Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
Every five years, the US government revisits its Dietary Guidelines—suggestions for how Americans should eat. The guidelines won't legally require you to, say, eat an apple a day, but they do affect things like agricultural subsidies and public school lunches, so they're fairly influential.
The National Cattleman's Beef Association argued that the Advisory Committee "clearly does not have the background or expertise" to tackle issues of sustainability.
When the committee tasked with making scientific recommendations for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines released its report this year, it ruffled some feathers. For the first time it included concerns about the environmental issues linked to certain dietary patterns and agricultural practices—for example, how eating less meat and more plant-based foods is "more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact." Or that assuring food security might rely on creating agricultural practices that "reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources."
Some lobbyists and politicians, especially those who pad their pockets with cash from Big Food and Big Ag, weren't too happy about these suggestions. As I've written in the past, the suggestion that plant-based diets might be healthier for people and the planet messes with the meat industry's bottom line, so why would they back it? In letters sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack over the past few months, industry groups have tried to argue that sustainability issues do not fall within the scope of the Dietary Guidelines. One letter from the National Cattleman's Beef Association argued that the advisory committee "clearly does not have the background or expertise to evaluate the complex relationship between food production and the dietary needs of a growing American and international population."
The House Appropriations Committee on Agriculture, which accepted at least $1.4 million from the food industry in 2013 and 2014, apparently caved to these complaints. It recently stuck a rider in its 2016 Agricultural Appropriations bill that would A) explicitly prohibit the upcoming Dietary Guidelines from mentioning anything other than diet and nutrient intake, and B) force the guidelines to only rely on scientific evidence that has been rated "Grade 1: Strong" by the Department of Agriculture. Politico reported on Thursday that a similar Senate agriculture appropriations rider would force any advice in the Dietary Guidelines to be "solely nutritional and dietary in nature."
In an unprecedented move, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has shot back with a letter of its own. Health and food systems should be more closely related in the government's eyes, the committee argued. "Future food insecurity is predictable without attention to the safety, quality, cost, and sustainability of the food supply," the letter stated, adding that "the US health and public health systems are burdened with preventable health problems." In other words, to narrow the reach of the Dietary Guidelines is to ignore the connection between things like exercise and obesity, for instance, or agricultural pesticide use and disease. To read more of the DGAC's arguments, see the full letter here.
Expect the finalized Dietary Guidelines late this year. In the meantime, it looks like the DGAC isn't giving up the battle for a more holistic national framework for how people eat. They certainly have Food Politics author Marion Nestle on their side; as she summarizes on her blog:
[Members of the DGAC] were asked to review and consider the science of diet and health and did so. They reported what they believe the science says. Some segments of the food industry didn't like the science so they are using the political system to fight back. That some members of Congress would go along with this is shameful.
Cooki, a robotic cooking machine prototype, on display at the Parisoma "Future of Food" meet-up Maddie Oatman
In the not-so-distant future, a robot named Cooki will make you dinner. Cooki will follow a recipe drawn from a database of millions of crowd-sourced ideas accessed through a subscription service similar to iTunes. Then, it will stir together pre-chopped ingredients with a robotic arm. Instead of the $15 required to buy and deliver take-out food, Cooki's meal will cost you $4 to $5.
At least, that's how the future will look if Timothy Chen has anything to do with it.
Chen is the CEO of Sereneti Kitchen, the company producing an automated robot that can supposedly cook "restaurant-quality" meals at your kitchen counter and clean up after itself. Chen was one of around a dozen entrepreneurs pitching their victual innovations at a tech event called the "Future of Food," hosted by the San Francisco co-working space Parisoma on Wednesday. A line snaked around the block at the entrance of the building at 7 p.m. when I arrived. Inside, designers, data-geeks, food marketers, and underground supper club hosts mingled over beers or the papaya-colored smoothie samples from the Pantry vending machine. I overheard the phrases "superfood" and "drought-friendly" more than once over the course of the evening.
Timothy Chen unwraps a plastic tray of ingredients to feed into Cooki during a demonstration
The concept behind the cooking robot comes from Chen's 18-year-old twin sisters, Haidee and Helen, who wondered why their mom had to spend so many hours making fresh food every day. "Shouldn't cooking be as easy as pushing a button?" their IndieGogo campaign page implores. Aside from making cooking more efficient, Sereneti's social mission includes a desire to cut down on food waste and promote access to healthy ingredients.
Though Cooki only really does one-pot cooking, Sereneti imagines its machine making 60 percent of the world's types of food—from pastas to salads to curries. Chen hopes to retail Cooki for around $500, or $200 if customers subscribe to a recipe and ingredients delivery service. (You could also prepare and input your own ingredients into the robot).
Midway through the "Future of Food" event, I wander over to Sereneti's table to catch Cooki in action. Dressed in an argyle sweater and sporting rectangular glasses, Chen's a quick-talking guy with a background in robotics. "This is the Keurig for food," he explains, referring to the individualized coffee pod machines that I've covered in the past. He pulls out clear plastic trays full of raw bacon, lamb, cherries, and pine nuts that have been prepared and preserved with the help of food scientists. Once loaded up with the goods, the machine extracts one of the trays, tips it into a pot heated underneath by coils, and begins to stir. Soon, the smell of bacon oozes out from under the machine's glossy white hood.
Chen has pretty big dreams for Cooki: As he sees it, it will not only save parents time, it could also make them money. By crowd-sourcing recipes and charging people one-time-use fees, "every time someone uses your recipe—you get paid," Chen explains. "It's the ultimate in multi-level marketing," he says to me—"and it's not even a Ponzi scheme!"
Okay. While Cooki's frying, I decide to check out some of the other booths. A man with watery blue eyes and a thick French accent passes out crackers smudged with bone-white brie made from almond milk. Unlike some of the tasteless, pasty vegan cheeses I've sampled in the past, Kite Hill's cheese draws from the traditional cheesemaking process: Cultures and enzymes are added to the milk to create an actual curd. Kite Hill claims to be the only company treating almond milk this way. The result is impressive—if I didn't know any better, I would think it was a sheep's milk cheese. Kite Hill's cheesemaker, Jean Prevot, who hails from France, spent 15 years in the dairy industry before turning to almond milk "for the challenge of it."
Soft ripened almond brie from Kite Hill
At the table across the way, two chipper, unblinking blonde women dish up crackers made with flour from ground-up crickets. Their San Francisco-based company, Bitty Foods, produces the cookies as well as a cricket-based baking flour "that's high in protein, drought-resistant, and lower in greenhouse-gas emissions," as cofounder Megan Miller tells one taster. I overhear two men discussing their cookies in between bites. "There's a little aftertaste," one says. "It's subtle—if I wasn't thinking about it, I wouldn't have picked up on it."
Leslie Ziegler and Megan Miller serve cricket-flour cookies from their company Bitty
Over to the Kuli Kuli Foods table, where women in acid-green aprons peddle samples of bars made of moringa, a leafy plant that Time recently deemed the new kale. Kuli Kuli is the first US company marketing moringa. Its founder, Lisa Curtis, first learned about the plant while in Peace Corps in Niger in 2010. Feeling malnourished on the local diet, she was urged to try the nutrient-dense moringa plant, which is high in calcium, protein, amino acids, and vitamin C. The plant grows super fast and thrives in hot, dry climates. Curtis realized that locals weren't marketing the superfood because they had no international market, so she set out to create one in the US by importing the plant in powder form. Aside from fueling her own fruit and nut bar company, she tells me that local juice joints around San Francisco are picking it up for use in smoothies. (Side note: Fidel Castro is a huge moringa fan.)
Moringa bar samples from Kuli Kuli
I want to love moringa. If the current California drought is any predictor, we're going to need plants that survive harsher conditions and provide such an impressive array of nutrients. But this one tastes rather grassy, and goes down like a shot of wheatgrass, which is to say, abruptly. So power to Kuli Kuli, but here's hoping its moringa recipes continue to evolve.
I make it back to Chen's table just in time for the tasting of Cooki's "sauteéd lamb and macerated cherries" dish. Cooki had certainly cooked through the lamb, softened the cherries, and roasted the pine nuts. I don't eat meat, so I had to rely on other people's tastebuds to know how the dish turned out. "It's pretty good," one woman, Barb, told me, and shrugged. "I do wonder how it will cook vegetables," another taster said. Neither of them were aware that the dish included bacon grease. To which, I had to ask—doesn't everything taste pretty good when coated in bacon grease?
Lamb, cherries, and pine nuts (and bacon) made by Cooki
In March, amid a worsening drought, California barred restaurants from serving water to customers except upon request. Though the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that most of a restaurant's water usage takes place in the kitchen or bathroom instead of at the table, the policy is "more of a reminder to people that we're in a drought, as opposed to saving millions of millions of gallons of water," as a San Francisco water conservation manager told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Which got me thinking: What about other beverages you might order along with brunch or dinner? There's a good chance their raw ingredients include crops like grapes, oranges, barley, or apples harvested in California. The state produces 105 million gallons of craft beer and 729 million gallons of wine every year—90 percent of the country's native vino.
In the past, we've shown you how many gallons of water go into irrigating crops like almonds, tomatoes, and alfalfa. The chart below shows the amount of water needed to irrigate the California-grown raw ingredients in common drinks. (We chose common serving sizes for each beverage: 8 ounces for juice, 12 ounces for beer, and 4 ounces for a glass of wine.)
As for the water footprint inherent in the production stage of, say, grapefruit juice? University of Twente professor Arjen Hoekstra, one of the researchers responsible for the data, says that his team didn't measure the water used in processing since it's usually only "about 1 percent of the water footprint in the growing stage of the ingredient."
When you think about the Kentucky Derby, what flavors come to mind? A refreshing mint julep? Pillowy biscuits propping up salty glazed ham? The sweet tang of pickled shrimp? Or how about…tamales? As radio journalist Tina Antolini discovered, that's the dish that best embodies "the backside" of the Derby, where horse walkers, grooms, stable cleaners, and trainers live and work. The majority hail from Central America, and due to the migratory nature of the job and a lack of kitchen access, they rely on hot plates and crockpots to re-create their traditional cuisine.
Tina Antolini Photo by Pableaux Johnson
Antolini dug into this Derby subculture for an episode of Gravy, a new biweekly podcast from the Southern Foodways Alliance that explores a changing American South through the lens of food. The podcast's host and producer isn't exactly a good ol' girl; Antolini grew up in a coastal Maine town full of "lobstermen and artists." Her mom, a cookbook editor, would spend "three hours making a complicated deal for dinner," so she developed an early interest in all things culinary. Jobs at pier-side seafood joints and upscale restaurants fortified her passion—food would become a theme in her reporting for New England Public Radio and later for the podcast State of the (Re)Union, for which she is still a senior producer.
Having a Yankee host doesn't seem to have detracted from Gravy's allure. The podcast, along with its quarterly print version, won Publication of the Year at the 2015 James Beard Foundation Awards—a.k.a. the "Oscars of the food world." Dorothy Kalins, chair of the awards committee, commended Gravy for its "humor and style" and for "giving voice to the unsung characters who grow, cook, and serve our food."
"The food has to take us somewhere," says Tina Antolini, host and producer of Gravy.
But don't come looking for recipes—Antolini rarely gets into ingredient lists. Rather, she uses food as a launchpad for stories about race, culture, health, and business. "The food has to take us somewhere," she told me. Episodes have covered water wars from the perspective of feuding oyster farms, the buried history of black culinarians, and military vets who turn to farming. And Gravy transcends geography. As illustrated by the Kentucky Derby episode, "the themes we are dealing with in these Southern-based stories," Antolini says, "are really at the heart of understanding the United States."
Toni Morrison is no stranger to historical fiction. Her last novel, Home, whisked readers into the shoes of a struggling Korean War veteran. A Mercy, the one before that, pictured life through the eyes of teenage bondswomen on a 17th-century Anglo-Dutch farm. And who could forget Beloved, her wrenching tale of a mother's radical attempt to save her child from slavery in the mid-1800s?
But when the octogenarian author sat down to compose her 11th and latest novel, God Help the Child, she faced a new challenge. "I was nervous because I didn't have a handle on the contemporary," she told me. "It's very fluid." Leave it to Morrison, a recipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to find a way. Through Bride, her "blue-black" protagonist—who shines in the beauty industry but flails in her relationships—Morrison boldly examines the ways in which a hellish childhood undermines a person's sense of self.
Mother Jones: How did the Bride character come to you?
Toni Morrison: I started the book before I wrote Home, but I was unsure of how to do it. And then I began to just look around at what people were doing and saying about themselves: You know, everybody's naked, everybody's gorgeous. I was very keenly aware of the new, wide-open, in many cases very healthy but certainly very aggressive sexuality. That becomes the success, particularly of a woman. Having looked at part of the Oscars, it was even more obvious. [Laughs.]
MJ: What about them?
TM: The clothes. The slits are higher, the breasts are prominent, which they always were, but now it's just about nipples—the only part you cannot show. It just seems hysterical, because that's the first thing any human gets in his mouth! I don't know. I'm 84, so you can imagine how many phases of this I have witnessed.
"I'm 84, so you can imagine how many phases of this I have witnessed."
MJ: Bride capitalizes on her unique looks to get ahead, but under the surface something's not right.
TM: She's very successful—you know, the "panther in snow." But in her brain, she's returning to that despised little black girl her mother didn't even like.
MJ: Her "You Girl" makeup line is marketed for "girls and women of all complexions, from ebony to lemonade to milk." Which seems empowering, and yet people fetishize Bride's blackness. Was this an intentional jab at the beauty industry?
TM: In a way, but the interesting thing for me was that she was instructed [by an industry mentor] to never wear makeup. Her beauty is beyond makeup—and so she feels perfect. That's not enough for me. You have to be a complete human being, and that has to do with your generosity. That's what I wanted for her to encounter.
MJ: Bride's mother thinks her daughter's dark skin will be her doom. But didn't your own dark great-grandmother view herself as purer than you light-skinned kids?
TM: She was very, very black. What she said was we were impure and tampered with. And we were little girls! The only other time I noticed what we call skin privileges was at Howard University. It's a brilliant school. However, there was something called the "paper bag test"—whether your skin is darker or lighter than a paper bag. There were whole sororities that were proud that they had the lightest skin color. It was shocking to me. I wanted [Bride's mother] Sweetness to make explicit the advantages of being a light-skinned Negro. She was under the impression that she had to protect her very black child from these insults. But inside, she shared that kind of revulsion.
"There were whole sororities that were proud that they had the lightest skin color. It was shocking to me."
MJ: Sweetness says: "Nowadays blue blacks are all over TV and fashion magazines, commercials, even starring in movies." Do you see Hollywood growing up, featuring more dark-skinned women?
TM: I think the audiences have grown up in making demands, so Hollywood has followed. They don't much care, so long as it works.
MJ: The new book contains moments of magical realism. What inspired your literary fondness for the magical and the supernatural?
TM: My childhood was full of ghost stories, and I was very taken with Gabriel García Márquez's first book, One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was a revelation that you can do those things—that you could have ghosts. That made a big difference in the way I could conceive of characters, so that it was perfectly logical for the dead girl in Beloved to come back. She was the only one who could judge her mother. None of us could.
MJ: I'm curious whether the title of your new book is an allusion to Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child"?
TM: No. I had an entirely different title, which everyone hated. I'm not even gonna tell you what it was.
MJ: What was it?
TM: [Laughs.] No, I'm not going to tell you! I ended up with God Help the Child because Sweetness has the last word, which is, "You're gonna be parents? Uh-huh, okay." Parenting changes you. You have different concerns. It's not all kitchy-kitchy-koo.
MJ: Why did you decide to focus on childhood trauma?
TM: The ideas come to me, I don't search for them. In the process of putting together characters and their language and their interior lives, it shapes itself. I just began with a vague notion of what it must be like to be traumatized for something that has nothing to do with you. I mean, you didn't kill anybody. You didn't drop somebody on their head. You're innocent. But you still have to deal with it—and how do you deal with it?
"What's interesting is the invention, the creative thing. Writing about myself was a yawn."
Even when you think you've had a wonderful childhood, I suspect there's always some little drop of poison—that you can get rid of, but sometimes it just trails in the blood and it determines how you react to other people and how you think.
MJ: You evoke some disturbing, violent, sexual crimes in this novel and others. Does writing about such things affect you emotionally?
TM: It does, but I have the wonderful pleasure of finishing the book and closing it. And I don't read them later.
MJ: Have you ever wanted to write more about your own life?
TM: My editor suggested that I change a two-book contract to one novel and a memoir. And I said okay, and then I thought, "I don't think so." A memoir? What's interesting is the invention, the creative thing. Writing about myself was a yawn.
MJ: You've worked on operas, children's books, lyrics, and plays. Is there any other form you're eager to try?
TM: When you say it like that, I get suddenly exhausted! [Laughs.] I don't think so. I think I'll do what pleases me most, and what most challenges me, which is the novel.