Food culture: The Story of Sushi, United States of Arugula

Trevor Corson, the author of The Story of Sushi, is a sushi concierge. For an undisclosed fee, he will impart the secrets of sushi to a private party or corporate group.
Corson knows and loves sushi, and loves to teach about it and that shapes his book. Casual sushi fans will learn surprising facts: sushi evolved from a dish of preserved, fermented fish. The “traditional sushi bar” arise from the post-WWII reconstruction period, when the American occupiers banned outdoor stands as a health hazard. The little cultural habits of American sushi eating aren’t authentic. Japanese eaters of sushi don’t mix wasabi and soy sauce; they dip the fish side of the sushi; and they use fingers not chopsticks. Readers will learn about the biology of fish and fermentation, subtle techniques of shaping rice and slicing fish.
With a cultural historian’s eye toward the evolution of sushi, and an educated palate, Corson is cheerful about many adaptations of sushi in American culture: the field is more open to newcomers, including women and people of various ethnicities. California rolls and western-style sushi bars have become popular in Japan. His dislikes – sweet, fried adaptations of sushi – are esthetic but not purist. He is sympathetic to working class people who see sushi as a source of jobs, celebrities drawn to fashionable tasty food; learned and creative scholars and artisans. He’s an esthete but not a snob.
David Kamp, the author of The United States of Arugula, enjoys food. He’s a second generation upper middle class foodie, the child of parents who went through phases of Julia Child, Moosewood, and “do everything the New York Times weekend section tells you to do.” Most of all, he loves chronicling the mores and foibles of upper middle class trendsetters. The United States of Arugula is at least as much about the rise of food publicity and celebrity as it is about food.
The book chronicles the rise of promoters of American food culture, from the francophile tastesetters Child, Beard and Claiborne, to California’s post-hippie promoters of fresh local food at Chez Panisse and Niman Ranch, to the celebrity chefs of the day before yesterday, with shows on the food channel and franchise extensions in Vegas.
Readers will learn the origins of numerous food trends that have flitted into fashion; baby lettuces, pizza with artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. An underlying theme of the book is food as fashion; an individual or group discovers or invents a style; popularizes it, and creates a career. Another theme is foodiehood as social climbing. The aspiring upper middle class uses culture as a badge of membership in the club, and chases the latest trends in cooking and restaurants to compete for social status.
Kamp has some self-awareness about food-snobbery — he’s a co-author of The Food Snob’s Dictionary. But it’s self-awareness of the Saul Steinberg New Yorker Map – poking fun of one’s own parochialism while celebrating it.
Readers will learn about the love affairs of Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, the drug and alcohol habits of various food celebrities. Kamp feels the need to take sides in various internecine feuds. For example, he quotes numerous rivals and detractors of Alice Waters, pioneer of the goat cheese/walnut/baby greens California local style. Over the years, she has struck some ex-friends, ex-lovers, and ex-acquaintances as smug, bossy, promiscuous, politically naive, and not a very good cook. The takedowns of Waters strike this reader as a “foodie” variant on “punching up” – drawing attention to oneself by criticizing someone who is popular in order to get attention. Waters didn’t have to be perfect to be a pioneer. Though she may be temperamentally unsuited to win the political battle for a sustainable food system, she has been a founding visionary, and that counts.
I enjoyed the book. It was fun to read about the origins of trends that played as the food version of life’s soundtrack. But it made me squirm a little. While I was reading the book there was butternut squash evangelized by a Full Belly Farm stall staff person waiting on my countertop. I craved raisins to go with it, inspired by childhood tzimmes. In the supermarket bulk bins, next to the golden raisins were tasty-looking sour cherries. I bought them instead. I mixed the squash with chopped walnuts and sour cherries. Yum, and wow. Farmers Market butternut squash bears no resemblance to the bland supermarket product. The sweet squash, tart cherries, and savory walnuts were a simple and inspired combination.
You see, I am also a bastard cultural stepchild of Alice Waters. At social events in the Bay Area, one of the perennial topics of conversation is local food. As someone who came up from middle class cookery in which canned mushroom soup was a major food group, I’ve looked to magazines and cookbooks and blogs for entree into broader worlds of tasty and sophisticated food. The pleasure and guilty self-recognition reminded me of the promo blurb on the 80’s classic “Preppy Handbook” — “look, Muffy, a book about us!”

The King of California

Who are the agribusiness giants with a lock on so much of California’s water? The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire is a history of the vast cotton empire in the dry bed of what used to be a large inland lake in the California central valley. The founders of the empire, Horatio Alger adventurers from Georgia, bought up land, had four rivers dammed, dried up the lake and used the water for irrigation.
The Georgia farm emperors brought elements of plantation culture with them; poor white, Mexican, and black laborers had rough lives, with the most opportunity available for whites, some opportunity for Mexican immigrants, and the least opportunity for black laborers, although racist violence and sharecropping oppression wasn’t as vicious as the south. There were attempts to organize, and grueling strikes; in the end unions lost their foothold.
The cotton empire was able to lock in its own water supply from the rivers that used to feed the lake, so they weren’t involved in the great state and federal water projects that send Sierra water south. They did participate in the strange alliance between Northern environmentalists and central valley agriculture to defeat the peripheral canal in the early 80s; the greens thought the proposal didn’t protect the environment enough, and the farmers thought that it might protect the environment too much. The cotton giants also played a role in the endless legal battles to work around the 160 acre limit for federally funded irrigation projects, a rule which was only obeyed in creative workarounds and exceptions. The book has interesting, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the seduction of politicians to support the exemptions.
The book touches on the environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture; the destruction of the native habitat, of course; the poisoning of water, fish, birds from toxic buildup in the water; the poisoning of workers from pesticides, and the hostility of the farmers to the scientists attempting to measure the impact of the poisons.
The authors are former LA Times journalists, and it shows in the style. The story is built, piece by piece, from interviews with the secretive main character, family members, executives, retired laborers, washington lobbyists, and from records of legislative sausage-making and legal battles. The strength of the style is journalistic narrative drama and attention to detail, in stories about family feuds, boardroom battles, and immigrant sagas; and a fine eye for tragedies that passed un-noticed in the wider world; the babies who died of hunger in strikes, a 16-year old black farm worker without a license who died when the truck he was driving overturned, the Native Americans who remembered the once lush lake territory. As journalists in the muckraking tradition, the authors have a keen sense for corruption at petty and grand scales. The book’s weakness is a lack of systematic perspective on the social, political, and environmental context. The authors are Californians and have a strong feel for the background stories. They have opinions that shape the stories, and they state their conclusions explicitly at the end; plantation agriculture is by its nature bad for democracy, and the balance between commerce and environment has been drawn much too far towards commerce. But the authors’ style or knowledge shies away from the big picture.
Conclusions for peterme: I strongly recommend this book. Excellent in sweep, drama and detail. I bought the book wanting to learn more about California’s agribusiness giants, and their role in politics, environment, society, and the book satisfied those goals.
The book also got me thinking more about cotton. I prefer to buy produce local and organic where possible, but hadn’t given too much thought about fabric. Given the environmental cost of cotton, perhaps I should go for organic cotton too. But where farmers market food is a good value in high season, and the quality is astoundingly great, organic cotton staples seem to be 4x the price of conventional, the selection is skimpy, and the quality, hard to say. Organic cotton seems to be at an earlier stage of market maturity than organic food, which was pricy and scrawny 20 years ago. Being an early adopter will help grow the market.

Who is the online chief of staff?

Big news and much chatter this week about the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff for Barack Obama. The chief of staff is head gatekeeper for the office of the president, and chief of outreach to Congress. A critical organizing role for the community that is the 3D US Capitol.
What about the online community that the Obama administration wants to continue into the presidency. With, and the post-election evolution of, who will coordinate outreach to and filter input from the communities online who have new capabilities to communicate directly?
What year will the online chief of staff be a role whose influence is powerful, acknowledged, announced and debated in the news?

Republicans, meet reality.

I listened to a telling example of the detachment of Republican conventional wisdom from reality, last weekend while washing dishes. Two conservative bloggers, Ross Douthat and Jonah Goldberg fretted on Blogging Heads about the impending Democratic victory. How could it be that the Republican party betrayed our vision of limited government, and what will happen to that vision when the Democrats take power? They did see that Republicans had *not* lived up to their promise of “small Government”. But they had only the foggiest of pictures of what Republicans had been doing.
They acknowledged some of the Bush administration’s problems with incompetence and corruption. What they didn’t see was that their beloved vision of “small government” had been paid for by corporate interests who wanted the freedom to dump hog manure into vast lakes, or invest vast quantities of other people’s money with minimal collateral. The small government vision hadn’t been betrayed by a few corrupt greedy people. It had been bought by the corporate lobby from day one. Libertarian arguments, and honest libertarians, too, are and always have been the pawns of communally destructive self-interest.
Douthat and Goldberg acknowledged that some of the issues like “busing” and “crime” that helped Republicans gain power decades ago were no longer salient, that recently, Republicans had not been successful at persuading the public about the dangers of immigration, and that Republicans had not delivered on the social conservative agenda. What they didn’t see at all was the pattern behind these single issues — the fact that, from Nixon’s southern strategy to Karl Rove and Sarah Palin, Republicans have sought to win elections by picking some minority to demonize, and that strategy is starting to backfire spectacularly, with Hispanic voters, young voters, voters in the “unAmerican” parts of Virginia, all voting for the candidate who inspired with a vision of American unity in diversity.
They acknowledged that the Iraq war was a well-intentioned mistake, and the neocons had been a bit too optimistic. But they saw the failure as a failure of tactical execution. They didn’t acknowledge that the fearmongering, militaristic style of patriotism that characterized the Republican convention had burned peoples synapses; the word terrorist is a Pavlovian cue for many fewer people, and the promise of the circus isn’t distracting people this year from the uncertainty about where they will get bread.
It is a fine thing that conservatives and Republicans are reflecting on their recent failures. But unless they understand the relationship between the goals of the coalition partners – corporate, fundamentalist, pro-war; and the outcomes of Republican governance, they may not make much headway. Whether and how they can face these things honestly? Not my problem. I do miss sane republicans. How to wrest some sanity out of the corporatist, militarist, nativist, theocratic mess that Bush republicanism became? Really glad that’s not my problem.

No on 8 – don’t (just) blame the Mormons

There was a vocal demonstration at the Mormon temple in the east bay, large enough to block traffic. Sure, the Mormon church should get into big trouble with the IRS if its role in political organizing can be demonstrated. But let’s be real here — there was 49% turnout in San Francisco County and 55% turnout in Alameda which voted overwhelmingly against Prop 8. There was 59% turnout in San Mateo county. If we the supporters of marriage rights for all had done a better job of helping our neighbors and friends to vote, the result would have gone the other way. The result was in many respects a failure of execution. I care much less about yelling at Mormons and much more about turning out allies and persuading people on the fence about justice for all.