One might read a piece in the New York Times Food section about the difficulties of obtaining ethically and responsibly sourced shrimp, then find links to shrimp recipes beneath it. The national section of a magazine might be reporting on Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids at Mississippi poultry processing plants, while a food writer extols the joys of Popeyes’s chicken sandwich. The insatiable demand for a viral item is treated as though it exists in a different universe from the arrests and possible deportations of 680 people tasked with slaughtering its primary ingredient.
Some outlets have tried to discuss the role of food production in greenhouse gas emissions. Bon Appétit began the year with the announcement that it’d start composting in the test kitchen and use fewer single-use plastics; 30 percent of the new recipes it develops will be plant-based, meaning no animal products like meat, fish, dairy, or eggs. Last April, the New York Times Food section combined resources with the climate desk to put out a big package about how best to eat for climate change and how a warming world has affected popular crops.
These are useful steps, but limited ones. That raises the question: Couldn’t food publications advocate for such policy changes, especially around food production and access? Couldn’t they report on environmentally damaging agricultural practices, and on labor conditions for those working on farms, at slaughterhouses, and in restaurants, rather than only asking readers to eat less meat and compost?
This is a common approach for those on the recipe side, who don’t see it as their job to inform on the impacts of various choices—just to nudge in what’s commonly understood as the right direction. Alison Roman, author of the bestselling cookbooks Dining In and Nothing Fancy, says that her focus is on accessibility over sustainability, but that she recognizes the need to promote, for example, better fish, pushing her readers toward mackerel, anchovies, and sardines, which are easier than others to source ethically.
There is a case to be made that, while a broadly white food media has started to open up to the voices of a broader swath of writers and global cuisines, this hasn’t necessarily led to work that’s more actively engaged in the economic and environmental forces that determine what people eat.
It wasn’t always this way, with stories about the conditions of workers, animals, and agricultural policy published outside the publications or sections geared toward those who do the shopping, cooking, and eating.
Gourmet magazine under Editor in Chief Ruth Reichl famously published David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster,” in which the author went to a lobster festival in Maine and returned with an examination of the ethics of boiling the crustaceans alive. In 2009, the year the magazine folded, contributing editor Barry Estabrook wrote “The Price of Tomatoes,” about the slavery-like conditions suffered by tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida.
“It’s now separated, which makes me really sad,” Reichl told me by phone. “My argument to DFW was, ‘You know, you can sell this anywhere else, but you really want the people who are cooking the lobsters to read it.’ And it makes me sad that the food magazines have really backed away from issues of substance at a point when we need it more than ever.”
She believes fear of losing advertisers, plus the expense required to send writers to do that sort of on-the-ground reporting, is what’s holding publications back. When she was working for the Los Angeles Times, and print advertising was at its peak, she said, the Food section brought in $32 million per year. That model no longer brings in money. The media landscape being mainly digital has changed business models and capabilities, contributing to fixations on simple refrains, like “Eat plant-based.”
For now, the reporting on policy, agriculture, and labor in food is mainly left to independent sites such as Civil Eats and The Counter (né New Food Economy). Depressed farmworkers, the struggles of the dairy market, pesticide lawsuits, and food-safety stories have all taken up space on their home pages—which is nothing out of the ordinary, as neither site focuses on the recipes, lifestyle, and chef-type stories that more mainstream food magazines cover. Gourmet used to tackle all of it.
“Our mission has always been the forces behind what we eat, the forces that shape what we eat, and policy is obviously a huge part of that,” said Counter staff writer Sam Bloch, who recently reported on a protest by restaurant workers in New York who want to see an end to the tipped wage. “That’s what sets the parameters for how food is made, what’s the source. In food media terms, we’re more about the food chain.”
One of the writers blending concerns around climate change, policy, and the joy of eating is Soleil Ho, restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. “People want to read your content to relax and not to think about policy,” Ho told me. “Of course, we know that food is a matter of policy, when you think about tariffs or labor and just how people source things. That was the great thing about the local food movement—it really gets people to think about the macro of where food comes from and why that matters.” But “eat local” is no longer enough, she added, because climate change will soon be affecting food production everywhere. And that creates another problem—one grounded in media geography.
Food media, she pointed out, is centered in New York City, which has thus far been spared the more dramatic early effects of climate change. “If food media was centered in, let’s say, New Orleans, or Puerto Rico, or places where climate change has huge, palpable daily reminders in people’s lives, I think it would be covered more. New York had Hurricane Sandy—which was a really, really big thing that happened, but more or less, the impact on people who are in the media [was] like, ‘The train sucks.’”
Reichl believes the way to bridge gaps in coverage, and the divide between policy and pleasure in food writing, is to remember how significant the topic really is—how integral food is to every aspect of life. “When we’re talking about food, we’re actually talking about culture,” says Reichl. “And I think that part of it is just keeping it uppermost in your mind, asking yourself if you are taking it as far as you can.”
Original Source: https://newrepublic.com/