Sunday, September 20, 2009

We Don't Need a Food Revolution, We Just Need to Learn How to Cook

By Dan Barber, The Nation. Posted September 14, 2009.

A lack of technique behind the stove is, in the end, as complicit in harming human health and the environment as the confinement pig or the corn-fed steer.

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We need radical thinking, but we don't need a revolution. We don't need an overthrow of capitalism. Nor do we need to become vegetarians. We need not become spartans. We're just going to have to learn how to cook.

It's impossible to overemphasize the importance of good farming for safe and nutritious food. But the campaign for food democracy needs to start with boning knives and cast-iron skillets. A lack of technique behind the stove is, in the end, as complicit in harming human health and the environment as the confinement pig or the corn-fed steer.

Yes, that sixteen-ounce rib-eye takes precious resources like water (approximately 2,500 gallons) and grain (about twelve pounds) away from feeding the poor, and the environmental havoc associated with raising beef most often affects the disenfranchised. By 2050, if we continue this gorging, livestock will be consuming as much as 4 billion people do.

These horrors of conventional animal husbandry are tied to the amount of meat we eat, which is intimately linked to the parts of the animal we choose to eat. That is, choosing the rib-eye -- as opposed to choosing, say, the brisket -- determines how many animals are produced.

It's the equivalent of eating high on the hog, and it doesn't just mean a lot of wasted meat. It means a lot more animals raised in confinement. How else can farmers afford to increase production when there's increased waste? When suppliers -- producers, processors, retailers and, yes, we chefs -- throw the bulk of the carcass away, output must go up, leaving farmers little choice but to engage in the mass-production practices that are so morally and environmentally toxic.

Supermarkets in the United States stock cutlets and steaks and loins -- restaurant chefs, including me, feature them in seven-ounce portions -- but unless you venture to an ethnic market (or dine at an ethnic restaurant), you'll have a hard time getting your hands on liver, kidney or tripe. For commerce's sake, it makes more sense to use these odd cuts for dog food, or simply to dump them abroad, in places like Mexico and India. (The only way we've accepted using these less-than-desirables is grinding them up into sausage links and hot dogs -- creating dull food products out of disparate and delicious parts.)

Paul Roberts, in his book The End of Food, calls this the "protein paradox": meat production has outstripped people production. Through advances in breeding and grain feeding, the cost of one pound of meat is cheaper now than at any time in history. And yet that downswing in cost hasn't led to any kind of meat-eating democracy. If anything, it has enabled -- and at this point, even encouraged -- a kind of pork chop dictatorship. Not only do we eat too much meat, we also eat too much of the wrong parts. We don't know where our meat comes from, we don't know what the animal we're eating ate, and we sure don't know how to get behind the stove and take control of what we put in our mouths.

We ought to start by looking at the great food cultures of the world. The traditional cuisines of Asia and North Africa, not to mention France and Italy, are based on rice, wheat, spices and smatterings of all cuts of meat. In just about every other cuisine, protein plays second fiddle to grains and vegetables. When meat appears, it does so modestly; it takes up less space on the plate, and more often than not it's a piece of the animal -- tripe or oxtail -- that Americans so willingly discard.

American cuisine co-opts other cultures' cuisines with the eye of the entitled: special-occasion foods turn into everyday staples, center cuts take center stage. There's nothing inevitable about that, and very little that's delicious. Good cooking gives a voice to these disenfranchised parts. Democratizing the carcass should be the future of food.

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Dan Barber is the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. As a board member of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, he works to bring the principles of good farming directly to the table.

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