Several months ago the US Postal Service released a five-stamp series honoring trailblazing chefs; the beatified included James Beard, Julia Child, Joyce Chen, Edna Lewis, and Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. Alas, this comes too late in our history to provide what would have been a literally delicious irony—since stamps are now self-adhesive, we no longer need to lick them, and thus have lost the chance to taste the gustatory giants themselves (not to mention the critical appraisals that might have followed: “Edna Lewis leaves a sheen of mint on the tongue”).
What the new series does provide, however, is an opportunity to consider the phenomenon of celebrity chefs itself. As a signifier of national fame, the postal service is more the last lap than the initial nod; by the time your mug makes it to a stamp, you’ve already dyed yourself pretty deeply into the cultural fabric. So the fact that these five icons are now smiling out at us from the covers of our electric bills is a pretty clear indication that they’re already comfortably—and permanently—settled in our national pantheon.
Which raises the question: how do chefs, of all people, manage that? It’s an easy call when it comes to athletes, actors, musicians, and fashion designers; their work is accessible not only by multitudes, but pretty much in perpetuity. Miles Davis might play a club date in 1957 to 30 people, but you can still hear it today on Spotify. Similarly, your coffee mug may well have Andy Warhol’s Marilyn on it. Thanks to technology, the visual, literary, and performing arts aren’t bound by considerations of immediacy and impermanence.
Sam Polk (center), founder of Groceryships, left a lucrative trading career on Wall Street to launch a nonprofit that helps families eat better.
(Banner photo by Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times; reprinted with permission)
In the last few years public figures and reporters have publicized attempts to eat decently on the amount of money received from a typical SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) allotment, which is about $4.30 per day. The stories vary widely in terms of lessons learned, strategies developed and unexpected hardships endured. Still, thriving or even surviving on food stamps is not a game to the nearly 46 million who depend on SNAP for their daily meals.
Sam Polk didn’t go this route. Instead the former Wall Street hedge fund trader entered the daunting world of public nutrition with a whole new premise — supplement the food budget with both cash and education. His two-year-old nonprofit, Groceryships, provides weekly $40 gift cards at Food 4 Less to struggling parents (mostly moms) for six months. Accompanying the cash are regular classes teaching nutrition, cooking and general healthy living concepts that are realistic and attainable to families who struggle to make ends meet.
The first group gathered in South L.A. every Wednesday night for six months. It was hard going at first–everyone felt awkward and a little suspicious about it all (free gift cards? what’s the catch?)–but by the third meeting as participant Helen Langley put it, “I took a breath and opened up. I don’t have a safe place … we made this a safe place.” At an emotional graduation, the women agreed that improving their families’ diets was a triumph beyond measure, attributable as much to the social connections formed as it was to the extra money.
Despite the fact that some foods were scarce and others were rationed, World War II eating patterns resulted in a more balanced diet, better nutrition, lower cholesterol, and reduction in weight.
The Kitchen Front was an integral part of the War effort, mobilized by propaganda from government agencies as well as radio broadcasts, magazines, educational organizations and newspapers. Everyone was challenged to use their ingenuity and imagination to extend the food supply. And they did–nothing was wasted.
- Mashed potatoes were substituted for flour whenever possible
- Equal parts of melted butter or margarine and mashed potatoes were mixed together to make a spread for sandwiches
- Syrup was made from sugar beets to sweeten drinks and puddings
- Edible weeds such as dandelions and nettles supplemented vegetables
- Drippings from roasts were used as fat
- Apple peelings were not thrown away–they were boiled in water to make a lemon-flavored liquid
- Heavy cream was churned into butter
- Grated potatoes were soaked in water and allowed to ferment to substitute for yeast
- Stale bread was dipped in and out of cold water or milk, placed on a greased tin and baked in a moderate oven until crisp
- Dried eggs reconstituted with water replaced whole eggs whenever possible; dried skim milk was sprinkled on stewed fruit as a sweetener
- Restaurants served meatless meals such as vegetable cutlets, nut burgers, cheese-less macaroni and cheese, tripe creole or organ meats like kidney stew