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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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Food as Barometer

The past week has seen a number of shock waves go through the food world.

Gourmet magazine’s announced closing yesterday is the latest and the one with the best PR. Gourmet‘s editor, Ruth Reichl, has turned what was once the flagship publication of foodie-ism into something more like Vogue for food–high-gloss, decorator restaurant food (the focus of her previous career) with recipes that ranged from routine to fanciful, from decadent but enticing to over-the-top, impractical, even wasteful and ridiculous, particularly in the last couple of years. A few memorable examples of the latter–lamb cooked with a stewing sauce that included something like a cup of whole coffee beans in an ingredient list some 20 or so items long, a chicken liver paté with a ton of added butter to simulate foie gras when that dish was outlawed in Chicago, and a chocolate and sesame butter tart with so many elaborate steps and so much extra fat in each layer–with nearly obvious clashes of flavor–you could practically choke.

Reichl, whose memoirs I have nonetheless enjoyed a great deal, seems to have been in on the official food world’s migration to recipe titles–and restaurant menu listings–so long they owe more to Proust, or perhaps Balzac, than to James Beard. Then again, Proust called madeleines madeleines, not “little ridged pure butter genoise microcakes with microplaned lime rind, baked in the shape of elongated shallow clamshells”. Goodness knows what today’s foodie superstar chefs would come up with for a title.

And yet Gourmet, with its glossy ads for show kitchens and olive oils and edible vacations in exotic locales, has tried to broaden readers’ ideas and ideals on occasion, and that’s Reichl’s influence too. If the cover one month showed coveted seating at a prestigious Paris restaurant, the tablecloth and glassware sternly hushed in preparation for the pre-theater crowd, or the cliffside view of an Italian trattoria table with a glass bowl in the foreground brimming voluptuously with prawns, greens, oysters and a coral-hued or purplish octopus, other issues sent staff into the mountainous inner reaches of China to report on the poverty and generosity of villagers there.

It’s hard to imagine how Reichl and her staff pictured reconciling the ultra-affluent with the world-conscious, and perhaps their attempts failed to convince either luxe advertisers or Condé Nast this year in particular. But I can see how Gourmet‘s underlying spirit of foodie-ism has led to the explosion of adventurous, hands-on food blogs of a younger working generation as they discover both real food and the desire to learn to cook it.

But Gourmet isn’t the most important food barometer, particularly because it represents a shrinking target audience at the top of the food chain, as it were. Rumbles farther down the scale have been quieter but with any luck perhaps one hopeful sign will be more lasting and more influential.

Last Thursday, the L.A. Times reported that the federal WIC  (Women, Infants and Children) food supplement program will now allow participants to spend their vouchers on fresh produce and whole grains. The allowance isn’t really big– $6/month per eligible child, $8 per pregnant woman or mother of a child under 5, and $10 per nursing mother, or about $14/month on average for a typical family, but it’s a start.

More promising is that the changes would push stores that want to accept WIC vouchers to stock fresh produce and whole grains. That might put at least modest quantities of decent foods within reach in lots of inner city neighborhoods, and it means farmers’ markets can also start qualifying to accept vouchers.

In the Los Angeles area and Orange County, the WIC program is especially important–out of more than 12 million people, something like 316,000 low-income people are enrolled in WIC. More than 8 million people are enrolled nationwide at a cost of slightly under $7 billion per year, with vouchers of about $60 total per family per month. Less than $1000 per family per year even counting the administrative costs of the program. It makes the Food Stamp program seem generous by comparison.

The new shift toward allowing fruits, vegetables, and whole grains under WIC isn’t adding anything to the total Congress allots–the cost for these vouchers has been taken from some of the dairy and juice allowance. But local WIC officers are still grateful and think it’ll make a big difference to their clients, some of whose children have never tasted fresh broccoli.

It’s a far cry from the fuss over the blight on homegrown heirloom tomatoes in the northeastern states this summer.

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