seen and heard: tedXmanhattan

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the TEDxManhattan conference, Changing the Way We Eat, at the Times Center in New York City. The day started off with “Issues”, primarily focusing on the health and ecological risks of industrial meat production (the quick and dirty : even if you don’t feel any compassion for farm animals, the conditions in which they are raised – and the lack of suitable regulation of these conditions – are heading us in the direction of both antibiotic-resistant epidemics and food insecurity on a global scale).  My favorite talk of the morning,  however, was Urvashi Rangan’s “Labeling and the Controversy Around it”.

Rangan humorously guided us through the debacle that is food labeling in America.  Natural is boundless; it can be defined by companies at will and most certainly does not equate with OrganicFree range means that animals were provided the “opportunity” to spend time outdoors, but it in no way ensures that these animals spent time outside of a barn or pen.  And then there are the labels that should exist and don’t.  For example, No Carbon Monoxide.  Supermarket meat is often treated with CO to preserve its red color.  In fact, tests have proven that CO can even preserve the red color of meat after it has spoiled.  The list of crazy, illogical examples goes on and on. (To learn more about Rangan and her work, click here.)

In the second session, “Impact”, we heard about a range of topics, from the importance of preserving our soil, to new programs for training and supporting immigrant farmers, to the impact of gardens on the rehabilitation of veterans, to the fruits of Green Bronx Machine’s edible labors.  But, unsurprisingly, the talk which most sparked my interest was food journalist Mitchell Davis’ evocation of the importance of taste.  Davis highlighted that we are in a unique period in history, one in which our ideals and our perception of taste have aligned.  Some of us buy tomatoes from farmers markets because of their unequaled flavor and texture.   Others shop at the market to support small farmers and ecological interests.  While these two groups’ motivations do not overlap (though there are certainly individuals who belong to both categories), the results of their actions are the same.   Davis argues that we not only can, but also should, use the edible enticement of “good taste” as a central argument in the sustainable food revolution.


The final session of the day, “Innovation”, addressed programs and products that have begun to address issues in our food systems in a creative and sustainable way.  RealTimeFarms.com helps consumers decode the “local” label touted by do-gooder restaurants, mapping the farms from which chefs are purchasing their featured ingredients.  Recirculating farms are creating the opportunity to grow veggies and raise fish in any climate, with minimal waste and water usage (If I ever get a bigger apartment, I am totally buying one of these for my own home). Fresh Paper, an organic, biodegradable, oil-infused paper inspired by Indian medicinal spices, promises to prolong the life of your produce.  And Bright Farms is building greenhouses on top of your local supermarket/food distribution center – providing more local produce, for less money than ever before.

It’s hard to choose which of the “Innovations” was my favorite, but the one that really hit home was the New York City GreenCarts program.  While those who live near Union Square may revel in their greenmarket, there are neighborhoods in New York that are veritable food deserts, served solely by bodegas, where no fresh produce is available.  GreenCarts is overturning that status quo, encouraging community members to start their own businesses and serve their community – one orange or banana at a time.

If you missed TEDxManhattan and would like to learn more about the interesting and inspiring work that was presented, the event organizers will be posting videos of the day’s talks online within the month.  The talks from 2011’s TEDxManhattan are already available here.

Or for those who prefer the “famous” foodies, here are a few of my favorite TED Talks by gastro-celebrities:

  • Mark Bittman, “What’s Wrong With What We Eat?” [ted id=263]
  • Jaime Oliver, “Teach Every Child About Food” [ted id=765]

eating your words: "sissy pizza"

“Is pizza a vegetable?”  The fact that anyone thought to ask this question is perhaps the most ridiculous food news in recent American history.  Even if tomato paste does have some nutritional value, the fact that anyone actually voted in favor of the "pizza as a vegetable" ruling is inconceivable.

But while the sane sit shaking their heads over this international PR gaffe (Um, can someone please start taking our country’s reputation abroad seriously?) – Herman Cain is out adding insult to injury, over a nice hot slice with GQ.

Now I understand Cain’s appeal.  Our lack of faith in politicians and the whole politic system has reached an unprecedented low, so we figure they might as well entertain us.  In fact, he’s given me something to write about today, so I guess I should be thanking him.

But “good stories” aside, no intelligent person can take Cain seriously.  Which is perhaps why he can say offensive things without anyone batting an eye.

I’m talking about “sissy pizza”:

Chris Heath: What can you tell about a man by the type of pizza that he likes?
Herman Cain: [repeats the question aloud, then pauses for a long moment] The more toppings a man has on his pizza, I believe the more manly he is.
Chris Heath: Why is that?
Herman Cain: Because the more manly man is not afraid of abundance. [laughs]
Devin Gordon: Is that purely a meat question?
Herman Cain: A manly man don't want it piled high with vegetables! He would call that a sissy pizza.

First of all, what adult professional uses the word “sissy”?  And are we really giving airtime to a man who believes that your “masculinity” is defined by pizza toppings?  Because the last time I checked, that extra-pepperoni is going to turn you into more of a dough-boy than an wood-chopping, game-killing Adonis.

But let me be clear – this isn’t a question of health.  This is about a public figure reinforcing a backwards – and, unfortunately, pervasive and widely accepted – message about masculinity in America.

In an age where Mario Batali (a public figure, yes, but not someone running for president) gets blasted for a well-intentioned, but poorly-chosen statement about the current financial system (“Hitler” just does not work as a casual, pop culture reference) – why are we not raising more of a stink over Cain’s macho pizza theory?  I mean, at this point, I’d rather elect someone who forgets the name of a government department than someone who is just downright narrow-minded.

Even worse, unlike Batali’s flub-up, Cain proudly returns to the “manly pizza” motif throughout the interview.  And though he does have a few redeemable moments where he references “taste” and the “quality of ingredients”, Cain’s outright celebration of his lack of qualifications for public office pretty much sums it up:

Chris Heath: What are they trying to put in people's minds when they call you the pizza guy?
Herman Cain: That I haven't had experience holding an elected office. That's how they're trying to paint me. And guess what, I give them the brush and the paint. Want to know why? The American people love the fact that I haven't held an elected office. They love it— [Another pie arrives, covered with meat.] NOW THAT'S A MANLY-LOOKING PIZZA!!

In an ironic twist of fate, it’s actually the arugula pizza that Cain prefers.  Perhaps his tongue should stick to eating and stop the talking.

Cheers to Chris Heath for turning a simple pizza story into a truly revealing interview.

11.28.11 - Update : Herman Cain's "sissy pizza" comment is only the tip of the food/gender issues iceberg.  Men's Health publishes a list of the Manliest Restaurants in America (note that none of them are "healthy").