Food for Thought
Do you eat meat?
Occasionally I have an appetite for it. Growing up, we ate meat not just at dinner, but three times a day. I became a complete vegetarian for many years, but now I'm not afraid to admit that I like meat. I don't think it's somehow better to eat a chicken than a cow. Meat is killing, and we just have to be honest about that. The distinction I make is how the animal is treated. I won't eat veal, or any food that requires an animal to be abused in order to produce it—like pâté made from geese that are force-fed. I feel the same about animals that are supposed to be cooked alive, like lobster. And I buy a lot of locally grown, organically fed, free-range meat and eggs.
Is the variety and diversity of food brands good for consumers?
Well, I think people don't realize that when they see five brands on the store shelf, four of them may be made by the same company. For example, Nestlé makes so many products under other names—Lean Cuisine, for instance, which is made by Stouffer's, but Stouffer's is owned by Nestlé—that you might pass one every 10 feet and not know it. The increasing centralization and conglomeration of food service ultimately compromises variety.
You also accuse food corporations of manipulating our tastes.
Yes. For example, in my book I talk about how the big flour companies moved Americans away from whole wheat varieties to white flour in the last century. They promoted soft, lighter breads as more sophisticated and more desirable because of its uniformity—and because it had become a value to pay someone to bake it for you.
Do you enjoy shopping?
I like the real-time, face-to-face experience—talking to the person behind the deli case, picking up the package and reading the fine print, comparing two or three kinds of butter and seeing that one was made in Iowa and this one was made 50 miles from here. It's enriching.
But so many people prefer convenience food.
That's because we're overly busy and too concerned with speed. We're surrounded by a media culture that tells us we must have it all, do it all and be it all at the same time—and if we fail we won't be happy. When it comes to eating, Americans are very rude and coarse compared to the rest of the world. In Italy, you can ask a stranger, "Where can I get some good cheese?" and start a whole conversation. People really take care to enjoy their meals. In Japan, presentation is very important—even in a little corner noodle shop the food is going to look good when it gets there. I'd like Americans to take a step back and learn how to have a gratifying relationship to the food they eat.
Has the Martha Stewart phenomenon helped or hindered us?
She doesn't have an influence on me. I think a lot of people regard her as a fantasy of what life would be like if everything were perfect, like a romance novel. It's easy to get seduced by that and think that if you eat certain foods or have a certain kind of kitchen or house, you'll feel better. The telling characteristic of our generation is that we've always been hungry for something.
You mentioned comfort food. How can food make you feel better?
It's gratifying to spend a little time cooking it. I recently made a beautiful mushroom soup. It took most of the day to chop, make the stock, simmer it and, of course, clean up. It's more important to me to do that than load my life with other things. And it was very, very good.