Tag Archives: James Beard Foundation

Food and Privilege

The San Francisco Chronicle has the first of several articles documenting the recent James Beard troubles. There’s much to be sickened by the entire affair, particularly the actions of Len Pickell. But there is one paragraph of the article that I want to touch upon:

Almost overnight, the unemployed househusband from Jersey was astride a universe in which eating is not about sustenance, or even pleasure, but about status, privilege and consumption at levels of expenditure where grateful restaurateurs send free caviar and foie gras to the table, or a trophy bottle of Bordeaux.

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear here. As a self-proclaimed hedonist, I’m all about pleasure, and make no bones about the fact that food (and drink) bring a decent amount of bliss to myself and those around me.

Food as privilege though? The idea annoys me to no end. I realize that it’s been part of human nature as long as there has been a delineation of wealth, but it still strikes me incredibly pretentious, along the lines of people purchasing fine art, without understanding why the pieces of art are so highly regarded. My question is how many people believe that certain foods, or certain culinary habits dictate status? People like Len Pickell obviously fall into that class.

Food, whether it’s a rack of lamb with vegetable ragoût, mustard spätzle, and mustard and thyme reduction, or a loose meat sandwich, has the opportunity to be the pinnacle of culinary bliss, depending upon the moment of time. The fun in food comes from trying to replicate that blissful moment with new experiences with different foods.

What occurs when people approach food as a status symbol is that, by their actions, they demonstrate that they can replicate that blissful experience at will. They don’t have to try, as they can just purchase the latest meal by Charlie Trotter, or fly to the heart of Tuscany to explore the farmlands. But I believe those blissful moments mean nothing if they’re not compared against those moments that are less than memorable (or even memorable for the wrong reasons).

Perhaps I’m showing a twinge of jealousy. Really, I’d love to go to Japan for sushi, or have the resources to pay for a meal at The Inn at Little Washington on a regular basis. But I also admit to liking the foods and restaurants that some might consider ‘common’. Some nights I prefer a simple taco platter to a forty five dollar prime rib. Why? Because taste doesn’t come from money, taste comes from that blissful moment in time, and that blissful moment can occur anywhere. No amount of money or privilege can change that fact. Sometimes I think those who represent the food industry and the food media forget this and need to be reminded of it as often as possible.

James Beard Foundation Restructures…again

Remember last year, when the James Beard Foundation was found to have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars without being able to actually account for it? As a charitable institution, this is a BIG no-no. Even Anthony Bourdain said that the charity took him for a chump.

Since that time, they have restructured…twice. Once back last September longtime President Leonard Pickell resigned before Board of Trustees meeting. And this past Tuesday, three new trustees were elected to its Board and, upon the acceptance of these new trustees, the previous Board of Trustees stepped down. These were the Trustees put in place to help get their house in order. They conducted an investigation, and introduced an action plan. This current reorganization is “intended to strengthen the Foundation’s professionalism and commitment to financial discipline, transparency, ethics and good governance”.

This is a good thing it seems, and they are showing a level of transparency which had not existed under Pickell’s reign. Have they gotten the trust of their core participants back? Probably not, but it’s a step in the right direction. Now if they foundation can face the realities of the restaurant industry, rather than only showing the romantic side, I’d be truly impressed.