Tag Archives: food

Guest Post: Do Food Shows Have Ethical Obligations?

My supremely cool fan Josh O’Connor, who interacts often on my blog posts, got to thinking about the issues of food waste, and the treatment of reality TV contestants with dietary restrictions, after one of my recent MasterChef recaps where many dozens of eggs were thrown in the trash, as well as shattering the plates they were on.

Josh churned out a most thought-provoking blog about whether or not TV shows have an obligation to maintain any kind of ethical standard when it comes to food and the people who are on the shows.  And I wanted to share it with my audience, because you wonderful people are ALL about these kinds of subjects.

It begins:

One of my guilty pleasures in life is cooking shows… particularly highly dramatic, reality TV-style cooking competitions.  I’m talking shows like Chopped, Hell’s Kitchen, and Masterchef.  While I don’t have the luxury of cable, I must admit that Food network is a family favorite on vacations.  In watching these programs, one of the elements that seems to be remiss is the ethics of food (although I’ll let Chopped off the hook on this point for their very well-done “Lunch Lady” episode).  The question that these shows generate for me revolves around the entire concept of food morality and food ethics and the responsibility of high profile chefs to make people more food-aware.  Here are some examples that highlight my concerns.

Bri this season of Masterchef’s token vegetarian is the subject of a slew of vegetarian-related epithets throughout the individual interviews.  Moreover, the show’s “judges” question her ability to cook (and at times seem to question her ability to function as a human being) based on her dietary choices.  Perhaps most importantly, Bri is not given the opportunity to showcase her talents without having to engage the show’s many meat-based dishes.  Although Anthony Bourdain would certainly disagree, vegetarianism has become a pretty mainstream dietary concept for a variety of ethical positions (from environmentalism to animal rights).  Dealing with Bri’s choices in such a lackadaisical (and often cruel) manner sends the message that informed and conscious consumption of food is somehow inferior to eating anything that’s placed in front of you.  How would the format handle a contestant observing a Halal diet?   Would the producers feel as comfortable flagrantly mocking a contestant with food allergies or a health restricted diet?


Animals are Meat: A Follow Up

It’s now been about 24 hours since I posted the photo on Facebook of a free-ranging rooster from a chicken farm near Dallas that I was about to dispatch to become part of the menu at FRANK this weekend.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined what a magical 24 hours it would be.

Many, many nerves were touched on both ends of the spectrum.  And while it was certainly stressful to moderate the conversation on Facebook and here on my site, I feel SO overwhelmed with joy that this debate was able to take place.  (And I certainly hope it continues.)

The comments kept (and keep) coming, but among the most striking are the comments from parents who said they brought up the subject over dinner with their children.  Childhood is most definitely the time to begin having this conversation.  Adults who were born in the city and were never exposed to the origins of food as children end up being the kind of person described here by a fan in a comment on yesterday’s blog:

I had the occasion to meet a guy once with whom I ended up ranting about how much I love growing my own vegetables/fruit and how much I wished I had more then a balcony’s worth of shaded growing area (that’s all I got right now as a college student). This was his response: “You want to grow your own food? Isn’t that dangerous? How do you know if you don’t mess up and end up poisoning yourself? Why on Earth would you grow your own food?!?” Part of the reason why I became such a huge fan of yours is because it’s amazing to know that other people who love growing their own food exist in the modern world.

Education neighborhood children about chickens, 1 year before the neighborhood pressured the city to take them from me

Those of us who grew up on farms naturally have that connection to our food’s source.  But you don’t have to have grown up on a farm to have it.  And you can help your kids have it by participating in community garden programs (which they even have in inner city Manhattan); taking your kids to state fairs and walking them through the animal barns and explaining to them that ALL the animals in those barns are loved pets of other kids their age, and will be turned into meat after the fair to nourish people’s bodies; encouraging your grade schoolers to participate in the 4-H program and your high schoolers to participate in the FFA program.  Even if your kids live in an apartment in the inner city, these programs will give them the opportunity to raise crops and even animals at an off-site location sponsored by their schools.

I am so thrilled that I’ve been given the voice to be able to reach more people than just the ones in my immediate circle of family and friends.  This conversation was so dynamic, and it’s obvious by the charged emotions on both ends that people were really thinking and struggling with the concept.  These are the kind of conversations that are incredibly positive and constructive, and really make people sit down and THINK for a moment.

I wanted to end with an email that was sent to me by a very dear friend after reading the Facebook threads and my blog post:

I heard through the grapevine that people were giving you a tough time about your chicken-killing rampage. I thought I would share my own story, considering the fact that the first time I ever saw a live chicken up close was when I lived with you and Christian during those four years in Dallas, and for one whole year we raised chickens from the egg right up to their departure (either by natural death, moving to a nearby farm, or being made into dinner).

From left: A Buff Orphington brown egg, an Araucana green egg, and a Rhode Island Red speckled brown egg

I also remember when we discovered that one of our sweet chickens, who we lovingly referred to as CP, was a rooster! As I recall, where we lived in Texas there was an ordinance against owning roosters because they are loud. So what do we do with him? Well, for me, what we did was we turned him into a learning experience. We decided to have him for dinner!

My mother tells me very interesting stories about how her grandmother would kill chickens by grabbing them by the neck and twirling them in the air until their heads pop off, and then their bodies would run around the yard until they fall over. I must admit, the thought was not appealing, still I knew that this was something that was important to see because of all the great points you brought up in your blog post.

So we did it. We all gathered very ceremoniously around CP (except for Christian, who wouldn’t have had the heart to actually let any of us go through with it… the big softy), and we chopped off his head. It was fast and he didn’t suffer. To be honest, I thought I would be mortified… but I wasn’t at all. I knew for a fact he had had a really great life eating in our organic garden, climbing trees, bossing the other lady chickens around. If he had been in a factory, he wouldn’t have lived nearly as long or as happily.

By the way, he was delicious.

His body was treated with absolute respect, and we even buried his poor little head so Christian would never find it… I believe it’s currently under concrete, so that’s definitely never going to happen.

What did I take away from this experience? I finally learned where my food came from, and that lesson sticks with me today. Even now, when I make food or go out to eat, if there is meat I eat every last bite of it. If I am too full, tough, I go ahead and at least power through the meat before I give up on the rest of the vegetables/noodles.

So, let other people say what they will. I lived with you for four years and know how you treated every one of our ladies. In fact, I think you cuddled with them more than you actually spent time with the rest of us! Also, I don’t recall ever hearing of any other farmer giving their chickens bananas or other tasty treats on a regular basis. These are not things someone who disrespects animals would do.

Furthermore, I have never met another human being that cried so many times during the movie, March of the Penguins, so I’m not sure how anyone could possible fathom you as anything but an animal lover.

If there is one thing that you are, Ben Starr, you are consistent in what you say and what you believe about food, and I’m happy to say that my own cooking adventures (both living with you and in the years since) are peppered with your “teachings.”

Thank you, T.  That’s such an eloquent letter.  What he neglected to tell you is that my best friend’s 14-year-old sister felt strongly convicted that SHE needed to be the one to slaughter CP.  We sat down and had a long talk with her, and she said that, after meeting my chickens, she couldn’t in good conscience eat another bite of chicken unless she was willing to kill one herself.  She was incredibly nervous when the time came, but she did it.  And I turned CP into Chicken Parmigiana (his namesake) and she ate him.  The next night at dinner, she talked for 2 hours with her family about the experience, and it has stuck with her to this day.

Before MasterChef, I only had the opportunity to share this type of knowledge and experience with those in my immediate circle.  But thanks to MasterChef, I can now share it with thousands of amazing fans who can join in this incredible dialogue.  Cooking, for me, is about far more than the final plate, and whether or not it can please a master like Gordon Ramsay.  Since the day I was born, I was steeped in the story of food BEFORE it enters the kitchen.  And, to me, being a part of the entire journey of food from dirt to plate makes the experience endlessly rich.

I cannot look at this photo without crying. These were my ladies (with CP, the white rooster in the middle, who, soon after this photo, graced our dinner table.) I love them ALL to this day.

Australia, part 3

I’m sorry I haven’t written in three days. It’s not because I haven’t had access, a connected computer has been sitting next to my bed the entire time. It’s simply because these Aussies live a RIDICULOUSLY hedonistic lifestyle, and we’ve just been caught up in it all.

After our long day in Sydney, we wanted to sleep in a bit before our Saturday flight to Perth, hopefully sleep off a little of the jet lag, because we knew that the birthday party on Saturday night would be a doozie and we wanted to be ready for it. So we were hoping to sleep in at the hostel until 9 or 10.

Wrong! At 4 am, a Scottish guy stumbled into our room, cursing in the dark, and crashed into bed. That’s normal for a youth hostel, people coming in at all hours to pass out. Normally, you just roll over and go back to sleep.

At 5 am, a British guy burst in, saw the Scottish guy asleep, and hollered, “Bugger me, you bastard! Is all you do just sleep all day? Last time I saw you was 5pm, and you were asleep. Now it’s 5am, and you’re still asleep!”

The Scottish guy woke up, groggily, and cursed a bit. “I’ve been out getting pissed, you f-ck. And now you woke me up. Well, I’m awake, I might as well go and get pissed again.” (For those who don’t know Limey speak, “pissed” means drunk.)

So this Scottish guy gets up, an hour after passing out drunk, and heads out to get drunk again. Sydney has no drinking laws, and many bars just don’t even have doors because they never close.

The Brit tears off his shoes, filling the room with an unspeakable stench, and jumps up onto the bed, quizzing J-P and me about our origins.

“I hope I don’t offend you by asking this, blokes, but you got a spliff I can buy off you?”  (For those of you who don’t smoke pot, “spliff” is Limey-pot-speak for joint that includes both marijuana and tobacco.)

“No, sorry, man. If I had one, though, I’d give it to you.”

“Just as well. Still, I need something to put me-self to sleep. If I ain’t got a spliff, I’ll eat a sleeping pill.” He opened his backpack and dug out a little pill, swallowing it without any water.

“Did that Scottish guy really go out to get drunk at 5am?” I asked.

“Damn right, he did! How long are you blokes in town?”

“Our plane leaves in about six hours.”

“Well, then, we’d better go and have a beer ourselves! Pub down the way sells a schooner of Guinness for only $4.80!”

J-P, still a little green from the fish and chips, moaned.

“Come now, don’t make me go back to London and tell everyone how dreary Texans are!”

You can’t say such a thing to J-P, whose personal goal it is to redefine the image of Americans in the minds of the international public. But he was just too sick and exhausted to redefine the image for this particular Brit, and I knew we’d never get any sleep staying in the room with this guy. So out of personal sacrifice, I decided to go have a beer with this guy at 5am, and let J-P get some much-needed sleep.

That, and how often do you get to say you got drunk in Sydney at 5 in the morning?

I tugged on some clothes, and Marc and I headed out into King’s Cross, the seedy neighborhood which surrounded the hostel. Hookers were stumbling around the sidewalks, bouncers were beckoning us into XXX theatres, and people were smoking pot all over the streets.

At the pub, I ordered a schooner of Guinness at exactly 5:43 in the morning. A typical Sydney breakfast. A portly Aussie bird (they call women “birds” here) came up to us, drunk as she could be, and she and Marc proceeded to have a heated, 30-minute debate on the correct pronunciation of the word “cashew.”

Then Marc and I wandered the streets for a bit, talking about politics, drug culture, and the politics of drug culture. Then we ordered a meat pie (the quintessential Aussie snack) from a street vendor, and went back to the hostel.

J-P and I packed and headed to the airport for our 5-hour flight across Australia to Perth. We were met at the airport by Iris, the mastermind of the surprise party. She drove us home to freshen up, and then we headed to The Cricket grounds to surprise Wayne.

Wayne, wondering how-the-hell we got to Australia

The Cricket is Australia’s favorite sport. And it’s always referred to as “The Cricket.” When we got to The Cricket grounds, Wayne was sitting in the attached pub watching his son Joe captain the local cricket team. We snuck up behind him and scared him good. He couldn’t speak for about 5 minutes, he was so shell-shocked that we were there!

He ordered us a beer and invited a few friends over to the table, and we proceeded to be regaled on the finger points of “The Cricket” by a large man named Angry who had furry mutton-chop sideburns and a tattoo of Tweety Bird on his left bicep.

The party was scheduled to start at 6:30pm, and Iris was expecting 70 people, including two Olympians, several vintners, lots of relatives, and many old friends. Pete and Ruth Murphy, the other Aussie couple we met on the trip to Antarctica, were flying in from Melbourne, and we scared them good before they walked into the house.

I simply can’t describe the party to you. There was a never-ending stream of lamb, pork, and beef from the “barby,” and throughout the course of the night, the 70 folks in attendance consumed 30 bottles of wine and more than 400 beers. It seemed like every person in attendance could be the title character in a novel. And though many of them had never met the others at the party, there were NO fractal groups, everyone mingled, laughed, and gabbed with everyone else in a constantly simmering swarm.

The climax was a touching moment when Wayne’s children got up and talked about their childhood, and when Wayne’s long-time friends told the stories about he and Iris moving to Western Australia in the 1960s when the government was giving away free land. They got a particularly nasty plot, but cleared it away with backbreaking labor and farmed it as best they could until drought claimed everything. They lived in a tent for a number of years before finally moving to a tin shed. Then they gave up the farm, moved to Perth, and Wayne took a job working the coal mines. Then he had a long career as a police investigator, working the drug squad. And finally he and Iris bought a horse-betting business, which became their gold mine. And friends were present from every phrase of their life.

When everyone was finished speaking, it was Wayne’s turn. “I want to thank you all for this,” he began, with emotion mounting exponentially with each passing word. “Iris and I just want you to know that every single person here is a member of our family. and that’s about all I have to say!”

He later confided to me that he had MUCH more to say, but there was no way it would come out.

I thought, after I went to bed that night, that the party was over. But we were roused the next morning and told to dress up…we were going to the wine country of the Swan Valley for a family lunch. After a drive through the lovely river valley we arrived at the Riverbank Estate winery, where we tasted the entire line of 2003-2004 wines. To be totally honest, they were terrible! But the lunch that followed the tasting made up for it.

Roast Duck with Shiraz Mulberry SauceJ-P and I both ordered roast duck on nectarine and peach salad with fortified Shiraz and mulberry sauce. It was incredible. Dessert (a mango passion fruit trifle, followed by an extraordinary blue cheese from Tasmania) stuffed us to the point of bursting. The wine had taken its toll, and when we got back to the house, I was ready for a nap.

But the Aussies were ready for a beer.

So we drank beers and cut up for a few hours, laughing and bullshitting each other, and then it was time to make dinner. Wayne threw some steaks on the barby, along with the largest shrimp I’ve ever seen. More bottles of wine were opened and more beers were popped, and we stuffed ourselves again.

This morning we went to visit Iris’s cousin’s flower farm, where they raise gerbers, a huge, brightly colored flower that’s popular in wedding bouquets here. Then we had lunch in Fremantle, Perth’s port city, which is filled with sidewalk cafes and lined with fantastic white-sand beaches on the Indian Ocean. After that we explored King’s Park, a vast, magnificent park overlooking downtown Perth and the Swan River, and then Iris and the girls took us into downtown for some shopping. Ugh.

It really has been incredible to experience this big, friendly Australian family. They’ve all come up from nothing, living in tents and working until they bled, to become millionaries. Wealth has a different face in Western Australia. Iris and Wayne are so loved in the community, their children Tim, Peta, and Joe are incredible people, and to see this family together has been a rare treat. Watching and listening to the stories and the interaction at Wayne’s 60th birthday party has made me want to live the same kind of life, so that I might be lucky enough to have the same kind of experience when I’m that age. It really has been priceless.

If we survive the beer and food for another 24 hours, we plan on heading over to New Zealand for a few days on Wednesday (Tuesday for you all).