Top 10 Food-World Spats of 2011

A typical day in food media does not bring much intrigue, unless you’re titillated by trend pieces about miniature desserts or Chowhound arguments about the best Nepalese thali in Queens. So when controversy presents itself, observers like us tend to welcome it with open arms. As 2011 winds down, here’s a look back (in no particular order) at the scandals, arguments, and name-calling loud enough to have made us all take notice.

1. Mario Batali vs. Bankers. In November, Mario Batali participated in Time magazine’s Person of the Year debate. He took the opportunity to compare bankers, who “have kind of toppled the way money is distributed and taken most of it into their hands,” to “Stalin or Hitler and the evil guys.” Bankers responded by doing what bankers do best: withholding their money—specifically, from Batali’s restaurants. Realizing a bit belatedly that he’d bitten the hands that feed him, Batali issued a mea culpa over Twitter the next day.

2. The Chew vs. Soap Opera Fans. At long last, bankers and soap opera fans have found common ground: They both hate Mario Batali. The chef enraged the latter when it was announced in August that All My Children and One Life to Live would be canceled to make way for The Chew, the food talk show starring Batali, Michael Symon, and Carla Hall. Soap fans took their outrage to Twitter with feeds like The Chew and Vomit!! and Screw The Chew. But they’ve found perhaps their most satisfying revenge in the show’s unremarkable ratings and equally underwhelming critical reception.

3. Amanda Obney vs. Taco Bell. Although plenty of people would argue that Taco Bell is guilty of falsely advertising its food as “Mexican,” Amanda Obney filed a $5 million class-action lawsuit claiming the chain used false advertising in referring to products containing “seasoned beef” or “seasoned ground beef.” Obney’s suit charged that only 35 percent of the beef mixture was beef, with the rest made up of binders, emulsifiers, and the like. Taco Bell responded with a national ad campaign claiming its seasoned beef contained 88 percent beef and 12 percent “secret recipe,” and asking for an apology. Obney didn’t give one, but did drop her lawsuit, and Taco Bell kept turning out the same substandard food it always has.

4. Paula Deen vs. Anthony Bourdain. In August, Anthony Bourdain told TV Guide that Paula Deen was “the worst, most dangerous person to America” thanks to her “unholy connections with evil corporations” and her pride in “the fact that her food is fucking bad for you.” Deen dished it right back, saying, “I have no idea what Anthony has to contribute besides being miserable.” Although Bourdain’s criticism of various Food Network personages is as predictable as a bear’s preference for a tree-shaded toilet, Frank Bruni somehow felt the need to weigh in on the matter in his New York Times Op-Ed column. The former Times restaurant critic accused Bourdain of “ill-timed elitism” and applauded Deen’s attack of “the culinary aristocracy.” Food bloggers responded with glee, and then everyone forgot about the whole thing a few days later.

5. Todd English vs. the City of Boston. Once upon a time, Todd English was the hottest chef in Boston. And then he left for New York, and did some embarrassing things. In April, Boston magazine decided it'd had enough, and wrote English a break-up letter on behalf of the city. “You’re simply not the chef we fell in love with back in 1984,” it read. “In fact, we sometimes wonder whether you even like cooking anymore.” In response, the Boston Globe, masquerading as English, wrote, among other things, “You don’t own me! I can’t be contained! I am a force!” Somehow all of this made the real English worthy of a long profile in the New York Times that showed him pumping iron and offering this charming response to all of the criticism: “If I were molesting babies, I get it. But I’m not. I’m a guy with a dream trying to make it all happen.”

6. China vs. Food Safety. Cadmium-contaminated rice, pork that could double as a nightlight, meals cooked using recycled cooking oil salvaged from restaurant drains, “lean meat powder” pork, milk tainted with leather protein, and dumplings enriched with aluminum were just some of China’s spectacular contributions to the annals of epic food-safety failures. It’s almost enough to make you long for the halcyon days of 2008, when all there was to worry about was melamine in the baby formula.

7. Eddie Huang vs. the Chairman Bao Truck. This actually dates back to 2010, when Eddie Huang, the voluble owner of New York’s BaoHaus, took issue with a San Francisco food truck known as Chairman Bao. Since “Chairman Bao” also happened to be the name of one of BaoHaus’s most popular pork buns, Huang was not happy. As luck would have it, Huang, a former lawyer, had trademarked the name one day before the truck’s owners attempted to. In October, after more than a year of bicoastal back and forth between lawyers for the two parties, the restaurant consultants who own the truck agreed to drop “Bao” from its name. Ever gracious, Huang released a statement that read in part, “Fuck chairman truck and the chef running it. You should have named ur shit bukakke truck but clearly you want to be Chinese.” You can trademark a name, but class? That's harder to own.

8. Food Waste vs. the World. According to the United Nations, roughly 1.3 billion pounds of food are wasted every year. That translates to about one-third of all food produced for human consumption, which in turn translates to a hideous and shameful problem. Also a somewhat avoidable one: The U.N. report placed much of the blame on retailers in wealthy nations who throw out food because it doesn’t look pretty enough, and encourage shoppers to buy far more than they need. None of which, of course, is news to freegans.

9. Chick-fil-A vs. Eat More Kale. To most people, fried chicken looks nothing like kale. To Chick-fil-A, however, it looks like trademark infringement. Last month, the multimillion-dollar fast-food chain decided to gang up on Bo Muller-Moore, a Vermont folk artist who makes a living by printing T-shirts and bumper stickers with the slogan "Eat More Kale." Chick-fil-A sent Muller-Moore a cease-and-desist letter saying that his slogan was likely to cause confusion with the corporation’s own slogan, "Eat Mor Chikn." Muller-Moore hired a lawyer, and none other than Vermont’s governor, Peter Shumlin, offered his support. “Birds create manure; kale eats manure,” Shumlin said in a news conference. And Chick-fil-A, he might have added, is full of it.

10. David Chang vs. Mexican Coke Aficionados. Few things are more likely to put New York food bloggers in a state of pique than David Chang. To wit: In May, a writer for Serious Eats went to lunch at one of Chang’s restaurants and was charged $5 plus tax for a bottle of Mexican Coke. Internet commenters responded with predictable outrage, and Chang responded in equally predictable fashion by going on Twitter to defend himself (“mexican coke = hard to obtain in nyc + costs money”) and lob a few insults at Serious Eats. A day later, however, he lowered the price to $4, and the world continued to rotate slowly on its axis.

Image sources: Top, Flickr member pvsbond under Creative Commons; middle, John Birdsall; bottom, Flickr member {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester} under Creative Commons