In the early 1990′s in New York City, on the southwest corner of Central Park a few blocks down from Lincoln Center, lay a disused blocky convention center, a strange Venetianesque latticework building and a few other functional butnondescript structures. This hodgepodge group all crowded around a traffic circle that was decorated with parked motorcycles and punctuated by a sooty column topped by a statue of a famous dead white man. The buildings all seemed to face this traffic circle expectantly, as if asking: why must our fate be to stare at you day after day? You are a blight on our fair city. Alas, we are doomed to continue staring at you until someone comes along with better plans for us all.
This was the Columbus Circle that I knew as a child. Today it is the manicured center of high-end shopping and living. Recently, Columbus Circle was named Best Roundabout in the World 2013 by the Roundabout Appreciate Society (which should itself be voted Most Unapologetically British Society 2013). Fountains and careful landscaping have replaced the motorcycles, Columbus and his column have received a scrub down, the weird latticework building whose arcade was essentially a homeless shelter, has been discreetly covered up and is now the Museum of Arts and Design, the abandoned convention center (a Robert Moses creation) was torn down to make way for the billion dollar Time Warner Center, and Donald Trump took over the anonymous glass tower by the park. Actual people, lots of them, sit on the benches backed by a row of fountains. It’s easy to romanticize the “bad old days” of New York and confuse grit and neglect with authenticity, but Columbus Circle itself is a gleaming example of a resuscitated public space. And while I wish it didn’t mean that William Sonoma and Whole Foods are today as much of a draw to this corner of the city as Jazz at Lincoln Center, I am very glad the motorcycle parking lot is a distant memory.
One year (and a week) ago, I was in the alpine region of Japan (yes, there is one) awaiting the start of a festival. Every fall and spring, the tiny town of Takayama becomes the site of a 400-year-old festival that celebrates the Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine with ornate floats called yatai that drip with illuminated lanterns. During my trip I kept a travel blog called Massaging the Octopus. Here’s my post from the festival with photos and some observations. On the first night of the festival the yatai get trotted out into the streets of Takayama, carried by teams of very fit locals. At the end of a narrow street, the crowd was especially thick and the music of a flute could be heard. This is where being 5’2 comes in handy. I burrowed my way through the crowd and got to see this.
I guess lamb wasn’t popular in medieval England otherwise we’d be eating rack of agneau. Let me explain. Ever wonder why we eat beef but raise cows? Why once sheep hit the stock pot, they become mutton? Well, like with most overcomplicated things, we have the French to thank. The Norman conquest of England brought French habits and words to the English language, specifically, as one would expect, many food words. While the invading Normans enjoyed the luxuries and foods of their newly conquered land, the local Saxons were left on the farm. Thus, the French brought to court their food language: mouton (sheep), boef (cow), veau (calf), poulet (fowl), porc (pig), which eventually becomes mutton, beef, veal, poultry and pork. As with most things, the Supersizers do a much better job explaining this in costume, if you can get past Giles Coren’s deafening chewing noises.
The cult of beautiful food is possibly peaking at this very moment. With everyone instagramming their breakfast in all its Lo-Fi glory, we want our food to be beautiful and look perfect. Blemished means unhealthy and despite the rise of knobby heirloom tomatoes, we still value good looking food. Yet shape has little to do with the taste and freshness of a fruit or vegetable, and consumers’ desire for produce perfection leads to billions of dollars in food waste each year. A new report from the National Resources Defense Council cites that $165 billion in edible food is thrown out of fridges, from grocery stores and from farms each year. Much of that waste is due simply to expiration dates which are a loose indicator of freshness, at best. But it’s more than just the tyranny of the expiration date, it’s also the tyranny of food aesthetics that is leading to so much food loss when billions of people around the world still cannot afford three meals a day and the price of food climbs ever higher. The USDA stipulates that all commercially grown produce must be at least 90 percent blemish-free. Though the growth of farmer’s markets has provided some promise in terms of reeducating people to accept what normal fruits and vegetables actually look like, solutions for ugly food waste mostly seem to be coming from the nonprofit quarter. Organizations like New Jersey-based Farmers Against Hunger enable farmers to donate their extra produce to local food charities. But this is America, and if ugly produce is to have a chance, only a market-based solution will ensure their disfigured survival.
Strangely, the Europeans are beating us to it. Last fall after a turbulent growing season, the British were left with a bounty of aesthetically impaired produce. But instead of rejecting the deformed crops, Sainsbury’s, one of Britain’s largest supermarket chains, relaxed their standards and put the misshapen, discolored and undersized produce on their shelves and hoped for their customers’ understanding. Since then there has been a veritable outcry against the food waste and the estimated 30% of UK fruit and vegetables that are never harvested simply because of their imperfect appearance. But it seems that at least in the U.K., consumers are ready for a change. Last year the Institution of Mechanical Engineers published a report that surveyed over 2000 people, 80% of whom said they would buy imperfect produce. A few European grocers are taking notice. German supermarket chain Edeka, just started a pilot program to sell unconventional looking produce and Suisse chain Coop launched their “unique” food line in a third of its stores in August. In the Netherlands where 10% of ugly produce is wasted, a Dutch company called Krom Kommer is “committed to crazy vegetables” linking growers, wholesalers, restaurant and consumers to take a chance on homely fruits and vegetables. You can also buy from them direct on their website where products made out of misshaped produce are sold (check out their Christmas gift basket featuring some nice looking cheese (from a deformed cow?), if you can read Dutch). Hopefully ugly produce won’t just stay big in Europe but will make the leap across the pond to end the tyranny of the beautiful and fill more bellies along the way.
It’s World Vegetarian Day! For all our meat-shunning friends it’s a day to celebrate the earth’s bounty while sneering at the barbarians who still partake of flesh (me!). Also, it’s a day to remember a piece of forgotten women’s history. Feminist theory has long highlighted the common subjugation of women and animals in a patriarcal world where meat-eating plays an integral role in male dominance. In mid-19th century America, the early vegetarian movement was closely linked with several reform movements including animal welfare, health reform, abolition and women’s suffrage. The American Vegetarian Society was founded in 1850 under the leadership of several prominent American health reformers of the day, including noted vegetarian Reverend Sylvester Graham (of Graham cracker fame). It was the first society of it’s kind in the U.S and attracted supporters the like of Susan B. Anthony, who was known to throw vegetarian dinners but also still enjoyed the odd turkey and cow.
In the U.K. where vegetarian diets were being adopted up by the upper classes, London was teeming with vegetarian eateries. By the 1880′s, 30 new vegetarian restaurants had opened in London. These restaurants, as well as tea rooms, became popular meeting spots for suffragettes as there were few places where women could gather alone together outside the home. Away from the steaming kitchen and roast beef dinners, vegetarian restaurants also set an example of the kind of simple and fast cooking that could liberate women from the stove. Eventually women created their own spaces. London’s Minerva Club was founded by the Women’s Freedom League in 1920 attracting women from all branches of the women’s suffrage movement. Knowing their clientele, the club’s restaurant advertised that its vegetarian dishes were cooked separately and entirely free of animal fat. Eight years later the Representation of the People Act granted all women over the age of 21 the right to vote.