Serving up a new slice of news

Charles Gordon December 28 1987

Serving up a new slice of news

Charles Gordon December 28 1987

Serving up a new slice of news


Charles Gordon

Strangers still stop him in the street asking for his autograph. Newspaper food writers query him about his favorite sandwich (lettuce and Marmite, a beef-flavored spread).

— The Globe and Mail, Dec. 12

It is hard to imagine it now, but it was not long ago that a story about a Canadian scientist would contain not a single reference to his favorite sandwich. But as Nobel Prize-winning chemist John C. Polanyi found out this year, all that is changing. Responding to what they see as the demands of a consumption-oriented public, media decision-makers have made food an important part of the newspaper, the radio talk show and television news. In the year ahead the techniques carefully polished by the media over the past few years will finally bear fruit—not to mention vegetables. Food will be the story of 1988.

That should not be surprising in a society where most dinner-table conversation is about dinner. Food tasting is a staple of radio talk shows, despite the limitations of the medium. Newspaper food sections are often larger than the sports sections, and every noontime TV news program seems to employ, in addition to a sports director, a meteorologist and a movie critic, a chef. That is old news. What is new is that food has been able to break the bonds of compartmentalization and force its way into the hard news.

In Canada, the biggest scandals of the past two years have concerned seafood. Internationally, the detailed analysis given to the menu at the gala White House dinner during December’s summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is only the most obvious example of the importance of food on the world stage. Breakfasts of major figures on important days are routinely detailed; the expense accounts of public officials frequently find their way into the news columns.

The summit is a good illustration of how the news emphasis has changed. In earlier years there would have been much more concentration on the Soviet leader’s failure to wear black tie to the White House dinner. This time the panels of fashion experts were not convened, although they were ready. In such manner does the ebb and flow of the news ebb and flow. Menswear is yesterday’s story. Ask anybody. Food is what’s happening now ....

OTTAWA - NDP Leader Ed Broadbent ate a smoked-meat sandwich with hot mustard and an apple juice Monday as the 1988 federal election campaign moved into its final hours.

Party officials denied this was a flipflop, but conceded that it was a departure from his performance Sunday in Hamilton, where he drank ginger ale.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney skipped dessert in Toronto, although he ate two helpings of salad.

In other campaign developments, Liberal Leader John Turner used a rally in Saskatoon to reveal his recipe for spaghetti sauce but refused when questioned by reporters to indicate his preference with regard to cold soups.

The campaign continues today, with the leaders returning to Ottawa for full-course meals.

The food story will continue to dominate in 1988. Not just meat, but also fruit and vegetables. And not only food proper, but also spices. Newspapers are hiring spice editors and assistant spice editors. Wines, it goes without saying, will receive full attention. Wine specialists are now at a premium given the free trade agreement. The journalism schools are hastily retooling to satisfy the growing demand for bilingual wine economists, not to mention science writers with a particular interest in sandwich spreads.

It would be wrong to conclude that all other topics will be ignored when food becomes the hot story. Some attention will be paid to free trade, particularly as it pertains to food and wine. Other areas may not be so fortunate. There will be fewer radio interviews with rock stars of the 1960s— although there will be just as many with experts on rock stars of the 1960s. Coverage of books, even political autobiographies and Royal Family gossip, will decline, although there will be increased attention given to books on food. Listen for reports on the favorite recipes of reviewers of food books.

To create space for such coverage, something will have to go. Detailed soap opera analysis may have to be cut back, as well as reports on world starvation. Sports statistics will shrink to make room for information on the diets of shot-putters, the favored pastas of distance runners and the chili recipes of football coaches.

Public figures, after a few weeks of finding their activities uncovered in the nation’s media, will adapt by hiring chefs. Soon the recipes of politicians, third basemen and ballet dancers will recapture for them their rightful place on the airwaves and in the newspapers of the nation.

Journalists too will adapt. Prodded by vigilant bosses, they will search out the food angle. Not just what Mulroney ate for breakfast, but where was it grown? Was the bacon crisp? White toast or brown? And further:

• How many restaurants were in the hotel where representatives of management and striking workers got together? Were the vegetables soggy?

• Beyond that, what do Canadians think about soggy vegetables anyway? Are there regional variations, age differences, a linguistic schism? There is so much to know.

• How much is known, for example, about the official nutmeg of the Winter Olympics?

• What do experts on 1960s rock stars eat?

• What do free trade advocates serve at intimate dinner parties?

• How will rising interest rates affect the price of pears? What do the people of Canada think about that? What does our panel of experts think? What are the favorite recipes of our panel of experts?

• How nutritious is prison food?

• What are the best restaurants in the Persian Gulf?

• Do any edible ferns grow near Meech Lake?

• Where do bishops shop for fresh vegetables?

Because Canadians are a critical lot, there will be some complaining about food being the big story of 1988. Toward the end of the year watch for a major controversy concerning the trivialization of the news. And don’t miss the favorite recipes of the leading critics of trivialization.

Charles Gordon

is a columnist for The Ottawa

What is new is that food has been able to break the bonds of compartmentalization and force its way into hard news