Food for Thought

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

"All I want to do is cook good food," sighed Cooper. "I want seven different kinds of tomatoes. I want to give you a plate with all different kinds of flavors." In Bitter Harvest, she notes that of 75 kinds of vegetables traditionally grown in the U.S., 97 percent of all varieties have become extinct in less than 80 years. "If we are lucky," she concludes, "we might still be left with bland milk, two types of peas, three varieties of oranges, and eggs from one chicken." This sameness, a chef's nightmare, is the upshot of agricultural revolution: first, modern hybridization and monocropping; now, genetic modification. "This tomato is tough-skinned, densely fleshed, and flavorless; but it travels well," she writes, adding, "I might just as well cook with cardboard concassé."


Now executive chef of the Ross School in New York, Cooper teaches the art of regional, seasonal, organic, sustainable food. "I've become a fundamentalist," she confesses. "If it isn't seasonal, we don't serve it. When the tomatoes are gone, there are no more tomatoes, and we look forward to next year. We don't use bleached flour; we don't use white sugar." She lowers her voice to the hush of really good gossip. "White sugar has no flavor. You perceive it as sweet, but put it next to maple, or cane or succanat, where you'll taste molasses undertones, caramel undertones ..." She drifts off for a second, then catches herself. "We don't do processed food," she finishes triumphantly. "If we need mayonnaise, we make some."

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

Cooper's smart enough not to advise harried American consumers to do the same. "Take baby steps," she suggests. "You don't have to make your own mayonnaise, but make your own salad instead of buying those bags of Dole where the stuff's flown in from God knows where." Now, more than ever, eating is a political act: "If we spend all our money at McDonald's, we are supporting their vision of food. If we shop at a farmers' market, we're supporting an entirely different worldview.

"For years, we've been saying, "Time is money,'" she continues, noting that 19 percent of all meals are now eaten in the car, and even more in front of a TV set. Marketers predict that by 2010, we'll spend less than 10 minutes preparing 90 percent of our food. Is healthy cooking becoming America's lost art? "It's a found art, which is worse," she retorts. "We have already lost it, and we're trying passionately to get it back. Who knows what real butter tastes like anymore, or fresh cream or real cheese?

"We've lost the art of dining, the art of conversation, the art of family," she continues. "It wasn't so long ago that all our food came from someone who loved us. Now it's served to us by anonymous teenagers."

Her chefs at the Institute were half-right, she's decided. It's not Americans' food that's inferior, it's our attitude. "We pay less for food, as a percent of our income, than any industrialized nation in the world (about 14 percent, compared with 25-40 percent in Europe), and we get what we pay for: 73 million foodborne illnesses a year, 5,000-7,000 deaths, 40 percent of all cancer diet-related. Cooper sighs heavily. "We've turned food into a commodity, like a shirt or a chair or a widget. But, trite as it might sound, we are what we eat -- and the food we eat is what we become."


After Cooper spoke her piece at Crossings, waiters headed for the kitchen to fetch warm, airy shiitake-mushroom-and-egg roulades, peppery hash browns, baby greens, apples baked soft as a woman's breast. The food was all locally grown, and much of it was organic. Guests sniffed the air like hounds and listened abstractedly to the questions.

Cooper's first critic suggested that she was confusing the genetic-modification issue with lack of choice, that genetically modified crops would bring such high yields that farmers could stop monocropping. "Perhaps," Cooper replied warily, "if the food companies go beyond mass-produced items (which require vast, homogeneous quantities of each ingredient)."

A second questioner reminded her that asking for a choice among clearly labeled foodstuffs might be fine in a developed country, "but 75 percent of the world has a choice between starving or getting food." Cooper nodded. "One of my challenges as a chef is that we play to a white-tablecloth audience. I have a lot of angst over great food going only to people who can afford it. But much of the world's starvation is due to distribution and politics."

The first man's hand shot up again: "In your restaurant, do you serve any food that pesticides have been used on? Do you demand labels on that?" Looking a little bemused, Cooper explained that at the Ross School, she can choose only organic foods, and at the Putney Inn, she can limit their use as much as possible.

"And that would be your vision of what our world should do?"

"I would hope that in the future, our world could use technology in a way that takes additives out of our food supply," she said quietly. "I'd like to see the government put more money into researching sustainable agriculture, so we can feed ourselves with fewer chemicals."

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