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ESSAY: An open letter to Anthony Bourdain, the chef who hates my dad

Photo courtesy of Hannah Hayes

Hannah Hayes is a magazine journalism major from Minneapolis. She enjoys Mexican food, cheese, pie and butter more than any reasonable person should. Her food blog is kitchenoddity.tumblr.com.

November 11, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Editor's note: Read Anthony Bourdain's response to Hannah's essay here.

Dear Mr. Bourdain,
My name is Hannah Hayes, and I consider myself a pretty big fan of yours. I have all of your books lined on top of my crappy, leaking refrigerator between two Martinelli’s Gold Medal apple juice jugs. I think your thoughts on vegetarians and hollandaise sauce are genius in its purest form. I even made sure that my college radio show wasn’t scheduled for Monday night this semester so I wouldn’t miss a second of your show, No Reservations.

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So I think you could understand why I was taken aback to read in your latest novel Medium Raw that you would like to see my father’s nuts wired to a car battery while he’s fed the sweepings from the bottom of a monkey cage. I’m just quoting here.

You see, I’m a daughter of Cargill’s top management. My father is in charge of global operations for the “evil empire” of food.

I’m sure when you were writing this chapter, “Meat,” you didn’t picture the families of any of the people you want, let me get this right, “indicted, convicted and packed off to jail” for “criminal mediocrity.” Even if you did, you probably pictured my parents closer resembling Richard and Kathy Hilton than Clark and Ellen Griswold. So if I may, I’d like to take this chance to tell you all of the other things about my family you probably didn’t think about before you wrote such downright ornery things about my daddy.

My mother and I attend at least three farmers markets in the Twin Cities area regularly and enjoy nothing more than carrying out a cart full of purple kohlrabi, music garlic, basil from Yang family’s stand and a big watermelon with a good knock to it. My family has been eating Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes from our gardens for as long as I can remember. My friends are often in awe when they open my said crappy, leaking fridge to find goat cheese and bocconcini, leftover homemade ropa vieja and fried plantains, new jars of tomato jam that I made while I waited for my laundry to dry and a blueberry pie my mom sent with me to school. When my father was growing up, he would walk beans and detassel corn until he couldn’t see straight. In fact, the man who previously held my father’s job makes his own maple syrup from the trees on his property. You see, my family, my father and those around him aren’t disconnected from food by any means. It’s convenient to hope people like my dad are just trying to make a buck selling the edible equivalent of snake oil to the general public while they eat beluga sturgeon caviar imported from northwest Russia.

Oh yeah. When my dad grills us a steak or some hamburgers, provided by Cargill Meat Solutions, we don’t cook the crap out of them. In fact, when my dad pulls out the ribeyes, we like to have ours closer to cold and purple in the middle. The only time I’ve ever seen my father pull out a meat thermometer is when we boil hot dogs. But you understand that.

I know your job is to make the food world sound fantastic and dramatic and sometimes seedy or depressing. Believe me, I appreciate it. But the thing you forgot to mention in your book, but my father never does, is that there are more than 6 billion people on this planet who need to be fed. Many of those people are working class families with very little to spend on food. My father has worked with probably hundreds of people on meat safety, including Temple Grandin, Bill Niman and a whole list of other people who have the same concerns and view that you do. He isn’t just sitting in his office counting Cargill’s profits for the quarter. He and many of his coworkers are thinking about the effects of antibiotics on livestock, making anaerobic digesters so their plants can be sustainable, and how to use animals as humanely as possible.

I have problems about some of the ways our food is produced in this country, too. Things are far from perfect. But I also know how easy it is to judge those who are trying to literally feed the world, which is no small feat. What I’m trying to say is would you like to come over for a barbecue? If you’d like, you could have a beer with my dad and talk these things out. I hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely,

Hannah Hayes

Comments on this article

     

    Hannah,

    Love the letter, I'm one of those Cargill Meat Solutions employees that takes pride in the job we do. Say hi to your Dad for us down here in Wichita and keep up the great articles.

    Posted by Steve Schlabsz on Jan 17, 2011 at 11:48 a.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Great letter, Hannah! I appreciate your comments and I respect your Dad and his colleagues, from management to the farmers, ranchers, processors, truckers, and grocers who get that food on the tables of families like yours and mine. Tell your Dad thank you from Missouri!! Keep up the great work, and enjoy a steak for your great efforts!

    Whitney Wallace
    Proud farm girl and Mizzou J-School grad, May 2010

    Posted by Whitney Wallace on Jan 20, 2011 at 1:23 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    I've never met you, Hannah, but I think I'm in love...at least with your mind and your ability to so accurately and politely set Chef Bourdain straight. Those of us in production ag, and those of us who represent those who actually work to feed the planet, need to step up as you have and challenge the myths believed by our foodie friends, particularly the fact that only about 5% live in that world, and that food security is a challenge that's here and isn't going away. Well done, girl...I look forward to hearing from you more in the future. SteveK

    Posted by Steve Kopperud on Jan 20, 2011 at 1:58 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Hannah -- Thanks for sharing your letter to Anthony Bourdain. Your question to Chef Bourdain is a good one and I think you deserve an answer. I don’t know any more caring, conscientious people than America's farmers and ranchers -- the people who raise the cattle your father's company buys to make beef. I know the people at Cargill and other beef companies share the same caring and commitment to producing safe, wholesome food for a growing world population. Please let your dad know that we appreciate the work he and others are doing to provide high quality, affordable food for those of us who cannot afford to eat at Chef Bourdain’s restaurants every day!

    Daren Williams
    National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

    Posted by Daren Williams on Jan 20, 2011 at 4:35 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    While I understand that you, like most people, wouldn't like their parents ripped by a famous author, you didn't actually explain why Mr. Bourdain is wrong. I get it, he was mean, is the point of this article to defend your father's character or his company? You certainly didn't accomplish the latter.

    Posted by Mark Hemauer on Jan 20, 2011 at 5:22 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Heather, I understand your anger towards your father being attacked by an author you respect. However, you failed to address any of Chef Bourdain's points. First, the chapter you speak of details Cargill's use of ammonia in cleansing their ground beef (not the ribeyes you're grilling). This is a disturbing fact to many Americans, and I doubt anyone would approve of feeding themselves or their children something that was washed in ammonia. Even more disturbing is the implied reasoning for why ammonia is used. Someone reading "Medium Raw" has to ask- why are you using such dirty cuts of meat that seem to be so dangerous to begin with? By answering none of these questions, you look more like you're pulling the classic distraction moves seen so commonly in American politics today. Second, responding and talking about your mother and you shopping at Farmer's Markets is not the best response to his argument, especially since you are the daughter of a corporate CEO. While you appear to work hard and support yourself independently, most Americans reading this are more likely to immediately write you off as someone out of touch with Americans in this economy. They will see the leaky refrigerator as hyperbole coming from someone who will never need to buy cheap meat. I would love to see more from your strongest argument in the third paragraph. What is Cargill doing to help with the food crisis? What else is your father's company doing to reduce the issues regarding food safety and the chemical alterations of meat meant for human consumption?

    Feeding the world is a serious issue we should all face. I, like Mr. Bourdain, find the Alice Waters of this world out-of-touch with the realities of life for most Americans. I'd imagine you'd agree with me there. However, we should be asking what is going in our food, and demanding food be made in a manner that is safe and reasonable. In the meantime, I look forward to following your blog and reading about a fellow twenty-something exploring food.

    Posted by Elizabeth P on Jan 20, 2011 at 5:35 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Touching article, but as Elizabeth P puts it, misses the point of Bourdain's critique. But its telling that you avoid the issue by evoking your appreciation of "real food".

    So you agree with Bourdain's pursuit of quality, but you think its ok for your father to sell "trim" for hamburger made from fecal bacteria infected beef that has to be soaked in ammonia to be salable.

    The worst kind of rotten food that was once only fit for animal consumption is now being added to fast food and supermarket hamburger. Soaking it in disinfectant chemicals to kill the fecal bacteria still doesn't make it edible.

    I'm glad you have a chance to buy high quality food to share with your family. Have a chat with your dad and ask if he'll keep contaminated "trim" away from our meat supply.

    Posted by raoul duck on Jan 20, 2011 at 6:32 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    I don't think Bourdain ever said he specifically wanted these things to happen to her father. He was speaking in general about the deciding few of the corrupt processed food industry. It's pretty clear she was just looking for something to be offended by and get some publicity over. She completely ignores the points he writes about and tries to justify the industry practice by talking about what her family does on weekends.

    Yeah, they wash meat in ammonia... but we go to the farmers market for our food! So it's okay! <--what??

    Posted by nick wagner on Jan 20, 2011 at 7:06 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Hannah, your letter was eloquent and well put. I too am a fan of Mr Bourdain, and I am anxiously awaiting his response.
    I am a culinary chef and I teach. I graduated from the Professional Culinary Institute (2008), recently purchased by the New York based French Culinary Institute, and the Italian Culinary Academy. My grandfather was a Potuguese Farmer, in the Salinas, (Monterey) area.
    His wife, my grandma was from England (Holmes). They worked long hard hours on their farm. My grandfather grew lettuce and raised sheep for market. He also had huge vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, goats, horses, etc. . . They raised their own food as well, and processed it (humanely)! Now that's called living off the land.
    Chef Laura W., SF Bay Area

    Posted by Laura Walker on Jan 20, 2011 at 7:17 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Hannah, your letter was eloquent and sweetly put.. I too am a fan of Mr Bourdain, and I am anxiously awaiting his response. However, I am concerned regarding the antibiotic/ammonia soaked meats being added to our food supply. I'm not sure it is the truth, so I am going to do some research on my own. I am curious as to Mr Bourdain's response.
    I am a culinary chef and I teach. I graduated from the Professional Culinary Institute - PCI , recently purchased by the New York based French Culinary Institute, and the Italian Culinary Academy. So my interest is My grandfather was a Potuguese Farmer, in the Salinas, (Monterey) area. His wife, my grandma was from England (Holmes). They worked long hard hours on their farm. My grandfather grew lettuce and raised sheep for wool & meat for market. He also had huge vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, goats, horses, etc. . . They raised their own food as well, and processed it (humanely)! Now that's called living off the land, so I'd hate to think your dad is really okay with beef trim that is tainted by fecal matter, and treated for food consumption, while his family is shopping the Farmer's Markets . . really?
    Chef Laura W., SF Bay Area

    Posted by Laura Walker on Jan 20, 2011 at 7:36 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Hannah, your letter was eloquent and sweetly put.. I too am a fan of Mr Bourdain, and I am anxiously awaiting his response. However, I am concerned regarding the antibiotic/ammonia soaked meats being added to our food supply. I'm not sure it is the truth, so I am going to do some research on my own. I am curious as to Mr Bourdain's response.
    I am a culinary chef and I teach. I graduated from the Professional Culinary Institute - PCI , recently purchased by the New York based French Culinary Institute, and the Italian Culinary Academy. I too am a Farmer's market kind of girl, and I grew up on a farm and in the city.
    My grandfather was a Potuguese Farmer, in the Salinas, (Monterey) area. His wife, my grandma was from England.. They worked long hard hours on their farm. My grandfather grew lettuce and raised sheep for wool & meat for market. He also had huge vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, goats, horses, etc.
    Hannah, you seem like a really nice person, but I'd hate to think your dad is really okay with beef trim that is tainted by fecal matter, and treated for food consumption, while his family is shopping the Farmer's Markets. I mean, if I was him I wouldn't want you eating that stuff either!
    Chef Laura W., SF Bay Area

    Posted by Laura Walker on Jan 20, 2011 at 7:46 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Hannah,

    It seems as if you benefit significantly from being "a daughter of Cargill’s top management". This is what we would refer to as "white whine". Address the criticism directly or get over it.

    Posted by Keith - on Jan 20, 2011 at 8:27 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Lots of emotional rhetoric on this issue. For the record, here are the FACTS about the use of ammonia in food production from foodinsight.org.

    FDA affirmed ammonium hydroxide as GRAS in 1974 after extensive review of the scientific literature and a rulemaking process. Ammonium hydroxide was one of 235 substances that were subjected to a full safety review by the Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS), an independent committee of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASE B) that reported its findings to FDA.

    GRAS status means that a substance is generally recognized, among experts qualified by scientific training and experience to evaluate their safety, as safe for its intended use. See generally 21 C.F.R. § 170.30.

    Ammonium hydroxide is also recognized as safe by other countries’ and international food safety agencies. The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) also recognizes ammonium hydroxide as safe for use in a wide variety of foods. Ammonium hydroxide is approved for use in food in most countries including the European Union.
    --foodinsight.org

    Posted by Daren Williams on Jan 20, 2011 at 8:55 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Hi Elizabeth and Raoul,

    I'm trying not to interject myself into the crazy comment explosion that happened today, but I just wanted to help you understand what I said, and more importantly what I didn't say in my article.

    My letter was entirely aimed towards defending my father because I don't believe he should be lumped together with other executives the way Tony did in his book. I know that my dad isn't trying to pass off contaminated "trim" to people who can't afford the pricier cuts at the grocery store. In fact, I think my dad spends the majority of his time thinking of how he can provide food to low-income families, not how the filet-mignon market is doing.

    I didn't say a lot of the things you wanted me to say because I don't feel comfortable answering your questions about Cargill's practices. I think someone at Cargill who is involved with their operations day in and day out should be the one to do that. Hence, i suggested my dad talk to Tony. I know Cargill isn't perfect, but what business is? I know Cargill doesn't produce ammoniated meat, but there are other companies that do. But I would feel uneasy giving information about them when it's really not my place. It's their's. All I can tell you is that I was an intern at Cargill for three years, and everyone I worked with was honest, empathetic and prudent. I think it's easy to see large corporations as a single, evil entity. I've been guilt of this countless times, but it's important to see both sides and to remember there are real people operating these businesses.

    I really appreciate that you are both so concerned about food safety and practices in our country. It's great to know that there are people who aren't apathetic about where their food comes from, and I hope this helped explain why I was just trying to talk about my dad and didn't address all of your's and Tony's concerns.

    I think as long as we remember to balance wanting to keep our food safe, but knowing that producing food on a large scale isn't fool-proof, we can have more realistic expectations of those who produce it. Looking to extreme positions doesn't provide correct information.

    Posted by Hannah Hayes on Jan 20, 2011 at 10:33 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    "I hope this helped explain why I was just trying to talk about my dad and didn't address all of your's and Tony's concerns."

    The issue is, however, that your father was not the subject of Tony's concerns. It was the dubious practices illuminated in the New York Times article which served as a basis for his comments. As such, an attempt at focusing in on your father only serves to skew the conversation that Mr. Bourdain started. Your essay attempts to focus in on something that is really not the issue at hand. That is at the heart of the criticism you're recieving here.

    "Looking to extreme positions doesn't provide correct information."

    Yeah, but then again neither does sacrificing the issue of food safety in order to tell the public personal anecdotes about your family... That is not the conversation from which PERTINENT information will arise.

    Posted by Shannon Nelson on Jan 21, 2011 at 5:34 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Hannah,

    Like Tony, I'm glad you love your Daddy. I can only hope my daughters love me as much as you do yours.

    "My Daddy loves me. I love my Daddy. Therefore, whatever my Daddy does is good," is not, however, either logically or ethically valid. I'd suggest a class in formal logic for you.

    Cargill has to bathe its meats in an ammonia preparation specifically because meat production practices are so vile and filthy that meat cannot help coming into contact with bovine fecal material (and that's no euphemism). The ONLY reason this happens is because Cargill's insistence is on speed of production, from newborn calf to to adult cow to grill-ready frozen patty. The hormones your father's company uses are there to make the cow grow faster, so it can be slaughtered faster, so it can be sold faster, so Cargill can profit faster. In short, your father's company puts profits ahead of the well-being both of the subject animals and the people who eat them.

    Please bear in mind that I'm not some squishy vegan who believes meat-eating is essentially evil. I believe meat-eating is essentially human. Companies like your father's, however, seem to be engaged in a campaign to drive me to vegetarianism. You see, I don't care HOW MUCH ammonia has been introduced to the meat that fell in the poop. I still don't want to eat it. That your father's company thinks I should is evidence of their insistence that people eat garbage meat because feeding garbage meat to people has proven to be profitable to Cargill.

    Here's a test: let me drop your freshly-pattied burger in poop. Wait, wait! I'll pour some ammonia on it. All clean now! What? You still won't eat the hamburger patty I dropped in the poop? But it's safe to eat now! Your Daddy says so.

    Hint to Hannah: if you won't eat that burger, don't defend your Daddy when he asks the rest of us to eat the burgers HE does it to. It's no less disgusting just because we're not his daughter.

    Posted by Bob Kincaid on Jan 22, 2011 at 12:57 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Hey Bob,

    Why don't you check out my new blog post?

    http://www.kitchenoddity.tumblr.com

    - Hannah Hayes

    Posted by Hannah Hayes on Jan 23, 2011 at 9:05 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Quick points from a cowboy who's been around agriculture all his life. Cargill actually will get less fecal material on its beef than any small processor, guaranteed. They and the other largest packers use state of the art systems that produce the lowest pathogen load of any meat product. The ammonia is an extra measure to help prevent pathogens from growing, similar to how we've used nitrates to cure hams and bacon. If you culture samples from both Cargill and small packers, Cargill's will have less pathogens. This doesn't mean that meat from small slaughter plants isn't safe, it just means the US has such strict regulations on food safety that the largest plants take ample precautions. Organic fruit and veggies also have feces on them, because they need a natural source of fertilizer. Once again, rinse them off quick and you'll be perfectly fine. The American consumer can be completely confident that no matter where they get their food, large corporation or locally grown farm, it is safe.

    On anitbiotics, read this article http://www.dailynebraskan.com/opinion/ge....

    What I can't understand is how it's acceptable to say a person should have their "nuts wired to a car battery while he’s fed the sweepings from the bottom of a monkey cage". Hannah has been very gracious in politely responding to an off-color and threatening remark. Kudos to you!

    Posted by Jake Geis on Jan 27, 2011 at 10 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    Hey Hannah, it's Sean Coder. I've read this piece and I wanted to ask you if you think it's Cargill's responsibility or intention to really feed the poor. Though your father may externally be talking about the idea, I feel this is an impossible and socially irresponsible goal for a meat company that employs factory farming. Many of the world's poor won't eat genetically modified food (i.e. Monsanto's "golden rice") and more so, such ill-treated animals? I appreciate your love for quality food and your father's apparent intention, but I don't think a Cargill dependent food supply is good or healthy for anyone, including the poor. How about working with folks, teaching them how to grow their own food, or changes in the government subsidies for environmentally degrading and irreverent farming practices?

    Respectfully,
    Sean Coder

    Posted by Sean Coder on Feb 3, 2011 at 4:38 p.m. (Report Comment)