Rich Gluttons Hold Extravagant Meal at US Embassy, Beijing, Congratulate Selves for Promoting Healthy Eating in China.

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.

They’re not.

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.

25 thoughts on “Rich Gluttons Hold Extravagant Meal at US Embassy, Beijing, Congratulate Selves for Promoting Healthy Eating in China.

  1. it’s a club, an in-group, it has no reason to think beyond its confines. it’s like all the un workers in vasant vihar, delhi, or the aid workers at five-star hotels plotting how to manage aid programs.

    no big deal. it’s what governments do. all governments.

    those invited probably had a ball.

  2. This really needed saying. Was astonished to see how the usually critically-inclined Beijing-based US journalists reported this dinner in such a fawning manner. And embarrassing that the Asia Society would spend their money on such an elitist event.

  3. gregorylent made a good point. These people live in a completely different world than ordinary Chinese (or Americans). The real goal of the evening was for the western guests to enjoy themselves dining with a celebrity chef not to educate the Chinese masses.

    As far as rich people sending leftovers from a banquet to a flat-broke orphanage that haven’t been able to pay its employees, I guess that they felt that it was a charitable act that stands on its own.

  4. Adam: is there a more effective way for them to promote this laudable goal?

    There is actually a large domestic market for organics, particularly in families with newborns, and awareness is growing as all the major markets now carry organic foods.

    But, assuming one ignores those facts, then I guess the best way to have used this event to promote safe food would have been:

    1) Invite Chinese chefs to the event and learn about the benefits of organics
    2) Invite Chinese families with recent newborns
    3) In lieu of “foreigners”, bring in overseas born/ trained Chinese.. who have a proven effect on food preparation in China
    4) Bring in the Chinese media to learn about the differences and risks, and have Pollan speak about the horrors of the “traditional” industry and the impacts of that industry on health

    R

  5. Hmm. I defer to you, but I was similarly astonished and embarrassed by the luxurious food and drink our official Chinese hosts lavished on me and my official visitors, going back to 2002. In the back of my head, I heard “the poor will be with us always”… But if there is going to be a demand for imperial reception dining, as there seemed to be, promoting something like cheese seems like a healthy alternative to shark fin soup and other endangers species platter meals I saw constantly waged with a goal to impress.

  6. R/Collective Responsibility – Great comment, great suggestions, thank you very much. And yes, you’re absolutely right about the newborn market. I must admit, though, that I’m skeptical as to whether or not foreign ‘food experts’ like Pollan or Waters can really have any influence in China. As you well know, Chinese people are both proud and fiercely protective of their culinary heritage, and it’s hard to imagine them allowing any laowai, no matter how famous or revered back in the US, to tell them how to handle their food issues. The solutions to these problems, ultimately, are going to have to be home-grown.

    Robin – You’re right about the large banquets that visitors often enjoy in China. And official dinners are, by definition, extravagant affairs. But the Alice Waters event was none of those – rather, it was an event specifically designed to promote organics and the sort of locally sourced cooking for which Waters is famed. So I criticize it on that basis, alone.

  7. Come on guy … its Beijing — where everything is over the top and life is absolutely different from anywhere else in China (with the exception of Shanghai or Guangzhou). Moreover, being that it was BJ, who would come if the chef decided to serve jiajiangmian, tudousi and jianbing. As a Chinese friend of mine is fond of saying, ” zheiyang de cai … youde shi.” In my experience Chinese custom is to order the not-so-ordinary when trying to impress (so from that perspective it would seem like the embassy staff was absolutely following Chinese custom.) And while it might be unappetizing to a portion of China citizens there are more then many Chinese (and especially many Beijing Chinese ) that simply love the stuff. (Every major store here in Wuhan sells cheese, olive oil and wine. Pasta is a Chinese creation so I would guess that many a Chinese would at least give it a taste.) But that is not to say that we Americans are any different. While your average Seattleite might not try a new Asian restaurant of the day’s blackened Dalian squid with a jiucai chutney (made to support local Chinese fisherman) they find it unappetizing … someone will like it and there recommendations might spread until it becomes a national dish just like salsa overtook ketchup as America’s leading condiment. You need to start somewhere and to borrow and wreck the words of a famous singer you may have heard of … “For this China, it’s a-changin”.

  8. blackChinahand – Agree on most points, especially the nature of entertaining in Beijing. But my issue isn’t that the dinner was over-the-top, it’s that a bunch of bozos from the US decided to promote safe and healthy food in China by throwing an outrageously expensive dinner party, complete with flown-in ingredients and chefs, with very little draw for Chinese people, or relevance to China’s food issues (and next to zero coverage in the Chinese press). It’s enough to lead a guy to think that somebody was just looking for a socially-acceptable excuse (with the imprimatur of the US Embassy) to fly Alice Waters and her chefs to Beijing for a fabulous evening of elite eating. Yes, yes – I see the olives and feta in Chinese supermarkets. But it’s one thing to promote olives in China, and another thing altogether to promote produce that runs three times the price of non-organics at a time of rising food costs, all under the umbrella of a luxe-banquet.

    At this point in China’s development, organics are an uptown solution to a country that’s still very much in its downtown stage of development. With that in mind – if Waters and Pollan and Kummer really wanted to do something positive for Chinese consumers, they could’ve just said “we’re holding an expensive, unsustainable dinner in Beijing, and that’s that,” and taken some of Collective Responsibility’s suggestions, above (though, for the record, I’m not convinced of their efficacy in all cases).

  9. Great one. I’ve met Marc De Ruiter. His work in Shanxi is absolutely inspiring. While he knows his cheese his work is primarily about introducing sustainable means that struggling rural farmers can increase their incomes and better their livelihoods. Producing cheese is one of dozens of projects he’s been involved in and I’m sure there’s more to the story than he’s shutting down the cheese business because the government is forcing him to buy testing equipment.

  10. Pingback: China Readings for November 28th | Sinocism

  11. “But my issue isn’t that the dinner was over-the-top, it’s that a bunch of bozos from the US have decided to promote safe and healthy food in China by throwing an outrageously expensive dinner party, complete with flown-in ingredients and chefs, which has very little draw or relevance to China’s food issues (and next to zero coverage in the Chinese press).”

    Obviously none of those organizing (the US government) or attending could recognize this simple truth. Gluttons, indeed.

  12. Many of your friends in media in Beijing attended that meal so don’t expect a huge outpouring of support on this one.

  13. An excellent post. Food sovreignty is about to hit the charts in the next six months and this is a timely call back to reality street.

    I miss Beijing. I don’t miss the Westerners who had fuck all to say apart from their work and what restaurant they went to the night before.

  14. I keep thinking about how that orphanage director. She’s sitting there flat broke, can’t pay her staff, and what kind of help does the US government send? HORS D’OEUVRES!

    Congrats to the US Embassy on another triumph of public diplomacy. ###holes.

  15. Thank you for writing this. I’ve been a) surprised how much attention the U.S. press has lavished on this dinner and b) disappointed at how generally uncritical that attention has been. It’s one thing to throw a massive dinner party and pretend, with remarkable tone-deafness, that it has something to do with promoting food safety, organic agriculture, or local blah-blah-blah. It’s quite another thing for U.S. taxpayer money to be wasted on this sort of self-aggrandizing claptrap. Yet unfortunately, this sort of event seems par for the course for the surprisingly aloof and out-of-touch U.S. State Department presence in China. I do wonder if this would have been approved during Huntsman’s tenure…

    Frankly, the U.S. Embassy should feel LUCKY that the Chinese media hasn’t really picked this up. Weibo-ers would likely be a lot less forgiving than the American media has been.

  16. Like so many other celeb-jet-setting-do-gooders, the carbon credits for the flights alone negate any of eco-friendly green-hog-wash. Unfortunately, other than epitomizing how the US dazzles with its culture of excess, it also fits with how food is just show in China and that most is ultimately wasted… until, as I’m sure Adam would point out, it get’s recylced as pig slop.

  17. I believe the orphanage in question is that of the Bethel Foundation – which does great work in China for blind orphans and has their own organic farm. One can purchase eggs from the farm in Beijing where all proceeds go to Bethel at baodefood.com

  18. I’d never heard of Alice Waters before this month, but this is now the second time I’ve read about her unhelpful elitist food evangelism.

    The first:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/small_business/2011/11/what_s_the_best_first_job_out_of_college_try_catering_.2.html

    “I chatted with interns who were helping out with the party by checking people in and giving gift bags. After dinner was served and we caterers were eating our leftover staff meal, I asked whether there was any extra food we could take out to the interns as they sat outside the gala ballroom. The serving captain said there wasn’t enough. I later saw that they’d ordered pizza, and Alice Waters, who was one of the hosts, came out and saw the empty pizza boxes. She began lecturing them that they we eating junk food, and that they shouldn’t be eating such terrible things when it was so easy to eat delicious, healthy organic food. I wondered whether she’d considered providing them with any.”

  19. It is very important that the white Americans come to China and teach the Chinese yellow people how to eat safe. We cannot do it without the help. Thank you great woman goddess alice water.

  20. Adam, this is quite a misrepresentation or a misunderstanding of both the event and cultural diplomacy. Did you ring up the Aspen Institute or the Agricultural Trade Office in the US Embassy to get the story and ask what the objectives were? You consistently criticize the US embassy and consulates and diplomacy without understanding what it’s all about. For one thing – when these types of events are held at the embassy the embassy doesn’t pay for it. The chambers of commerce, organizations such as Aspen or ag coops in the States pay all costs. They even pay for staff time at the embassy. And why use over the top inflammatory statements like calling people gluttons just because they eat.

  21. Jay –

    As always, I appreciate the comment and your visits.

    But I do feel obliged to point out a few things.

    First, nowhere in my piece do I bring up cultural diplomacy. The blog post is based upon Corby Kummer’s dispatch in the Atlantic (full disclosure: I occasionally freelance for the Atlantic), and since Kummer was an integral part of the event, and wrote the longest and most detailed dispatch from the event, I feel justified in quoting his justification for the event: to “build awareness of organic food being grown by Chinese farmers for Chinese food.” If you or anyone has a problem with that assessment, I suggest bringing it up with Kummer, not me.

    Likewise, I did not suggest that State or the Embassy paid for the event. But seriously, Jay, even if the event were entirely paid for by outside parties, the fact that the embassy hosted it on the grounds is endorsement enough. Put differently, the embassy doesn’t allow just any outside party to host large dinners on the ground. It wouldn’t allow, say Greenpeace nor the Klan to host a dinner on the grounds, even if they paid for the staff time, for fear that the embassy would be associated with the message being promoted. But, in the case of this dinner, the embassy had no reservations about the message, and hosted away. In any event, why should I contact the embassy’s ATO if the embassy had – as you suggest – no responsibility for the event?

    The association between gluttony and the high-end foodie-ism of Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and their followers does not originate with me. Rather, it was the essence of a critical essay, “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” by B.R. Myers, published in the March 2011 issue of the Atlantic. The essay caused quite a stir, skewering – correctly, I think – the elite eating habits of the expensive organic set. It also spawned many responses, imitators, and tributes including this blog post.

  22. Adam I assume that “Jay Casey” represents the embassy’s response or at least some faction of State’s response which I think can be distilled down to “we’re not responsible for what happens on the embassy grounds but we did enjoy the free food and drinks.”

  23. “And why use over the top inflammatory statements like calling people gluttons just because they eat.(sic)”

    So true, as glutton is commonly defined as a person eating and drinking to excess. Perhaps a better word for that dinner at the American Embassy in Beijing would be a gathering of sybarites, ones fond of self-indulgence and luxury.

  24. Glen, you jump to conclusions very quickly. I’ve never been with the State Dept – I’m a businessman but I’ve had enough contact with the embassies to know what they do, how they do it, and the good of what they do for our country. If you think all these people do is wine and dine in luxury you are quite incorrect. If you are going to repeatedly criticize these people you need to make an effort to get to know these people and find out what they do.

    Adam, as a journalist I know you know that just because a magazine or newspaper article says something doesn’t make it so. I think it best to go straight to the embassy or one of the organizers (Aspen or Asia Society) to ask them what the purpose of the dinner was. If you check the Asia Society website you’ll find their press releases about the event. It’s a cultural exchange, a people-to-people program. These do have benefits for countries.

    The only problem I have with this event was that it was by invitation only and not very egalitarian (which would have been an important cultural point to make). The artists and authors would be interesting – I could do without the uninteresting rich 1%. Why don’t you push for a bi-national scrap soiree at the embassy and see if they will sponsor it? I’d come.

  25. Jay –

    My issue is, in large part, the one you describe in your last graf. Whether or not the event was meant as a cultural exchange (and I do think Kummer’s piece makes that point), it fails on the basis of exclusivity and its focus on Western cuisine.

    Your wider point about going to the source on stories is valid, and I’ve encountered it in other discussions here. That is, what are my obligations as a blogger as opposed to my obligations as a journalist? I’ve always prided this blog on being reported, but occasionally I do what others bloggers do, and write opinion based upon other press accounts. In this case, I relied upon Kummer’s piece, as well as reportage from the Wall Street Journal and the LA Times, to form an opinion on the dinner. Were I to publish an article on the dinner, I would, of course, try to contact the embassy itself (if only for fact-checking purposes). But on the blog, I generally wouldn’t, especially on a non-critical issue (let’s face it, this ain’t the new Chinese aircraft carrier we’re discussing here) that has been well-described by other journalists.

    Now, as for that scrap soiree – that’s a fine idea. As it happens, a few years ago I attended a cocktail reception in Guangzhou, hosted in part by that consulate’s Commercial Service, which brought together US scrap paper exporters and Chinese importers. Cocktail service and finger foods were the fare, and I know for fact deals were done. Perhaps it’s time for a repeat. Good suggestion.

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