Sunday, March 23, 2014
Click the image below to watch the interview.
Sunday, March 23, 2014
Click the image below to watch the interview.
A Portland teachers’ contract negotiation debunks the myth of school choice, which leaves a swath of the city behind
by Arun Gupta Al Jazeera America March 7, 2014
Public school teachers in Portland, Ore., and their students are doing a victory lap. Nearly a year after unveiling a contract proposal that would have put the squeeze on the 2,900-member Portland Association of Teachers (PAT), the Portland School Board on March 3 approved a contract that acceded to virtually every demand from the teachers’ union.
The board was acting as a stalking horse for corporate attacks on unions and public education nationwide. It initially wanted to saddle teachers with higher health care costs, fewer retirement benefits, more students and a greater workload in a city where 40 percent of teachers already work more than 50 hours a week (PDF). The board also demanded expansive management rights (PDF) and allegedly wished to link teacher evaluation more closely to standardized testing. The PAT opposed the board, arguing that low-income and minority students would pay the heaviest price as their classes grew larger, more time was devoted to testing and resources for curriculum preparation and teacher development got slashed.
Only after 98 percent of the PAT voted to strike starting Feb. 20 — and students vowed to join the picket line — did the board blink. Alexia Garcia, an organizer with the Portland Student Union who graduated last year, says students held walkouts and rallies at many of the city’s high schools in support of teachers’ demands because “teachers’ working conditions are our learning conditions.”
The deal is a big victory for the teachers’ union in a state where business interests, led by the Portland Business Alliance, call the shots on education policy. The school board had brought out the big guns, authorizing payments of up to $360,000 to a consultant for contract negotiations and $800,000 to a law firm, despite already having a full-time lawyer on its payroll. But, emulating Chicago teachers who prevailed in an eight-day strike in 2012, the PAT went beyond contract numbers, winning community support by focusing on student needs and rallying to stop school closures in underserved communities.
Most significant, the teachers helped expose the role of education reform in gentrifying the city, making it nearly impossible for every neighborhood to have a strong school. This is a process playing out nationwide, from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Milwaukee to Washington, D.C. But it is particularly striking in Portland, so noted for quirkiness and tolerance it has spawned a hit television show, “Portlandia,” During a public forum on the contract negotiations, one teacher observed that the show was a reflection of how “we march to our own beat in Portland.” This has held true for the teachers’ approach to education.
The current fight over public schools began in January 2013 when teachers, parents and students successfully blocked the board from closing or merging half a dozen schools, mainly in the historically African-American neighborhood of Northeast Portland, which had already seen two schools shut down the previous year. This helped to mobilize community support behind a vision of public education that contrasted starkly with the Portland School Board’s ideas.
The tussle over teacher contracts has underscored how cozy the board is with corporate interests that promote school ratings, standardized testing and school choice, which allows students to freely transfer to other public schools. Touted as a way to use market forces to improve schools, school choice instead creates a two-tier system.
The racial effect of school choice is stark in Northeast Portland, where more than 40 percent of the black population has been pushed out since 2000, and which is 70 percent white today. City documents reveal that more white children in the area opt for charter, magnet and public schools in other parts of the city than attend their assigned neighborhood school. For African-American children, barely one-fourth access those choices.
Sekai Edwards is a sophomore at Jefferson High School in Northeast Portland, the only African-American-majority school in the city. It’s ranked in the bottom 15 percent of the state’s schools. Edwards says Jefferson is “portrayed as failing, as having a lot of violence and gang activity, so fewer kids want to come here.” Jefferson has about 500 students, a third of the size of some other high schools in the city. Since funding is tied to enrollment, Edwards says the only foreign language offered is Spanish, and her anatomy and physiology class has 43 students in it. She says, “I just want to focus on schooling,” but with constant fears of her school being shut down, she adds, “I don’t think I’ll get that at Jefferson.”
What’s happening in Portland is white flight in reverse. Middle-class families eye Northeast Portland for its undervalued homes but choose different schools because neighborhood ones are pegged as bad. Declining enrollment bleeds money from already underfunded schools, making them less attractive and creating a downward spiral in which the schools are rated as failing, subsequently closed and eventually replaced by charter schools that can cherry-pick students.
As public schools in Northeast Portland shutter, black households are displaced as redevelopment pushes rents upward. Karen Gibson, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, analyzes how government policies, banks and developers ghettoized Portland’s blacks. The history of black Portland is one of high unemployment and incarceration rates, toxic land and shoddy housing, institutionalized segregation and redlining practices, poor schools, minimal social services and overpolicing. Gibson wrote that for 40 years blacks were subjected to “predatory and exploitative lending practices by speculators, slumlords, bankers and real estate agents,” being denied routine mortgage and rehab loans or the ability to move to other neighborhoods. When Northeast Portland was slated for rehabilitation in the ’90s, government assistance, bank mortgages and business opportunities flowed to whites, while black homeowners, often not realizing how much their homes had appreciated, took below-market cash offers from speculators. For the two-thirds of black households who don’t own homes (as opposed to the 57 percent of white households who do), rising rents hit harder, as their per capita income is barely $16,000, half that of whites.
Despite decades of promises to address such displacement, the city has pushed ahead with policies that intensify racial disparities. Most recently it offered a $2.6 million parcel of land for a mere $500,000 to the billionaire-owned Majestic Realty to develop a Trader Joe’s outlet. The deal would have increased displacement without any guarantees for community hiring or affordable housing. After an outcry from the African-American community, Trader Joe’s withdrew from the deal.
Ironically, the same cultural wave that has brought “Portlandia” to young audiences has also encouraged more gentrification. The show trades on residents’ obsessive tendencies about food, facial hair, bicycling, dumpster diving — any activity untainted by mass consumer culture. But the quirky authenticity attracts new residents to the city, driving up rents and spreading the hipster culture that has colonized much of New York City, Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area and other places. In its wake it leaves its own form of homogenization: new residents who are largely white and wealthy.
School choice is layered atop this racialized terrain, allowing middle-class families to profit from lower home prices while avoiding the cost of bad schools. It’s the existing residents who foot the bill. Elizabeth Thiel, an educator who has taught in five Portland public schools over the past 11 years, lives in Northeast Portland. She says the white middle-class families moving into black neighborhoods are genuinely concerned about “trying to find the best education for their kid.” But according to Thiel, the education-reform movement, with its focus on standardized testing, has legitimized the naming of schools as failures. Families thus feel justified in saying, “Well, I live in that neighborhood, but I would never send my kid to that school.” Thiel says, “People stop thinking about what a school really is. It’s a community, and community is defined by the people who participate in it.”
In fact, standardized test scores mainly measure income and race. Students from wealthier and whiter neighborhoods score higher on the tests than students in low-income black areas. Portland schools use parent-led foundations to fundraise. In wealthier neighborhoods those efforts can translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to pay for support staff, technology, arts classes and electives lacking at schools like Jefferson.
By the time the two sides struck a deal on Feb. 18, the school board had conceded (PDF) nearly every demand of the PAT, agreeing to hire more than 150 teachers to reduce class size, minimize changes to health care and bump pay by a modest 2.3 percent per year. Many of the concessions directly affect the learning process: The board backtracked on demands to lift the cap on how many students a teacher can have at one time and decrease the amount of time for lesson planning in elementary schools, and it agreed to allow teachers more leeway in tailoring instruction methods to the needs of students.
The success of Portland teachers in fighting off misguided educational policies could help counter the swelling inequality that is pulverizing the city’s neighborhoods. More important, by advocating for high-quality public education for all children as the building block of stable communities, the teachers have shown how to fight corporate-driven gentrification and education reform at the same time, regardless of the city.
Arun Gupta is a regular contributor to The Progressive, In These Times and The Guardian. He is writing a book on the social construction of taste. Follow him on Twitter: @arunindy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.
Junk food may have captured the American palate, but a few simple ingredients and techniques can win it back.
By Arun Gupta YES!magazine Winter Issue
As a graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute and former chef, I’m obsessed with great food. I can remember the first time I tasted chocolate mousse, pine nuts, and avocados. Years, even decades later, I can recall the succulence of fresh prawns on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, and the fiery savoriness of street food in India. All these moments were shared with family or friends, which made them especially memorable. Breaking bread with others is part of what it means to be human, and the act is wrapped up in emotional well-being, especially love.
Some of my most cherished moments include my mom greeting me on Christmas morning with oven-warm chocolate-chip cookies, or learning at her elbow how to make a proper chicken curry, or watching contentment spread across my partner Michelle Fawcett’s face when I whip up her nostalgia food in the form of salmon teriyaki and rice.
But it’s increasingly uncommon for Americans to eat meals home-cooked from scratch. Instead, 19 percent of us eat fast food several times a week and fully 80 percent eat it once a month or more. The food we eat at home is mostly a matter of heating up food from a factory.
And that’s true even though 76 percent of us say that fast food is unhealthy—testimony to the effect of writers like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and Frances Moore Lappé, who have shown how industrial food is laced with toxins, designed to be as addictive as crack, and chock-full of worker exploitation, animal cruelty, and climate change.
So why do we keep eating junk? The conventional wisdom is that we’re all pressed for time and money, and industrial food is quick and cheap. At least when it comes to cost, that’s not necessarily true. Feeding a family of four at McDonald’s can set you back $25. If you went shopping and cooked at home you could feed four people a hearty, healthy meal at half the price.
And time is not really a problem. Americans on average watch television five hours a day, plus surf the web, play with smart phones, and update Facebook. And if you eat out, not only is it much more expensive than cooking at home, it’s just as time-consuming.
The real issue is pleasure. The food industry spends billions a year on gleaming research centers staffed with white-coated scientists who concoct foods that electrify our brains like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Their tricks range from the simple—add bacon and cheese to everything—to the sophisticated: U.S. Army scientists discovered years ago that we prefer flavor medleys, which is why colas, which are symphonies for the mouth, far outsell one-note orange sodas. Food science tells corporations precisely how to manipulate our inborn fondness for fat, salt and sugar, smoky flavors, and umami, the savoriness found in foods like mushrooms, aged cheese, meat, and shellfish. If food companies can convince us they’re the only practical source of the pleasures and sensuality of the table, then we’ll be hooked on their products.
The path to modern food
Now, the idea that everyone can eat for pleasure is relatively new. In the past eating for pleasure was the province of the upper crust, who equated it with refined French food. The rest of us had simple country fare, but we worked hard for it and shared it.
The Great Depression and World War II provoked a sea change. Starting in the 1930s, farmers got subsidies and price supports, which boosted production and lowered consumer prices.
Wartime explosives chemistry led to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and quickly made their way into the food chain. Americans welcomed the postwar cornucopia of cheap food. The high-tech field rations that fed the GIs were reengineered by food scientists and hyped by Madison Avenue as the liberators of housewives from scullery work.
The price of that freedom was food stripped of flavor and nutrients. By the ’60s, low cost and convenience weren’t enough. This produced a new food revolution heavily influenced by Julia Child’s democratization of sophisticated food in her PBS show, The French Chef, and Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse championing local, seasonal food sourced directly from farmers. At the same time, Rachel Carson warned in Silent Spring of the perils of industrial science. The contours of our current food culture took form during the ’70s: the local, organic and artisanal food movements arose, but at the same time fast-food outlets more than quadrupled in number.
Real food, real simple
For those who care about food, it’s a dilemma: We want fare that’s good for us and good for the planet, but we also want bliss on a plate. The good news is we can beat the junk-food engineers at their own game. With a bit of time, fresh ingredients, and a simple tool kit, we can make food that’s tastier and cheaper than commercial food. Home-cooked food is also associated with better health, if for no other reason than that you eat 50 percent more calories and fat when you eat out. The foods we cook at home are more likely to include dishes largely absent from restaurant menus, such as fresh vegetables, salads not buried in meat and cheese, grains, beans, and fruit, which have more nutrients and fewer calories than engineered food. Plus, through the acts of creating and sharing, the pleasure we derive is far greater than bellying up for another round of “unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks” at Olive Garden.
If we saw cooking as rewarding, as a craft, as a way to bring people together, then it would be less of a chore. The first step is to devote care and attention to it. That doesn’t mean spending all night in the kitchen. In fact, the simplest food is often the best.
Next, the responsibility has to be shared. American men pitch in with housework more than ever, but they spend only 17 minutes a day on food prep and cleanup as opposed to 45 minutes for women. Cooking and cleaning for someone close to you forges bonds based on kindness, compassion, and love.
In the late ’90s I interned at New York’s Savoy restaurant, which brought to New York the locavore aesthetic in fine dining the way Waters did in California a generation earlier. Under chef-owner Peter Hoffman I learned the power of simplicity. A few basic principles make cooking much easier.
First, nearly all cuisines are about concentrating flavor. Most start with a base of ingredients that create deep flavor. In French cuisine, the mix is carrot, celery, and onion; in Latin America it’s sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro; in North India it’s usually ginger, onions, tomatoes, and fresh-ground spices.
To transform quality ingredients into delicious home-cooked food, all you need is sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper; extra-virgin olive oil and butter; fresh herbs; onions and their relatives; liquid like white wine, chicken stock, and citrus; a little smoked meat; and mushrooms, fresh and dried. Those basics cost about $20, and you can add to the pantry as you go—beans, grains, spices, chile peppers, oils, vinegars, nuts, cheeses, eggs, pickles—but learning the basics opens up a world of possibilities.
Much of cuisine is about balance. So another way to beat the junk-food dealers at their own game is to use these elements of flavor judiciously instead of excessively. Combining those flavors with fresh, seasonal ingredients puts you far ahead of processed food, which has been dead for months or even years. Farmers markets tend to have exceptional ingredients, even more than pricey gourmet supermarkets, but a good greengrocer or ethnic market can be a treasure mine of inexpensive quality fruits and vegetables.
Last summer I decided to put these concepts to the test. I was planning to take a month to drive from New York City to Portland, Ore., stopping and spending time with friends along the way. It was an opportunity to visit different farmers markets, pick from their abundant offerings, and cook it all up as the weeks ticked off and the harvest progressed.
My first stop was near Ithaca, N.Y., to visit Michael Burns and Kelly Dietz, who help run the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute at their 38-acre homestead. Their pastured chickens spend their days outside, scratching the ground for seeds, insects, and plants and lay eggs with marvelous sunset orange yolks. Scrambled with butter, adding only salt and minced chives, they’re incomparable to any other eggs I’ve ever had. From the nearby Farmer Ground Flour, I purchased polenta ground from heirloom corn that I cooked with butter, extra-virgin olive oil, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Served with sautéed mushrooms and squash from the garden it was a perfect meal.
Next was a farmers market dinner in Chicago at the home of Peter Holderness and Jinah Kim. I roasted a pastured chicken from TJ’s Free Range Poultry with slices of lemon and garlic, made brioche bread and served it toasted with gorgonzola and fig jam, assembled a kale salad, pan-roasted forest mushrooms with thyme, shallots, butter, and white wine and tossed them with handmade pasta. Dessert was a fresh peach-raspberry cobbler dusted with sugar, fresh-ground cinnamon and a crumble topping.
Everything was purchased and cooked the same day. I was striving for simplicity, apart from one complex course: a carefully constructed tower of slices of oven-dried and fresh heirloom tomatoes over roasted poblano chiles draped on a chunky black-bean mash in cilantro “water” made by pureeing the herb and straining it through cheesecloth, and garnished with avocados, tomatillos, and black-eyed peas. The recipe was from Chicago’s Charlie Trotter, and a demonstration that vegan food can be elegant and sublime. That night carnivores and herbivores alike declared this dish to be their favorite.
Finally, the Portland dinner in August showcased the outrageous bounty of the Pacific Northwest. I shopped at the Saturday market at Portland State University, which has more than 150 vendors. Unlike many farmers markets, there are few prepared food stalls and no crafts, so there is a tremendous selection of raw and artisanal foods to choose from.
Truth be told, I went wild. Being able to talk to vendors about their products, how they are produced, and ideas for preparation unleashed my imagination.
Simon Sampson, who’s been running a boat on the Yakima and Columbia rivers since 1976, sold me a chunk of salmon and salmon roe “caught the night before.” Erik Olson, manager of Pono Farm, described the Berkshire/Red Wattle-cross hogs he raises, showing off a ruby-red tenderloin. Nearby, Liz Alviz of the two-year-old Portland Creamery suggested I serve peaches with her goat cheese, drizzled with goat-milk caramel. It sounded like an ideal companion to pork.
I spent hours talking to vendors, sampling wares, gathering ideas, and choosing the best ingredients. I picked up a bushel of fruit and produce, as well as blue cheese and butter from Jacobs Creamery, a 5-year-old business run by law-school dropout Lisa Jacobs.
Dinner was in the garden of the home of Anne and Chris Prescott. I met them through Tom Kiessling, a friend from New York who happens to be a food scientist. Juan Ordoñez, a buddy from college, joined us.
Michelle and I spent about six hours making a feast. There was cubed watermelon and heirloom tomatoes with crumbled feta and mint; potato latkes crowned with salmon caviar, sour cream, and chives; kale massaged with salt and tossed with green apples, blue cheese, red onions, currants, and sunflower seeds; multicolored carrots roasted with cardamom; mushrooms sautéed with garlic, shallots, olive oil, and thyme and finished with a little chicken stock, mushroom powder, and butter; Brussels sprouts roasted with bacon; a berry-peach cobbler with crème Chantilly.
The salmon needed only a brief sauté; a beet-yogurt salad cut its richness. Silky cod and poached clams melded with potatoes and mushrooms like a pine forest rolling down to the sea. The clarity of the pork resonated with a Chinese five-spice rub in a symphony with the peaches, goat cheese, and caramel. Tartly sweet pie, mounded with five pounds of Granny Smith apples, formed a straw-colored hill of tender flaky crust.
In all, we pulled off a grandiose, 11-course meal in one day for about $25 a head with just the tool kit of basic ingredients, a few added herbs and spices, and no fancy kitchen tools. As the evening wound down, Chris, slumped in a chair, said, “I’ll remember this dinner for the rest of my life.”
To be fair, no one can cook, or would want to eat, like this regularly. There were nearly three separate meals in one. But it would be easy for a couple of people to whip up a few of these dishes in an hour of prep work for less than half the cost. I limited expenses to what a meal might cost at a popular chain like Applebee’s, although you wouldn’t get 11 courses of fresh-off-the-farm food there.
Changing food culture
It is true that artisanal products cost more than industrial foods. That’s because they don’t dump costs on the rest of society like agribusiness does through pesticides, animal waste, and ill health—and they don’t get the subsidies that make industrial food so cheap.
There are some policy moves in the right direction. Kinga, a guest at the Chicago dinner, had gone to the farmers market earlier that same day. There, her food stamps were doubled, as part of a program in Illinois and other states to provide low-income households with more access to healthy food. Cutting the price in half makes local food from small farmers competitive with industrial food.
Farmers markets are spreading as well—there are more than 8,100 nationwide, nearly triple the number in 2000. In 2008, the most recent year for which numbers are available, 107,000 farms sold $4.8 billion worth of products, with less than 20 percent of sales taking place at farmers markets. But the market for local food is dominated by 5,300 large producers that account for 70 percent of all local food sales and outsell small vendors by a factor of 98 to one.
Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, says that we don’t pay for the “real cost” of food, and to do so, “We need a social wage, need a living wage.” The next phase of the food movement has to be changing “the institutions and the rules of the food system by building a strong food movement in order to force these reforms onto the government,” Holt-Giménez says. Organizing for social solutions like new farmers markets, food co-ops, and farm-to-school programs will allow us to think bigger and tackle national solutions—like using our tax dollars to subsidize small producers and community-supported agriculture instead of funding industrial corn and feedlots crammed with 50,000 cattle.
Ultimately food is about the bonds we create. In Chicago, Kinga declared she hated mushrooms, but her distaste was no match for the earthy-meaty aroma of frying creminis and portabellas. When pasta buried in mushrooms hit the table, she dug in and exclaimed that not only did she like them, but she couldn’t wait to tell her family she ate mushrooms willingly. In the Finger Lakes, Kelly and Michael were intrigued at how I slowly scrambled eggs over low heat with the butter thrown in cold. “Wow,” was their reaction upon tasting it. While they introduced me to pastured eggs, I showed them how a simple technique could coax out the eggs’ flavor with ingredients readily at hand. In both instances we created a shared experience that in the future we’ll talk and laugh and think about.
It’s why I believe good food should be a right. Eating great-tasting food regularly makes you realize processed food hits our pocketbooks hard but shortchanges us on pleasure. The best way to build a popular movement is not by being scolds, but by being fun and exciting. And we can do that by starting a food revolution that meets people where they eat.
Christie reveals a dark side of our society — a public enchanted by his tough guy antics and the press who encourages his sadism.
As we mourn a great chef, we shouldn’t sugarcoat the way he treated workers.
by Arun Gupta In These Times November 8, 2013
I met Charlie Trotter once, when he popped by the French Culinary Institute for an impromptu demonstration when I was a student there. It was 1996, and Trotter was rising fast in the pantheon of chefs. From the head of a kitchen classroom he fielded questions and described the harmony of flavors and textures he was creating as he carved cucumber cups, stuffed them with julienned apples, plunked them in a bowl of cucumber “water” shimmering with dill oil, and garnished them with jewel-cut melon, jicama and avocado.
He was only in his 30s, but it was classic Trotter: riffing on culinary standards with modern flavor notes and unconventional arrangements. It also represented the paradoxical nature of Trotter, who died on Tuesday in his Chicago home at age 54.
He was a self-taught chef appearing before students forking over dough to learn how to cook. He was in the domain of French food, but his palette of vegetable and fruit reductions, extractions and oils ran counter to the meat/butter/stock building blocks of haute cuisine. He melded imagination and refinement with hospitality and elegance, collecting awards for best chef and best restaurant in the nation at his peak, but was by most accounts a tyrant in the kitchen.
I got a taste of his anger when I asked him if he thought the flavor of wild salmon was superior to farmed. Smiling, he said there was no discernible difference. Surprised, I asked again, and his bonhomie evaporated. His eyes locked on me, his face scrunched slightly. “None,” he spat out.
It did not diminish my admiration for Trotter. His stellar cuisine was approachable for home chefs—an impossibility today, given the industrial laboratory required for modernist food. It did take a properly equipped kitchen and knowledge of basic techniques, but a passion for detail and precision mattered above all else. In my Manhattan tenement kitchen, I’ve recreated many of his dishes that soared with flavor, and a few that looked worthy of his sumptuously photographed cookbooks.
But as much as I idolized Trotter, I would not have wanted to work at his eponymous Chicago restaurant. Stories of his temper flowed freely, and he lapped it up, expressing irritation one year that he had been beat out by Michael Jordan for the number one spot on Chicago Magazine’s list of the meanest people in the city. One chef who interned with him told me of times when Trotter reduced grown cooks to tears or paralyzed them with fear.
That’s why allusions to Shakespearean tragedy keep bubbling up through the praise being heaped on Trotter since his death. One writer wonders whether “the same mysterious edge that made Charlie Trotter a genius also ended up killing him.”
As hard as he drove his cooks, who worked 70-80 hour weeks, scrubbed their own pots and sometimes snuck produce home to prep it before the next day’s madness, Trotter was hardest on himself. In the end, his family told the Associated Press, Trotter was taking medication for seizures, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. He still had steely determination, but his gymnast build had grown bloated. The weekend before his death, he reportedly defied orders from his doctor against boarding a plane to attend a culinary conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
But rather than pore over flaws that paled next to Trotter’s virtuosity, it’s time to admit that the real culprit is a restaurant culture that dishes out abuse. Michelin-starred chefs are often known for their prowess in screaming as much as for their cuisine. Few underlings will openly admit it, lest crossing a celebrity chef consign them to also-ran kitchens, but get a few seasoned cooks together and they’ll swap accounts of star chefs who hurl insults, torment weaklings, throw pots, or perhaps even a punch. As Donald Trump is to real estate, Gordon Ramsay is to the kitchen, building his public persona on being a flaming asshole.
During my brief forays into professional kitchens, I was challenged to a fistfight, worked with a line cook who broke someone’s jaw, and was told about a famed chef who would throw spice into the eyes of hung-over waiters during brunch service. While the stories are entertaining, they also suggest that many chefs believe that high pressure and hard work excuse bad behavior.
Charlie Trotter’s tragedy is that his life was both a testament to and indictment of the restaurant industry. He has an outsized legacy in the chefs he mentored, the Chicago dining scene that he made world-class, and the cuisine he crafted, which defied convention while delighting the senses. But tributes to his work would be elevated by acknowledging that great food shouldn’t be accompanied by abusive working conditions.
By Arun Gupta truth-out.org December 23, 2013
It wasn’t getting a freshly plucked rooster for my birthday that made it so memorable. It was the realization of what a real chicken tasted like.
It was early spring. Michael had just driven down from the Finger Lakes to the city. Hopping out of his prematurely aged Hyundai, he walked toward me with a lopsided grin and a clear plastic bag. “Happy 40th,” he said thrusting a naked bird forward in the chilly night air. I took the bag and inspected the tight, vibrant flesh in the streetlight, noticing a few pin feathers attached to the lower leg, revealing this was home-grown fowl.
“I have a recipe from Julia,” Mike said, pulling out a folded sheet of paper his neighbor across the swamp had given him. The handwritten note, labeled “Coq au Vin,” called for two bottles of wine and four hours roasting time.
“I’ve never cooked a bird that long or with that much wine,” I said skeptically.
“The breed is a standard Cornish Cross, which is 99 percent of the chicken that’s raised. But this rooster lived outdoors for nine months, so the meat is more flavorful and muscular than a chicken that spent its short life crammed in a cage,” Mike explained. “It needs a lot of wine and time to make the meat tender.”
The next day, after a night of warm company and greasy good Chinese food, I assembled the ingredients – rooster, wine, onion, carrots, celery, herbs, olives. After cutting up the bird, I heaved my ginormous cast-iron skillet on the stove and gently browned the thick-skinned legs and breasts in a little vegetable oil. This technique drew out fat, while developing deep, rich flavors. The prep time was quick, a little chopping, and the cooking required little effort, other than my presence to check its progress. After sticking the skillet into a hot oven with the veggies and wine, I retired to the living room. The apartment filled with chicken and wine aromas.
I pulled it out after two hours, but the meat was still tough. “Wow,” I said. “I guess Julia was right.” Back in the oven it went. But after another hour, the bouquet and my hunger proved too much. I pulled it out. The sauce was velvety and plum-colored. The meat was delicious, but needed more time. No matter. I tore into a leg. It was the best-tasting poultry I ever had, better than organic poussin (young chickens) raised in Quebec and sold in New York gourmet stores.
When trying to describe the flavor of chicken, it’s hard to avoid being self-referential – tastes meaty or chicken – sounding like a chemistry professor discussing flavor precursors like ribose-5-phosphate, Maillard reaction and volatile carbonyl compounds, or taking literary flight, “eating the chicken was like sitting on a verdant hillside, exploring a sweeping valley of flavors.”
But there’s another way to describe it. That outdoor-living, pasture-strutting rooster didn’t taste bland or mushy or dull or chemically. In Pandora’s Lunchbox, author Melanie Warner talks to a food scientist who suggested a taste test. Take three chickens: a factory-farmed inmate, a mass-produced organic chicken and a true pastured chicken, like my rooster.
“The cheap chicken,” Warner writes, “will have minimal flavor, thanks to its short life span, lack of sunlight and a monotonous diet of corn and soy. The organic chicken “will have a few ‘roast notes and fatty notes.’” The pastured chicken is a “happy chicken” that “spent its life outside, running around and eating an evolutionary diet of grass, seeds, bugs, and worms.” Eating one is hitting the culinary jackpot as it will have a “deep, succulent nutty taste” that’s “incomparable” to the other chickens.
The chicken Mike gifted to me had that well-rounded symphony of flavors. He was a big guy, but he quickly disappeared into my belly. By the end of the week, all that remained were scraps and a puddle of sauce, the stuff you throw away. But I greedily savored every morsel.
This summer, Mike raised a flock of Dark Cornish, a heritage breed, on his homestead that also hosts a permaculture institute called Cayuta Sun. “The birds are natural foragers,” he said. “When I would open up the coop, a lot of them went straight past the feeder for the brush to eat insects, sprouting grasses, seeds. They’ll even eat small animals. Chickens are carnivorous, and unlike the Cornish Cross, these are smart enough to catch a frog or mouse.”
They are also prone to going feral. Just like their wild ancestors roosted in Southeast Asian jungles millennia ago, a dozen of Mike’s birds flew the coop and nested in pine and elm trees at night, safe from hungry raccoons, weasels, foxes and hawks. One rooster even made a jailbreak and is still hanging out in the treetops, but the rest of the flock was slaughtered a few weeks ago.
Mike says the leg meat “is remarkably like a turkey, while being tender.” Because Dark Cornish are meat chickens, “they also have big white-meat breasts, so you get the best of both types, and the flavor is incredibly rich.” The experience of eating pastured chickens, eggs and pig has taught me we don’t know what we’ve lost as a result of our instant-gratification culture. For the first 40 years of my life, I didn’t know how delicious a real chicken could be. I just knew I was fed up with flavorless birds raised in destructive, cruel factories.
That’s not to suggest we should go back to the days when chicken dinner meant chasing a hen around the yard, whacking, disemboweling and plucking it before cooking. Plus, the birds were often scrawny and the meat stringy. The challenge is to take the best attribute of each system, such as using farm subsidies and modern science to support farmers rearing 1,000 or 2,000 birds naturally in open pastures, while eliminating the practices that result in poisoned rivers, broken-down workers and a warming climate.
The biggest hurdle to this is price. Mike sells his chickens for about $6 a pound and is struggling to break even. Concentrating 30,000 birds in a shed, where they go from chick to broiler in six weeks, can lower the retail cost down to $1 a pound. For the 100 million Americans in or on the cusp of poverty, that makes a huge difference.
But the two actually go hand in hand: low wages require cheap food. Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, says that we don’t pay for the “real cost” of food. Americans have the cheapest food in the world, when measured by percent of household budget. Holt-Giménez says if we are to pay the real cost of food, “We need a social wage. We need a living wage. We can’t be paying so much for education. We can’t be paying so much for health care.”
I think it’s possible that we can transition to a society where we all ate farm-fresh food regularly. It would be a radically different world, but a far more equitable and delicious one than we have now.