Panic in the Kitchen: Blogging, liberty, and the fear of the dinner plate
It was the mushrooms that did it. I had been preparing weekly meals for a family living east of the Oakland hills for a couple of months, and so far the experience had had its ups and downs. That day, I was unpacking a couple of bags of criminis and blue oysters when my client walked into the room. “Oh good—mushrooms,” she said with a big smile. “Did you watch that Doctor Oz segment the other day?” I had not. “He said that mushrooms cure cancer!” I nodded, smiled. Oh, really? “Yeah, they’re just really, really good for you. We should start eating lots more of them.”
Rather than acknowledge the ludicrous nature of such a blanket statement, I remember feeling relieved at my fortuitous shopping choices. This client was particularly hard to please. Her list of “safe” and “unsafe” ingredients changed from week to week as she attempted to track the ever-shifting mantras of the alternative food media. Quinoa was her favorite grain today, but it’d likely be on the toxic list next month. Even I, a food writer with above-average knowledge of the ups and downs of dietary trends, couldn’t predict her next move. Maybe mushrooms can’t cure cancer in and of themselves, but they were at least pleasurable to cook.
A few weeks later, she decided to try Paleo.1 She even bought me a Paleo cookbook, doggy-eared with recipe requests. Over the next month, I learned how to turn cauliflower into “rice” and “mashed potatoes.” I became adept at using honey and coconut nectar—they’re “safe” sweeteners. I cooked a lot of meat. But just as I found myself growing comfortable with grain-free, egg-filled cooking, she and her daughter decided to try a vegan diet. Vegan meals are not particularly challenging to prepare: simply eliminate the meat, and add back whole grains, lentils, and even more vegetables. But for a family already consumed by a Paleo-induced fear of grains and beans, it was a daunting task. My veggie burgers fell flat, and my attempts at “wholesome” pumpkin bread lacking both flour and eggs was frankly an embarrassment to winter squash everywhere.
My client didn’t seem to care. As long as my meals fit within this week’s parameters, she was happy to keep throwing me money. I never saw any changes in her health, fitness, or weight over the 8 months I spent in her kitchen. What she had gained, however, was a sense of control. She learned that she simply needed to give me this week’s list of dos and don’ts and I’d happily comply. (I suppose I liked the challenge, after all.) She wouldn’t need to be the one stuffing kale in a blender anymore. She was still holding the reins, and she barely had to lift a finger.
The act of cooking for another person is a powerful one. It is also an act of nourishment, an act of giving, and an act of care. The chefs and cooks who do so for the simple joy of feeding people are not wrong in their enthusiasm. But the person behind the stove is the one picking out the steak, pouring the oil, and tossing the salad. The person behind the stove chooses whether to buy organic potatoes or certified gluten-free oats. They can choose to hide their choices behind the barrier of a kitchen wall or open the door to conversation. Those eating meals prepared by others necessarily must assume an agreement of trust, especially when those meals are their sustenance, day after day.
I’ve had other clients who were less of a pain in the ass. But each of them had their own peculiarities. There has to be a catalyst for hiring a regular cook—often this catalyst is money combined with a perceived lack of time. Frequently, however, the real reason for hiring a cook is that the simple act of choosing what to eat and how to cook it has become a scary task. For those with the means to pick and choose every element of their diet, there are seemingly endless choices, but many of them are, in the words of popular health bloggers, toxic. Where does one learn how to govern the safety of one’s food? Just about anywhere.
The range of dietary advice available today online, on television, and within social circles is vast and overwhelming. So who is the most trustworthy? Is it the self-proclaimed “doctor” on daytime television? Is it the young wife who started a food blog to share her “struggles” with imbalances in her gut? Is it the physician who knows everything there is to know about brain surgery but only took a week of nutrition classes in medical school? Or is it the Top Chef you saw on Bravo five years ago who now runs a modern-rustic hyper-seasonal bistro down the street?
Big-name magazines and TV chefs appear to be the most enticing educators, and they were indeed among the biggest influencers 10 years ago. Gourmet magazine still reigned supreme as the publication de rigueur, its clippings bound and treasured like pearls. But in that comfort-food era after the rise of The Food Network but before blogging became a profession, personalities like Martha Stewart and Ina Garten really ran the show. Garten could implore her audience to seek out the best imported Gruyere for their macaroni and cheese, and legions would rush to do so. The biggest fear among the food-obsessed was in mis-identifying Comte for Gruyere or (horrors) choosing an American-made cheese over a French one. Garten and Stewart’s wealth was the common thread through each of their episodes, just as their perfectly melted cheese draped over their gluten-filled Italian macaroni. Their lives were aspirational yet warm, soft, and cuddly—it was just what we needed in the Bush years. We were far more fearful of the world outside our bodies than of the microscopic world of our gut bacteria.
When the first home cooks began recording their meals online for all to see, Garten and other famous personalities still held sway over their audience. The early blogs chronicled food adventures, experiments, and the ups and downs of following recipes to the letter. “The Julie/Julia Project,”2 one of the very first blogs of its kind, is so enshrined in the history of food in America that it spawned a movie and a couple of book deals. But it is important to note that these bloggers weren’t attempting to be experts. They made “Ina’s” roast chicken, “Martha’s” pie crust, or “Julia’s” sole meuniere. The best writers laughed with each failure and celebrated each success. Bloggers emulated the culinary greats to the best of their ability, acknowledging (with a sigh) when the subbed domestic Parmesan for imported or cheap American prosciutto for Iberico ham. Their open, engaging storytelling endeared them to their audience; when they began to get book deals themselves, they brought their readers along with them. Even as these early bloggers gained success, the Internet remained an open playing field. Anyone with a love of food and enthusiasm for writing could jump on and share their tales—there was no need to project expertise.
When Gourmet folded in 2009, many assumed that a new magazine would rise up to take its place at top of the food media pyramid. Yet almost five years later, there still is no print publication in circulation with Gourmet’s level of authority and brand loyalty. Instead, the magazine’s demise left room for the bloggers to swarm in. Suddenly any food blog worth reading looked like a glossy magazine, with intricately styled photographs and professional layouts—provided completely free for all young and cash-strapped readers. The long narrative form of blogs like ”Orangette” still remained in foodie favor, but the shiny new content from “Joy the Baker” and “The Pioneer Woman” led to more book deals. Blogging itself became expensive, time-consuming, and ultimately more aspirational than it had been a few short years earlier. DSLR cameras, food props, and sunny free afternoons were now requirements to build a successful blogging “brand.” Forget expertise in food or nutrition—if your food looked good, you could become a star with the click of a camera.
Since then, food blogs have become increasingly specialized (as has much of the internet). Bloggers are now defined by their own specific genre: I am a food stylist, I am modernist cooking, I am Paleo. It matters much less what their competitors in other genres say and do. Each blogger exists only within his or her own realm of food media, propped up by readers and other bloggers who share the same views. Like-minded groups of bloggers become isolated from dissenting voices; in this space they are allowed to become well-versed in their own particular subject matter without fear of criticism. They become, in a sense, experts.
Sure, there are certain bloggers who still hold to the “everything goes” ethos of their print progenitors. “Smitten Kitchen” still unearths recipes from back issues of Gourmet. Yet the loudest voices in the room are now those that have learned to specialize, particularly on the subject of alternative health and food. Many such bloggers, like Danielle Walker of “Against All Grain,” share personal background stories related to their various autoimmune diseases or food allergies. Others are just “really into fitness” or “really into clean eating.” Many of them are Paleo, or else follow a related traditional diet like Weston A. Price or Real Food. They tell us all to juice our kale, milk our almonds, and absolutely always avoid GMOs. Their rules are detailed, strict, but “never preachy.” If only you, dear reader, eat as they do, you can be as thin, vibrant, and full of life as they are. You’ll just need to learn how to subsist entirely on grass-fed beef, coconut oil, and home-grown veggies.
Admittedly, many of these diets don’t sound horrible. I, for one, would be happy to eat an entirely grass-fed, organic diet. But the problem with these blogging experts isn’t the food that they do eat. It’s the increasingly long list of foods that are Dangerous! Toxic! Evil! that accompany the pervasive fear inherent to any proscriptive diet. Take Mark Sission, for example. Sission is the famed creator of “The Primal Blueprint,” a style of Paleo diet that includes a certain amount of high-quality dairy products. His blog, “Mark’s Daily Apple,” is a favorite among Paleo, Primal, and Real Food bloggers. His motivation for blogging is as follows:
We are still facing a tremendous amount of momentum toward disease and accelerated aging in high tech modern life. When we seek help or guidance, it’s easy to get manipulated – by the forces of BigPharma, BigAgra, and the massive amount of misinformation and hype that characterizes the mainstream health industry. I believe fundamentally in taking personal responsibility for everything that has ever happened or will ever happen to you – and this applies to health. I am convinced that [The Primal Diet] is the best, most proactive, effective way to live life. Now, more than ever, you simply cannot hand over your health to others. Take a look at the news: 40 million on their way to type 2 diabetes, a third of Americans morbidly obese, and on and on. I am passionate about changing this.
According to Sission, we are not only disease-ridden. We are also plagued with misinformation. Our poor choices are not only the result of our own faulty judgment, they are also part of a larger conspiracy—the influence of the great corporate Other. Sission clearly believes that the best way to “tak[e] personal responsibility” is to distance oneself from this Other and retreat completely into one’s own beliefs. It’s a strange statement to make for a best-selling diet book author. While he may not consider himself mainstream, he is certainly a popular guy. But Sission is not alone: His conflict between ultimate personal liberty and the need to remain a popular diet guru is akin to the most ardent Tea Partiers who proclaim the need to dismantle the government while sitting pretty on Capitol Hill.
Still, his stance marks a shift in the health world. Diet gurus have always needed to combat an enemy, but that enemy used to be just our own temptation. Today, the enemy is outside of ourselves, lurking not just in the government, but also in the mainstream food media, including the misinformed bloggers making glutenous sourdough bread and sugar-filled homemade pie.
A pattern is evident in the details of Sission’s and other alternative food bloggers’ lives. The most strict also belong to communities which are rich in anti-government and anti-science philosophies, while retaining a more typically liberal stance on the environment and food production. (See “The Healthy Home Economist.”) Many tend to shun allopathic medical advice, relying instead on home remedies, essential oils, and their “resilient” immune systems to fight disease. They command their readers to do the same. Sarah, the voice behind “The Healthy Home Economist,” has gone so far as to organize protests against vaccinations, claiming that vaccines (and the doctors who prescribe them) are dangerous. She believes that a traditional foods diet will provide all of the protection her family needs against infectious disease. Sarah even ended up railing against vaccines on The Daily Show, playing the victim to Samantha Bee’s sarcastic questioning. Bloggers like Sarah argue their lifestyle choices are perfectly reasonable as they are in charge of their own lives, their own bodies, and their own guts. They follow Sission’s advice by ignoring any conflicting evidence and hugging more tightly to their own beliefs. Yet instead of keeping their personal decisions personal, they yell louder and louder the more controversial the topic becomes.
These bloggers are successful because there exists within their community a self-referential and self-perpetuating cycle of food panic, and the fervor has been most vociferous regarding gluten.3 As the alternative food community became aware of the very real existence of celiac disease, they began to question the health of gluten for everyone: If this protein is so toxic to a (small) proportion of the population, it follows that it could be toxic to everyone else. This exploration into gluten snowballed. Once the community began to question these wheat proteins, they began to question the conventional health advice regarding just about everything, and the results spread like wildfire: After one blogger mentions a poor reaction to whole wheat bread, the bread transforms from a wholesome food into a toxic kernel of disease.
As David Perlmutter, blogger and author of the book Grain Brain, explains, “While the statistics about celiac disease may be correct, as many as 30% of the population may be sensitive to gluten, without a specific involvement of the small intestine (celiac disease). This sensitivity can relate to any number of problems from dementia to ADHD, skin disorders, joint pain, neuropathy, headaches and even depression.” Once gluten became a culprit for many generalized symptoms, it was easy for others to point their fingers at the same problem.
The evidence for gluten sensitivity itself is highly controversial: “authentic” and “trustworthy” studies appear on both sides of the aisle on a regular basis.4 It doesn’t help that the allopathic medical training provided in the US barely touches on the digestive system. Many on the other side of the gluten debate are just as heated as the food bloggers themselves, and since they often come from larger, more corporate medical organizations, these counter-arguments are easily brushed aside by the “wiser” alternative media. But it likely wouldn’t matter if the NIH officially declared gluten sensitivity to be hogwash. The anti-gluten camp has dug its trenches and it is staying put.
Is it a coincidence that this shift from an oligarchic structure of food expertise to a more divided and divisive one has mirrored the shift in political atmosphere over the last 14 years? It is certainly easy to draw comparisons between today’s extreme poles of libertarian populism and the increasingly divided food media. The splintering of knowledge via the internet perhaps makes it much harder for these small (yet increasingly powerful) groups to trust those on the outside. Likewise, as the internet continues to splinter and specialize, it becomes easier to rely entirely on one’s own social group, intensifying one’s own beliefs and exacerbating problems the problems that stem from difference.
One’s own diet is the perfect arena in which to (literally) internalize one’s stance on personal liberty. As long as we have the means to choose our meals, food becomes a deeply personal choice. We are, after all, the ones putting the fork into the pasta and sticking it in our mouths. Our fears and desires are easily manifested on the plate: even eaters who eat just about anything often show preference for certain foods based on mood or weather (Google “eat your feelings”). Using a diet to demonstrate difference is a simple extension of emotional eating.
Demonstrating difference is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. The problem with this way of eating is that it reduces food to a sort of obligatory social contract instead of a source of enjoyment. As in the political arena at large, associating with members across the aisle is not only ill thought of, it is also socially dangerous. Where once there was curiosity, now there is fear. Engaging with the online food media means sifting through a pile of dos and don’ts; the consequences of mixing these up, many argue, can be deadly. As Americans, we are already fearful of government shutdowns, global warming, terrorist attacks, and the next election. We don’t need to be afraid of our food, too.
1 The Paleo diet aims to include only those foods that humans would have eaten before the dawn of agriculture. There are varying levels of allegiance to this rule; generally the diet excludes processed foods, sugar, grains, beans, and dairy, and it places a high emphasis on responsibly-raised meat and organic vegetables.
3 Gluten is the protein in wheat, rye, and barley that gives foods made from these grains their stretch, chew, and overall structure. Gluten is made up of two smaller proteins, glutenin and gliadin. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system reacts to the presence of gliadin in the body, resulting in the breakdown of digestive fibers (villi) in the small intestines. When the villi have broken down, the digestive system cannot function properly, which leads to the malabsorption of nutrients in any other food eaten.