Foodies as a substitute for democracy

Sam Smith – As I was watching The Hundred Foot Journey, a mixture of charming acting and what Alonso Duralde called in the Wrap, a “slumgullion of food porn,” I remembered standing in line with my sandwich and brownie at the Wild Oaks Bakery & Cafe in Brunswick, ME, as an extraordinarily picky customer ahead of me was directing precisely how much of what items should go into her salad.

It suddenly occurred to me that the foodie movement was not just another random change in our culture, but an unconscious replacement of our former power in politics and national policy with thrice daily decisions on such matters as choice of dressing, glutin composition, and the presence or absence of anchovies. We can no longer determine the character of our politics, so we try make to up for it by selecting the right cheese for our sandwich.

And hardly anyone notices that  choosing between kale or spinach is far less than our founders dreamed we might do in our pursuit of happiness.

In the beginning Monsanto patented the earth

Sam SmithHaving been involved in farming on and off much of my life, I was stunned to hear on CSPAN radio the justices of the Supreme Court speaking of soy beans as though they were a product of Monsanto.

At least that’s how it sounded. To be sure, Monsanto had fired a gene gun into some seeds that gave them a friendly attitude towards the corporation’s Roundup herbicide but apparently unrealized by the justices is the fact that soybeans are a product of nature and not of capitalism and the legal system. 

In the portion of the debate I heard, no one bothered to mention this.

As I understood Monsanto’s successful argument, if it invented a DNA twister that would allow inoculated prospective parents to have their child avoid measles, those parents’ payment for the shots would be good for their baby but not for the baby’s children, in which case another license fee would be required even if another shot wasn’t. And all three generations were be considered effectively patented by Monsanto  even if there is more to life than the avoidance of measles. They might even have to wear a shirt that confirmed the fact.

If I were a soybean I would be totally insulted by the court’s decision, for it implies that it is my herbicide resistance and not my delicious and nutritious taste that defines my being.

If I were more godly, I would consider it atrociously anti-Christian. What’s next? In the beginning, Monsanto patented earth?

And as one with some farming experience – including working on an organic beef farm my parents started before Silent Spring – I can promise you I have never heard the term “exhaustion doctrine” used in connection with any living creature or plant until the Supreme Court took up the matter.

There are a lot of other reasons to worry about Monsanto but I’m also worried about a Supreme Court that refers to a plant as a “self-replicating technology” that was “invented” by a corporation.

Did Monsanto plant the seed, care for it, harvest it and sell it?

It’s role in the whole process was, in fact, pretty damn small. That’s the way nature works.

And if you don’t believe me, ask any farmer. Or God.

Food and kids

Sam Smith

One reason why I reacted negatively to the Michelle Obama encouraged federal limit on calories for school lunches is because I’ve been dealing with the issue of kids and food a long time, having been on the board of a Maine alternative agriculture center.

We have hundreds of children who come to a rare farm summer day camp and thousands more who visit during the school year. Recently our Teen Ag program was featured in two local papers. The Falmouth Forecaster reported:

Pulling weeds, bucking hay and fighting bugs is not how most high school students want to spend their summer. But four students working at Wolfe’s Neck Farm wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else. By the end of the week, the small crew will have followed as much as 5,000 pounds of produce from seed to table, and donated it to food pantries in Freeport and Brunswick, while learning about all aspects of farming.

At the end of the season, these four teens raised, picked and cooked a dinner for 70 at Freeport Community Services.

Down the coast a bit, the superintendent of a local school district has made a major effort to improve both the quality of, and attitude towards, food by such things as integrating the topic into the curriculum and changing the distributor of the system’s school to one more friendly to organic and natural products.

I’ve never been a fan of puritan liberals, but especially not when the target of their righteous, rigid rules are kids. Because it just doesn’t work well, as the lunch rebellions in many schools have indicated. It’s not hard to get children interested in good things, but if they think it’s just another stupid rule they resist rather than learn.

Besides, as with many of top down programs, they work much better on the evening news than in reality. For example, USA Today reports:

Unfortunately, at the same time brakes are being tapped on caloric intake at lunch, the Obama administration is championing a vast expansion of the school breakfast program. At the same time some kids are getting smaller lunches, others are having multiple breakfasts thanks to another law.

Obviously, there are children who need one breakfast and those who don’t need two breakfasts. But the solution lies in pragmatic local solutions – not preachy and contradictory rulings from Washington.

The way to get kids to eat the right things is to get them informed and interested in the matter. Sadly, in education, enthusiasm and comprehension has given way to rules and test taking, but the former still are the best routes to understanding and useful action.


Sam Smith, 2000 – In the time before the walls of the capital were irrevocably breached by the bagel boosters of Manhattan, the technocratic terrorists of the Harvard Business School, and the hubristic hordes of Yale Law, Washingtonians often spoke of things other than work, power, and food. Restraint on the latter topic was immeasurably aided by a lack of restaurants, modest menus, early closing times, and a peculiar local tradition of surly waiters.

The food was often more nondescript than bad, which was all right because restaurants then were places to go to be with your friends rather than to be seen by your adversaries. Eating out was an extension of community, not politics by other means, or a stage on which to display one’s exquisite and ostentatious knowledge of trivial gastronomic variations.

Of course, community and good food are not mutually exclusive; a few examples of their synergistic potential still survive even in boomer Washington, most notably La Tomate on Dupont Circle, AKA the Review’s conference room. It’s the sort of place that, when the owner died a few years back, 500 people showed up for his funeral including politicians, cops, and this alternative journalist.

But for the most part, Washington’s better known restaurants mimic the brutalist capital culture they serve, places of power and image, of price and pretense.

In 1987 wrote a piece for Washington’s City Paper in which I complained:

“Life in Washington’s slow lane is under siege. The culture of the more than half-million residents who don’t subscribe to the Washingtonian, who think of game plans only on fall weekends, and who eat at the 537th best restaurant in town and honestly believe they have had a good meal is threatened by in intrusive, presumptuous, and pompous elite so insecure it must remind us every day in every way that it is in town. This elite is not content with the mere possession of money, power, and success; it feels compelled to plaster its icons and totems all over town, giving the place the oxymoronic aura of franchised trendiness, coincidentally destroying the places and symbols of indigenous Washington.”

It being also quite a literal city, the restaurant critic of the Washington Post, Phyllis Richman called to inquire the name of the 537th best restaurant in town. I quickly devised an answer, bestowing the honor on a hole in the wall on New York Avenue I had recently visited. Richman wrote a piece in which she called me a “capital curmudgeon,” and noted that my ranking was a bit off since the place in question had an award from another publication hanging on its wall.

When I wrote that, I was actually thinking of places such as the long-gone DC Diner into which came cops, drunks, prostitutes and college students returning from dates or, on early Sunday mornings, from the midnight mass that the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception thoughtfully provided the Catholic young and restless. My routine was to order the steak and egg breakfast. A beefy cook would grab a couple of eggs and burst them on the grill. The steak followed. He then reached over for a handful of home fries from the foot-high pile that sat nearly cooked in a cool corner of the stove. Almost simultaneously the chef lunged for a fistful of salad from a five gallon potato chip can resting under the counter and plopped it into a side dish. During the whole procedure no kitchen utensil touched his hands, yet few meals have tasted as good.

Or Spack’s Chicken on the Hill, which had a storefront windows filled with an 1883 Swiss music box, an airplane propeller, opera glasses, statuettes and drug store jewelry. There are Arabic sabers hanging over the restroom doors and travel posters on the wall. Also “the world’s smallest bar” — a few shelves filled with miniature liquor bottles. “Now someday this place is going to have class,” Spack once told our reporter, Greg Lawrence. “You know — cosmopolitan, relaxing, with fine music from the past. For instance,” he said as he reached for an object under the counter, “this vase from Europe has been dyed by its creators in pigeon blood. Now I ask you, what other cafe on Capitol Hill features decorations dyed in pigeon blood?”

There was a whole subset of restaurants, though, that specialized in surliness: Martin’s in Georgetown, the AV Ristorante on New York Avenue, and a Capitol Hill favorite, Sherrill’s Bakery. Sherrill’s is about to close to make way for yet another Starbucks, purveyors of hot, flavored water and milk to urban sophisticates who enjoy hearing themselves say, “one latte grande with a chocolate biscotti, please.” The only place in America where you have to take a Kuder preference test before getting a pound of ground coffee.

Sherrill’s wasn’t like that. Once when a parent asked for two donuts for her kid, the woman behind the counter said, “he only needs one.” On another occasion, a dissatisfied customer picking up her cake became so frustrated she threw her acquisition at the staffer and stormed out. The sort of place you miss when it’s gone.

There are still a few real Washington eateries left, though. Like Jimmy T’s just five blocks from the US Capitol. It hasn’t been refurbished in over three decades, the paint hangs like stalactites, and when we entered the other day, the kid sitting on the stool was told to “go in back and get your shirt on. We’ve got customers.” The only sign on the place is a neon one in the window that says “OPEN.” You just have to know where you are.

They don’t waste money on signs at such places. My old office, not too many blocks away, was right next to Helen & Lee’s Carryout. They would advertise their pork chop sandwiches and other specialties as “recommended by our five doctor sons.” Then Helen died and for years thereafter, the carryout had a sign that read, “& Lee’s Carryout.”

The other night, Hallmark put on one of those sappy movies I never watch, except this time the setting was DC, so I did watch it. There was a scene in which the leads went to a funky eatery in Georgetown, except they don’t have any funky eateries in Georgetown, and so they ended up across town at Jimmy T’s. I was reminded of my conversation with the owner during which I had listed some of Washington’s rudest restaurants. He said, “And don’t forget me.” As I was leaving, I shook his hand and said, “My name’s Sam,” and he looked me straight in the eye, and said with perfect impassivity, “Mine’s Juanita.”

I’m going back.