Food for Thought

The exchange between a chef and a Monsanto spokeswoman was civilized, but questions about what we eat leave a bitter aftertaste

At 16, she hitchhiked all the way from Massachusetts to Colorado, hungry for fast slopes, fresh powder and a cornflower-blue sky. She skied from dawn till sundown every day -- and then called her folks and asked them to send more money. "You got yourself there," her dad observed. "Figure it out."

Ann Cooper talked her way into the first job of her life: assistant breakfast cook. And down off the slopes, wiping grease spatters from her forehead, she realized she'd found an equal challenge on the flat sizzling surface of the grill. She loved touching the food, chopping, stirring, making it right, overhearing the customers' satisfied sighs.

At 24, she entered the Culinary Institute of America, where most of the students were men and of all the chefs were European. "They taught us the bounty of European food," recalls Cooper, "and how everything imported was the best. I went along thinking that my customers absolutely needed raspberries in February for Valentine's Day."

Karen Marshall (left) and Ann Cooper at The Crossing
Jay Fram
Karen Marshall (left) and Ann Cooper at The Crossing

Then, in 1990, she arrived in southern Vermont to be the executive chef of the legendary Putney Inn. "Here I was, this hot-shit young chef, and I wanted to serve racks of lamb," she says wryly. "The local farmers said they couldn't sell them to me -- "What do we do with the rest of the lamb?' I said, "That's your problem,' and they said, "You're the chef.' That's when it dawned on me: God didn't make lamb racks. There was more at stake here than the chef's ego, and I'd better understand the connection between food, the soil and what I feed my guests."

Cooper wrenched her attention from the truffles of woodland France and focused on Vermont Cheddar, apples, corn and maple syrup. She bought from local farmers, and she bought in season. She came to cherish the vigor, taste, freshness, diversity and healthfulness of such food. And she watched it grow scarcer than Beluga caviar. She, at least, had the buying power of the Putney Inn. For the average consumer, wholesome food had become a luxury.

Deeply concerned, Cooper spent her spare time traveling the U.S. and Europe, questioning agency officials, farmers, chefs and food manufacturers. She boned up on chicken contamination, dairy herds fed dried cow blood and biotech companies that pumped genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the food supply. Then, with Lisa M. Holmes, she wrote Bitter Harvest: A Chef's Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat. Her conclusions brought her to St. Louis on Oct. 14 at the invitation of the food-conscious chefs, restaurateurs and local farmers in the Missouri chapter of the Chefs Collaborative.

The foodies milled about The Crossing, a tiny Clayton restaurant, sipping juice from locally grown grapes, discussing croustades and mulch. Cooper, unmistakable in the white chef's jacket she wears everywhere but the beach, stood near a pyramid display of Bitter Harvest, talking and laughing with her "opponent" for the day, Karen Marshall. A biotech spokeswoman for Monsanto, which pioneered the major genetically modified crops, Marshall rarely debates her company's product. She's a founding member of the St. Louis Culinary Society, though, so she graciously accepted their invitation to speak for 20 minutes about the genetic modification of the world's crops. Cooper would then take 20 minutes to worry aloud about the future of good food.

The determinedly civilized debate began with rich coffee; warm, moist sweet-potato and butternut-squash breads; and a congenial opening by Marshall. She assured the crowd that she had grown up on a farm and studied cooking and said she can see only improvements -- in the quality of the food and the efficiency and environmental safety of its production -- coming from genetic modification. Inserting new traits is a bit like borrowing a Julia Child cookbook from another branch of the library, she said: "You're not taking away anything, you're just adding to what you already have -- although in time we might be able to remove traits, too.

"Adoption (of genetically modified seeds) is far greater than we ever dreamed it could be," continued Marshall, projecting slides graphing the steep increase in acreage devoted to genetically modified soybeans. "And small farmers like biotech just as well. It's not for two or three, it's for everybody."

That's the perfect cue for Cooper, who's not necessarily opposed to biotech but, like the Europeans, fears the unchecked speed at which it's changing the world's food supply. "I come at this from a whole different perspective," she began. "I'm not a scientist; I don't own a big company. I cook food. Two-thirds of the products in many grocery stores already have GMOs in them. There is no labeling. The government assumes GMOs are safe, so all testing is voluntary. And I'm not sure that's OK."

As waiters scurried to warm up everybody's coffee, Cooper advanced the slide projector to a 1947 cartoon captioned "DDT is good for me-e-e!" "Everybody thought DDT was going to be the savior," she noted. "It was extensively tested, and it still got out there." Next she flashed Ralph Nader's definition of genetically modified crops as "a going-out-of-business sale on genetic diversity" and a news blurb about the StarLink corn, unapproved for human consumption, that's made it to Taco Bell, to Kellogg's cereal and to Japan.

Next Page »