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CookBookSlut vs. the Economy

CookBookSlut vs. the Economy

My new CookBookSlut column is up over at Bookslut — I take on cooking and urban homesteading as one approach to the continuing implosion of the economy and the unabating high unemployment rate. I mean, if we’re not going to have jobs anymore, we’d better learn to grow our own and cook our own and take care of our own. (Rant alert, btw.)

Here’s a list of the terrific books I discuss this month:

The Wire, The Novel and the MacArthur Grant

The Wire, The Novel and the MacArthur Grant

There’s a lot of chatter this morning about David Simon winning the MacArthur Foundation Grant. While it’s true that he’s hardly a starving artist, and hence there’s griping about whether or not he needs the money, I think it’s a fascinating choice on their part. Simon, along with his many collaborators including novelists like Dennis Lehane, Richard Powers and George Pellacanos, has in some crucial way reinvented the novel as a multi-part, long form television show. Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s the other way around, maybe he’s just plain old reinvented the long-form television show. All I can say is that The Wire, which I missed during the years it was on the air, is the most astonishing and rewarding and exciting thing I’ve ever seen on television.

I’ve been watching it all summer on DVD and chief among the many merits of watching the series this way is that without the interruption of seasons, one can really see the narrative arcs play out. This isn’t network television, and so the shape of the narrative is much closer to the shape of a great novel than it is a television show. Ideas play out over a long time. Motifs crop up, disappear, and come back. Characters have time to disappear for a while (I’m in the middle of season 4, when McNulty is almost entirely in the background) then reappear without the sort of idiotic explanatory crap a network show would stick in there because they assume we’re too stupid to remember who someone is if we haven’t seen them in the last five minutes. It’s a show that doesn’t assume we’re morons, that believes we’ll stick around in a world that is almost entirely black, that we’ll care not only about the scrappy bunch of eight graders who are still kind of cute, but about killers like Omar and Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale and about the cannibalistic mothers who groom their boys to go out and take their places on those corners because that’s the only vision they have of what it means to be a man.

It’s also a show that deals with work. As Lorrie Moore said in this terrific piece in the New York Review of Books (which I was reading last night when the news came in about Simon),

“The most intriguing phrase Simon has used regarding The Wire is that it is about ‘the death of work.’ By this he means not just the loss of jobs, thought there certainly is that, but the loss of integrity within our systems of work, the ‘juking of stats,’ the speaking of truth to power having been replaced with speaking what is most self-serving and pleasing to the higher-ups. … in the world of The Wire almost everyone who tries to buck the system and do right is punished, often severely and grotesquely and heartbreakingly. Accomodation is survival at the most basic level, although it is also lethal to the soul.

One of the issues that the sweetheart and I have been discussing all summer long as story after story spews forth from the mainstream press about the “end of the recession” and the “jobless recovery” is the absolute stream of bullshit that is any actual discussion of the economy. We’re each of us in slightly odd positions in this economy, both insiders and outsiders — he has an Ivy League degree and has spent his career building houses, while I have the full string of graduate degrees, wanted to be an artist, and wound up spending a decade in corporate America, a place I never expected to be. We’re both pretty conservative, financially — we’ve mostly lived below our means, saved some money, don’t have a lot of debt, and bought houses we could afford to pay off. Neither of us ever wanted to get rich, but we’ve always worked, and have watched over the past decade or so as the boom-and-bust mentality of what passed for economic policy consistently screwed over those of us among the vast majority of Americans who don’t want to get rich, but who just want to work, have a house, food on the table, and maybe put a little bit away for a rainy day.

What strikes me about The Wire is that it’s one of the only portraits I’ve ever seen on television of how hard it is to just get by in America. The cops, the dockworkers, the teachers, the government workers — they’re all trying to stick it out, keep roofs over their heads, food on the table, sneakers on the kids feet. The Wire is the only show I’ve ever seen on television that shows the lived experience of what happened as we all stood by and watched while factories were dismantled and jobs were outsourced and schools and government and unions and the newspapers were gutted from the inside. Sure, for some of us, our 401ks went up as these big corporations posted profits that were based on getting rid of all their employees, but they weren’t real profits, they were short-term paper profits (or was it just the ponzi-scheme effect of shifting everyone’s retirement from pensions to 401ks?). We’ve all spent the past thirty years living for short term quarterly numbers with absolute disregard for the means by which we were meeting those numbers. And now, we’re all standing around in the aftermath, like Svobodka in Season 2, looking at the docks and the closed factories and the graineries and lamenting the fact that we used to make things in this country.

The corrosive contempt for the working class, the continual griping that “they’re” making too much money, the pissing and moaning about unions with the audacity to negotiate for health insurance all somehow misses the point. If there are no jobs, then no one is making any money, and if no one is making any money, they’re not going to be able to spend it on the consumer goods that drive the economy. A solid and healthy middle class is the sign of an economy in good shape, and somehow, we’ve decided in America that we’re going to let the richest 1% take 24% of the wealth of the nation, let the richest 20% take a full 85% of the nation’s wealth. I’ve never understood why people aren’t more angry about this, and all I can figure is that somehow everyone has decided that they’re going to win the wealth lottery — maybe this is what’s behind the insane proliferation of “reality” shows about people who have neither talent nor accomplishment. A loss of integrity regarding work indeed.

And so, I think it’s brilliant that Simon won the MacArthur grant. Clearly the committee thinks he’s saying something crucial about the state of our society, and is using a medium that is too often gutted from the inside by it’s own reliance on formula and cliche in order to do this. He’s given voice to a whole section of American society that is too often hidden or demonized, as well as to that great silent middle class that we only see as the but of jokes or satire. And he’s done it by creating some of the most compelling characters ever seen on television. It also seems fitting after a few weeks where white, upper class, highly-educated men have been claiming a book about their experience is the central experience in American society, that the MacArtuthur Foundation has bestowed it’s “genius grant” on someone who spent so many years drawing a detailed, compassionate, character-driven portrait of the America in which the other 85% of us live.

Another Season, Another Redesign

Another Season, Another Redesign

Here’s to a cleaner design, and to more regular posting. There’s probably going to be less cooking and gardening around here in the future (if only because after eight seasons in this house, I sort of feel like I’ve written just about everything one can about my garden, and about what I’m eating for dinner) and more writing about books, and politics and economics.

One of the things I can’t seem to get out of my head is Shannon Hayes book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. I wrote about it for BookSlut in last month’s column The Revolution Starts Here, and then the Bookslut herself, Jessa, wrote about it in her Smart Set column this month: The Home Front. One of the things I found fascinating about Jessa’s column is how different Hayes’ ideas look to someone a decade and a half younger than I am. I’m old enough to remember the hippies of the 1970s, the back to the land movement, and to have seen both of those not as a joke, but as a possible way of life. In college I hung out with oddball types who were leading canoe trips and trying to figure out how to support themselves without ever having to come in from the woods. In other words, I’m old enough to have come of age before Ronald Reagan, when the world still held out some hope that making money and buying stuff wasn’t the ultimate project to which one could devote one’s life (although I also haven’t forgiven Bill Clinton for repealing Glass-Steagall and allowing the banks and Wall Street to gamble our economy in to ruin).  I liked Hayes’ book a lot, and I loved the portraits of so many people trying to figure out how to live richly without buying into the fear-based money economy, the one that wants to keep us on the hamster wheel forever, always chasing that thing that is just out of reach.

But I have to say, a lot of it didn’t seem that radical to me. Anyone my age who wanted to be an artist or who never wanted to come in from the woods knew that they were never going to make much money. I like to say that I moved to Livingston because of Gary Snyder, who showed us all in grad school, by his example, that if you bought a place to live that you could afford to pay off, then you had a huge amount of personal and artistic freedom. One of the things I find the most touching in Hayes’ account, is how torn she felt between the path that academic success opened up for her, and the lived experience of that life. She’s smart and got herself scholarships and, like I did, went all the way to the PhD. — only to discover that the life that opened up for her was going to require sacrifices in her personal life that she wasn’t able to make. I know that feeling.

It’s unsettling to feel out of the mainstream. I’ve gotten more comfortable with it as I’ve gotten older, partly because I’m old enough now that I sort of know what my life is, I’m past that point where you’re always worried about what you’re going to be when you grow up. And I don’t know that I’d be as sanguine about it if I lived someplace more “normal” — if I was surrounded by subdivisions and shopping malls and all the stuff that I fled when I left California (where I was very lonely, in part because I didn’t care about any of that stuff).  I do know that it’s folks like Shannon Hayes (and Jessa and everyone else out here blogging about how to live closer to the ground) who are asking the right questions, who are finally starting to crack the buy-buy-buy ethos that have caused us, over the past several decades, to run ourselves into the ground.

Linky Roundup

Linky Roundup

I’m in a deadline zone, but here are some interesting links from around the intertubes that I thought you all might like:

Weeds, being what they are, have developed their own Roundup-Ready varietals. Guess that whole GMO thing was so well-thought-out, eh? I have to confess, I used to resort to a little casual Roundup use around the LivingSmall ranchero, but between the frogs, and the cancer cluster in which I grew up, and my amazing Bernzomatic Outdoor Torch, I now just burn weeds up instead of spraying them with the dreaded Atrazine.

Fellow Ethicurean, Steph Larsen, has incurred my ever-lasting jealousy by buying a 12-acre farm in Nebraska where she intends to grow fruits and vegetables and chickens.

The LA Weekly has a roundup of the weekly food sections from around the country.

Columbia Journalism Review has a terrific interview with Tom Philphott of Grist about class, local food, and the economics of revamping our food system.

If you haven’t been following ShutUpFoodies, you must go there right now and check it out. Both hilarious and prescient.

My dreams are coming true with the establishment of the FoodCorps, a volunteer organization along the lines of AmeriCorps who are working to improve the quality of America’s school food.

And last, but definitely not least, FiredogLake has had by far the best coverage I’ve seen of the Gulf Oil Disaster including the link to Halliburton, and the ways by which the Bush administration’s identification with and deregulation of the oil business contributed to this calamity.

More School Lunch News

More School Lunch News

More news about school lunches:
High School kids in Chicago protest the junkiness of their school lunches to the school board.

When school officials defend serving a daily menu of nachos, pizza, burgers and fries, they often say they’re just giving students what they want.

But you wouldn’t know it by listening to an angry coalition of high school students who plan to speak out on Chicago Public Schools meals Wednesday at the monthly Chicago Board of Education meeting.

One of those students is Teresa Onstott, a sophomore at Social Justice High School who last week practiced a speech that details the “sickening pizza, chicken sandwiches and nachos” the district serves each day and urges the board not to renew the contract for the company providing the food.

Kids who bring a sack lunch, are less likely to be obese:

Compared with kids who brought lunch from home, those who ate school lunches:

  • Were more likely to be overweight or obese (38.2% vs. 24.7%)
  • Were more likely to eat two or more servings of fatty meats like fried chicken or hot dogs daily (6.2% vs. 1.6%)
  • Were more likely to have two or more sugary drinks a day (19% vs. 6.8%)
  • Were less likely to eat at least two servings of fruits a day (32.6% vs. 49.4%)
  • Were less likely to eat at least two servings of vegetables a day (39.9% vs. 50.3%)
  • Had higher levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol
  • The good news: The Senate Agriculture Committee voted yesterday to increase the 17 billion dollar budget of the school food program by 4.5 billion dollars over the next decade

    The measure, which now must go to a full Senate vote, would overhaul the $17 billion school lunch program. It would call for the USDA to set new nutrition standards for food served in the cafeteria and vending machines, improve training for cafeteria workers and accelerate recalls of contaminated foods. Some 23,000 children ate food at school that made them sick from 1998 to 2007, according to USA Today. The bill also aims to increase the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

    The bad news:They’re planning to pay for it by cutting farm conservation programs while leaving big commodity crop subsidies in place:

    “Pitting kids against clean water instead of looking for savings in the much, much larger crop insurance and farm subsidy accounts is just wrong,” said Craig Cox, an official with Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. “It’s more than wrong, because it also reduces the increase in child nutrition funding that could otherwise be achieved.”

    Tester Takes on E.Coli Problem

    Tester Takes on E.Coli Problem

    This morning’s Billings Gazette had a story about Senator Tester, with the help of a local slaughterhouse owner, taking on the lack of accountability in the nation’s meat testing protocols. Montana’s one of the few states where small slaughterhouses still exist, which is a good thing if you want to buy local meat. I have a friend in Colorado, for example, who has a ranch, but doesn’t raise cattle for her family in large part because they’d have to be sent to a big feedlot operation to be processed. What’s the point in that? How would you even know if you got your own meat back?

    From the article:

    “If nothing changes, we are virtually guaranteed there will be ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls as a consequence of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s unwillingness to trace contamination back to the source,” said John Munsell, a former Miles City butcher and advocate for reforming food safety laws.
    Eight years ago, a USDA inspector found E. coli in beef at Munsell’s family meat processing plant, Montana Quality Foods. Munsell told the USDA the contaminated beef came from the slaughterer ConAgra Beef Co., but under existing food safety laws, the government’s investigation stopped at Munsell’s plant. Federal regulators said they couldn’t positively trace the bacteria back to ConAgra despite records offered by Munsell.
    Munsell recalled 270 pounds of hamburger. Months later, ConAgra Beef was caught in an 18 million pound meat recall, one of the nation’s largest.
    Munsell has been lobbying for regulatory changes since 2002. He helped write the bill Tester is introducing. Currently, inspectors are not allowed to document the source of the meat they sample on the same day they collect material to test, Munsell said. Once the test results come back, enough time has lapsed that inspectors can’t say for sure where the meat originated.
    “Why have they always required policies that intentionally delayed evidence gathering? Who are they trying to protect?” Munsell said. “In five days, the trail of evidence grows cold.”

    Politics, Food and Otherwise

    Politics, Food and Otherwise

    A few items from around the intertubes:

    While I appreciate that Iowan’s are using the stupendous agricultural natural resources with which they are blessed to move away from agribusiness models, I do grow tired of the eternal surprise of journalists when they discover, yet again, that the midwest is full of interesting people. Here’s a French journalist who took a tour of some of the state’s more interesting agricultural entrepreneurs.

    Civil Eats has a terrific interview with Mollie Katzen, author of The New Moosewood Cookbook. She’s written a book called Get Cooking: 150 Simple Recipes to Get You Started in the Kitchen and has put a series of videos on YouTube. She describes her goal for Get Cooking here:

    The very basic act of cooking is becoming a radical necessity. That’s why I wrote Get Cooking, because people asked me to lay out the simple basics of how to cook. I wanted to give people the tools they need to make easy recipes, four to five things you can cook well. It sounds simple, but that’s the key to people digging their way out of bad food. They need to know how to shop and how to make food in their busy day and in a small kitchen. I wish cooking was required in school, but until then, we’ve got to teach simple lessons.

    Daily Kos has a roundup of the latest on the mythology that is the “jobless recovery.” There is no recovery without jobs. Again for those who aren’t listening: without jobs, people will have no money. Without money, people can’t buy food, cars, washing machines, or pay their mortgages. Without jobs, and without money, the “economy” cannot recover. We need to stop bailing out banks and brokerage houses and hedge funds. We need to stop giving tax breaks to corporations that move manufacturing jobs overseas. We need to start making things again in the United States, which means we need to start hiring people to make things. People with jobs can “recover” from this economic disaster. People who do not have jobs cannot “recover.” It’s time to get over the cult of Uncle Milty and the ridiculous idea that the “free market” is going to solve everyone’s ills. We need a real jobs bill. One that puts people back to work.

    Left in the West has the actual numbers on what passage of the health care bill will mean for Montanans:

  • Improve coverage for 564,000 residents with health insurance.
  • Give tax credits and other assistance to up to 261,000 families and 34,900 small businesses to help them afford coverage.
  • Improve Medicare for 162,000 beneficiaries, including closing the donut hole.
  • Extend coverage to 117,000 uninsured residents.
  • Guarantee that 22,000 residents with pre-existing conditions can obtain coverage.
  • Protect 900 families from bankruptcy due to unaffordable health care costs.
  • Allow 76,000 young adults to obtain coverage on their parents’ insurance plans.
  • Provide millions of dollars in new funding for 84 community health centers.
  • Reduce the cost of uncompensated care for hospitals and other health care providers by $54 million annually.
  • Clean food, locally produced, by farmers who can make a living growing and selling food, and who might have access to affordable health care: Now that’s change I can get behind. Here’s hoping.

    On Hipsters, Food Stamps and the Permeability of the Poverty Line

    On Hipsters, Food Stamps and the Permeability of the Poverty Line

    There was an article in Salon the other day that I almost blogged about, but it seemed like such as setup: Hipsters on Food Stamps. The article was a profile of out-of-work “hipsters” in the Bay Area, New York, Baltimore and other urban areas who were, thanks to the ongoing recession and the stimulus package, eligible for and using food stamps. Of course, the twist was that they weren’t eating “government cheese” but were using their food stamp money to buy fruits and vegetables at small stores and farmers markets, and were gasp, cooking fairly delicious meals from them. One of those meals was described, rather snarkily, as “Thai yellow curry with coconut milk and lemongrass, Chinese gourd sautéed in hot chile sauce and sweet clementine juice, all of it courtesy of government assistance.” Hmm. Sounds like a healthy cheap vegetarian meal to me.

    So anyway, I wasn’t going to write about this because it just seemed so dumb. But today I was cruising past Salon, and found Gerry Mak’s response to the story. He’s one of the so-called “hipsters” profiled in the piece, and while he defended his decisions about food with eloquence, he correctly pointed out that the original article was a smokescreen for a larger and more important issue:

    … the core of this discussion is an ideological debate between those that believe private entrepreneurship and simple hard work are the cures for poverty, and those that believe that the the poverty line is permeable in both directions. Among the latter, there is yet a deeper debate about whether we can, in a deep recession with record unemployment rates, make the same old assumptions about class based on race, occupation and education, particularly when increasingly, only poorly paid, unprotected, insecure jobs are available even to people with master’s degrees.

    As someone who grew up with many many advantages, especially those of class privilege, but with parents who were usually broke, I have never been unclear on the permeability of the poverty line. I’ve been broke most of my life, with the exception of the ten years I spent at the Big Corporation. I have almost always worked at least two jobs; I have advanced degrees; and yet, in every other job I’ve ever had but that one, I’ve been underpaid, and have worked in environments where benefits weren’t even offered. Until the Big Corp. job, I’d never worked anyplace where I qualified for unemployment benefits when the job ended, and it continues to make me crazy that the majority of the jobs I’ve had in my life don’t even qualify as “real” jobs to the government. So if, for once, unemployed, educated, white-collar information workers are eligible for a little bit of government assistance, and they’re being creative about using it, who are we to mock them?

    This is a deep and terrifying recession, and although I’ve been weathering it pretty well so far, let’s face it, there are real dangers out there. People are losing their houses. Kids are getting out of school and looking at the worst employment prospects in decades, but unlike those of us who graduated in the mid-1980s with similar recessionary stats, these kids are carrying tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. And it’s not just kids who are in trouble. There are a lot of people, like the author of this article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, “Off The Job, Slouching Toward Social Services” who have good educations, and creative professions they’ve sustained with the sorts of underemployment jobs that those of us who want to write or paint or dance or create theatre have always had — secretarial and translation and waiting tables — and even those jobs are gone now. I’ve been lucky so far — I’ve had enough freelance work to keep my head above water, and it looks like I’ll be able to swing a part-time contracting gig back at the Big Corporation. I’m thrilled that I can survive on a part-time gig as I have some creative projects I really feel it’s time to commit to and I’ve spent the past eight years since I’ve moved here paying things off and trying to get my financial house to the place where I can live on a lot less. However, even though I can do this, and I’m deeply grateful for the job opportunity, I’m still going back to a world of self-employment — no health insurance, no stock options, and should this gig end, no unemployment benefits. I’m going back into that ever-increasing sector of the economy where there is no safety net, and where bankruptcy and ruin are one broken leg or appendicitis or cancer diagnosis away. And that’s NOT the change I voted for, it’s not the United States in which I want to live, and it’s not the nation where I want our kids to grow up. We have the ability to take care of one another better than this. And one way we can start the process is perhaps by rethinking some of the stories we’ve been told about class and race and education and opportunity.

    Re-Thinking Quality of Life

    Re-Thinking Quality of Life

    Over at Alternet, Kate Pickett, and Richard Wilkinson have a fascinating introduction to their new book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. It’s no surprise to anyone who has been reading this site that I think we all need to re-evaluate ideas like “standard of living” and “economic growth” — here at LivingSmall, I follow Ed Abbey, who said in all the way back in 1977, in The Journey Home that: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

    Picking up on this idea, Pickett and Wilkinson have done a demographic study of countries (and states) in which there is wide variation in ratios of income between the top and bottom 20% of the population. What they found was that:

    Throughout the centuries, there have always been those who have believed that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive. That intuition seems to be borne out by our data. In the more unequal countries and US states, only about 15 or 20 percent of the population feel they can trust others, compared to around two-thirds in the more equal ones. More equal societies are also more cohesive, with stronger community life. Coupled with the evidence on violence, this confirms that inequality damages the social fabric of society. If you have to walk home alone late at night, you’d feel easier about it in a more equal society.

    They examine the ways in which those societies which have greater economic equity enjoy better health, longer life, and lower carbon emissions among all social classes than do those with more economic inequity. It’s well worth clicking over to read the full article here, since my paraphrase hardly does them justice. But for those of us who are tired of our more wealthy or Republican friends and family telling us that we’ve got our heads in the clouds for instinctively believing that social and economic equity leads to greater social benefits, Pickett and Wilkinson have mustered a lot of empirical evidence to back us up.

    School Food

    School Food

    Hi folks — working on a really exciting redesign, so expect to see the maintenance mode page again over the next week or so.

    In the meantime, I’ve been thinking a lot about school food. The Billings Gazette had a piece about an elementary school that was about to start offering breakfast to all students. Which sounds like a great idea, except that I read about it right on the heels of Ed Bruske’s series, Tales from a DC School Kitchen in which he spent a week in his daughter’s school, and discovered fun facts like the breakfast offered contained as much as 13 teaspoons of sugar. Hmm. Breakfast is good, but is that breakfast good?

    The Bozeman Chronicle reports that the Farm-to-School movement is getting some additional support, but it doesn’t yet sound like they’re seeing much local food in the local schools (and no, selling “local” huckleberry jam as a fundraiser doesn’t count.) Personally I think a great use of stimulus money would be to rebuild actual kitchens in the schools, and, as Tom Philpott has suggested, run a debt-exchange with culinary school graduates to run them. They could learn budgeting and cooking for picky eaters, and the kids would get real food. Or just hire lunch ladies again. I’m a huge fan of lunch ladies.

    The way we pretend to use agricultural surplus to feed our schoolchildren should be a national shame. There’s nothing “agricultural” about the sorts of highly-processed heat-and-eat crap we’re serving them. Here’s an eye-opening blog post by a mother from Houston who gave in to her daughter’s wish to buy lunch (which was social in nature, the kid ate food she knew would make her sick three days running). She told her kid she could try school lunch for a week, if she’d take a picture of each lunch. Take a look here at what the kid was eating.

    To top off this little school-food roundup, here’s Jamie Oliver’s terrific Ted Talk. He can be a little annoying, but you have to give the guy credit for fighting the good fight for cooking and real food. It shouldn’t be so hard.