Thursday, November 01, 2007

Alice Waters versus King Corn

Old and New Approaches to the Politics of Food

picture photograph image picture photograph image Ian Cheney (left) and Curt Ellis taste their harvest in Greene, Iowa. Photograph by Sam Cullman 2007 copyright 2007 copyright of sam breach
Photo by Sam Cullman

Earlier this week I attended a couple of food-centric events: The first was a private complimentary screening of King Corn hosted by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. (Yes, I accepted a rare freebie.) The second was a conversation between Alice Waters, Calvin Trillin & Ruth Reichl. (I bought my tickets yonks ago - this show was sold out way back in the Summer some time).

Is Alice out of Touch? (paraphrased)
Audience Question:"I was wondering if you even need to take out food, and if so, what do you eat on the go?"
Alice Waters: "Of course I take food to go, I would never get on a plane without my own food. I get my takeout from Chez Panisse. I even do my shopping there."

Are the King Corn Guys more on your Wavelength? (paraphrased)
Audience Question:"How have your eating habits changed since making the movie?"
Curt Ellis: "I am trying not to eat corn fed beef when I am at home, but we've been on the road and we've found it's impossible."

For shame, Curt Ellis, get yourself a takeout from Chez Panisse next time you travel!

I am at least 75% committed to eating locally, but she made me feel like an inadequate failure. How can any of us ever be as perfect as Alice?

I think I'd rather hang out with Curt and Ian. They are trying to make a difference in the world and they are keeping it real at the same time. I hope they reach an audience with what they are aiming to do.

If you want to watch a charming movie about the industrialization of food in the USA, King Corn opens tomorrow night in San Francisco at the Red Vic Movie House and runs until November 8th.

If you can't make it out to the theater - King Corn will be airing on PBS in April. Mark your calendars now.

PS Transparency Check: Free sandwiches from Acme Chophouse and Fizzy Lizzy Soda and organic wines were accepted before the writing of this post. Free food from Chez Panisse has not been forthcoming.

Other Resources & Further Reading
Curt Challenges Himself to be Corn Free for the Month of November
King Corn Blog
Curt Ellis on Culinate
Ian Cheney at The Huffington Post

2006 | Lentils + Sausages + Bacon + Red wine = Love

© 2007 Sam Breach
Alice Waters versus King Corn


  • At 1/11/07 23:08, Blogger Unknown said…

    I live close to Chez Panisse and about a year ago I asked if it was possible to get an order of their house cured anchovies to go. The hostess looked at me like I had crawled in off the street and said that it was simply impossible, they lacked the facilities to do anything of the sort.

  • At 2/11/07 00:21, Blogger FaustianBargain said…

    hmm..i am pretty sure my diet is mostly corn it really that difficult to exist on a corn(and corn derivative) diet that people take it as a challenge..that is now newsworthy? maybe its an american thing?

  • At 2/11/07 03:26, Blogger ChrisB said…

    Sam are you dropping your standards accepting a freebie!!

  • At 2/11/07 07:31, Blogger Sam said…

    Gregory - this is precisely why I think Alice is out of touch. It is a lot harder for normal people who can't do their shopping at Chez Panisse or get their takeout from Chez Panisse to live up to the standards she proposes. I have been trying and I thought I was doing *pretty* well, but not so much after hearing Alice talk.

    Faustianbargain - I think you are right and actually this question intrigues me and I actually talked with Curt about it briefly before the film. "I am English", I said, "I don't think I am full of corn." When you see a recipe for candy in the US it invariably contains corn syrup. I made dozens of candy recipes as a kid in Britain and they were all successful and not one of them contained corn syrup. So ingrained in the diet is corn here - it is in every bottle of soda - it feeds all the beef (grass fed is a novelty), so as a Brit yes - like you I feel like a bit of an outsider - but since I do live here, I don't want to become a 'corn dolly', yes it really IS newsworthy in the US - you should see the movie. Curt and Ian were corn tested in the movie but the results were a little unclear to me. I think I read somewhere that Americans are 70% made of corn or something. I would like to take the test and compare myself to an American.

    Mum - it wasn''t a freebie from a cold calling publicist. I know one of the people who works at CUESA and she invited some bloggers because they had spare tickets at the last minute and because she knows we are all interested in this subject matter. Plus I made it clear it was a free ticket so my readers can choose whether or not that has a bearing on what I wrote.

  • At 2/11/07 08:31, Blogger Alice Q. Foodie said…

    This is pretty funny - I adore Alice, but I do think she lives in a different place from most of us. It's a good place, but not for everyone. Michael Pollan talks about the dominance of corn in the Omnivore's Dilemma - it has grown by leaps and bounds over the last twenty/thirty years, and is a terrible horrible awful thing for the environment and people's waistlines - not to mention farmers. Meanwhile, it lines the pockets of agribusiness giants like Archer Daniels Midland, etc. I'm interested to hear more about what Ruth and Calvin Trillen had to say. I just met Ruth at the Gourmet Institute (and Alice at a booksigning just before that actually!)

  • At 2/11/07 09:23, Blogger Mama Squirrel said…

    I had dinner Sunday evening with Alice after listening to her talk to a couple of different audiences earlier in the day. It was a very unexpected surprise to have her sit down next to me at the dinner table, and dinner conversation was not the same as the panel discussions we had listened to earlier. We talked for about an hour about food, specifically about the availability of grass-fed beef, and raising children. I came away with the impression that she is very aware that she us lucky to live in an ideal situation and that all of us can't do what she does. She talked about the importance of taking small steps to make a bigger difference overall. In our discussions about the Edible Schoolyard project, we talked about how it's ideal but probably unrealistic to expect to be able to make it happen in a large city without having smaller, rural school systems where there's less bureaucracy to get through adopt the program first as an example. I really don't think that she's as out of touch as she may come across in panel discussions where she's espousing the ideal. And as far as the food-on-the-road issue goes, we were all eating the same meal prepared by local chefs, and there were no Chez Panisse takeout containers in sight.

  • At 2/11/07 12:08, Blogger Susie said…

    I did think Calvin Trillin was wonderful though. My favorite quote of the night: When asked to discuss the differences between his point of view and Alice's, "Bud" Trillin says, "Well, Alice is right, and I'm hungry."

  • At 2/11/07 12:53, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ah I like this post a lot. From the two excerpts you gave us, I'd definitely choose the King Corn guys too. But when I met Alice Waters I didn't find her so pretentious. I was, however, TOTALLY wondering what she does for convenience foods or something late at night, etc. So thanks for answering that.

  • At 2/11/07 13:52, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hey, Sam!

    I am jealous--what a great pair of food events! Oh, well, hopefully something of the sort will be happening next summer when the family treks out to N. California. (I promised Morganna years ago that when she graduated from high school, we'd take her to San Francisco. It is cool having a foodie/art geek/fag hag for a daughter.)

    Anyway, I have been thinking since I wrote my post on Alice.

    And while I don't think she really is elitist, I do think that she has a specific audience in mind when she speaks and writes, and it is neither the urban or rural poor. I think she is talking to middle class, upper middle class and upper class people. Which, technically, makes her at least classist, if not elitist.

    But hear me out.

    I don't think she looks down on the poor for their food choices, because frankly, poor folks don't have much in the way of choices when it comes to food. I think she would like them to eat better, but she knows all of the hurdles that they have to jump to even think of eating fresh food, particularly the urban poor.

    But when she is talking about making choices in where you spend your money--I think she is talking to the middle class on up the economic scale, and here is why.

    She knows damned good and well that prices for local organic food will come down if there is more demand. She knows that if the demand begins to outstrip supply and some farmers are successful selling directly to consumers, other farmers will follow suit, which will increase supply and drop prices.

    When the prices go down--this will enable the folks in the lower income brackets to have a better chance of eating fresh, local, organic produce. It is simple economics. And I think she knows that.

    And I think that is why she talks about stuff like folks could choose not to rent several movies a week and spend that extra on some local produce. I don't think she is talking to folks who are scraping to get by, but rather to the folks who often spend a lot of money on non-necessities, but who then go out and buy the cheapest food available.

    Which, if you think about it--that is kind of elitist on the consumer's part. I mean, I would rather pay a bit more for my food and know that the folks who produced it were paid a fair living wage and not exposed to dangerous, life threatening chemicals, but a lot of middle class and up consumers don't think that way. They just want cheap vegetables and fruits. I think that attitude is way more elitist than Alice Waters. (I think I have hit upon a theme for another post/essay on the subject, thanks to you....)

    That said, I can see why her idealism could get on people's nerves. She does come across as a bit like perfection personified. And that gets to people.

    The corn dudes, however, sound awesome. I'd like to meet them, and I can't wait to see the film.

  • At 2/11/07 14:12, Blogger Sam said…

    I agree with everything you say, Barbara - with one more comment to add. I am most likely somewhere in that middle class group you are talking about, and one that already actually agrees with much of what she has to say, so I was expecting to lap up her message like a little puppy dog. However - when I heard her speak in person - in that particular setting - I found that she did not appeal to me in the slightest. I found her irksome and affected. I didn't expect her to be anything like what she was and I was disappointed and surprised. It could just be that she is not very good in front of such a large audience - I know I wouldn't be so I shouldn't be so quick to judge.

    But if she doesn't actually appeal to her disciples, then how on earth is she going to get through to the ones who don't yet even give a jot?

    Mama Squirrel and Hillary seem to have met her under better circumstances and I thank you and everyone else for all the input.

  • At 2/11/07 14:57, Blogger foodette said…

    Cool, thanks for the info. Unfortunately I already missed the LA showing of the film, so perhaps I'll get the DVD. I definitely want to see the film now.

  • At 2/11/07 16:07, Blogger Zoomie said…

    Maybe people like Alice are like Christ or Gandhi in that we aren't really expected to live up to their level, they are just there as an example for us to aim for! Like you, I try to avoid the corn fed animals and eat locally and eat fresh things but I don't beat myself up for the occasional slip!

  • At 3/11/07 08:46, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Alice Waters -- that is someone I've not heard about until recently. However, several blog have brought the name up and at the blog Ethicurean she was recently questioned about her choice to support a gated development of big, luxury second homes in Montana, called the The Ameya Preserve. I guess things like that is not washing off her elitist spots.

    Anyway, for someone like me, who just now is hearing about her, she's not making a good imprint.

    The Corn guys sounds great, though. I've read a lot about corn and corn syrup lately and that is one funky business. One can barely buy one piece of foods in the US without getting a dose of corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup and that is one of those things I wish American consumers were more concerned about. Why? Because there are studies that say fructose doesn't trigger the reactions that tell the body it has had enough sugar. Glucose, on the other hand does.

    Food has unfortunately become so much about politics and the consumers seems far to often to be forgotten. And how often don't we hear people say they buy a certain product simply because it is cheap . The question is what does that say about us? Always looking for cheap, aren't we cheating ourselves into a cheap life? I don't know., but many seems to be more concerned about getting the right quality of fuel in our cars than in ourselves.

  • At 3/11/07 10:31, Blogger Owen said…

    You've also got to remember wrt Alice Waters that she is almost certainly treated to dinner any time she is away from home. It is hard to imagine that any high end restauranteur who knew she was in the building wouldn't comp her, etc. It is disappointing that she isn't good at public speaking, but again that isn't her metier - she mostly seems to do well in actually spurring activism directly by talking to powerful people in small groups. And since she is responsible as much as anyone (if not more) in the world for the move to local food, starting more than 30 years ago.

    As for corn - I'm astonished by the number of recipes in american cook books that call for corn syrup. It clearly isn't NECESSARY - they are just using it in place of some combination of sugar and liquid. I think one of the thanksgiving tasks this year will be to do a GREAT pecan pie recipe without corn syrup - which is in the recipe in every single cookbook I own.

    Is there a nice conversion somewhere out there for XYZ is the same as 1 cup of corn syrup?

  • At 4/11/07 08:38, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I heard about this film a month back. Hoping it comes to Paris one day. It always sets my head a wagging when I come back to the states and start reading nutrition labels. Scandalous! What the hell is corn syrup and why is it in my yogurt?!

  • At 4/11/07 15:35, Blogger Miche said…

    I was so completely disappointed in the event with RR, AW and CT. SO disappointed. And so was my companion, and everyone sitting around us that evening.

    -CT was hogging the conversation, imo.
    -They all did a lot of talking about nothing. Did they not prepare at all? Did they think casual conversation would just take over and it would be interesting? It wasn't. I was waiting and waiting for them to get to something. Anything. Who the heck wants to hear about buffalo chicken wings for 15 minutes when you only have about an hour?
    -I really don't know where to start with AW. She just acted like she'd rather be elsewhere.
    - RR, the one I really wanted to see more than the other two, really disappointed me with her lack of moderating!

    Ugh. What a letdown. Glad I wasn't the only one.

    Can't wait to see the corn movie ;)

  • At 4/11/07 22:12, Blogger Sam said…

    Miche - unfortunately i have to agree with you. Thanks for the comment. It's a little bit soul destroying when your heroines don't turn out to be the people you thought they would be.

  • At 5/11/07 20:55, Blogger Owen said…

    Duh! sometimes I am so stupid - substitutes for corn syrup - especially local ones....


    also suggested to me were rice syrup (frying pan-fire seems to me even though there aren't GMO issues), cane syrup (golden syrup) - not local, molasses - a little better, sorghum - this one I like - I've used it before - but the taste is different, and finally use 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar or firmly packed brown sugar plus 1/4 cup liquid (use liquid called for in recipe) - the last was off an internet search and makes sense but again - not local.

    I think I'm going to try hard to use the minimum sugar at all and then go with some combination of honey, molasses, etc. We have some kind of caramelized honey thing that our local beekeeper friend makes too - that would make great pecan pie!

  • At 6/11/07 15:25, Blogger Dagny said…

    In response to Owen, there are recipes out there that do not call for corn syrup. I know that I have used one in the past. Here's a link to one that I found.

    But honey does sound like an interesting alternative.

  • At 13/11/07 15:40, Blogger Barbara said…

    I was pleased to read you have seen this film Sam. It was at our film festival this year and I was unable to go due to my surgery at the time. I'm hoping it will come back nad play at a mainstream theatre or be shown on TV.

  • At 25/11/07 07:51, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I am late to this discussion so not sure if anyone will see this, but if Greeks can make baklava without corn syrup, it seems mighty likely that a pecan pie could be made without it as well.

    A new family friend is actually allergic to corn (along with wheat) so I have become quite aware of the use of corn (and wheat) in so many products. We were at a local olive oil mill a couple weeks ago and buying some of the many local products they sell in their little shop. Our friend, for a change, didn't even think to look at the ingredient labels. Thankfully, I did, because - lo and behold - that pesky corn syrup was used in one of their bottled salad dressings. So disappointing.

  • At 25/11/07 08:34, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    By the way, here is a recipe for pecan pie using sugar and maple syrup. Yummy.

  • At 4/12/07 16:29, Blogger Eve Fox said…

    that's hysterical! As amazing as Alice is (I totally admire the way she created an entire supply system for her restaurant out of local farmers) I would MUCH rather hang out with Curt and Ian.

    I talked to them last month when they were in town promoting the movie. Interview is at:

    I found them totally adorable. I asked them the same question (as I'm sure everyone has) about whether the movie had changed the way they eat and Curt said the same semi-lame thing about trying not to eat corn fed beef, etc.

    But the woman who handles their food press (a nice woman named Naomi) emailed me a week or two later to say that Curt has started a corn-free challenge - no foods that include corn for a month:

    As for Alice, of course she's out of touch - it's probably really hard not to get out of touch when you get famous and wildly successful. I remember reading an article (think this was it: about her daughter, Fanny, several years ago when she was starting college at Yale - they were worried about how she'd adjust to the campus food. It's just sort of a different world...

  • At 11/12/07 21:25, Blogger Christy said…

    We are going to see it this week in Savannah -- I have you linked into my post:


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