July 14, 2013

Views on Food: Restaurant, grocery biz is bizarre

I'm sitting in a restaurant with my friend Eleanor. It's so loud we can't hear each other. It's so loud we can't hear our server. I'm annoyed; she's annoyed.

I'm sitting in a restaurant with my friend Eleanor. It's so loud we can't hear each other. It's so loud we can't hear our server. I'm annoyed; she's annoyed.

I thought about telling Eleanor that until this dining room spent some money on mitigating sound-baffling materials, it was doubtful I'd return. Nah, she couldn't hear me, anyway.

When it comes to food, annoyances come in many forms. Supermarkets are too big. Conventional agriculture isn't really conventional. And the latest dietary trend creates fear of the staff of life.

Eating isn't simple anymore. But before we eat, we must shop, and this is where my discontent begins.

Shopping in an Escher drawing – no way out

Supermarkets have gotten so big that the population inside could qualify for cityhood. These stores are an ordeal to shop in, not just because they're big but because they're infuriating.

Why are the cage-free eggs and organic milk displayed in an area decorated with a cabin-in-the-woods feel, far from the oeufs ordinaire and the other dairy products? Organic soups, high-end ice cream and organic yogurt are in this foresty section, as if an analog Whole Foods dropped in like an alien vendor. Even more confusing is that sometimes regular and organic milks are displayed together, but not with all the organic brands. Horizon organic milk from Colorado has mainstream status, but not Straus from Marin County. It's over in the woods.

In produce, why are organic fruits and vegetables in a separate part of the produce department? Why can't the organic spinach and the so-called conventional spinach share a bin with a twisty tie labeling which is which?

Here's the backlash. Stores with smaller footprints and logical displays are sprouting up – Trader Joe's, Sprouts, Fresh & Easy. These stores keep all the eggs together, from battery eggs to organic cage-free eggs. Same for organic and un-organic milk, and all the soups.

It would be better if grocers stopped trying to outsmart us and just put it out there, and let us decide.

Isn't organic the original conventional agriculture?

Language is important in how we talk about food. If it's not organic, then we say it's conventionally grown. Really? Agriculture began about 10,000 years ago without the benefit of Miracle Gro. It was organic. Colonists saw American Indians fertilizing corn organically with fish. The first weeds were yanked by hand, but then a weed killer called the hoe was invented. Not until synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were slathered on fields and dropped from planes did Big Agriculture overtake the old ways, becoming the new convention. But conventional?

So here's my linguistic question. If in the agricultural timeline the organic model bookends the industrial model, wouldn't that make the contemporary agriculture of monocrops, crop dusting, RNAi gene silencers, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides and RoundUp-Ready genetically modified seeds unconventional, and the organic method conventional?

'Serve with crusty bread'

So many recipes say this at the end of a recipe that it makes my jaw ache.

This would never happen to the new gluten omissionistas. For them, any bread made with gluten-bearing flour is a bread of affliction. People who have "gone" gluten-free flee from bread, soups, muffins, pancakes, macaroni and even soy sauce made with fermented wheat.

What is gluten? It's a protein in wheat, barley and rye that causes intestinal leaking in 2 percent of Americans diagnosed with celiac disease, a genetic disorder. For these sufferers, the autoimmune reaction to gluten can be life threatening. That leaves 98 percent of us living with non- celiac gluten sensitivity, or being irrational. No beer, grain vodka, or rye whiskey for you. The difference is, this 98 percent could eat a sandwich and not end up in the ER.

The gluten-free diet as culinary fashion has suspicious links to Hollywood. Don't even dangle a bagel in front of Gwyneth Paltrow. Jenny McCarthy claims gluten-free made her son autism-free. Gluten avoidance is so kneaded into daily life that restaurant computers that send orders to the kitchen are programmed with a new button that says "NO GLUTEN!"

Let's digest this. At www.celiac.org, Dr. Peter Green says diets without gluten could be dangerous, particularly if you don't have celiac disease, which is most of us. The diet lacks fiber and the vitamins and minerals that fortify American wheat flour by law. A gluten-free diet can cause weight gain.

If you're really sick, there is no option but to avoid gluten. But demonizing gluten with a frisson of alarm for the sake of a trend trivializes gluten's danger for the real celiac patients.

We still can't cook – except for Michael Pollan

He tells us all about it in his new book "Cooked." Pollan writes misty reminiscences of his mother's "magic" in the kitchen. Now that he's gone all foodie on us, his own dinners take hours to prepare, the better to enjoy the slow Zen of slicing an onion. Real home cooks can do as much with fresh ingredients for three hungry kids in half the time.

He is not breaking new ground. Cooking teachers, cookbook authors, restaurateurs and, ahem, certain food writers have been saying for decades that knowing how to cook just a little bit is good for self-reliance, the family budget and your health. But this New York Times best-selling author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is the one getting all the attention.

Not all the attention is good. He's Pollanated trouble with women.

In "Cooked," Pollan blames feminism for blockading the kitchen from otherwise sane women. From Salon.com to beyondchron.com, women call him sexist. Last month, Pollan got to diffuse the blows during an appearance on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher." Guy to guy, Maher let Pollan man'splain why home-cooking from scratch is important.

He makes many good points, particularly when sticking it to Big Food's preying on near-cooks and non-cooks with products that pretend we are cooking without really cooking. Berkeley Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters started this line in the 1970s. Yes, anyone who's written a cookbook or who writes about food is justified in being jealous of Pollan, but he's really late to this party.


I'm not much of a lip-reader, but I know what the human mouth looks like when it's saying "what?" In too many restaurants and bars people are screaming at people who can't hear them, not even their server.

What's the point of a loud pickup bar when the person you're trying to pick up can't hear you? One downtown restaurant registered close to 80 decibels on my iPhone's Sound-Level app. This is about the din of a garbage disposal. How cozy.

Here's how I plan to solve the "what?" problem. Next time I go to dinner with my friend Eleanor, I'm taking my iPhone. Eleanor will take her iPhone. After being seated, I'll put in earbuds. She'll put in earbuds. Then I'll call her.

Elaine Corn is an award- winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor. She reports about food for Capital Public Radio, 90.9 FM in Sacramento. Reach her at ElaineCorninForum@gmail.com.

To read previous articles in the "Views on Food" series, go to www.sacbee.com/CAfood

Related content




Editor's Choice Videos