Sam Kass says it’s time for the food movement to grow up

On Sunday Nov. 7, the Washington Post published an op-ed calling for a national policy for food, health and well-being. “How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on Americans’ health and well-being than any other human activity,” wrote its authors, journalists Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, agronomist Ricardo Salvador and the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food Oliver De Schutter. “Yet the United States has no food policy.”

The idea wwas broad and ambitious. It was hard to imagine that anyone who cares about food would argue with them.

But there was one person who did. A pretty important person: Sam Kass, the executive director of Let’s Move! and the White House’s senior policy advisor for nutrition policy. Five days later, in a speech at the New York Times Food for Tomorrow conference, held at Stone Barns Center, Kass argued that to move further, food advocates must be more sophisticated and strategic. “We must move from these lofty theories that set unrealistic expectations about what change should look like to pragmatic, meaningful steps that reflect the political reality that we have to operate in.”

In other words: It’s time for the food movement to grow up. A set of principles won’t change Washington’s approach to food. Bills that can pass the new Republican-held Congress will.

Kass’s message resonated with me because six years ago, in the heady days after President Obama was first elected, I wrote my own op-ed in the Washington Post that made a similar point. Now that we finally had a president who knew the price of arugula, I argued, it was important to talk about slashing obesity rates, helping small farmers and teaching kids about food. But to be successful, the movement needed specific policy asks that a broad range of constituencies could rally behind.

In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture I report on what Kass says the food movement has to do to become a political force. And I steal an idea from Michael Pollan for what a good first step will be.

Read and let me know what you think.

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“Prune” is a book for cooks

Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune (Photo courtesty of The Washington Post)

A meal at Prune is emblematic of its chef-owner Gabrielle Hamilton’s approach to food: honest, unconventional and defiantly unpretentious. The same is true of her new cookbook, “Prune” (Random House), published to coincide with the restaurant’s 15th anniversary. The book was conceived as the antithesis of the “food porn” that celebrity chefs routinely use to cement their images. “Prune” has no lush photos of Hamilton shopping at farmers markets, or even literary essays, despite the fact that she is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir “Blood, Bones and Butter.”

Instead, it is an old-fashioned cookbook because it includes pretty much just recipes — a kind of culinary companion to her memoir (in which she refused to include recipes, much to her publisher’s dismay). “Cookbooks are a little confused now,” Hamilton said. “They are art books or half-memoir, half-recipes. This is a cookbook. It tells you what we do to get our food to taste this way.”

Read the whole story about Hamilton and her genre-defying cookbook in the Washington Post Food section. We also ran recipes for Hamilton’s fabulous spaghetti carbonara and omelet with caraway and sour cream.

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Meat on the side

Chefs around the country, and the globe, are pushing meat from the center of the plate—and sometimes off it altogether. Trade, in Boston, serves polenta topped with fall squash, peppers, scallions and a scattering of pancetta, while at Zahav, in Philadelphia, roasted eggplant comes drizzled with lamb’s tongue vinaigrette. At New York’s Dovetail, a “vegetable-focused” menu features cured carrots with duck breast, cashews and black garlic. In September, Alain Ducasse, the godfather of French cuisine, announced that his flagship restaurant at the Plaza Athénée in Paris would remove most meat from the menu in favor of organic vegetables and seafood.

In short, an haute restaurant meal no longer has to deliver 8 ounces (or more) of meat plus a vegetable side. Increasingly, it is the opposite.

In my latest piece in the Wall Street Journal, I look at what’s driving this trend: a quest for healthier meals, concerns about the environment, and rising meat prices. Even better, I offer three fantastic recipes for dinners with minimal meat. There’s the polenta with pancetta and shaved squash (pictured above), mussels with borlotti beans and buckwheat noodles with Thai grilled chicken. Check them out. You will thank me.

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An interview with the Splendid Table

This week, Brent and I went on NPR’s the Splendid Table to talk about our research in West Virginia. If you are interested in our book — which really will be done soon — this is a great primer on the subject of class, culture, and why the messenger matters. You can listen in or read a transcript here.

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The reality of “A Chef’s Life”

Vivian Howard samples a persimmon. (Image courtesy of the Washington Post)

Reality TV, despite the name, mostly serves up scripted dialogue, manufactured drama and plenty of well-worn stereotypes. If, like Vivian Howard, you are a) Southern and b) have moved from New York to your home town in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, the show that most TV producers want is something more like megahits “Duck Dynasty” or “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” “People want me to cook muskrat on the side of the road,” Howard said, not bothering to hide her irritation. “That, I could get money for.”

But the 36-year-old chef doesn’t cook muskrat. Nor does she see why she should have to, just to be on TV.

And so where most reality programs hurtle from one disaster to the next, “A Chef’s Life” ambles along, trailing Howard as she buys buttermilk from one neighbor, then learns from another how to perfect a Southern biscuit. The series paints a sensitive portrait of her life and the lives of her neighbors in Kinston, N.C. And along the way, it has done something else: helped to revitalize their city by luring culinary tourists.

In my latest story for the Washington Post, I illustrate the difference that one chef can make to a small town. Besides doing great work, Howard is a marvelous chef. You heard it here first: She’s the next great Southern chef.

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In search of a school food playbook

Along with Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard, the first and most famous children’s food-education program in the United States, FoodCorps is one of the most visible and successful.  And over the past decade, hundreds of such programs have sprouted. But despite the explosion of programs, we still don’t have a school-food playbook, a guide to what works, what doesn’t and what provides return-on-investment for cash-strapped schools. And we need one—both to win over skeptics and to justify funding for programs that teach kids to love and value food.

As I write in my latest column for the Stone Barns Center, we have an outline of one: a 1998 research study about Cookshop, a New York food and cooking problem. What do you think? Weigh in.

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.

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