The Power of Food / LA Times Food Bowl Event


Food — not parking — included.

To close out May Day 2018, the bride and I attended an LA Times Food Bowl function at The Wiltern that commingled elements of Iron Chef, a cable news roundtable, and a spiritual revival. The topic was “The Power of Food,” and featured guests including internationally recognized chef and humanitarian José Andrés, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold, actress and food activist Zooey Deschanel, guerilla urban gardening advocate Ron Finley, restaurateur and author Susan Feniger, Scratch Food Truck chef/owner Tim Kilcoyne, restaurateur and Top Chef contestant Nyesha Arrington, and L.A. Kitchen founder & CEO Robert Egger.

Zooey Deschanel and Ron Finley.

In the words of co-host Andrés, “Food is powerful because it has a history that no other profession has behind it. The Boston Tea Party was a great revolution ignited by food. The salt march led by Gandhi created the freedom of an entire nation. Food can and does change the world, and that’s what gives it such unbelievable power.

And now more than ever, it is critical to recognize that food — how we grow it, sell it, cook it, and eat it — is as important as any other issue we are facing, one that is vitally connected to our lives. From culture and energy, to art, science, the economy, national security, the environment, and health, everything is connected through food, and we need to start giving it the attention it deserves.”

L-R: L.A. Kitchen’s Robert Egger, World Central Kitchen’s José Andrés.

Chef Andrés went beyond the mere sustainability and distribution of of agricultural products to address one very large and unruly elephant in the room: immigration. If you ate this evening in America, whether you cooked your own meal or had someone prepare it for you, it’s a virtual certainty that an undocumented immigrant worker was instrumental in some portion of the chain that stretched from the farm to your table. This is a moral issue, a political issue, a social issue, an economic issue, and a human rights issue that will take contributions from all sides of the debate and all points along the political spectrum to resolve, because our present system is, in a word, untenable.

But the spirit in the room was enthusiastic, upbeat, and hopeful. As the great philosopher John Lennon once observed, “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.” All you need is love. Well, maybe not all you need, but it’s a good place to start.

Iron Chef Canada On The Eve Of Y2K

The evening's menu.

The evening’s menu.

This is going to be a little odd in comparison to my normal posts, but I hope all y’all can roll with it.

While cleaning out the garage, I came across a menu from a memorable meal from the last millennium. Back in 1999, I was obsessed with Iron Chef. I had started watching it on a local channel, KSCI (Channel 18 in Los Angeles) when it was broadcast in Japanese without subtitles. [Apart from maybe a dozen or two words, I don’t speak or understand Japanese.] And as it turned out, friends of mine (the Carltons, whose residence is mentioned in the photo) were going to be in Barcelona for the New Year, and I was temporarily house- (and cat-) sitting. Well hey, what’s the point of taking care of a house nicer than one’s own if you can’t throw a party there?

When you get past the foliage, it's actually quite a nice place.

When you get past the foliage, it’s actually quite a nice place.

So I decided that I would invite a few select friends to ring in the New Year. As all the intellegentsia know, the new millennium actually was set to begin on 1 January 2001, but I was ready (in Prince parlance) to party like it was 1999, which indeed it was. And while I was unwilling to restrict myself to a single hour’s cooking time, owing to my lack of sous chefs, I wanted to sorta kinda replicate an Iron Chef meal. I chose as my theme “Pear Battle,” given that pears were in abundant supply, and they could be deployed across a variety of courses.

Sometime during the afternoon immediately prior to the meal, I asked The Bride to scavenge for a couple of ingredients that I had neglected to bring, but which were key to the menu’s success. While she was out and about, I began to assemble the shortcakes for the dessert.

The Bride, with our late, much beloved cat Murray, who wasn't keen on photos.

The Bride, with our late, much beloved cat Murray, who wasn’t keen on photos.

In the process of making the shortcake(s), I underwent a moment’s hesitation about how exactly to ensure they were up to spec. I had vaguely remembered something about minimal processing, but I wasn’t really clear as to why, as I hadn’t made shortcakes for something like a decade. It was then that my deceased Canadian paternal grandmother, Nanny Al, decided to drop by to give me some advice. Appearing life-size (and quite surprisingly corporeal) in Bob and Susan’s kitchen, she told me, “Don’t overmix the batter or it will get gluey.”

Fair play. Bizarre, especially since I hadn’t been drinking, but fair play. The shortcake was spectacular. The meal was a success (due, at least in part, to the remarkable beverage options). And Nanny Al beamed up the way she had beamed in, entirely unbidden, a wraith whose apparent sole purpose in (after-) life it was to rescue her grandson from goofing up some baked goods for a party he was (co-)throwing. Well done, Alice. I miss you all the time, and I’m grateful that you jumped in when I needed your expertise as a baker, part of the rich (and possibly, at least to some degree, genetic) inheritance you bequeathed me.

And you’re more than welcome to visit anytime to give me a little advice… even when it’s not at the dawn of a new millennium.

What the hell ever happened to margarine?



In 2013, 200 years after the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul discovered margaric acid (the vital building block in making the original version of margarine), it’s pretty safe to say (in the manner of the final pronouncement on Iron Chef), in America at least, “The Margarine Battle is OVAH!” Go to the store; try finding something labeled as margarine. Seriously. It just ain’t there. Sure, there are old favourites, such as Parkay and Blue Bonnet and Imperial, all of which used to call themselves margarine, but the word itself is as welcome on their packaging these days as ants at a picnic.


Originally produced in 1869, when another French chemist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, rose to a challenge posed by Emperor Napoleon III to make a butter substitute for the armed forces, the new foodstuff was originally called oleomargarine, later shortened to the trade name “margarine.” Mège-Mouriès tried to make a go of producing it commercially, but it failed, and he sold off the patent to the Dutch company Jurgens (not to be confused with the American company founded by Andrew Jergens of Jergens Lotion fame, though both made soap). In 1930, the company merged with Lever Brothers to form Unilever, which continues to make margarine — much of it not billed as such (including Promise, I can’t believe it’s not Butter!, and Country Crock) — even today.

Americans have long had a love/hate relationship with margarine, especially in the dairy states, where manifold laws were passed to marginalize its ability to compete with butter. In 1885, Pennsylvania banned the sale of “any oleaginous substance, or any compound of the same, other than that produced from unadulterated milk or of cream from the same, any article designed to take the place of butter or cheese produced from pure unadulterated milk, or cream from the same, or of any imitation or adulterated butter or cheese,” but it was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1898. An even more comical statute was passed in New Hampshire, which required margarine to be dyed Pepto-Bismol pink, and it too was struck down by the Supreme Court in Collins v. New Hampshire, 171 U.S. 30. The court concluded, quite sensibly, that “If this provision for coloring the article were a legal condition, a legislature could not be limited to pink in its choice of colors. The legislative fancy or taste would be boundless. It might equally as well provide that it should be colored blue or red or black. Nor do we see that it would be limited to the use of coloring matter. It might, instead of that, provide that the article should only be sold if mixed with some other article which, while not deleterious to health, would nevertheless give out a most offensive smell.”

Margarine Colour Blender

While the states were prevented from altering the product, that didn’t mean that the dairy lobby tucked its bovine tail between its legs and headed back to the barn. Margarine in its natural state is white, so states began to pass laws preventing margarine manufacturers from “adulterating” their product with yellow dye, and many of them levied a significant tax on any margarine that was so modified. By the turn of the 20th century, the dairy lobby had largely succeeded in cutting margarine consumption by more than half. Margarine manufacturers responded by enclosing a special bonus packet of yellow pigment with their wares, so homemakers could DIY their dye. [These colour restrictions persisted in Québec, believe it or not, until 2008!]


In fact, Wisconsin even today has a whole subsection of its state food regulations devoted to oleomargarine, including:

  • (3) No person shall sell, offer or expose for sale at retail any oleomargarine or margarine unless:
    (a) Such oleomargarine or margarine is packaged;
    (b) The net weight of the contents of any package sold in a retail establishment is one pound;
    (c) There appears on the label of the package the word “oleomargarine” or “margarine” in type or lettering at least as large as any other type or lettering on the label in a color of print which clearly contrasts with its background, and a full accurate statement of the ingredients contained in the oleomargarine or margarine; and
    (d) Each part of the contents of the package is contained in a wrapper or separate container which bears the word “oleomargarine” or “margarine” in type or lettering not smaller than 20-point type.
    (4) The serving of colored oleomargarine or margarine at a public eating place as a substitute for table butter is prohibited unless it is ordered by the customer.

It is also prohibited from being served to Wisconsin “students, patients or inmates of any state institutions” unless “necessary for the health of a specific patient or inmate.”

On the national level, the FDA takes over 700 words to define margarine, and the USDA requires that margarine “Shall possess a fine and pleasing buttery flavor. May possess acid, bitter, coarse, flat or oil flavors to a slight degree.” (I’m guessing nobody ever got prosecuted over that.)


What flattened the margarine industry (or, more appropriately, the use of the word “margarine”) was the Great Trans Fat Scare of the ’90s. Trans fats, for those of you who skipped either the Food section of your local newspaper or chem class, are unsaturated fats (either mono- or poly-) that have been “partially hydrogenated,” or have had hydrogen added to them, in order to increase shelf life and decrease the need for refrigeration. They’re a cheap substitute for other fats and oils that suspend solids at room temperature, such as palm oil, lard, and butter. They have been linked to increased incidence of coronary heart disease, liver dysfunction, Alzheimer’s Disease, diabetes, cancer, and infertility, among other things. But they’re cheap, and market forces have brought them into our diet in great quantities. Since many margarines/buttery spreads/butter substitutes contained these chemical pariahs, they got swept up in the anti-trans-fat movement. To their credit, most butter substitutes — the former margarines — no longer contain trans fats (though some still do). But the damage was done. The margarine moniker had to go.

These days, there’s a fair case to be made that butter substitutes are no worse for you, and possibly even better, than butter. After all, butter is richly laden with saturated fat, which is itself associated with coronary heart disease. And then there’s the whole animal exploitation/treatment issue, which is another topic for another time, but deserves consideration. Wise consumers will peruse the product’s contents (trans fats are now required to be identified separately from saturated and unsaturated fats), and choose accordingly, striking a balance between the palate and the peril.

Whether you opt for buttery spread, butter substitute, vegetable oil spread, or some other ersatz dairy product, when they say, “I can’t believe it’s not Butter!” you would be more than justified to respond with, “And I don’t believe it’s not margarine.”

Coda: A persistent myth circulating around the Interwebs claims that “margarine is one molecule away from being plastic.” Two quick rejoinders: 1) It’s not true, and 2) So what if it were? Water (H2O) is one atom away from being toxic (hydrogen peroxide, H2O2). Salt (NaCl) is an atom away from being chlorine gas (Cl2). Get over it.