#19 | Small Potato, Big Potato

With writing on the sensation of smell, tofu poetry, and the institutional failings of fine dining

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This is the nineteenth edition of In Digestion, a weekly survey of the best food media on the web, and why you should care about it. If you like this newsletter, please follow @in_digestion and @jameskhansen on Twitter, and forward it to a large number of people. It should feel like too many. It won’t be enough. Thank you.

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Sorry for that nightmare fuel, folks. This is a sentient potato representation of the chief executive of Taco Bell, Mark King, who is telling everyone that it is bringing back potato dishes in America.

Like the human foot buried in north east England that was actually a potato, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. At the end of King’s chipper announcement he / the potato that represents him winked at the camera in saying “we’re going above and beyond” with the chain’s vegetarian offering. The minor nightmare here is that a monopolistic meat substitute has gained such traction that a potato can wink at me and I — and many others — know exactly what it’s talking about.

The major one is about the cognitive dissonance at play. In the U.K., where potatoes will not make a glorious return, the company is paying a Finnish company to produce plant-based “meat” instead. There’s no need to make a nationalistic appeal to U.K. plant-based meat, where the soy protein is happier because of Brexit. There probably is a need to ask why a fast food chain that already had pretty good vegetarian food feels the need to jettison potatoes for the sake of turning food into other food; and, if the two can’t co-exist on one menu, why it chose the latter. If plant-based beef actually replaces cow beef on a menu that’s an environmental net good; if it arrives and Taco Bell is buying the same amount of beef it did before, potatoes left in the ground, where’s the movement of the environmental needle?

It’s already established, chiefly by Alicia Kennedy, that as tech meat companies scale they are bound to replicate the social and economic monocultural sins of the slaughterhouses they purport to replace. One of those is partnering with fast food companies, in a purported bid to save the world at scale that ignores the fact that it’s their scale that has put a great deal of people and places in the world in the chipper.

An interesting corollary to this argument is that an alternative to that scale needs to match it if not socioeconomically, then on more aesthetic grounds: “If you want to build an alternative food culture that is both abundant and pleasurable, you’re going to need to take seriously the idea that, for the overwhelming majority of Americans, fast food is a critical and cherished pleasure.” This chimes with the (bad-faith!) idea that the key opposition to tech meat, or, in this idea’s language, FAKE MEAT, is in its aesthetic mimicry, in its being a simulacrum of something more natural or worthy.

A smaller, more needful one is that the key objection to tech meat’s links to fast food is that it currently does nothing for fast food’s socioeconomic harms to exploited workers and intensively farmed land, while leaving potatoes trapped in the supply chain actively hurts farmers and tech meat’s adoption gives fast food chains an air of environmental credibility they, at large, do not deserve. An alternative food culture that is abundant and pleasurable and leans on fast food is still going to be the opposite of those things for the people serving it and the land sustaining it. And, if we’re going to talk about aesthetics and pleasure, what happens to the people who don’t want their vegetarian food to taste like meat at all?

Jack Monroe tears into the political callousness behind free school meal policy in the U.K. Exacerbated by COVID-19, food insecurity and child poverty have long been rooted in a media narrative that casts people as thick, feckless, and not to be trusted with money. Money is exactly what they need to feed their children. While this week’s debacle, in which a private contractor’s food parcels had not even close to enough nutrition, is the headline-grabber, it’s the simmering background that goes beyond ten years of Conservative government and back to New Labour and Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners that needs to be challenged at every turn.

Nicola Miller gives a sense of the world of smell for Tales from Topographic Kitchens. Its status as a tell for COVID-19 has given anosmia a lot of column inches lately, but they tend not to display the synaesthetic elegance of this essay on scent memory, imagination, and the way words taste. Pair with one of her citations — an essay on the politics of olfaction by Apoorva Sripathi.

Korsha Wilson reports on the institutional failings that stifle Black women in fine dining for The New York Times. Those failings are first summed up neatly — “in workplaces with few Black women, many said they often felt caught in a paradox: invisible to their managers, yet put under a microscope by peers who had stereotyped expectations of their behavior” — which allows Wilson’s interviewees’ individual stories of rejection and mistreatment to resound clearly. Aretah Ettah, from celebrated New York restaurant The Granmercy Tavern, lays out how it’s not enough to ask those “where are all the Black chefs?” questions once again. “It’s a white issue, and to expect me to solve that problem for you is frustrating … White people have this need to always, always go to the marginalized person to give them the answers.” Pair with a report from the “front lines of food supply” at the same paper, which it’s refreshing to find in the “dining” section.

Ed Strangs meme on one of the most obnoxious beer brands in the world.

For any newsletter readers unfamiliar with Brewdog, it’s a m a s s i v e beer brand that really enjoys pretending it’s still P U N K by naming new beers after big events so people will laugh at them online and excuse their mediocre beer because they’re C O O L D U D E S. See also the majestic description at work on a popular brand of hyperbolic paraboloid snacks:

To finish, a meditation on chopping and tofu and time, by Ouyang Jianghe, translated from Chinese by Austin Woerner.

Where the immemorial and the instant meet, opening and distance appear.
Through the opening: a door, crack of light.
Behind the door, a kitchen.

Where the knife rises and falls, clouds gather, disperse.
A lightspeed joining of life and death, cut
in two: halves of a sun, of slowness.

Halves of a turnip.
A mother in the kitchen, a lifetime of cuts.
A cabbage cut into mountains and rivers,
a fish, cut along its leaping curves,
laid on the table
still yearning for the pond.

Summer’s tofu
cut into premonitions of snow.
A potato listens to the onion-counterpoint
of the knife, dropping petals at its strokes:
self and thing, halves of nothing
at the center of time.
Where gone and here meet, the knife rises, falls.

But this mother is not holding a knife.

What she has been given is not a knife
but a few fallen leaves.
The fish leaps over the blade from the sea
to the stars. The table is in the sky now,
the market has been crammed into the refrigerator,
and she cannot open cold time.

An interview with Apoorva Sripathi on the act of writing, newsletters, and the importance of vantage points will be the seventeenth paid post on In Digestion, going out 17 January. Thank you again for being here.

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That’s all for this week. See you soon, and — oh — please forward this to those three friends and one nemesis. Or just, like, everyone.

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