Category Archives: idiocy

Who’s the Real Elitist in the the Anthony Bourdain-Paula Deen Spat?

bourdaindeen

Them’s Fightin’ Words

Anthony Bourdain set the food world aflutter about a week ago when he criticized Paula Deen for encouraging Americans to eat food that’s “killing us” and “sucks.” Here’s the full text of the quote that started the whole thing, which appeared in TV Guide Magazine August 18:

bourdain scarf The worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f—ing bad for you. If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us. Plus, her food sucks.

It was a stupid, incendiary remark. Spite masquerading as “straight talk” and a shameless attempt (on TV Guide’s part, if not Bourdain’s) to manufacture controversy and attract page views. And hypocritical to boot. The claim that Deen has “unholy connections with evil corporations” is mighty rich coming from a guy who shills for Chase Sapphire. Furthermore, Bourdain himself isn’t exactly shy about eating rich, “fattening” foods on his show or serving them at his restaurant, which offers traditional French brasserie fare, including all the requisite butter, beef, bacon, sausage, foie gras, eggs, cream, white bread and fried potatoes. Check out the clip from No Reservations titled "Bourdain makes a deep-fried discovery," in which he points out that in almost every cuisine and every region, someone has figured out that dipping things in batter and cooking them in hot fat tastes pretty darn good before enjoying some deep-fried crab cakes and walleye. I’m not convinced that butter and fried foods are “killing us” or that either he or Paula Deen has a meaningful impact on how very many Americans eat, but I’m also pretty confused why he thinks her cooking is significantly worse for people’s health than he stuff he tells people it’s OK to eat.

Bourdain eventually backed off the hyperbole of his initial remarks on twitter, clarifying that he didn’t say Deen was the worst person in America, just the cook on the Food Network who’s the worst for America and adding that she’s probably very nice “as a person.” He also groused about how no one ever asks him who the best chefs on the Food Network are, and said the next time someone asks him about the worst ones, he’ll keep his mouth shut.

bourdain twitter

Meanwhile, Deen fired back with a populist appeal. In an interview with The New York Post, she defended her cooking on the grounds that she and the other maligned Food Network hosts feed “regular families” who struggle to put food on the table. She also claimed that she uses her wealth and celebrity for good, pointing out that her “partners” (i.e. the “evil corporations” Bourdain referred to) donate meat to food banks and that the other Food Network hosts also work to help uncontroversial charity targets: the hungry, sick children, and abandoned animals:

scary paula “Anthony Bourdain needs to get a life. You don’t have to like my food, or Rachael’s, Sandra’s and Guy’s. But it’s another thing to attack our character. I wake up every morning happy for where I am in life. It’s not all about the cooking, but the fact that I can contribute by using my influence to help people all over the country. In the last two years, my partners and I have fed more than 10 million hungry people by bringing meat to food banks.”

Basting Bourdain for his apparent lack of charity and his attitude, she said, “My good friends Rachael, Guy and Sandra are the most generous charitable folks I know. They give so much of their time and money to help the food-deprived, sick children and abandoned animals. I have no idea what Anthony has done to contribute besides being irritable.

Deen continued, “You know, not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills . . . It wasn’t that long ago that I was struggling to feed my family, too.”

Her attempt to align herself with “regular families” and portray her role as Smithfield’s spokesperson as some kind of charity work is just as ludicrous as Bourdain’s remarks.* She admits she has “no idea” what kind of charitable work Bourdain does or doesn’t do, but certainly implies it’s less than her. And then she mentions expensive foods, as if $650 wine has anything to do with Bourdain’s comments. As Rebecca Marx of the Village Voice pointed out, “Deen is no less a member of the culinary aristocracy than Bourdain—they just belong to country clubs with different rules.”

*Which is not to say that Deen doesn’t do any good work as Smithfield’s spokesperson. Perhaps, like Sandra Lee (another of Bourdain’s targets, although in the TV Guide article he mostly sounds scared of her), she uses her influence as spokesperson to get more food from Smithfield to hungry people. Taking their money and promoting the brand doesn’t mean she necessarily agrees with everything they do; perhaps she figures she can do more good that way than by refusing their money on principle. But I also doubt her deal with them is entirely about charity and not at all about personal gain.

Pot, meet Kettle

I’m not convinced the rules they’re following are really so different. Deen and Bourdain have both established their brands and built their celebrity by catering to essentially the same mass desires. First, they trade heavily on the fetishization of “authenticity.” Deen plays up her Savannah roots, performing what essentially amounts to a drag version of genteel Southern whiteness*—an exaggerated drawl and big hair and constant ya’lling and calling everyone “honey.” Bourdain does it by seeking out street food and the off-the-beaten-path restaurants that only the locals know about, or, even better, people who will cook “traditional” foods for him in their homes.

Both of them serve up something that looks and feels “real” in a way that answers the dissatisfactions of global capitalism and the seeming unreality and homogeneity of mass production, multinational corporate brands, slick but empty advertising, artificial flavoring. As Andrew Potter argues in The Authenticity Hoax, the search for the “authentic” is largely a disguised form of status-seeking, and it’s a particular preoccupation of the wealthy, educated classes. As he explains in an interview with WorldHum:

There are certainly authentic experiences—insofar as the authentic is defined as something that’s a refuge from the modern world. But what I try to argue in the book is that the search for the authentic comes at a price. It tends to be quite expensive to find these things. The other side is that it ends up an arms race….

People have sort of authenticity in degrees. For instance, let’s say the absolute fake is going to some Italian restaurant in some fake Venice in Vegas. That’s the absolute fake. Here in Toronto, where I live, you can go down to little Italy and go to an authentic Italian restaurant, probably run by real Italians. And then you could actually go to Venice. And once you’re there, you can either go to the tourist traps they have all set up for tourists, or if you’re really lucky you know a local who will actually make you a dinner in Venice, which you would call the epitome of authenticity. So all these things have varying degrees of authenticity to them and, not coincidentally, they have varying degrees of priciness attached to them.

Secondly, they both celebrate a particular form of illicit gustatory pleasure and culinary excess. Deen’s unabashed love of butter and bacon and Bourdain’s celebration of meat and alcohol offer an antidote to anxieties about eating “right” and the repressed, Puritanical elements of both diet culture and the Organic/vegetarian/macrobiotic/fair-trade/raw/local/sustainable movement.

You can tell it’s about backlash & rebellion, rather than just what Bourdain and Deen happen to genuinely enjoy, because they’re clearly aiming for shock value as much as for deliciousness. When Deen pretends she’s going to drink melted butter (see below) or makes burgers topped with bacon and egg with glazed donuts in place of the bun, she’s deliberately thumbing her nose at the current nutritional establishment that says calorie-dense food and fat, especially saturated fat, is Public Enemy #1.

Bourdain’s whole persona is based on the bad boy reputation he cultivated in his first memoir, which is as much about sex, drugs, and rock and roll as it is about cooking. And he says nasty things about Vegans and Alice Waters and seemingly takes any opportunity to talk about how much he and his daughter like to eat bunnies (not rabbit, mind).**

Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.

They both specifically delight in being naughty, in breaking the rules. And people who are similarly fatigued or fed up with dietary rule-making (which fatigue, again, is more prevalent in the wealthy, educated classes who make the rules in the first place) or just hate The Man in general absolutely love them for it, though rarely both of them. They are competing brands, but they work in basically the same way.

*Which is not to say it’s entirely fake or 100% an act. Both Deen’s and Bourdain’s public personas are probably like any of our social selves—socially-constructed identities that aren’t exactly real, but also aren’t exactly fake and change according to context. I doubt either Deen or Bourdain have deliberately concocted every aspect of their personas to appeal to mass audiences in these ways—what’s more likely is that they have achieved success where other aspiring celebrities have not because their personas happen to resonate with current popular desires and fears, which makes them effective entertainers. But that doesn’t mean they’re just being “true to themselves,” whatever that even means. Neither of them is probably 100% the same on and off camera. In some sense, both of them are probably relatively savvy managers of their personas, because they’re extremely valuable brands. I’m sure they think about how their performances, including things they say to TV Guide or The New York Post, will affect how their fans and critics perceive them. And it would be almost inhuman if they didn’t attempt to manipulate the outcome at least a little bit, even if usually in subtle ways like saying “ya’ll” or “fuck” just a little more frequently.

**Oddly, Deen has also talked about eating rabbit—supposedly her grandfather would hunt rabbit and squirrel before going to work in the morning and her grandmother would skin them and cook them for breakfast with grits and biscuits and honey.

Win, Lose, or Draw?

So the answer to the question of who’s the real elitist is probably “both” or “neither.” They’re both playing the same game: enabling the dominant social class to justify status-seeking by playing the role of rebels against the Culinary Establishment. They offer foodies plausible deniability about the pretensions involved in the middle-class preoccupation with food. At the same time, they both celebrate the lowbrow, the un-pretentious, and the debased bodily pleasures of eating and drinking. Neither of them is typically in the business of telling people how they “should” eat, except to the extent that they reinforce particular constructions of “authenticity” and desirability.

I can see why The Atlantic declared the results of the fight to be a “draw.” But I think Deen ultimately gained the advantage. Even people who thought Deen’s comments were stupid seem to agree with her that Bourdain was being a snob. By portraying him as the one with exclusive tastes, reminding people that he’s a professional globe-trotter, and reducing his rebellion to mere irritability, she made Bourdain into the Culinary Establishment. Even if people roll their eyes at the idea that she’s really on the side of the “regular families,” she successfully re-framed the fight. Also from The Atlantic:

What They Say They’re Fighting About: If Paula Deen is "the most dangerous person in America" or some permutation of that charge. Bourdain points to her caloric recipes and mass-appeal. Deen refers to her charity work and Bourdain’s lack thereof.

What They’re Really Fighting About: Class, privilege, and good food–and whether the first two are connected to the second.

If it’s a fight about health, she loses. If it’s a fight about class, then Bourdain is the snob because he’s the one saying her food is bad, and she’s the rube saying “to each his own.” The best evidence of her success is Frank Bruni’s piece in The New York Times, whose title is a barb aimed directly at Bourdain: “Unsavory Culinary Elitism.” Although Bruni agrees with Bourdain that Americans are too fat and laughs at Deen’s attempt at populist identification, he ultimately sides with her and scolds Bourdain for “looking down” on people with less money or less sophisticated tastes:

Put aside her one-with-the-masses pose, ludicrous in light of the millions she has made from television shows, cookbooks, cookware, mattresses and more. She’s otherwise 100 percent justified in assailing the culinary aristocracy, to which even a self-styled bad boy like Bourdain belongs, for an often selective, judgmental and unforgiving worldview….

To give him his due: we are too fat and must address that. But getting Deen to unplug the waffle iron doesn’t strike to the core of the problem any more than posting fast-food calorie counts or taxing soft drinks do. A great deal of American obesity is attributable to the dearth of healthy food that’s affordable and convenient in low- and even middle-income neighborhoods, and changing that requires a magnitude of public intervention and private munificence that are unlikely in such pinched times….

I prefer his TV show, “No Reservations,” a summons to eat adventurously around the world, to any of Deen’s. But these preferences reflect privileges and don’t entitle me, Bourdain or anyone else who trots the globe and visits ambitious restaurants — the most casual of which can cost $50 a person and entail hourlong waits — to look down on food lovers without the resources, opportunity or inclination for that.

Bourdain has probably eaten $50 meals far less often than Bruni, the former NYT restaurant critic, but it’s easy to elide Bourdain’s globe-trotting in search of what Potter calls the “epitome of authenticity” with the practice of eating at “ambitious restaurants.” Getting street food in Thailand is certainly as far out of reach for most Americans as the latter. Highlighting the exclusivity of his habits hurts Bourdain’s brand. Suddenly, instead of playing David to the Food Network’s Goliath, he’s Anton Ego and Paula Deen looks more like one of the rats who cooks delicious but humble peasant food.

I’m sure the damage to his reputation hasn’t been significant—his fans love him because he’s kind of a jerk, not in spite of it. But I think his tweet was right: if someone in the media comes calling, asking you to say nasty things about other people, you should probably just shut up.

Restaurants of New York: Stop Serving Assemblyman Felix Ortiz Food Prepared With Salt In Any Form

My sincere apologies to any lookalikes. Perhaps you could go moustache-less for a while? No salt for you!

Just over a week ago, a New York state assemblyman from Brooklyn named Felix Ortiz proposed a bill that would prohibit “the use of salt in any form in the preparation of any food for consumption” with penalties of “not more than one thousand dollars for each violation.” Presumably that wouldn’t prevent restaurants from providing salt for customers to add at their own discretion, but the bill offers no further details about what would and wouldn’t be considered a “violation” of the law or what is and isn’t included in the definition of “salt in any form”: see the full text here (hat tip: Reason).

Surely table salt (NaCl) would count, but what about any of the other edible ionic compounds that are chemically considered to be salts, like MSG (a sodium salt with the molecular formula C5H8NNaO4) or cream of tartar (a potassium acid salt with the formula KC4H5O6)? What about salty condiments like soy sauce, fish sauce, and ketchup? Would a restaurant that serves a ketchup-topped meatloaf have to forego the salt in the loaf mixture but still be able to slather ketchup on top (if so, why wouldn’t they just start adding ketchup to the mix as well, and finding ways to incorporate condensed soups and bouillon into dozens of other things that don’t already have them)? Or would they have to find or make their own salt-free ketchup—obviously a much larger burden on some kinds of restaurants? Even if it could make you live forever, would it be worth it?What about all the other prepared foods that already include salt and get used as ingredients in the preparation of other foods? Would Momofuku Milk Bar be banned from serving its famous compost cookies, which call for the addition of two “snack foods” like potato chips and salted pretzels?

House-baked, cured, and brined things would clearly suffer most from a law like this. It’s one thing to have to salt a soup or curry or burger at the table, but everything from deli pickles and salami to homemade cinnamon rolls and pie crusts would become completely unpalatable, if not impossible, without salt. When questioned by the Albany Times Union about salt-cured meats and pickles:

Ortiz didn’t have answers, saying repeatedly, "This all needs to be debated."

Of course, it’s probably not worth worrying about the ramifications of a bill that I can’t imagine has any chance of passing. Even the NYTimes has backed down from their initial, crazypants coverage of the recent NEJM study that claimed a small reduction in sodium consumption would save 44,000 lives a year—which is exactly the sort of statistic that gives legs to hysterical nutritional crusades (hysterical both in the funny-ha-ha sense and in the wandering-uterus-induced-insanity sense). The best example of that phenomenon is probably the equally batshit claim that obesity causes 300,000 deaths per year, but even anti-obesity crusaders have struggled to get far less aggressive measures passed, like the mandatory inclusion of calorie counts on fast food menus (which, incidentally, do not seem to reliably reduce how many calories people purchase).

Ortiz’s bill is actually so preposterous and so much more aggressive than the other recent proposals for reducing salt consumption, like the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s campaign to persuade food manufacturers to reduce the salt content of processed food by 40 percent over the next 10 years, that I initially thought it might be a sort of “straw man” bill designed by restaurateurs and/or salt-reform-skeptics to win people over by making salt reform seem even crazier than it actually is. But according to Ortiz, it was actually inspired by his father’s death:

He said he was prompted to introduce the bill because his father used salt excessively for many years, developed high blood pressure and had a heart attack (Albany Times Union).

Pity his father’s heart attack couldn’t be attributed to excessive exposure to creepy moustaches.

I've been trying to come up with equivalents and most of them end up being alcoholic: "As much as gin loves olives," "As much as tequila loves lime." There are so few other set-in-stone pairings. "As much as manchego loves quince"? "As much as rich gravies and stews love just a little bit of acid"? Ortiz’s salt-banning tribute to his dad is sort of like an inversion of the stories about filial love and salt that show up in traditional folklore of many different cultures from England to Central Europe to the Himalayan foothills. Many of them begin with a Lear-like scenario where a King or a nobleman in the unfortunate situation of having three daughters in a patriarchal society demands professions of love from each of them to help him decide how to divide his kingdom or estate between them (or, more accurately, their husbands). The elder daughters supply all the hyperbolic declarations of love you’d expect from adult children trying to protect their inheritance, although we’re meant to understand that they’re duplicitous opportunists who love their father’s money and power more than they love him. The youngest, who really loves him, says that she loves her father either as much as she loves salt or “as much as meat loves salt."

The King balks at being equated with a lowly condiment and banishes her for her seemingly insufficient devotion. Then, one of two things usually happens: either her departure magically causes salt to stop coming into the kingdom, their supplies begin to dwindle and people begin to sicken and die until the daughter returns and feeds her ailing father a nourishing, salty broth or bit of bread spread with butter and sprinkled with salt and he realizes that she was the one who loved him best of all OR someone arranges to have a feast prepared without salt, and as course after course comes out of the kitchen completely inedible, the King realizes his error and welcomes his daughter back. In Ortiz’s case, it’s the father who loves salt too much and the son who doesn’t realize its value.

The crux of the trope is that it’s only after people are deprived of salt that they realize how important it is to their happiness, and everyone gets to live happily ever after. In the English version called “Cap o’Rushes,” after the Lear bit, the story proceeds basically like the Grimm brothers’ “Allerleiruah” or “All-Kinds-of-Fur.” After banished from her father’s house, the daughter disguises herself in a cloak of rushes and becomes a servant in another nobleman’s home. He happens to have a son of marrying age so there are series of wife-seeking balls, Cinderella-style, and she’s the mysterious girl who steals his heart and disappears, though Cap o’Rushes manages to hang onto her shoes. Instead, the prince-figure gives her a ring, and when he falls into a deep depression because he doesn’t know how to find her, she prepares a stew or some gruel for him and slips the ring into it. Her identity is revealed and he proposes—and the interesting part is that the story doesn’t end there the way it normally would, not just in fairytales but in most English bildungsroman involving female protagonists until the 20th C. Boys become men and get jobs; girls become women and get married, The End. But in “Cap o’Rushes,” the resolution is about the salt as much as the marriage. The girl’s father is invited to the wedding, and she instructs the cooks to prepare her wedding feast without a grain of salt. By the last course, the man bursts into tears, finally realizing how much the daughter he sent away really loved him. The bride comes to his side, he recognizes her, she forgives him, and that’s what makes people happy ever after.

So here’s my proposal: if Felix Ortiz really wants restaurants to stop serving food prepared with salt “in any form,” I think that’s precisely what they should give him, but only him. I suppose, like the bill, what “in any form” means should be left up to the restaurants themselves, but I would encourage them to take a broad interpretation in case that’s how the court would chose to interpret it. Probably none of whatever the nibbles in the lower right corner are, either. Catering counts as restaurant-prepared food, too.So, no soy sauce or MSG, although I suppose we can let non-sodium salts like cream of tartar slide. But definitely no ham, bacon, salami, pepperoni, mortadella, corned beef, pickles, or kippered herring. No meats that have been brined, rubbed with salt, or dipped in a salted batter before cooking—let him taste what fried chicken and blackened fish are like without salt, what pulled pork is like without salt in the dry rub, and what roast chicken is like without any salt rubbed under the skin. No Chinese-style tofu (silken tofu, which is often made from soy milk coagulated with acid instead of salt could theoretically be okay, but be sure to check the label). No ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salad dressing, or cheese unless they’re house-made and can be made without salt. The same goes for pasta, bread, pastries, and puddings. No salt in the patty of any burger or in eggs cooked any style. No packaged potato or corn chips, pretzels, crackers, or cookies. No soups made with bouillon, no canned tomatoes. He can have them at home, but not at any establishment that would be covered by the ban.

If he goes to a noodle bar for ramen, he should be served a bowl of unsalted noodles in a salt-less broth with unsalted toppings. If he orders a BLT, he can have salt-free bread with lettuce, tomato, and salt-less mayonnaise—if there’s no salt-free bread or mayonnaise available, just the lettuce and tomato. Let him try salting cheesecake, ice cream, caramels, cookies, and croissants to taste at the table with a salt shaker. I don’t expect him to burst into sobs in the manner of Cap o’Rushes father, but we’ll just see how long it takes before he reconsiders the wisdom of banishing salt from the kitchens of New York.