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Elissa Altman Headshot

A White Knight Talking Backwards: The Manchurian Candidate in the Kitchen

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Much has been made over the last week of the Alice-Gone-Down-The-Rabbit-Hole Republican Convention; we had Fred Thompson going on about how great things really, really are. We had Giuliani stealing a magnificent 13 minutes of airtime by going over--way, way over--in a speech that, even for him, was wildly maniacal. We had everyone and their brother yammering on about how little experience Barack Obama has, followed immediately by the nomination of Sinister Sarah, whose exhaustive public work in Alaska involves an attempt at book censoring (who knew that Mark Twain was so naughty!), breaking state law by offering her "personal" feelings surrounding the Clean Water Initiative (Alaska law prohibits public officers from voting on ballot initiatives such as this one), and, clad in a powder blue windbreaker, offering the keynote address to the opening of the secessionist Alaska Independence Party "Convention," presided over by a ZZ Top look-a-like. And then, we had the presidential nominee himself, speaking in kind and dulcet tones about reaching out to his friends across the aisle. Right after Sarah eviscerates them like she would a not-quite-dead moose.

Distressing? Sure. Disgusting? Definitely. Frightening? Without a doubt. So, after the hideous spectacle was over, I did what most food writers do when they're mildly hysterical: I fled for the safety of my kitchen. September notoriously marks a bumper crop of end-of-season vegetables, scores of like-minded folks wanting to cook at home after a summer packed with picnics and travels, and the arrival of a library's-worth of new cookbooks. This is the time of year when I become fixated, like a caribou in the proverbial cross-hairs, on absolutely all things culinary: I pull them around me like a safety blanket, hunker down, and cook constantly, because the process is so elemental and, at its best, so simple. The thing is, you can't really lie about food--what's good and what isn't, what's healthy and what isn't, what's real and what's fake--and so after the likes of Palin, McCain, Giuliani, Thompson, and the whole who's-really-preggers-and-who's-really-not debate, I desperately needed to be grounded by the very act of preparing food slowly and thoughtfully. And that's exactly what I did: pan-seared chicken with Meyer lemon, roasted on a bed of fresh herbs; Suvir Saran's Goan Shrimp Curry; Judy Rodgers'Porchetta. It all made me feel a little bit better, mostly.

During the week, when my meals tend to be a bit faster and less labor intensive, I often satisfy my culinary urges by watching food television: Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern delight me (although I could live without the idea of eating palmetto bugs). And late at night, if my partner has gone to bed ahead of me, I will click around until I get to the Food Network which, after 11:00, tends to get a bit more practical than it is during the day. I'm not a big Food Network fan anymore--not since Mario went away and it became impossible to find Jamie and Nigella -- but I do love Alton Brown. Alton is a scientist, and a thinker; a cross between Harold McGee and James Beard, all tied up in a nice, neat, slightly geeky, totally quirky, accessible bundle.

So there I was last night, watching Alton cook a steak the proper way; I was a little distracted, admittedly. I sipped a small glass of Salice Salentino, stared out the slider and worried about Haggis, my cat, who has been wanting to be outside in time for the onset of cooler weather. I thought about the fact that I don't eat much beef anymore for both health and ethical reasons; I pondered this weekend's dinners--David Tanis' Roast Duck with Figs, maybe some homemade sage pappardelle--and I made some notes, just as Alton was sitting down to his meal. And then, seconds before I was about to shut off the set and head to sleep, It happened, at precisely 11:25 pm.

It was bucolic; there was a lot of green--that co-opted, slightly puce, enviro-green hue that is showing up everywhere. It featured a lot of healthy-looking, fresh-faced folks lollygagging around at a party. One mom was pouring a clearly toxic substance into her kid's cup while another mom (definitely a liberal) was casting aspersions. There was some snarky "Did you know" talk, followed by "Get the facts." I sat back down with my little glass of wine, feeling kind of sick, and sort of knowing what was coming next.

It was an informational ad called Sweet Surprise, extolling the virtues of High Fructose Corn Syrup. Underwritten by the Corn Refiner's Association, Sweet Surprise asks the simple question: Are You Sweet Smart? According to the advertisement--and to the organization's website -- all sugars are metabolized the same way. And high fructose corn syrup is low in calories (which it is, but so is arsenic). Packed with young, healthy-looking, thin, vibrant folks, the Sweet Surprise advertising campaign flies in the face of virtually every scientific study done about this material which, in its raw state resembles a cross between salt water taffy and softened clay, and is the scourge of healthy diets everywhere. It's also the bane of existence for concerned parents, who are struggling to get this crap out of the food that kids eat at school; after all, you can control what your kids ingest in the privacy of your own home, but once they're out in the big, bad world, you have about as much control over them as Sarah Palin had over Sex on Skates.

I won't get into the long litany of scientific studies that have proven, repeatedly, that HFCS is contributing to all manner of diseases--everything from obesity to diabetes; I'm not a scientist, nor am I a physician. But I will echo my late father on the art of comedy: timing is everything. And the timing of the Sweet Surprise ad campaign was positively Rovian in its brilliance. Shortly after Alice fell down the rabbit hole and the last 8 years were forgotten; when the Republican nominee exhibited his first display of utter ineptitude by joining together with an inexperienced wingnut who doesn't believe in science but just happens to wear a skirt; when Fred Thompson wondered aloud why Democrats think we're in dire straits, even as the economy has come crashing down with a thud; when restoration of ethics is bandied about as a moral imperative, even as the Department of Interior has been rocked by a scandal revolving around sexual misconduct, drug use, and widespread financial misdealings involving oil and gas company executives; when we are now being told that everything that has been scientifically proven to be true about a sickening, entirely artificial substance manufactured specifically with the goal of cheapening food while lining the pockets of Big Corn is, in fact, false......and then it's advertised on the Food Network, why on earth should we be the least bit surprised?

We shouldn't.

Haven't you heard? Things are great! It's Morning in America again, and the good old days of Bush and Rummy and Rove and Condi may actually start to look good by comparison.

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