Voices from the Food Revolution: People Who Changed the Way Americans Eat
Judith Weinraub - February 10th, 2014
Food Arts has been witness to tremendous changes in the culinary universe since its birth, 25 years ago. But perhaps the greatest alteration felt occurred within the walls of the magazine itself nearly four years ago, with the passing of co-founding editor/publisher Michael Batterberry. No one could have been more forward thinking, more elegant, more charming, widely read, beautifully dressed, and intellectually alive.
The year before he died, I had begun conducting an oral history project for New York University’s Fales Library, speaking with people who had changed the way Americans eat and think about food, and it was important to me to include Michael and Ariane Batterberry. As founders first of Food & Wine and then Food Arts, they were not only key players in telling the public what was going on in the food world, they were also attentive documentarians of the American food revolution.
In the six or so months before he died, as he balanced doctors’ appointments and hospital stays with his work and personal life, Michael naturally had to keep changing our interview dates, which he managed with his customary grace. I had met him through my former job as a reporter for the food section of the Washington Post. Michael was part of a committee of three (the others were Gus Schumacher, an agriculture undersecretary in the Clinton administration, and chef Michel Nischan), who came to D.C. to talk with local chefs about their project, linking Asian immigrant farmers with farmers' markets, food purveyors, and restaurants.
The farmers or their families had in one way or another been connected to the U.S. government during the Vietnam War and had eventually been assisted by the government in relocating to the United States. Few of them had had much prior involvement with farming, but then, like so many immigrants before them, had thrown themselves into their new lives, in this case, growing Asian greens.
Because I was interested in the project, and because I was intrigued by this sophisticated man’s commitment to it, we stayed in touch. He was always welcoming to me, even after I left the newspaper and moved back to New York City. Eventually, our connection led to the Batterberrys’ participation in the NYU project.
Oral history interviews, unlike ordinary journalistic ones, are directed by the interviewees' own memories and reflections. Although the thrust of the project is often discussed ahead of time to provide a context, interviews often start with some version of the question “Where and when were you born, and could you talk a little about your childhood?” As a longtime newspaper reporter, always restricted by space, I had become interested in oral history interviewing as a way of letting people tell their own stories, rather than have them shaped by reporters, and had taken training in the oral history department at Columbia University.
The NYU project, which was funded by the Leon Levy Foundation, was designed to collect memories from a broad range of food world participants working at a time when Americans had become particularly fascinated with food and people in, broadly speaking, the food world. It also aimed to collect memories of the late James Beard.
Michael Batterberry’s life was particularly rich—with recollections of his childhood in Britain when his father was directing Proctor & Gamble operations in parts of Europe, family memories in Cincinnati and Kentucky, and his lively teenage years as a young artist and actor in Venezuela (and that’s only the first interview).
Other participants in the primarily New York City–based project included 27 chefs, critics, writers, food activists, entrepreneurs, and observers, including Mimi Sheraton, Judith Jones, Jacques Pépin, Madhur Jaffrey, Gus Shumacher, Mark Federman, Dan Barber, and Tom Colicchio.
The interviews can be both read and listened to online by going to dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/fales/beardcircle.
A few excerpts from my interviews with Michael Batterberry
On the years of his childhood that were spent in England:
“The wonderful thing about an English childhood is that social life begins very young. You’re expected to behave yourself. I mean, if you behave yourself, then you’re part of the scene, and say 'Good evening' to the guests and so forth and then beat it. My parents had friends nearby with children my age, and we would go back and forth to each other’s houses for tea, and it was proper tea. We would sit down and Mrs. Fenwick—there was a family that owned the Fenwick’s department stores—I remember she would officiate at these kiddie teas, and it was so much fun. You were expected to have conversation while the toast was being slathered with Lyles golden syrup and so forth. We had very watery tea, but the food was good. I think English food is much maligned, if you ate in people’s houses, which we did. It was only when you go out to Scotland, which we sometimes did, too, with Scottish friends, that you had absolutely horrible food for children. Ew. I remember fish with bones poached in milk, so it sort of curled out like little atolls of horror. You would see these lumps of fish sticking out. The Scots have their reputation for being thrifty for good reason. I mean, if you didn’t finish it for supper, the children of the house would find it on their breakfast table the next day.”
On starting Food Arts:
“We knew there were trade publications. [Ariane and I] had never really investigated them. We’d never been in the trade field. We simply assumed that someone had to be doing a magazine that answered the interests of this broad sweep of people who were now in the food, hospitality, whatever, worlds, where what they had in common was they all fail or succeed on the quality and popularity of their food. Well, there wasn’t one. We looked at them, and they tried to be all things. They would pay lip service to what is called, in the trade jargon, you know, 'table service'—but didn’t, not really. Who cared how many chicken nuggets had sold last month? There were charts and that sort of thing. It certainly wasn’t of interest to the readers that we knew were there, because we knew them. We knew many of them. So we made a magazine for chefs, restaurateurs, high-volume caterers, which is to say hotel dining, banquet departments, cruise lines, resorts. The first whiff of good food was coming out of casinos. It was the mid-80s...you could see [the state of restaurants] was growing. It was nothing like it became, but more and more young intelligent people were going into the field who wouldn’t have one generation before... But I’ll tell you some of the things that weren’t initially there. Certainly health and nutrition were not, because everybody thought a nutritionist was somebody with a hairnet, you know. We just didn’t think that was for us; that was more for an institutional magazine. Well, no. And agriculture...organics had been around since the late 60s, and we didn’t stress that so much, but whenever somebody bought a farm on the outskirts of town, whether it was [a restaurateur like] Gordon Sinclair in Chicago or whoever, yes, that was of interest. And endangered seafood, et cetera. And so we began to cover that in a way and skirting the politics of food.”