By Ezra Klein
Over at Two Helmets, Josh assesses the James Beard Awards and notes that though DC didn’t do too well in the food category, it cleaned up in the thinking about food category. The Washington Post won for its excellent food section. The Atlantic‘s Corby Kummer took home the nod for food-related columns. And Josh goes on to list more “evidence of DC’s growing food-media traction.” Included on the list is Mark Bittman’s pronounced affection for the IFA. W00t, as the kids say.
The seeds of this, however, lie in Northern California. That’s where Alice Waters and, more recently, Michael Pollan have succeeded in arguing that the plate is a political object. Pollan, in fact, has begun building out a policy platform for a better food system. And once you’re arranging bullet points and arguing about tax subsidies, your next stop, whether you like it or not, is Washington, DC.
At the same time, Washington, DC has become rather friendlier to foodies. The last two decades have seen the city grow quite a bit richer. More money means more restaurants. More restaurants mean more competition. More competition means better food. And so, for all the complaining, DC actually has a burgeoning culinary community. It’s got celebrity chefs like Jose Andres and Michel Richard. Inventive, world-class restaurants like Minibar and Komi. Tyler Cowen has singlehandedly introduced many of the District’s residents to the incredible ethnic cuisine available in the suburbs.
All of which has meant that people who came here for the politics — people like, well, Josh, who spends his days as a researcher at Brookings — have developed a side interest in food. And that’s begun to spawn its own genre of food commentary as policy analysts and political writers bring skills developed in the world of professional wonkery to their new hobby. Among my favorite examples is still Ben Miller bringing an education researcher’s tools to the question of the Culinary Institute of America. The IFA may not have the best recipes. But it’s pretty damn good with data tables. Elsewhere, Corby Kummer has Ezekiel Emanuel — brother of Rahm Emanuel, adviser to Peter Orszag — writing about food. And not to get too far ahead of myself, but I should have another announcement on this subject pretty soon.
That’s not to say that food-as-policy is confined to DC alone. Mark Bittman has been pushing hard on this from New York (indeed, he’ll be at the Center for American Progress on Monday, giving a talk with Jose Andres on the intersection of food, environmentalism, energy, and nutrition.). Tom Laskawy isn’t in DC. Nor is Tom Philpott. But the majority of this commentary is nevertheless directed at DC. If you want to change the food subsides or reform the food stamps program or tax the greenhouse emissions of the meat industry, that happens in the Capitol building. And as a result, an ever-increasing portion of this commentary is coming from the Capitol.