Holly Hughes: More hard-hitting journalism has been focused on food issues in the past 10 or 12 years. Also, I see a lot of food writers trying to expand beyond gourmet snobbery to discuss ethnic foods, regional food scenes, even the pleasures of eating in chain restaurants. Several of our writers have also focused on heirloom foods and sustainability. When we started this book, we didn't think that farms were part of the food equation: now they are very much front and center.
Diet Detective: Do you think that food writing influences and/or contributes to the food systems movement (suitability, urban agriculture technology, organic, non-GMO, fair wages, good food jobs, etc.)?
Holly Hughes: I certainly hope that food writers have influence. So many people who didn't think about these issues are now conscious of them thanks to the work of food journalists such as Barry Estabrook, Rowan Jacobsen, and Dan Barber, who’ve all contributed to our book in numerous editions. I would never have expected Michael Pollan’s books, which we’ve regularly excerpted in Best Food Writing, to reach such a wide audience, and yet he’s become more or less a household name. This can only be good for the food systems movement. These writers not only articulate the issues, they do the research and footwork that proves their points.
Diet Detective: What are some of the food issues you’ve read about that concern you or keep you up at night? Are there food behaviors of your own that you've changed over the past 16 years because of what you've read?
Holly Hughes: I do get distressed by the horror stories about how we raise animals for food. That has certainly made me more willing to pay more for humanely-raised meat and eggs. And after having read so many pieces about the need to support farmers, I’ve become an active member of a CSA (community supported agriculture group).
Diet Detective: Can you provide a few quotes from food writers that stand out as representative of some of the changes we’re experiencing with relation to food?
Holly Hughes: I was really moved by a poignant piece in the 2016 edition from Debbie Weingarten’s Edible Baja Arizona, which is about a farm couple deciding to stop farming: “One thing remains certain: if, as a society, we don’t prioritize the health, well-being, and financial solvency of our farmers, we will lose them by the droves — along with all of their precious resources, talents and skill — and along with our food.” That really hit home. But I think where Best Food Writing’s greatest value lies is in drawing the connections between wonky policy stuff and the popular culinary culture. I love this quote from Kim O’Donnel from our 2014 edition: “The thing is, home cooking is a serious business. It is a conscious decision to turn raw ingredients into a meal to nourish ourselves and the people we love. The food system is more than crops and livestock; it’s what we humans do with them.” I also think we have a role to play in speaking truth to power. Here’s The Washingtonian’s Todd Kliman (2013 edition) on what locavorism has come to mean: “In the last 30 years, ‘local’ has evolved from an ideology to a movement to something that looks suspiciously like an ism: more important than any single chef or restaurant — more important, too, than any other philosophy or ideology.” And I’ve gotta love Tracie McMillan’s Slate piece (2013 edition) pushing back against elitists preaching the values of home cooking: “”When you have no choice but to cook for yourself every single day, no matter what, it is not a fun, gratifying adventure. It is a chore. On many days, it kinds of sucks.”
Diet Detective: I know you’ve curated and edited many food essays — can you tell us which two or three stand out (in terms of influencing food systems change, food policy, healthy, mindful eating, etc.) and why?
Holly Hughes: There’s no disputing how important Michael Pollan’s work has been in convincing a wider audience of the importance of having a big-picture perspective on our food systems. But although it’s a bit of a Sophie’s Choice moment — I really hate to rate any one author above the others — I myself felt really moved by Jill Wenthold Silva’s piece on food deserts from the Kansas City Star (2011 edition); and by Barry Estabrook’s 2013 piece on heritage pig farming (wonderfully expanded in his engrossing 2015 book Pig Tales).
Diet Detective: What’s in your refrigerator and pantry right now?
Holly Hughes: I’m about to go on a trip, so I’ve tried to use up a lot of things in the past few days. I’m aware of a bunch of collard greens and a couple of leeks that I need to use up — they won’t be so good when I get back.
Diet Detective: Your worst summer job?
Holly Hughes: Office temp work.
Charles Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com.