The Pasty Little Putz has a question: “What Hath Rand Paul Wrought?” He gurgles that he’s coaxing the Republican Party to move past the Bush-era foreign policy. No, Putzy, Aqua Buddha stood up in front of everyone and howled “MEEEE” for hours. Even though I may agree with him about the use of drones I have no delusions that he’s anything but a self-aggrandizing asshole. Although, all things being equal, I’d rather read Putzy nattering on about Aqua Buddha than be subjected to a column on the conclave… In “As Time Goes Bye” MoDo indulges in a reverie about the news magazine’s days of roast beef, Scotch and snazzy adjectives. The Moustache of Wisdom sends us “No to Keystone. Yes to Crazy.” He says if the oil pipeline is approved, President Obama will need to make it up to his green base. No, Tommy, he won’t. Why should he bother? In “Rigging the I.P.O. Game” Mr. Nocera tells us what a decade-old dot-com I.P.O. case says about Wall Street today. In “Of Fraud and Filet” Mr. Bruni (who used to be the food writer) says food surprises on both sides of the Atlantic are reminders that almost every bite we take is a leap of faith. Here’s The Putz:
The Republican Party built an advantage on foreign policy across generations, and then began demolishing it 10 years ago this month. What the cold war made, the invasion of Iraq largely unmade: beginning in 2003, a party that had long promised — and mostly delivered — peace through strength became identified with an intelligence fiasco, a botched occupation and the squandering of American resources, credibility and lives.
Two Republicans running for president in 2012, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, seemed to have some grasp of what Iraq had done to their party’s reputation. But they were both niche candidates who spoke to small constituencies (libertarians in Paul’s case, journalists in Huntsman’s). Paul’s isolationism was hectoring and eccentric, with a “we had it coming” view of terrorism that the Republican electorate was never likely to embrace. Huntsman’s attempt to rehabilitate foreign policy realism was as passionless and flat-footed as his entire campaign. Neither had much influence on Mitt Romney, whose foreign policy rhetoric left the impression that his party had learned nothing from the Bush era.
But where Huntsman and Paul the elder mostly failed, Rand Paul has been enjoying remarkable success. The Kentucky senator’s recent ascent to prominence, which achieved escape velocity with last week’s 13-hour filibuster delaying the confirmation of President Obama’s nominee to lead the C.I.A., hasn’t just made the younger Paul one of the most talked-about politicians in Washington today. It has offered the first real sign that the Republican Party might someday escape the shadow of the Iraq war and enter the post-post-9/11 era.
Officially, Paul’s filibuster was devoted to a specific question of executive power — whether there are any limits on the president’s authority to declare American citizens enemy combatants and deal out death to them. But anyone who listened (and listened, and listened) to his remarks, and put them in the context of his recent speeches and votes and bridge-building, recognized that he was after something bigger: a reorientation of conservative foreign policy thinking away from hair-trigger hawkishness and absolute deference to executive power.
Exactly where such a reorientation would take the party is unclear. Depending on the context, Paul can sometimes sound like a libertarian purist, sometimes like a realist in the Brent Scowcroft mode and sometimes like — well, like a man who was an ophthalmologist in Bowling Green, Ky., just a few short years ago.
But if his ideas are still evolving, his savvy is impressive. Paul has recognized, as a figure like Huntsman did not, that to infuse new ideas into a moribund party you need to speak the language of the base, and sell conservatives as well as moderates on your proposed course correction. (There’s a reason his recent foreign policy speech was delivered at the Heritage Foundation — normally a redoubt of Cheneyism — and his two big interviews after his filibuster were with Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.) And he’s exploited partisan incentives to bring his fellow Republicans around to his ideas, deliberately picking battles — from the Libya intervention to drone warfare — where a more restrained foreign policy vision doubles as a critique of the Obama White House.
Those incentives, rather than an intellectual sea change on the right, explain why his filibuster enjoyed so much Republican support. (Most of the senators who gave him an assist were just looking for a chance to score points against a Democratic White House.) But if Paul hasn’t won the party over to his ideas, he’s clearly widened the space for intra-Republican debate. And if he runs for president in 2016, that debate will become more interesting than it’s been for many, many years.
There’s a lesson here for his fellow Republican politicians — though that lesson is not, I repeat not, that they should all remake themselves as Paul-style libertarians. One can appreciate the Kentucky senator’s evolution away from his father’s crankishness without completely trusting that it’s genuine, and on domestic policy a swing to libertarian purism is something the present Republican Party doesn’t need.
Rather, the lesson of Paul’s ascent is that being a policy entrepreneur carries rewards as well as risks — and that if you know how to speak the language of the party’s base, it’s possible to be a different kind of Republican without forfeiting your conservative bona fides.
This is something that the party’s other ambitious officeholders have been slow to recognize. Since the 2012 election, a number of prominent Republicans — Eric Cantor, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and so on — have given speeches that tiptoe toward new ideas, new policies, new visions of what their party might stand for and support. But ultimately they’ve all stopped short of actually breaking with the policy consensus that sent Romney down to defeat.
Paul, by contrast, has actually challenged that consensus in a substantive and constructive way. And far from being excommunicated for it, he’s been rewarded with greater prominence and increased conservative support.
For those with ears, let them hear.
Now that we’ve survived that, here’s MoDo:
Auspicious my debut at Time was not.
In 1981, I started working in the Washington bureau of the newsmagazine famously mocked by The New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs for its inverted Homeric style. “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” Gibbs satirized. “Where it all will end, knows God!”
I thought my first Monday morning story conference would be my last. The bureau chief wanted to see how we felt about the prospect of a Time cover on salt. He called on me first.
“My mom puts salt on everything,” I replied. “She’s not worried about it.”
A veteran reporter across the table looked at me scornfully. “He’s talking about SALT II,” she sneered, referring to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviets.
I cringed. But to my astonishment, the bureau chief corrected my tormentor. “No,” he said, “I’m talking about table salt.”
That’s the kind of place Time was. One week, the Ayatollah Khomeini was the villain on the cover, the next week, Salt the Killer. One week, you worked on Qaddafi hit squads; the next, cats. (I got a byline on the cat cover for a penetrating interview with a cat psychologist named Fox who did Swedish massages on Burmese felines.)
“Father Time,” Henry Luce, wanted everything in his magazine to be either “epic” or “titillating trivialities.” Luce and his fellow Yalies started Time in 1923 with a breezy tone, snazzy adjectives and the promise to keep “busy men” informed, concisely.
Headlines about Time Warner’s breakup with Time Inc. sent me into a reverie about my salad days in Time’s glory days. In “The American Century,” as Luce dubbed it, nabbing the cover of Time was the most coveted honor in our culture. Now the humbled magazine, bleeding ad revenue like the rest of print media, is facing a future, as The New York Post’s Keith Kelly put it, “untethered from the Time Warner mother ship,” which prefers to focus on its two better-performing children, TV and film.
After my stint in Washington, Time moved me to the New York headquarters, with its “Mad Men” aura of whisky, cigarettes, four-hour sodden lunches and illicit liaisons. (Partake of which, unfortunately, I did not.) The researchers, a largely female staff, were referred to as “the vestal virgins.” To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, a woman’s writing about national affairs was like a dog’s walking on its hind legs; that we could do it at all was seen by some older editors as surprising.
On Friday nights, when the magazine was going to bed, there were sumptuous platters of roast beef rolled in, and bars in editors’ offices.
Sometimes you’d go in a senior writer’s office as the drinking wore on and just see two feet sticking out from under the desk, like the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when the house falls on the witch.
It was a plummy time when a top editor could arrive in Paris and think nothing of sending a staffer from Paris to London to fetch a necktie he had left in his hotel room, or of sending a minion flying off to fetch a box of his favorite cigars, or of having articles about the Nicaraguan contras flown to his Martha’s Vineyard house so he could make sure the political tilt was right.
Mere writers got to expense dial-a-cabs out to the Hamptons after working late Fridays, at $150 a pop; and people rarely shared, snaking out to Sag Harbor in a pampered convoy.
Even then, it struck me that newsmagazines were doomed, with the strange bifurcation of reporters who were not allowed to write and writers who were not allowed to report. I reckoned the genre had a few years at most. When Time named the computer the Machine of the Year for 1982, we were still writing on typewriters.
A Time cover does not mean the same thing in a world of pure media entropy. Now, if something hits, it hits; if it doesn’t, there’s another thing coming along in a minute, somewhere else.
Journalism, spooked by rumors of its own obsolescence, has stopped believing in itself. Groans of doom alternate with panicked happy talk.
Before this sends yet another shudder through the media establishment, remember this: It may be a funeral for the Henry Luce era, but it’s not a funeral for us. We can’t wear black crepe every time someone prefers to read on a tablet; we can’t be like the auto industry and the G.O.P., who got accustomed to waiting around for it to be 1965 again.
It will be good if this moment provokes a reckoning about what really needs to be preserved in the culture, about what is valuable.
Many content providers and managers — formerly known as reporters and editors — have stopped believing in their own value and necessity. But the gatekeepers in the content class have to understand the world in which we’re living and wield their judgment.
Digital platforms are worthless without content. They’re shiny sacks with bells and whistles, but without content, they’re empty sacks.
It is not about pixels versus print. It is not about how you’re reading. It is about what you’re reading.
Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom. (I’d love to see a steel cage death match between him and Nocera over the Keystone pipeline…):
I hope the president turns down the Keystone XL oil pipeline. (Who wants the U.S. to facilitate the dirtiest extraction of the dirtiest crude from tar sands in Canada’s far north?) But I don’t think he will. So I hope that Bill McKibben and his 350.org coalition go crazy. I’m talking chain-themselves-to-the-White-House-fence-stop-traffic-at-the-Capitol kind of crazy, because I think if we all make enough noise about this, we might be able to trade a lousy Keystone pipeline for some really good systemic responses to climate change. We don’t get such an opportunity often — namely, a second-term Democratic president who is under heavy pressure to approve a pipeline to create some jobs but who also has a green base that he can’t ignore. So cue up the protests, and pay no attention to people counseling rational and mature behavior. We need the president to be able to say to the G.O.P. oil lobby, “I’m going to approve this, but it will kill me with my base. Sasha and Malia won’t even be talking to me, so I’ve got to get something really big in return.”
Face it: The last four years have been a net setback for the green movement. While President Obama deserves real praise for passing a historic increase in vehicle mileage efficiency and limits on the emissions of new coal-fired power plants, the president also chose to remove the term “climate change” from his public discourse and kept his talented team of environmentalists in a witness-protection program, banning them from the climate debate. This silence coincided with record numbers of extreme weather events — droughts and floods — and with a huge structural change in the energy marketplace.
What was that change? Put simply, all of us who had hoped that scientific research and new technologies would find cheaper ways to provide carbon-free energy at scale — wind, solar, bio, nuclear — to supplant fossil fuels failed to anticipate that new technologies (particularly hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling at much greater distances) would produce new, vastly cheaper ways to tap natural gas trapped in shale as well as crude oil previously thought unreachable, making cleaner energy alternatives much less competitive.
It’s great that shale gas is replacing coal as a source of electricity, since it generates less than half the carbon dioxide. As the oil economist Philip Verleger Jr. notes in the latest edition of the journal International Economy, these breakthroughs will also lead to much more oil and gas at lower prices, which will help American consumers, manufacturers and jobs. But, he adds, “it will be harder and harder to push for renewable energy programs as hydrocarbon prices fall,” and “the new technologies that allow us to tap shale oil and shale gas could release vast quantities of methane” if not done properly. Methane released in the atmosphere contributes much more to climate change than CO2.
If Keystone gets approved, environmentalists should have a long shopping list ready, starting with a price signal that discourages the use of carbon-intensive fuels in favor of low-carbon energy. Nothing would do more to clean our air, drive clean-tech innovation, weaken petro-dictators and reduce the deficit than a carbon tax. One prays this will become part of the budget debate. Also, the president can use his authority under the Clean Air Act to order reductions in CO2 emissions from existing coal power plants and refiners by, say, 25 percent. He could then do with the power companies what he did with autos: negotiate with them over the fairest way to achieve that reduction in different parts of the country. We also need to keep the president’s feet to the fire on the vow in his State of the Union address to foster policies that could “cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years.” About 30 percent of energy in buildings is wasted.
Finally, the president could make up for Keystone by introducing into the public discourse the concept of “natural infrastructure,” argues Mark Tercek, the president and chief executive of The Nature Conservancy, and the co-author of “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.”
“Forests, wetlands and other ecosystems are nature’s infrastructure for controlling floods, supplying water, and doing other things we need to adapt to climate change,” Tercek wrote in an e-mail. “Before Hurricane Sandy, Cape May, N.J., had the foresight to restore its dunes and wetlands to provide storm protection and wildlife habitat. When Sandy struck, Cape May was spared the damage that neighboring towns suffered.”
Since the president is rightly calling for infrastructure investment, which makes sense at a time of high unemployment, added Tercek, “he should emphasize natural infrastructure as well. Federal programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Farm Bill can be expanded to make communities more resilient; changes in the tax code and other federal rules can incentivize private investment.”
So, sure, we need to be realistic about our near-term dependence on fossil fuels, or we will pay a big price. But we also need to be realistic about the need to keep building a bridge to a different energy future, or we will pay an even bigger price. Let’s make sure we don’t forget the latter in the Keystone debate.
Tommy, he’s going to approve that ghastly thing and nobody will give a shit about what environmentalists say. Business as usual, since it lines the pockets of the MOTU. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
Once upon a time, in a very different age, an Internet start-up called eToys went public. The date was May 20, 1999. The offering price had been set at $20, but investors in that frenzied era were so eager for eToys shares that the stock immediately shot up to $78. It ended its first day of trading at $77 a share.
The eToys initial public offering raised $164 million, a nice chunk of change for a two-year-old company. But it wasn’t even close to the $600 million-plus the company could have raised if the offering price had more realistically reflected the intense demand for eToys shares. The firm that underwrote the I.P.O. — and effectively set the $20 price — was Goldman Sachs.
After the Internet bubble burst — and eToys, starved for cash, went out of business — lawyers representing eToys’ creditors’ committee sued Goldman Sachs over that I.P.O. That lawsuit, believe it or not, is still going on. Indeed, it has taken on an importance that transcends the rise and fall of one small company during the first Internet craze.
The plaintiffs charge that Goldman Sachs had a fiduciary duty to maximize eToys’ take from the I.P.O. Instead, Goldman purposely set an artificially low price, so that its real clients, the institutional investors clamoring for the stock, could pocket that first-day run-up. According to the suit, Goldman then demanded that some of those easy profits be kicked back to the firm. Part of their evidence for the calculated underpricing of eToys, according to the plaintiffs’ complaint, was that Lawton Fitt, the Goldman executive who headed the underwriting team and was thus best positioned to gauge the market demand, actually made a bet with several of her colleagues that the price would hit $80 at the opening. (Through a Goldman Sachs spokesman, Fitt declined to comment. Goldman denies that it did anything wrong, about which more shortly.)
On some level, this argument — between those who believe companies are routinely sold down the river by their underwriters and those who insist that underwriting requires a complex balancing of the interests of both company and investors — has been going on ever since. Just a couple of years ago when the social media company LinkedIn went public and the stock quickly doubled, I wrote that the company had been scammed by its underwriters, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch unit. Money that rightly belonged to the company had instead gone to investment clients, I argued. A number of market observers responded by saying that I lacked a nuanced understanding of the complicated dynamics between companies, investors and underwriters.
Recently, however, I came across a cache of documents related to the eToys litigation that seem to tilt the argument in favor of the skeptics. Although the documents were supposed to be under seal, they were sitting in a file at the New York County Clerk’s Office, available to anyone who asked for them. I asked.
What they clearly show is that Goldman knew exactly what it was doing when it underpriced the eToys I.P.O. — and many others as well. (According to the lawsuit, Fitt led around a dozen underwritings in 1999, several of which were also woefully underpriced.) Taken in their entirety, the e-mails and internal reports show Goldman took advantage of naïve Internet start-ups to fatten its own bottom line.
Goldman carefully calculated the first-day gains reaped by its investment clients. After compiling the numbers in something it called a trade-up report, the Goldman sales force would call on clients, show them how much they had made from Goldman’s I.P.O.’s and demand that they reward Goldman with increased business. It was not unusual for Goldman sales representatives to ask that 30 to 50 percent of the first-day profits be returned to Goldman via commissions, according to depositions given in the case.
“What specifically do you recall” your Goldman broker wanting, asked one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers in a deposition with an investor named Andrew Hale Siegal.
“You made $50,000, how about $25,000 back?” came the answer. “You know, you made a killing.”
“Did he ever explain to you how to pay it back?” asked the lawyer.
“No. But we both knew that I knew how,” Siegal replied. “I mean, commissions, however I could generate.”
In one e-mail, a Goldman Sachs executive named David Dechman described hot I.P.O. deals as “a currency.” He asked, “How should we allocate between the various Firm businesses to maximize value to GS?”
Robert Steel, who was then co-head of equity sales at Goldman Sachs and is now one of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s top deputies, sent an e-mail to one of the firm’s biggest clients, Putnam Investments in Boston, in which he wrote bluntly, “It is my view that we should be rewarded with additional secondary business for offering access to capital market product” — like hot I.P.O.’s.
Did the clients knuckle under?
Are you kidding?
According to data compiled by the plaintiffs, Capstar Holding, an investing client, made a series of pointless trades solely for Goldman’s benefit. The lawsuit quotes an investment manager at the firm, Christopher Rule, as saying that 70 percent of his trading activity in May 1999 was done to generate commissions for Goldman, “pursuant to an ‘understanding’ with his Goldman broker that he needed to generate money for Goldman in order to receive I.P.O.’s.”
On Thursday, Goldman Sachs issued a statement that read, in part, “We did not engage in quid pro quos for allocation of hot I.P.O.’s, and none of the decade-old documents distorted by the eToys litigants suggests otherwise.” I have posted a variety of the documents on The Times’s Web site, so that readers can decide for themselves what story they really tell.
Goldman supporters also point out that it was hardly the only underwriter to allocate shares of Internet public offerings based on what it would get in return. In the aftermath of the bubble, Goldman wound up paying fines to the Securities and Exchange Commission for I.P.O. excesses. But so did a lot of other firms. None of the government’s allegations, by the way, were related to the kind of practices alleged in the eToys lawsuit. As for the litigation itself, Goldman has argued that, contrary to popular belief, underwriters do not have a fiduciary duty to the companies they are underwriting. In recent years, this argument has held sway in the New York court system, although it has yet to be argued before the Court of Appeals.
Goldman also pointed me to an e-mail Lawton Fitt wrote the day before the I.P.O., hoping to prevent firms that “are not long-term investors/aftermarket buyers” from getting too large an allocation. Even so, that e-mail made it clear that the “flippers” who didn’t care about eToys were still going to get around 20 percent of the allocation. The e-mail isn’t quite the ringing defense that Goldman makes it out to be.
What is undeniably true, of course, is that the documents are old. Some will dismiss them as relics of another era. But I continue to believe that the mind-set created by the I.P.O. madness of the late 1990s never really went away. To this day, an I.P.O. with a big first-day jump is considered a success, even though the company is being short-shrifted. To this day, investors know that they are expected to find ways to reward the firms that allocate them hot I.P.O. shares. The only thing that is truly different today is that few on Wall Street are so foolish as to put such sentiments in an e-mail.
Earlier this week, I tracked down Toby Lenk, the founder and former chief executive of eToys. Back when the S.E.C. was investigating I.P.O. excesses, the government deposed him. During the deposition, he mostly defended Goldman Sachs, even though he had the uneasy feeling that eToys had been taken advantage of.
After the deposition, he recalled, the S.E.C. lawyers began to show him some Goldman Sachs documents. He saw that one big firm after another had been allocated shares — and had immediately flipped them, even though Goldman had promised that its clients would support the stock. “That’s when I thought, ‘We really got screwed,’” Lenk told me.
Although the experience still angered him, he now has 14 years’ worth of perspective. “Look at what has happened since then,” he said. “If you think eToys got screwed, what do you think happened to the country?”
“What Wall Street did to us in 1999 pales in comparison to what they did to the country in 2008,” he said.
But, of course, the Attorney General says that the Wall Street banks are too big to prosecute… And now we get to Mr. Bruni:
There are many lessons a person might rightly or wrongly divine from the horse meat scare in Europe, including this: You should perhaps think twice before buying meatballs from a furniture purveyor, unless those meatballs are humongous and nonperishable, and double as ottomans.
I’m referring of course to the Swedish retail giant Ikea, whose repertory extends bafflingly from couches to canapés, and to its recent discovery that a food produced for sale in its European stores contained something in addition to the beef and pork meant to be there. This secret ingredient was the chromosomal kin of Seabiscuit, a rendered member of My Friend Flicka’s extended family, and it represented not just a culinary fraud but a cultural affront, at least to people who prefer not to eat what they can saddle. “War Horse,” after all, explores the equine potential for military heroism, not for pot roast.
But to focus on Ikea would be wrong, because traces of unadvertised, unauthorized horse meat were also found last month in beef sold by other European merchants, notably in Ireland and Britain. And to focus on horse meat would be wrong as well. At the same time that European Union officials were trying to figure out precisely how furtively horsey the Continent’s food supply had become, German officials announced an investigation into whether millions of eggs from as many as 150 German and 36 Dutch poultry farms had been sold (at higher prices) as organic, a designation connoting more humane treatment of the hens that lay them, when they were anything but.
There was concurrent fishiness in America. The conservation group Oceana announced the results of a two-year study of more than 1,200 samples of seafood from about 675 stores and restaurants in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and the survey determined that one-third of these samples had been peddled as something other than what they were. The tuna? Not necessarily tuna. The red snapper? Not so red, and maybe not any of the dozens of species of snapper, either. And this bait-and-switch was less common at run-of-the-mill grocery stores than at the rarefied perches where a customer’s expectations run highest and his or her wallet is most quickly drained: sushi counters.
But should we really be surprised by any of this? Where there’s money, there’s mischief, and food isn’t exempt. “The fish and horse meat are connected by one fundamental thing, which is pure greed,” said Eric Schlosser, the author of “Fast Food Nation” and one of the makers of the documentary “Food, Inc.”
And where there’s mass production, there are more opportunities for things to go wrong. When I discussed the horse meat scare with my Times colleague Michael Moss, the author of a new book on the snack industry titled “Salt Sugar Fat,” he observed that the global sourcing and sheer complexity of many food operations left companies with less control.
“That’s a huge issue going forward,” said Moss, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for reporting on contaminated meat. “A hamburger isn’t a hunk of one cow or one shoulder,” he said, noting that there are many principled exceptions. “In most places, it’s an amalgam of scraps from all over the world.” In fact Ikea’s meatballs were made by another Swedish firm, which in turn got some of its meat from Polish slaughterhouses.
We’ve been down this road, or versions of it, many times before. There was the outrage last year over so-called pink slime in ground beef.
And on a less squirm-inducing but arguably more fraudulent front, there are perennial media exposés about advertised calorie counts that bear scant relation to actual calorie counts, a phenomenon so extensively chronicled and widely suspected that a deli just blocks from me mounts an adverbial defense against customer skepticism. One of the breakfast items on its menu is a “truly fat-free muffin.”
Just last month, a short documentary on The Times’s Web site made clear that government efforts to get more merchants to post the number of calories in foods fail to account for one overarching problem: the inaccuracy of those postings. The documentary’s makers subjected five items from retailers in New York City to independent assessments, and all but one of those items had more calories than the number promised. The worst culprit was the item masquerading as the most healthful: a vegan, kosher sandwich made with tofu. It had more than double the 228 calories on the label.
That lie isn’t likely to cause you grave harm, at least not directly and not right away. (With enough unintended weight gain over enough time, there could indeed be trouble.) Likewise, there are experts who say that the concern with pink slime, a mush of leftover scraps less repellently known as “lean, finely textured beef,” is one of aesthetics and proper disclosure more than public health.
And apart from worries that certain veterinary drugs might enter the food chain through unauthorized, uninspected horse meat, that meat isn’t a hazard. It’s generally leaner than beef and eaten on purpose by many people in many countries. One omnivore’s horror is another’s hors d’oeuvre.
CONTEXT is everything. At the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, the trailblazing and lavishly celebrated chef René Redzepi has been known to serve live ants. When I ate there nearly three years ago, he served me live shrimp. I managed to get down only one of them, and only after persuading myself that doing so was an act of honesty and proper responsibility: instead of having someone else kill my dinner out of view, I was administering the last rites myself, with my teeth. Wriggle, wriggle, chomp, chomp.
Our food rituals often lack rhyme and reason, but we want at least to know that we’re getting what we bargained for. We want assent.
We’re spooked by the horse meat story, disturbed by the fish tale and riveted by other instances of false food advertising because they remind us of a truth we try hard to forget. Every time we eat something that we haven’t grown and reaped and cooked ourselves — which means, for most of us, every time we eat — we’re taking a leap of faith: that it was protected from contamination; that it was inspected properly; that the cook didn’t mix in something objectionable; that the waiter didn’t drop it on the floor. We’re in a position of both extraordinary vulnerability and extreme trust.
And while we can ratchet up our vigilance, that goes only so far. We can be local. We can be seasonal. We can be sustainable and organic and buy our pork somewhere other than where we buy our throw pillows. But we can never be entirely sure.