An (In)convenient Truth
Jane Black is an award-winning food writer who covers food politics, trends and
sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York Magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.
Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.
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In 2012, the New York Times’ restaurant critic savaged Guy Fieri’s new Times Square restaurant. Framed as a letter to the Food Network star, the critique made a mockery of Fieri’s food—Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders and glow-in-the-dark blue watermelon margaritas—and of the very idea of him, a bro-chef who travels the country swooning over burgers topped with bacon and mac-and-cheese. We all had a good laugh. People still talk about that review.
But not everyone was laughing. Pretzel chicken tenders (awesome or not) and Black Angus burgers topped with SMC (super-melty cheese) are the kinds of food that a lot of people crave. Fieri, whose show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” has long been a dominant presence in the Food Network’s primetime lineup, is as much the face of this food moment as Michael Pollan, the intellectual lodestar of the food-reform effort. And Fieri has become a food celebrity despite the fact that he rarely mentions the gospel of sustainability, superior ingredients and the joys of slow food. Or perhaps because of it.
In the months since Donald Trump’s election—perhaps the greatest political upset in U.S. history—there has been considerable handwringing about what blue-staters failed to understand about the rest of the country. So far, few people have mentioned dinner as being part of that collective blind spot. But over the last decade, as what we eat became a political, economic and cultural issue, the conversation about food has made a lot of Americans feel judged. Shopping at a 24-hour Walmart, rather than at a virtuous farmers’ market, or grabbing dinner at the drive-through instead of cooking from scratch, was sneered at by many as a morally irresponsible way to eat—bad for your health and bad for the planet. Food became another front in the culture wars, and on Election Day there no doubt were plenty of voters who went home and watched Triple D, as Fieri’s show is called, after they pulled the lever for Trump.
The elite’s condescension about food is not always intentional, or even conscious, just the result of the fact that the food conversation primarily has been a bicoastal one, dominated by journalists, activists and chefs whose assumptions were that people everywhere wanted what they wanted—or, if they didn’t, that they could be educated to see that it was in their interest. This strategy didn’t work for the supporters of Hillary Clinton, and it was never going to work in the effort to change what we eat, one of the most mundane, yet intensely personal, decisions people make every day.
My husband and I saw this when, in 2010, we moved to Huntington, W.V., a depressed Rust Belt city that had recently been named the nation’s most unhealthy metropolitan area by the Centers for Disease Control. That year, another celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, made a reality-TV show about his efforts to persuade residents of Huntington to change the way they ate. The city’s dietary progress (or lack thereof) over the past six years tells me a lot about about the future of eating in America.
When we arrived, we thought we’d find people working to promote fresh and local foods—and we did find some. But more common were people like Matthew Clayton. Matthew had lost both of his brothers to obesity-related health problems, and he, too, was dangerously overweight and had Type 2 diabetes. He worked at a Verizon call center and ate a lot of fast food. At one point he told us that for healthier food to catch on, it would have to be available at the drive-through. “Because that’s America right there, you know? You pull up in the car, you give them the money and off you go. If they can come up with a way to get healthier food to people fast, I wouldn’t mind paying a little more.”
In other words, Matthew was willing to vote with his fork, as the food-movement mantra urges. But he wanted healthier meals that fit the way he lived. Shopping at farmers’ markets, cooking more from scratch and patronizing farm-to-table restaurants—the solutions touted by urban professionals—didn’t make sense for a lot of people in Huntington and places like it. The view from the big cities was that fast food was the problem. To Matthew, it had to be part of the solution.
Convenience is not a red-state value. We all like things to be easy, especially when we’re hungry. And that’s not going to change in a country where wages are largely stagnant and 60 percent of families have two working parents. The difference is that wealthier Americans have all manner of ways to make eating convenient without being judged for it. There’s the prepared foods counter at Whole Foods. (The closest Whole Foods to Huntington is two hours away.) There are meal kits like Blue Apron, which ship high-quality, pre-measured ingredients direct to your door. There are juices, salads and grain bowls at healthy fast-casual restaurants, which are now one of the fastest-growing segments in their industry.
The success of these offerings in urban centers suggests that selling convenience and taste, rather than progressive ideals, is a smarter way forward for food reformers. But to turn these trends from upstarts into the kind of ubiquitous markers of our mass food culture, these entrepreneurs and food companies will have to look beyond the coasts, and start catering to red America’s tastes, habits and price points. They will have to offer something better than the obligatory fast-food salad that never sold and low-fat fries that nobody liked. Especially at the drive-through.