“This seems like a nice place for a pop-up, Dad, but it might need a little more light,” says my daughter Jane as we survey the vaulted (and yes, dimly lit) space down on Hudson Street where the wunderkind teenage cook Flynn McGarry has, for the last several weeks, been making his much-anticipated New York debut. McGarry, as you may have heard, is just 16 years old and already has spent time in some of the world’s great kitchens (Maaemo in Norway, Denmark’s Geranium, Alinea in Chicago, Eleven Madison Park here in New York). The success of his pop-up L.A. supper club, called Eureka, landed him on the cover of The New York Times Magazine last year, and now he’s brought his talents, and the Eureka pop-up, to New York. With the help of a business partner who handles the wine program, McGarry preps, cooks, and serves his own 14-course tasting menu, twice a night, for three nights a week. The cost of dinner is $160 per person (plus another $80 if you order the wine pairing), and the 12-seat bar is booked solid for the next month.
Our father-daughter review team managed to wrangle two spots at a recent 9:30 p.m. seating, which Jane’s mother pointed out was perilously close to both of our bedtimes. But so what? As members of the same, precocious, food-obsessed generation, Jane and McGarry seemed like a match made in reality-TV heaven. Jane’s only a year younger than the teenage chef (he’s already passed his high-school equivalency exam), and as the eldest child of a professional eater, she has recently begun to turn her discerning eye to the world of restaurants. On a recent visit to Paris she announced that her favorite restaurant was Daniel Rose’s trendy bistro Spring (“These asparagus are spot-on, Dad”), and lately she’s accompanied her bilious father on his daily rounds, dutifully consuming bagel breakfasts (“Big is not always better when it comes to bagels”), and several marathon tasting-menu feasts (“This food is very impressive,” she whispered at one point, “but where’s the ‘wow’ factor?”).
Step inside though and all that changes. I am seated at what appears to be an old tea trolley, decorated with china dogs and an assortment of mismatched cutlery. In fact, the whole place is kitted out with charity shop finds, giving the impression that it has been recently vacated in haste by the Mad Hatter and his cronies (a thought that seems increasingly well-founded as my meal progresses).
I am offered a glass of water. “Would you like a Polo with that?” asks my waitress, presenting a golden platter studded with mints. “Or perhaps I could just add it to your water?” I am unsure what to say and before I can utter anything intelligible, a Polo mint is staring up at me from the bottom of my glass. “Better give that a minute to dissolve,” she advises.
Do we want to live in a world where all of our food has been at one point genetically altered, where synthetic chemicals are sprayed on our food, and the corporations have complete control over all aspects of our food? Or, would we like to buy vegetables from our local farmer with the knowledge that the genetic makeup of the food is pure, that it has no synthetic chemicals in it, and where we have the freedom to choose GMO or non-GMO food products?
The intention of The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know about the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk, a volume comprised of articles originally published in GeneWatch edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Jeremy Gruber, is to start a larger public dialogue on what they refer to as the deception of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). For anyone who has limited knowledge of the GMO situation in our society the Merriam Webster dictionary defines GMOs as manipulated, or altered organisms to contain specific desired traits not naturally occurring in that organism. The GMO Deception spans topics such as the health and safety of GMOs, labeling, ethics and their environmental impacts, along with other social aspects of the GMO debate. The article ‘Busting the Big GMO Myth’s’ by John Fagan, Michael Antoniou and Claire Robinson did exactly as the title states. “…GMOs could be allergenic. Similarly the toxicity of certain GMOs and the reduced nutritional value of other GMOs have been scientifically demonstrated…More and more evidence is accumulating, showing that GMOs can be harmful to health and the environment.” The article titled ‘Changing Seeds or Seeds of Change?’ By Natalie DeGraaf discusses how “[f]armers in rural India have noted instances of animals dying from grazing on GM crops and new reports are investigating the relationship between increased allergy prevalence and GM foods as well as transference of antibiotic resistance to consumers.” With these alarming reviews of the health concerns of GMO’s from the scientific community, one wonders if this is the sort of technology the global society should rely on to feed its population.
Around the world, from the Government Office for Science in the U.K. to the National Research Council in the United States to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., there is consensus: In order to address the roots of hunger today and build a food system that will feed humanity into the future, we must invest in “sustainable intensification”—not expensive GMO technology that threatens biodiversity, has never proven its superiority, even in yields, and locks us into dependence on fossil fuels, fossil water, and agrochemicals. (Grist, 2011)
The popularly held belief that GMOs will help feed a growing population, while highly contested in this book, also begs the question at what cost to our individual’s health and the health of the environment. Again Natalie DeGraaf addresses these health concerns by citing a “severe lack of unbiased research being conducted external to the reports issued by GM company laboratories.” ‘Busting the Big GMO Myths’ by John Fagan, Michael Antoniou, and Claire Robinson quotes Oliver De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, “yields went up 214 percent in forty four projects in twenty countries in sub-Saharan Africa using agro-ecological farming techniques…far more improvement than any GM crop has ever done.”
The editors Sheldon Krimsky and Jeremy Gruber, choose articles that exhibit how large agro companies such as Monsanto hide behind the intellectual property rights laws to keep impartial studies regarding their GMO products behind locked doors. The over-arching theme that unifies each of these pieces: how can a conscious consumer blindly take a company’s word on the safety of a product when the company’s goal is to sell you the product in question?
The GMO Deception’s argument is clear: unless the public takes a stronger stance on this issue, we may have no choice in the matter. It presents well-rounded, researched articles on the issues surrounding GMOs and why society must question their use in food products. “We have literally hundreds of commentaries that bear witness to the deceptions associated with the promoters of GMOs.” It offers arguments and insights into the realm of GMOs that are hard to attain due to corporations’ strangle hold on their intellectual property rights.
While full of insightful material on the subject matter, this book was not a page turner. It consists of short, individual articles by varying authors that, while interesting, did not lure me in enough to make the rest of the world stop in its tracks. It was more of the type of book that one would read a few chapters of and then put it away to thoroughly digest the material before reading on. Each author had such different writing styles that it was difficult to get into a steady rhythm. The articles are fairly academic in content. Therefore if the intention was to spark a wider discussion among the general public the information may fail to reach that audience. I also would have like to have more explanation of why these particular articles were chosen for each separate section of the book. Some of them were written back in the 1980s and, while important in the discussion, it would have helped to outline why they thought each of the articles were worth having in the book because often there was significant overlap in the general information.
Having grown up in a strictly organic and vegetarian household, my stance on GMOs is pretty clear cut. I want them to have absolutely no part in any aspect of my food. For most of my life this has been based on an intuitive hunch that no part of my food should ever set foot in a lab. Now, having read The GMO Deception, I take further comfort in my stance and feel content in backing up my choices with the science discussed in the book. I would recommend this book to anyone with a curiosity about GMOs. Its inaccessibility is worth penetrating for the information therein—just don’t expect to consume the information all at one time.
Maeve McInnis is currently pursuing her Masters of Science in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management with a specialization in Food Policy at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at the New School. She is the President of the Sustainable Cities Club and a member of the Student Advisory Committee with the Dean. She is an avid traveler and lover of food, culture and social justice.
In the three years my husband and I have owned and operated a small neighborhood restaurant in the East Village of New York, I have found that the single most important thing I can do to ensure our success is to properly train the front of house staff. But shouldn’t the food be the most important aspect of a restaurant? Well, yes. The food needs to be good, if not great, but the experience is what keeps people coming back. It is the job of the front of house staff to make sure diners leave not only pleased with the food, but pleased with themselves.
Joanne Finkelstein’s latest work, Fashioning Appetite: Restaurants and the Making of Modern Identity, seeks to understand this contradictory restaurant phenomenon through a study of the origins of restaurants and restaurant patronage. Finkelstein reveals society’s public/private relationship with eating establishments and the surprising role these establishments play in defining Western identity.
Within this framework, I like to think of the dining room as a stage. The service staff is the stage crew. And, the diners are our unpredictable cast of characters. It is our job to finely tune the restaurant atmosphere to allow diners to perform their private desires in a public setting. “The restaurant engineers circumstances,” explains Finkelstein. A statement that could not be more true. Even in a small neighborhood restaurant like ours, staging this intricate performance is integral to our success.
Finkelstein draws the reader into a world where restaurants are more than just the brick and mortar houses of food: she sees them through a social scientist’s lens. She wants to know why society is so attached to participating in this public display of private moments. In other words, how and why do restaurants “bring strangers together to pursue their own private desires”?
Everything from birthdays to engagements to funerals are acted out in front of a room of complete strangers. Diners are willingly manipulated by the orchestrated world of the restaurant, because, Finkelstein says, the act of eating out has been redefined as a form of “consumable entertainment.”
Finkelstein covers a lot of area in this book from history to obesity to social norms. In terms of both the breadth of information and the complicated sociological terminology, the book can at times be daunting, even to those of us who live and breathe the restaurant industry. But, Fashioning Appetite reminds us how intricately laced our happiness as diners is to the success of a restaurant. “The private and public are inseparable, and the personal pursuit of pleasure, as in dining out, regulates broader ideals of personal pleasure, happiness, a sense of virtue and success.” In other words, as consumers we have fetishized what it means to dine out to the extent that in order to be pleased with our evening and, frankly, ourselves, our restaurant experience needs to be stellar. Not just good, but exceptional.
As a restaurant owner, I can vouch that we willingly participate in this game too. Our identity and livelihood is dependent on our customers’ enjoyment, and we will do just about anything to make sure they have a great time. While gazing out over a dark dining room, packed with expectant faces and grumbling stomachs we take on the responsibility of confirming everyone’s happiness. There is a special pleasure in watching a patron depart drunk, happy, and full—but there is also the inevitable bad experience that leaves both restaurant and guest deeply unsatisfied and with a little less money in their pocket.
By applying new research on emotional capitalism to popular culture’s collective understanding of the dining-out experience, Finkelstein believes we have crafted a socio-economic understanding of restaurants by assigning meaning to each bite and sip consumed. We have essentially “aestheticized food” and molded it into a source of understood “entertainment and novelty.”
This original and inventive interpretation of how modern Western cultures experience restaurants gives a balanced description of society’s pursuit of collective experience through food. The prose is at times dense and a challenge to decode, but it is worth the work. Deep within these pages is a thoughtful and important narrative about the journey society has taken over the centuries to create a shared identity, and how food has delightfully punctuated that journey through moments of public solitude and entertainment.
Samantha Felix is a freelance writer and the community editor for Substance.com. Her work has appeared on Huffington Post, Alternet, and Business Insider among others. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at The New School.
The first thing that struck Wylie Dufresne about these cookbooks was how very different they actually are: Japanese Farm Food is a love letter to an entire culture, encompassing many varied elements, whereas Asian Tofu focuses not only on a single subject, but a single main ingredient.