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    Ladies of the Slope

    My father’s side of the family has its Thanksgiving dinner the Sunday before the designated Thursday every year, and my parents are hosting; therefore, it was this weekend that I helped them and my brother (and the aunts, uncles, cousins, and once-removeds who rounded out the party of thirty-odd people) get a full turkey dinner on the table.

    That tradition over with, my parents and I are going to a restaurant today, where my mother doesn’t have to clean up and my father doesn’t have to stow folding chairs and table leaves back in the basement.

    We’re thankful that we’re American and free, healthy, happy, comfortable, and fond of each other.

    But of course it doesn’t do to get complacent, even on Thanksgiving, and Lisa Miller of Newsweek has considerately provided us with this week’s ration of food guilt (via Instapundit, who treats the enterprise with the casual contempt it deserves). From her exquisitely calibrated tone of patronizing, deep-think concern about the lower orders and her look-what-a-progressive-nabe-I-live-in social-marker dropping, you will have little trouble guessing that she lives in Brooklyn (Park Slope, in her case). This is the opening:

    For breakfast, I usually have a cappuccino—espresso made in an Alessi pot and mixed with organic milk, which has been gently heated and hand-fluffed by my husband. I eat two slices of imported cheese—Dutch Parrano, the label says, “the hippest cheese in New York” (no joke)—on homemade bread with butter. I am what you might call a food snob. My nutritionist neighbor drinks a protein shake while her 5-year-old son eats quinoa porridge sweetened with applesauce and laced with kale flakes. She is what you might call a health nut. On a recent morning, my neighbor’s friend Alexandra Ferguson sipped politically correct Nicaraguan coffee in her comfy kitchen while her two young boys chose from among an assortment of organic cereals. As we sat, the six chickens Ferguson and her husband, Dave, keep for eggs in a backyard coop peered indoors from the stoop. The Fergusons are known as locavores.

    Alexandra says she spends hours each day thinking about, shopping for, and preparing food. She is a disciple of Michael Pollan, whose 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma made the locavore movement a national phenomenon, and believes that eating organically and locally contributes not only to the health of her family but to the existential happiness of farm animals and farmers—and, indeed, to the survival of the planet. “Michael Pollan is my new hero, next to Jimmy Carter,” she told me. [*speechless*–SRK] In some neighborhoods, a lawyer who raises chickens in her backyard might be considered eccentric, but we live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a community that accommodates and celebrates every kind of foodie. Whether you believe in eating for pleasure, for health, for justice, or for some idealized vision of family life, you will find neighbors who reflect your food values. In Park Slope, the contents of a child’s lunchbox can be fodder for a 20-minute conversation.

    Several thoughts, along with my gorge, come up as I read this. One is that I’m happy I live in Manhattan, where we at least frankly acknowledge, without tarting it up as spirituality, that we like the increased number of choices you have when you make good money. Another is that Miller’s neighbors are just doing, with more hauteur, a version of what my parents did when my brother and I were growing up. We were members of a church that believed that industrial farming and food processing were harmful, and that treating your body as the Temple of the Lord meant eating as much natural food as possible. My parents were never affluent, and when my father was laid off from Bethlehem Steel, money was often extremely tight. Yet we went to the farm to get fertilized eggs; we went to a sympathetic dairy for raw milk; we drove miles and miles and miles to some beekeeper who played Isaac Watts hymns and other improving music at his apiary, or something, to get our honey. We got peanut butter, which looked (and felt in the mouth) like mortar, fresh-ground at the health-food store. Coke was a special treat we had when people came over for dinner after church. I didn’t taste a Pop Tart until I was in college. My mother baked all our bread.

    And because we were a family of straitened means, there was a good deal of clever thrift and making do. When fresh vegetables were out of season or budget, we ate frozen. My parents rented a little garden plot from Rodale Press to grow vegetables during the summer. We got a lot of protein from chicken parts and chuck roast and pollack filets on sale. None of this was what you’d find on the menu at Gramercy Tavern or 11 Madison Park, but my mother knew how to cook and season homely ingredients judiciously. There was never a sense of deprivation. I mean, I had a bratty streak like any little boy and bleated about not having Lucky Charms in the house and stuff, but it would never have occurred to me to complain that what we did eat was poor-quality food, though I’m sure it would have given Miller and the rest of her kaffee klatsch a heart attack.

    See, her central complaint is that we’re Not Doing Enough to ensure low-income families get better nutrition:

    Mine seems on some level like a naive complaint. There have always been rich people and poor people in America and, in a capitalist economy, the well-to-do have always had the freedom to indulge themselves as they please. In hard times, food has always marked a bright border between the haves and the have-nots. In the earliest days of the Depression, as the poor waited on bread lines, the middle and upper classes in America became devoted to fad diets. Followers of the Hollywood 18-Day Diet, writes Harvey Levenstein in his 1993 book Paradox of Plenty, “could live on fewer than six hundred calories a day by limiting each meal to half a grapefruit, melba toast, coffee without cream or sugar, and, at lunch and dinner, some raw vegetables.”

    That “in a capitalist economy” is a meaningless qualifier, though I realize many people in Park Slope find it politically satisfying. It’s not as if the party elites in communist, socialist, or social-democratic societies didn’t have the freedom to indulge themselves, though they may not be able to do so publicly. What matters is mobility: in America, you don’t have to end where you started out if you make the effort to move up. That doesn’t make the Depression less tragic, or the pseudo-mortifications of the elites less silly, but it does mean that Miller isn’t necessarily making the political point she thinks she’s making here.

    How could we be doing better? Three guesses which societies Miller suggests we should be emulating.

    According to studies led by British epidemiologist Kate Pickett, obesity rates are highest in developed countries with the greatest income disparities. America is among the most obese of nations; Japan, with its relatively low income inequality, is the thinnest.

    When asked “What is eating well?” Americans generally answer in the language of daily allowances: they talk about calories and carbs, fats, and sugars. They don’t see eating as a social activity, and they don’t see food—as it has been seen for millennia—as a shared resource, like a loaf of bread passed around the table. When asked “What is eating well?” the French inevitably answer in terms of “conviviality”: togetherness, intimacy, and good tastes unfolding in a predictable way.

    Japan’s relatively low income inequality—for the millionth time—cannot be blithely split out from its overall collectivism and enforced conformity. That’s the trade-off: if you want everyone to live in the mostly-comfortable middle, you have to squelch the ambitions of the top of the bell curve as well as trying to lift the circumstances of the bottom. It’s all very well to admire the community spirit of the Japanese, but I’d be willing to bet that most members of the stratum of Park Slope society Miller speaks for wouldn’t be able to take it for five months together–especially once they saw how many of their child-rearing decisions were supposed to be outsourced to the school system.

    As for our inferiority to France, plenty of Americans place a high value on having the family together for dinner, even if they don’t spend the whole meal nattering about how various tastes are “unfolding” in real time. Ads for restaurants almost always present people laughing and talking together while they eat, presumably because picturing mealtime as a “convivial” experience resonates with their target audience. That Americans think of “eating well” as being related to nutrition may have less to do with any alleged I’ve-got-mine mentality than with the fact that many of us have ancestors, often in living memory, who came here with nothing and worked their way to increased prosperity.

    Miller consistently talks as if the freshest produce and the most chemical-laden processed stuff were the only two choices, which makes me wonder how many supermarkets she’s actually been in. She’s not the only one, though:

    Time is just part of the problem, [low-income single mother Tiffiney] Davis explains, as she prepares Sunday dinner in her cheerful kitchen. Tonight she’s making fried chicken wings with bottled barbecue sauce; yellow rice from a box; black beans from a can; broccoli; and carrots, cooked in olive oil and honey. A home-cooked dinner doesn’t happen every night. On weeknights, everyone gets home, exhausted—and then there’s homework. Several nights a week, they get takeout: Chinese, or Domino’s, or McDonald’s. Davis doesn’t buy fruits and vegetables mostly because they’re too expensive, and in the markets where she usually shops, they’re not fresh. “I buy bananas and bring them home and 10 minutes later they’re no good…Whole Foods sells fresh, beautiful tomatoes,” she says. “Here, they’re packaged and full of chemicals anyway. So I mostly buy canned foods.”

    Interesting. Every grocery store I’ve seen has this thing called the “freezer section.” Inside every package is stuff covered with a mysterious white hoar; when you heat it, the hoar dissolves—like the snow joyously melting when Aslan frees Narnia from the White Witch—and then you have vegetables and fruits. No, they’re not as quite as good or nutritious as those you pick yourself (or buy at an outdoor market from the stall run by Distressed Clapboards Farm), but they’re cheap and nourishing, and they’re tasty if you prepare them properly. Also, plenty of foods can be made in big batches on the weekend and stored so you can reheat them on busy work nights. The idea that there’s no real estate between cherimoya from Whole Foods and generic canned fruit cocktail in heavy syrup is just wrong.

    And even if people want, laudably, to insist on getting fresh produce if possible, is there really nothing low-income people can do? Maybe their church can pool money and buy things in bulk. Maybe they can form a coop. (Some of the more ostentatiously civic-minded Park Slope residents could volunteer to help with the organizing and accounting?) Or, most simply, maybe someone could rent a van to go once a week or so to a larger, better-stocked supermarket than there may be in the neighborhood and take the food around. The poor still wouldn’t be eating imported cheese and free-range chicken, but part of being a household of straitened means is doing more with less, and that’s been true since civilization began. As someone who made many a meal of ground-turkey meatloaf with frozen string beans growing up, I have a hard time getting all weepy over the inability of people on food stamps to afford heirloom tomatoes.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

    Added later: If you don’t get the allusion in the title but do care, here it is:

    13 Responses to “Ladies of the Slope”

    1. Susanna says:

      You are, as usual, both correct and fabulous.

    2. Sean says:

      Thanks, Susanna. High praise coming from you. :) I hope you and the family had a great Thanksgiving.

    3. Julie says:

      That’s exactly what I was going to say. Correct and fabulous.

      This is a particular pet peeve of mine, these people who say “well, they eat out all the time because *they can’t afford fresh foods.*” Jeez Louise. Even the most expensive and freshest foods are generally much cheaper than ordering takeout all the time. We’re poor, and I cook. And in the winter time, when we don’t have a garden, we eat a lot of frozen vegetables and fruits (I freeze a lot of my own during the summers when fruits and veggies are cheap and abundant, and I also do a lot of canning, but I realize that not everyone has the will to do these kinds of things). The Atlantic lately is always full of these things–OMG! Don’t cut food stamps to pay for better school lunches! Because poor people need their children fed half the time for free (school breakfast and lunch programs) and then also need the full allotment for food stamps because “healthful food is just so expensive!” Such bullshit–sorry to get all vulgar, but it really ticks me off. I want to start some kind of national public education campaign about how to eat healthfully and cheaply. It used to be really quite common knowledge, but it doesn’t seem to be anymore. *sigh* I hate to say this, but I really think this is a cause, rather than just a symptom, of long-term poverty (where “this” equals lack of knowledge and will to get knowledge and change habits, etc.).

    4. Sean says:

      “Because poor people need their children fed half the time for free (school breakfast and lunch programs) and then also need the full allotment for food stamps because “healthful food is just so expensive!” Such bullshit–sorry to get all vulgar, but it really ticks me off. I want to start some kind of national public education campaign about how to eat healthfully and cheaply.”

      If we agreed any more, I’d be jumping up and down, yes. As far as the education campaign goes, isn’t that what home ec was supposed to do in public schools? When I was in junior high, we learned how to make uncomplicated meals that were the basis of harder stuff we might learn later. As Mrs. Talboo constantly said, “In cooking, what you’re trying to do is cause the proper chemical reaction.” Some people will never get the knack for cooking artfully or instinctively, but pretty much anyone can learn to steam, bake, and boil things for set lengths of time, and to measure ingredients precisely so they’re following the damned recipe for whatever they’re making. It’s not that hard.

    5. Julie says:

      I think it’s the final “season to taste” instruction that throws people. What *could* that mean?

      I don’t think most schools have home ec anymore, do they? We did, but I went to the kind of small town school where the local Catholic church is effectively in command of the curriculum. We also all had to take wood shop. I noticed in the Japanese elementary schools, they all took home ec, and now my husband can sew better than I can.

      Mrs. Talboo was quite correct. That’s why learning to cook is an integral part of my homeschool curriculum with my kids. Five-year-old boys love to make bread so much, once they discover what exactly is making the bread rise.

    6. Sean says:

      I do get that, but I think that most cookbooks have a section in the front that explains that if you’re new to this cooking thing, you should under-season at first until you learn how much salt and pepper you actually like in things. Even if you’ve been cooking for a while, the text-dense explanations in the chapter headings can be surprisingly helpful if you’re looking at a good cookbook. (I mean, I’m sure you know that, Julie; I’m just addressing whether people should be so bewildered at “Season to taste” that they condemn themselves to eating at KFC for the rest of their lives.)

    7. Sarah says:

      Interesting. Although it would be presumptuous to consider our means strained (um, lately with two college tuitions or one and a half since the younger boy is in dual highschool/college program we’re approaching it but not really) we’ve lived most of our lives as a one-income family (My writing didn’t pay anything for the first eight years I was doing it, then paid very little for the next three and now it’s definitely not something I can COUNT on, given the state of the industry) in a world of two-income families. Not quite a “keep up with the Jones” thing, but most of our friends/peers/people we relate to make close to double what we do because — like us — they’re both educated and both work regular jobs.
      What this means is that to be able to live in the neighborhoods where we’re likely to not stick out like sore thumbs (and where the schools are at least moderately good) and do the occasional restaurant with friends (very occasional these days, not just because of us) we have to live very frugally in other areas. I shop meat on sale, I take advantage of seasonal vegetables, and I make a lot of the stuff that I use as “convenience” (I used to freeze biscuit mix and bread dough, for instance.) [I also buy good old furniture and refinish it, thereby gaining the know-how for a mystery series on furniture refinishing So, our decorating is sometimes eclectic, but the pieces are GOOD. And we used to buy ninety percent of books used. And though both boys have pretty much always had computers because my husband built them, they don’t have gaming systems. Also our electronics tend to be one-generation-old. We still live lives of inconceivable luxury compared to most of the world!]

      One of the things I’ve found as our friends become unemployed is that these people have NO clue how to shop/cook/eat. I keep getting complaints that people are living on mac and cheese, but gee, for a family of four “bag of chicken legs” and veggies is cheaper. And it has protein.
      So, your post resonated. A lot. I’m getting very tired of people who think they’re being frugal because they’re eating at home, instead of going out but what they’re eating at home comes from “kits” and then they complain how expensive it is and how little unemployment pays. It also reminded me this summer I have to teach the younger kid to cook. (The older one already learned and did quite well while away at an internship this summer.)

      And you are correct on cookbooks and books to help you learn. Because my education in Portugal made people assume I’d have servants when I grew up (rolls eyes) when I got married and found myself alone in my new house, while my husband was at work, I read the instructions on the pasta package to figure out how it went from rigid to floppy. I truly had no idea. After that, I made it my mission to learn to cook — really learn. Someone gave me the old Joy of Cooking for my wedding, and that helped. But I was still bewildered about cuts of meat (turns out that “english” cultures cut meat differently from “latin” cultures, so I was looking for an equivalence that didn’t exist. Eventually my husband ran a book called Cutting up In The Kitchen (rolls eyes at title) to ground and I found it invaluable. Both to identify the cuts and to learn to cut the meat to make it seem like a better cut, how to cook it to make it tender, etc.

      And Julie, no they don’t teach home ec anymore (my husband took it in school, cunningly disguised as “single survival” so guys wouldn’t be embarrassed to take it. It taught not just cooking, but stuff like sewing on buttons and cleaning. I tried to get my boys into it, but it’s not there anymore. Eh. So, I’ll teach them at home.)

    8. Sean says:

      “One of the things I’ve found as our friends become unemployed is that these people have NO clue how to shop/cook/eat. I keep getting complaints that people are living on mac and cheese, but gee, for a family of four “bag of chicken legs” and veggies is cheaper. And it has protein.”

      It really is amazing how much those kit dinners cost, considering what you actually get. It’s also amazing when people don’t seem to understand that it’s as possible to blow too much money at the grocery store (or on FreshDirect.com) as it is at a restaurant. But as you say, eating well within a budget requires not only learning how to cook but also planning ahead, especially if your freezer and cabinet space is limited.

      BTW, I’ll take this opportunity to note yet another thing from the Newsweek article that bugged the hell out of me:

      When they visit Dave’s family in Tennessee, tensions erupt over food choices. One time, Alexandra remembers, she irked her mother-in-law by purchasing a bag of organic apples, even though her mother-in-law had already bought the nonorganic kind at the grocery store. The old apples were perfectly good, her mother-in-law said. Why waste money—and apples?

      The Fergusons recall Dave’s mother saying something along these lines: “When we come to your place, we don’t complain about your food. Why do you complain about ours? It’s not like our food is poison.”

      “I can’t convince my brother to spend another dime on food,” adds Dave.

      “This is our charity. This is my giving to the world,” says Alexandra, finally, as she packs lunchboxes—organic peanut butter and jelly on grainy bread, a yogurt, and a clementine—for her two boys. “We contribute a lot.”

      The church in which I was brought up kept the Levitical health laws—basically like keeping kosher. We were constantly and very sensibly warned from the pulpit not to get all proselytize-y about it with friends and relatives, as new converts were tempted to do. In every culture I’m aware of, letting on that you think you’re too good for the food your hosts have offered you is one of the most insulting things you can do, even to relatives. And there are few things more tedious than being trapped in conversation with a sanctimonious food fuss. These people are lucky the husband’s relatives are still talking to them.

      And that “This is our charity” bit, in which the wife rationalizes her status-gaming and snobbery as some sort of donation to help struggling organic farmers, has to be the funniest piece of self-justification ever.

    9. Julie says:

      I was being a bit sarcastic about the “season to taste” thing.

      I keep getting Internet commenters “calling bullshit” on me when I note that we’re a family of 4, and our food budget each month is around $300. It does fluctuate somewhat, because in the summer I buy boxes of fresh fruit to can and freeze, and then we spend a bit less in the winter. Our whole “grocery budget” –including dog food and dish soap and diapers and all that other stuff– is only $400. I know of families who actually spend quite a bit less than we do, but they eat differently than we do (usually more processed stuff. I’m picky about what my kids eat, and I try to keep them away from lots of preservatives and food colorings and stuff, which may make me a paranoid freak–I’m not sure–but it jacks our costs up a bit). If we had more money, sure, I could easily and happily spend more and buy more brie and stuff like that, but the point is that when you don’t have more money (and, btw, I’m not complaining about that–we don’t have a lot of money because my husband did not go to college, and although I did, I prefer to be at home with my kids and have less money) and you still want to eat well, you just have to figure it out. It certainly can be done. But readers of the NYT and the Atlantic, etc., always insist that I must live in some utopia where food is super accessible and unreasonably cheap. Or I could just be lying.

      We do buy some organic stuff because (back to the paranoid freak thing) I do worry about exposing the kids to endocrine-disruptors and all that. But I would never, ever hint that we’re too good for someone else’s nonorganic apples. Between the locavores and the vegans and the organics and the peanut allergies and the Atkins diet, feeding people–which, to me, is a very important way of caring–is not fun anymore. Anything you serve offers up the potential for extreme sanctimony. Blech.

    10. Sean says:

      I did figure you were at least half jesting, yes, Julie. :)

    11. Sarah says:

      This is our charity! GAG. Perhaps she should try contributing to SOME charity.

      The only thing my inlaws drive me nuts on food wise is tea because ALL they have is flavored teas. But I’ve learned constant comment’s almond is not that bad… or I drink coffee.

      When I was an exchange student at 17, what they pounded into our heads was “you eat what you’re served unless you’re violently allergic.” Almost every student who had problems with his host family, the problem started with their keeping some weird diet that wouldn’t allow them to eat what the family ate and/or complaining about the food.

      Mind you, it was interesting coming from Portugal to a family that cooked from-cans and from-pre-assembled. It wasn’t bad, but it was very different and never became my favorite thing. But it was eminently survivable. Besides, I used to duck down the street to Dan’s family at least twice a week because my (had no clue then she was going to be) cooks from scratch and makes a lot of salads. Oh, yeah, and also because she had this hot son who found all sorts of reasons to visit from college an hour away on the days I would be having dinner there… 😉

    12. Sarah says:


      WOW on that budget. OTOH you don’t have two TEENS, right? Mine were chubby kids/babies and I thought they ate a lot. Now they’re skinny teens and they’re eating me out of house and home. I swear, the more they eat the skinnier they get. (Sigh.) We’re buying a bigger freezer so I can freeze veggies in summer and also so we can buy more bulk.

      I too get very weird but possibly on things no one else does. I’ve gone on a war on plastic cups because of the hormonal thing… Fortunately the boys are of an age where they don’t break glasses that much.

      And you know, I’m one of those people who loves feeding her friends, but our parties have become smaller/less frequent for the last ten years till I think in the last year we didn’t host any. I just realized part of it is exactly that. You need a dietary list from every potential guest, anymore.

    13. Julie says:

      No, my kids are still little, thank goodness. I’m going to need a second job when they’re teens, just to keep up with the increase in groceries. My husband and my youngest son are also ones who eat constantly and lose weight precipitously if they don’t.

      I use coupons fanatically. I started a bit over a year ago, and by pairing coupons with sales, I managed to cut what we were spending by about half. I could cut it more, as noted, if we were willing to eat a little differently, but we can afford this level of spending, and I’d rather have more fruit than less.

      I am totally with you on the plastics/hormone thing. I don’t use most commerical cleaners and certainly no air fresheners for similar reasons.

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