Ann Cooper talked her way into the first job of her life: assistant breakfast cook. And down off the slopes, wiping grease spatters from her forehead, she realized she'd found an equal challenge on the flat sizzling surface of the grill. She loved touching the food, chopping, stirring, making it right, overhearing the customers' satisfied sighs.
At 24, she entered the Culinary Institute of America, where most of the students were men and of all the chefs were European. "They taught us the bounty of European food," recalls Cooper, "and how everything imported was the best. I went along thinking that my customers absolutely needed raspberries in February for Valentine's Day."
Then, in 1990, she arrived in southern Vermont to be the executive chef of the legendary Putney Inn. "Here I was, this hot-shit young chef, and I wanted to serve racks of lamb," she says wryly. "The local farmers said they couldn't sell them to me -- "What do we do with the rest of the lamb?' I said, "That's your problem,' and they said, "You're the chef.' That's when it dawned on me: God didn't make lamb racks. There was more at stake here than the chef's ego, and I'd better understand the connection between food, the soil and what I feed my guests."
Cooper wrenched her attention from the truffles of woodland France and focused on Vermont Cheddar, apples, corn and maple syrup. She bought from local farmers, and she bought in season. She came to cherish the vigor, taste, freshness, diversity and healthfulness of such food. And she watched it grow scarcer than Beluga caviar. She, at least, had the buying power of the Putney Inn. For the average consumer, wholesome food had become a luxury.
Deeply concerned, Cooper spent her spare time traveling the U.S. and Europe, questioning agency officials, farmers, chefs and food manufacturers. She boned up on chicken contamination, dairy herds fed dried cow blood and biotech companies that pumped genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the food supply. Then, with Lisa M. Holmes, she wrote Bitter Harvest: A Chef's Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat. Her conclusions brought her to St. Louis on Oct. 14 at the invitation of the food-conscious chefs, restaurateurs and local farmers in the Missouri chapter of the Chefs Collaborative.
The foodies milled about The Crossing, a tiny Clayton restaurant, sipping juice from locally grown grapes, discussing croustades and mulch. Cooper, unmistakable in the white chef's jacket she wears everywhere but the beach, stood near a pyramid display of Bitter Harvest, talking and laughing with her "opponent" for the day, Karen Marshall. A biotech spokeswoman for Monsanto, which pioneered the major genetically modified crops, Marshall rarely debates her company's product. She's a founding member of the St. Louis Culinary Society, though, so she graciously accepted their invitation to speak for 20 minutes about the genetic modification of the world's crops. Cooper would then take 20 minutes to worry aloud about the future of good food.
The determinedly civilized debate began with rich coffee; warm, moist sweet-potato and butternut-squash breads; and a congenial opening by Marshall. She assured the crowd that she had grown up on a farm and studied cooking and said she can see only improvements -- in the quality of the food and the efficiency and environmental safety of its production -- coming from genetic modification. Inserting new traits is a bit like borrowing a Julia Child cookbook from another branch of the library, she said: "You're not taking away anything, you're just adding to what you already have -- although in time we might be able to remove traits, too.
"Adoption (of genetically modified seeds) is far greater than we ever dreamed it could be," continued Marshall, projecting slides graphing the steep increase in acreage devoted to genetically modified soybeans. "And small farmers like biotech just as well. It's not for two or three, it's for everybody."
That's the perfect cue for Cooper, who's not necessarily opposed to biotech but, like the Europeans, fears the unchecked speed at which it's changing the world's food supply. "I come at this from a whole different perspective," she began. "I'm not a scientist; I don't own a big company. I cook food. Two-thirds of the products in many grocery stores already have GMOs in them. There is no labeling. The government assumes GMOs are safe, so all testing is voluntary. And I'm not sure that's OK."
As waiters scurried to warm up everybody's coffee, Cooper advanced the slide projector to a 1947 cartoon captioned "DDT is good for me-e-e!" "Everybody thought DDT was going to be the savior," she noted. "It was extensively tested, and it still got out there." Next she flashed Ralph Nader's definition of genetically modified crops as "a going-out-of-business sale on genetic diversity" and a news blurb about the StarLink corn, unapproved for human consumption, that's made it to Taco Bell, to Kellogg's cereal and to Japan.
"All I want to do is cook good food," sighed Cooper. "I want seven different kinds of tomatoes. I want to give you a plate with all different kinds of flavors." In Bitter Harvest, she notes that of 75 kinds of vegetables traditionally grown in the U.S., 97 percent of all varieties have become extinct in less than 80 years. "If we are lucky," she concludes, "we might still be left with bland milk, two types of peas, three varieties of oranges, and eggs from one chicken." This sameness, a chef's nightmare, is the upshot of agricultural revolution: first, modern hybridization and monocropping; now, genetic modification. "This tomato is tough-skinned, densely fleshed, and flavorless; but it travels well," she writes, adding, "I might just as well cook with cardboard concassé."
Now executive chef of the Ross School in New York, Cooper teaches the art of regional, seasonal, organic, sustainable food. "I've become a fundamentalist," she confesses. "If it isn't seasonal, we don't serve it. When the tomatoes are gone, there are no more tomatoes, and we look forward to next year. We don't use bleached flour; we don't use white sugar." She lowers her voice to the hush of really good gossip. "White sugar has no flavor. You perceive it as sweet, but put it next to maple, or cane or succanat, where you'll taste molasses undertones, caramel undertones ..." She drifts off for a second, then catches herself. "We don't do processed food," she finishes triumphantly. "If we need mayonnaise, we make some."
Cooper's smart enough not to advise harried American consumers to do the same. "Take baby steps," she suggests. "You don't have to make your own mayonnaise, but make your own salad instead of buying those bags of Dole where the stuff's flown in from God knows where." Now, more than ever, eating is a political act: "If we spend all our money at McDonald's, we are supporting their vision of food. If we shop at a farmers' market, we're supporting an entirely different worldview.
"For years, we've been saying, "Time is money,'" she continues, noting that 19 percent of all meals are now eaten in the car, and even more in front of a TV set. Marketers predict that by 2010, we'll spend less than 10 minutes preparing 90 percent of our food. Is healthy cooking becoming America's lost art? "It's a found art, which is worse," she retorts. "We have already lost it, and we're trying passionately to get it back. Who knows what real butter tastes like anymore, or fresh cream or real cheese?
"We've lost the art of dining, the art of conversation, the art of family," she continues. "It wasn't so long ago that all our food came from someone who loved us. Now it's served to us by anonymous teenagers."
Her chefs at the Institute were half-right, she's decided. It's not Americans' food that's inferior, it's our attitude. "We pay less for food, as a percent of our income, than any industrialized nation in the world (about 14 percent, compared with 25-40 percent in Europe), and we get what we pay for: 73 million foodborne illnesses a year, 5,000-7,000 deaths, 40 percent of all cancer diet-related. Cooper sighs heavily. "We've turned food into a commodity, like a shirt or a chair or a widget. But, trite as it might sound, we are what we eat -- and the food we eat is what we become."
After Cooper spoke her piece at Crossings, waiters headed for the kitchen to fetch warm, airy shiitake-mushroom-and-egg roulades, peppery hash browns, baby greens, apples baked soft as a woman's breast. The food was all locally grown, and much of it was organic. Guests sniffed the air like hounds and listened abstractedly to the questions.
Cooper's first critic suggested that she was confusing the genetic-modification issue with lack of choice, that genetically modified crops would bring such high yields that farmers could stop monocropping. "Perhaps," Cooper replied warily, "if the food companies go beyond mass-produced items (which require vast, homogeneous quantities of each ingredient)."
A second questioner reminded her that asking for a choice among clearly labeled foodstuffs might be fine in a developed country, "but 75 percent of the world has a choice between starving or getting food." Cooper nodded. "One of my challenges as a chef is that we play to a white-tablecloth audience. I have a lot of angst over great food going only to people who can afford it. But much of the world's starvation is due to distribution and politics."
The first man's hand shot up again: "In your restaurant, do you serve any food that pesticides have been used on? Do you demand labels on that?" Looking a little bemused, Cooper explained that at the Ross School, she can choose only organic foods, and at the Putney Inn, she can limit their use as much as possible.
"And that would be your vision of what our world should do?"
"I would hope that in the future, our world could use technology in a way that takes additives out of our food supply," she said quietly. "I'd like to see the government put more money into researching sustainable agriculture, so we can feed ourselves with fewer chemicals."
The speakers ended in a draw, Cooper repeating that although she has no doubt that biotech is part of our future, she's not comfortable with the way it's proceeding.
"I hope you get there soon," teased Marshall, "because there are a lot of things that, if we waited to find out if it was safe for our grandchildren, then they'd be saying, what about their grandchildren, and we'd be 300 years down the road."
The next week, back at the Ross School, Cooper says she found the St. Louis crowd ... interesting: "Mostly I tend to preach to the choir. This definitely wasn't the choir. There's certainly a core group of chefs and farmers and people who care about food in St. Louis, but the controversy doesn't seem to be resonating there in the same compelling fashion. Monsanto's been in that town a long time." If she and Marshall talked past each other on Saturday morning, she adds, it's because Monsanto is coming from the perspective of a chemical company with a new product -- a widget -- whereas she's coming from the perspective of a chef: "They want the debate to be about the gene they're inserting. I want it to be about the tomato."