuisine is, by definition, an elite thing; you can bring in all the home-cooked influences and soulful tales of Grandma’s famous casserole you want, but it’s still an insular world. Being offered this kind of award is a nod that says I can join this club if I want; the question I grapple with is whether I do.

I’m thinking a lot about Malik’s comments at the James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards last year:

We can’t really talk about food justice unless we have the people who are most impacted by that at the table, so I just want to put that out for you to think about…racism [is] a continuing plague on American society where people with white skin continue to have unearned privilege and continue to have greater access to resources and it creates this inequity in American society and so if we want a just food system we have to begin to find a way to eliminate racism.

In the end, this is all a bit navel-gazey. It’s awesome and amazing and a huge honor to have my work recognized. But I think it’s important to keep my feet on the ground and remember that an award isn’t going to change the world at large. But it does change mine, because instead of writing quietly and smallishly and talking into the great vast dark, I have people’s attention—if only a little bit.

So what do I do now?


Some great news: #AWE is up for a James Beard

21 Mar

I’m traveling for my fellowship (Istanbul! Pics to come) but wanted to make sure I let everyone know that The American Way of Eating is up for a James Beard Award–as is a feature I wrote on farm labor, “As Common As Dirt,” in The American Prospect In the event that you do not follow the food world, this is a big honor in those parts.

I’ve got enough of a punk in me to still feel conflicted about this; there’s a lot of money and pomp poured into a celebration of the monied and well-connected, and that’s not really my thing.

But here’s what IS cool:
It’s a recognition by somewhat powerful people that there is real value in writing, and thinking, about food as it works in the lives of our poor and working classes. It suggests that maybe, just maybe, there is the inkling of a change in the way we grape with food afoot, And I am all about that.

Many thanks to the endless list of people who’ve supported me in my work. I very literally popular not have done it without you.

From the “who asked you anyway” files…..

29 Jul

I’m sure this guy meant well, but: Seriously? You email someone you’ve never met to tell them their work is a waste of time? And what, precisely, qualifies you to issue this verdict? Sheesh, internet.

 Dear Tracie: Your [sic] a teriffic [sic] writer,but I’m afraid you wasted a year of your life toiling in minimum wage jobs which are held mostly by undocumented immigrants and people with poor educations. All of us eating better will not change their lives.

Quick note: Um, if we got most of America eating well, it WOULD change their lives. Duh.

Quick econ thought while writing….

22 Jun

“Distribution” is shorthand for “access to market.” Control distribution and you control the market.

More Americans cooking—not b/c they’re broke but b/c they know how @michaelpollan @JamieOliver @Bittman: It’s working! ::

11 Jun

Credit whomever or whatever you like — foodie journalists, celebrity chefs, the depressing state of the American economy — but Americans are increasingly cooking at home, according to a recent poll, reports trade magazine Progressive Grocer. Two key findings:

(1) Americans are cooking more

In fact, seven in 10 Americans say they are cooking more instead of going out in an effort to save money, according to a survey released in mid-May by The Harris Poll. Fifty-seven percent of consumers agree that going out for dinner is now a luxury, compared to their previous dining preferences, and less than a third (29 percent) say they would cut other expenses in order to be able to eat away from home.

Emphasis added there, because I think it’s points to an interesting fact: Most Americans are willing to cook at home as a bid at economic independence. The idea that Americans are just too lazy to cook doesn’t seem to hold up here.

(2) We’re cooking more, in part, because now we know how to do it

According to the Harris Poll, the economic malaise that started a few years ago has had a lingering effect. “At the beginning of the downturn, we saw consumers saving money by changing their behavior in two ways: eating out less frequently and shifting their eating-out dollars away from casual dining towards fast-food/quick-service restaurants,” remarks Mary Bouchard, VP and thought leader at Harris Interactive. “Now, with several years of experience with constrained budgets, they have shifted even further from the busy lifestyle convenience of eating out on a regular basis to making time for cooking at home.”

That last bit of emphasis — also added by me — would suggest that folks like Jamie Oliver, Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, not to mention Rachael Ray, have got it right: When we know how to cook, we do it more.

Hey USA: Thanks for paying for my SNAP. Now:Where’s my thanks 4 paying 4 your road-water-phone-air-school-retirement?

4 Jun

Interestingly, after publishing this piece on GourmetLive about using food stamps for a year, I’ve gotten a smattering of email from folks whose response can be summed up by this particular email I received on Saturday:

textarea: Hope you enjoyed eating the food that I payed for!
Submit: Submit

I’ll leave aside any bleeding heart crap about helping one’s fellow man. Let’s look at the facts:

(1) I paid for my own SNAP.

As is pretty clear in most of my biographical materials, widely available online, I’ve been working since I was 14. That puts me at 21 years in the workforce. I’ll need to contact the Social Security Administration to make sure on this, but I suspect that the $2400 I made use of via the SNAP program is a fraction of what I personally have paid into the federal tax base over the course of my lifetime.

(2) Will you thank me for paying for your roads?

Similarly, just as I’m grateful for the help I was able to access, I trust that “Taxpayer” and his/her friends are grateful to me for all the public services my taxes have paid for: clean air and water; paved roads; traffic lights; minimum wage guarantees; public parks; library systems; public schools. While we’re at it, I hope Taxpayer also appreciates the contributions my grandparents made to rural electrification and clean water infrastructure.

(3) Food assistance is a miniscule part of the federal budget. 

If we’re gonna get finicky about whose paying for what when it comes to taxes, it’s worth looking at what we spend our money on. In fiscal year 2012, we spent about $73 billion  on food and nutrition assistance, out of a budget of $3.816 trillion, or about 1.9 percent of the budget. Highway subsidies got $35 billion (.9 percent of federal budget); police got $32 billion (.8 percent); social security got $748 billion (19.6 percent). So unless “Taxpayer” doesn’t ever get in a car; has never needed the services of a police person; and has single-handedly supported and cared for his/her parents throughout their old age, I’d appreciate a thank you acknowledging my subsidization of all those things, too.

settling in to hear @JamieOliver speak Harvard School of Public Health, get the Healthy Cup Award #HealthyCup2012

22 May

kudos! @SchusterInst-ite Hella Winston scoops the NYT & gets credit (belatedly) for it via @thepubliceditor:

21 May

I am honored and delighted to inform you

8 May

I am honored and delighted to inform you that I’ve been selected as a U-M Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow for 2012-13.

Why @Target ‘s expanding grocery business makes me queasy #PlayingCatchup

8 May

What I find most interesting about Target’s expansion as a grocer is that its produce offerings (not unlike Walmart’s) tend to be slim and of not-the-best-quality-ever. I’m completely comfortable with people making use of canned and frozen produce, but there’s something about shifting our food supply away from things-we-can-eat-as-they-are and toward things-someone-else-makes-and-sells-us that makes me incredibly uneasy.