Bear with me, for a moment, as you read a passage from a dispatch now available on The Atlantic’s website:
[Alice Waters] put me to work beside her, cutting grilled slices of locally Beijing-made sourdough bread (from a bakery with the jaunty name Boulangerie Nanda) already soaked in olive oil from the McEvoy Ranch, in Petaluma, California; the oil, along with five donated Californian wines, was the only American ingredients used. I spread the bread with a crumbly, nicely cheesy handmade ricotta made by Liu Yang–a Beijing native who spent six years in France making cheese before moving back and starting a business he calls Le Fromager de Pekin–and drizzled more oil on top. And I broke into bite-sized chunks a Parmesan-like gouda made by Marc De Ruiter, a Dutch cheese maker in Shanxi, for his Yellow Valley cheese company (he recently closed it, unable to afford the expensive milk-testing equipment the government told him he must buy).
This is not, despite every indication, the account of a novelty dinner held at Waters’ famous, and famously expensive Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, but rather the truthful account of a meal recently held at, and partly sponsored by, the US Embassy in Beijing, ostensibly to “build awareness of organic food being grown by Chinese farmers for Chinese food.”
No doubt, that is a laudable goal. As someone who has been eating in China for nearly a decade, I’m quite aware – indeed, probably more aware than most of the organizers – of the food scandals that have plagued China for years. But I am also aware that food inflation is a serious quality-of-life issue ( and sometimes, a life issue) for hundreds of millions of Chinese, and thus I have no doubt that the visit of a wealthy Western chef promoting more expensive food is more likely to be ignored by, rather than improve, contemporary China. Alas, the effect of food inflation on a developing nation, it seems, was of little concern to Waters or the organizers of the event (I’m looking at you, US Embassy staff), who apparently couldn’t see past their own stomachs, to notice the needs of the Chinese stomachs just past the embassy gates. Writing of the fine cheese served at the event, the Atlantic’s correspondent, Corby Kummer, made it clear – and without irony! – that this event was first and foremost an opportunity to satisfy Western appetites (according to the Wall Street Journal, less than 1/3 of the attendees were Chinese):
Cheese is a great rarity in lactose-intolerant China, and many of the guests wanted to know where they could find it.
I’m sure they did.
There is much low-hanging fruit to shoot here (the image of Waters, and her well-known eco-grounded belief in locally-sourced produce, jetting over to Beijing with her staff and bottles of olive oil to cook a feast that is both unaffordable and unappetizing to 99.9% of China, is but one). But what really troubles me about this dinner is the lack of introspection that led the organizers, Waters, and the correspondent to believe that, via their own gluttony (and visits to expensive organic farms), they are somehow promoting healthy eating in China.
Which begs the question: is there a more effective way for them to promote this laudable goal? I think there is, starting with an embassy banquet utilizing organic ingredients to cook Chinese food. This shouldn’t be hard to figure out: as has been amply documented by the LA Times’ Barbara Demick, China’s leadership has its own private reserves of organic produce, and rest assured, that produce is fashioned into Chinese cuisine. After that, perhaps Waters and others can figure out a way to cook reasonably-priced Chinese dishes using organic ingredients, and sell them on a mass basis to Chinese consumers suffering from food inflation. I don’t mean that sarcastically: the mere effort would be a real contribution.
But, sadly, contributions – at least in the world that Waters and the US Embassy Staff occupy, are more along the lines of this one, as recounted, without shame, by the Atlantic’s correspondent:
[Lilian] Chou [of Time Out Beijing] supervised the packing up of the leftovers to go to an orphanage that, she’d heard, hadn’t been able to pay its staff since July because of budget cuts.
As the orphans gratefully licked their fingers of Liu Yang’s organic ricotta (at least, the ones who aren’t lactose intolerant), I wonder if Chou considered how many of those salaries might’ve been paid had she just donated the cost of the organic Chinese cheeses served at the dinner, in the first place.