Interviews

The Politics of Food in “The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook”

An interview with Ralph Nader about his new book, "The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook: Classic Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond."

 “They put fish in the oven. / They pull dreams out of the earth.” This is how Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun begins the poem “Dreams and Potatoes.”

Though a modern staple in his family’s Lebanon, the potatoes have only a supporting role in Ralph Nader’s newest book, The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook: Classic Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond. Bound in a colorful cover and awash in white—similar in look and feel to Yottam Ottolenghi’s Plenty—the recipes, compiled over a lifetime, present a nuanced portrait of the culinary upbringing that helped shape Mr. Nader’s view of American life.

I spoke with Mr. Nader last month about the flavorful, Mediterranean-tasting fare that fills his cookbook. Recipes for baba ghanoush. Hummus. A hearty lentil soup. Though we very quickly settled into discussing politics, we also spoke about his parents’ restaurant in Winsted, Connecticut—the Highland Arms—his hitchhiking days, and the politics of food.

Since social distancing measures began soon after this interview, the stories and insights Mr. Nader related to me about family now seem prescient: the sharing of food through acts of cooking and eating together is an occasion, a forum, for human connectedness and growth. Perhaps we need that now more than ever.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Jordan Foti Gulino

When did the idea for this book come to you? What helped you decide to share your family’s recipes?

Ralph Nader

Many years ago, when the children put out a paperback called It Happened in the Kitchen, it was all about my mother and dad—the recipes were only a third of the book. The first third was about how mother raised the children, and the last third was observations and insights by my father. … Then more recently a publisher’s rep called me up and said why don’t you contact Akashic Books. 

Jordan Foti Gulino

Food is intimately tied to memory as you describe growing up in Winsted, Connecticut. Did you discover or rediscover any memories about food or family as you were writing these recipes?

Ralph Nader

That’s the one good thing, when you sit down at any given time and try to recollect 40, 50 years ago, when you were a child. It’s hard to bring up more than a few examples. But once you go into the recipes, it’s almost like a magic connector to something that happened in the household. How was the food prepared? What was the occasion? What was the reaction? That example I wrote about—the radishes and celery—was not one I had actually remembered until I got into how my mother got us to eat what she wanted us to eat. And not to complain. She didn’t just use demands or orders. You could see how clever she was.

Jordan Foti Gulino

I enjoyed that in your introduction. You write about her saying it’s “you” who think you don’t like a food and not your tongue. 

Ralph Nader

[Laughter] My parents were very down to earth, and they weren’t abstract. There wasn’t such a thing as leaning on child psychology. [Children] have to develop their judgment, their intuition, and they learn by doing, which is a very concrete way of retaining what you learn. Parents today are too reliant on how-to manuals. It’s too removed. 

Jordan Foti Gulino

There’s a sense of Stoicism in how you describe the kitchen table. It’s a forum for sustaining the health of the self and the family, bodily and mentally. Has that affected the way you approach the world beyond food and cooking?

Ralph Nader

The kitchen table affords repeated gatherings and conversations, which kids today don’t have. In fact, it’s an event when the family dines together. One [parent] eats at a fast food place, the other picks up a sandwich, they quickly cook for the kids, the T.V. is on, the iPhone is in their hands, and that ruptures the whole point of a family. The whole point of family is handing down adapted-to-survival traditions and connecting the past with the present so as to prepare for the future. … The family unit is being ruptured by the technology of distraction and narcissism and the [parents’ sense] that they’re not up to par in terms of the latest gadgets and technology.

Technology reduces parental authority at the same time that children are spending more time by themselves than any children in human history. … When you put all that together, and then extrapolate it to the neighborhood community, you get massive neglect of community necessities, you get the worst of political leaders, and you get a society where the worst is first and the best is last. Every way. It’s true of entertainment, politics, it’s true of any bureaucracy in terms of the worst rising and the best falling.

Jordan Foti Gulino

Going off that idea of the health of the family unit and its relationship to society, I’d like to ask more about your family. When did your parents emigrate from Lebanon? Was it always your father’s plan to get into the restaurant business?

Ralph Nader

No. My father came in at age 19 in 1912 with 20 bucks in his pocket. He went back and met my mother and married her in 1924. My father’s first job, believe it or not, was in the Maxwell auto in Detroit. How about that one for irony.

Jordan Foti Gulino

How did he get from there to owning a restaurant? I imagine it was a lot of hard work.

Ralph Nader

Yeah, he was on piecework at Maxwell. He’d finish around noon or one, and he couldn’t make any more money. So he left that and went to Lawrence, Massachusetts, for the textile industry. That was short lived. Then he went to Newark, and he was involved in the wholesale grocery business. Push carts and so on. He somehow discovered a grocery store in Danbury, Connecticut, was for sale, and that was the first time he owned a business.

When he went back to Lebanon and met Mother, he came back and saw an ad for a building that had apartments on the top three floors and a restaurant, bakery, and bar on the bottom in Winsted. He went up there and they liked the whole idea of the town. It’s a small town, 10,000, and you can go everywhere in 20 minutes. And they decided to move there.

Jordan Foti Gulino

My mother’s family owned diners in Miami and Chicago. She was a cashier, and my grandparents were cooks. The restaurant was the epicenter for a lot of Greek meals: big family get-togethers and Easter celebrations. Was the Highland Arms restaurant something similar for the Nader family?

Ralph Nader

Yeah. There were very few ethnic restaurants anywhere, but the Highland Arms was strictly American food. When my father ever tried to get people to eat laban, or yogurt, or hummus, they’d recoil. They weren’t used to the taste. The restaurant was open seven days a week—what a grueling schedule—5 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Jordan Foti Gulino

Was there a big Lebanese community in Winsted?

Ralph Nader

There were maybe seven families in the whole town. You might have experienced this, but in those days kids didn’t want to have the American kids hear them speak their native language. There was more of a shame—our family wasn’t that at all—but immigrants wanted to Americanize very quickly. You wouldn’t brag about your ethnicity. Nowadays, kids want to brag about their ethnicity. [My family] didn’t coalesce to spread the cuisine. But that’s all we ate at home.

Jordan Foti Gulino

When you think back on your family’s restaurant, does it reflect the idea, or promise, of the American dream? Is that promise still alive?

Ralph Nader

It did in the sense of free speech and discussing all kinds of issues. But that’s not true of restaurants today. There’s too much fast food and too much mechanization. The people sitting in one booth don’t know who is in the other booth. At the counter, people stick to themselves. The Highland Arms was like an endless town meeting. People would come and talk about what was going on. People would come from the jury pool; the county courthouse was just 100 yards down on main street. They’d be at the town hall and break for lunch. There were traveling salespeople, summer residents, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and of course the textile mill, which is now barren. … It had 400 workers just across the street. … In that sense it was a place where tensions were reduced.

Jordan Foti Gulino

It’s an equalizer. It’s about diffusing tension, but also the idea that a restaurant, regardless of ethnicity, creates a sense of community.

Ralph Nader

Yeah. Of course in a small town people helped each other more. There were more personal relations than in a bigger city. That was part of it. And they had clubs: the Rotary, the Lions, the Knights of Columbus. They were very integral to community connectedness. … So in answer to your question, I learned about free speech [laughter]. I always liked to learn from people, whatever work they did. That’s one reason why I hitchhiked a lot. I was very alert; it wasn’t just a job behind a counter. It was a constant kaleidoscope of experiences. 

Jordan Foti Gulino

Have you had the opportunity to visit Lebanon?

Ralph Nader

The children went back to Lebanon in 1938 for the better part of a year, because my mother wanted to visit her family. She comes from a family with eight daughters. I have glimmers of memory of that. My older siblings remember more and more of the language. The next time I went was in 1954; I wrote my thesis at Princeton on Lebanese agriculture, and I got a fellowship for that summer between junior and senior years. I traveled a lot and met with the relatives, stayed with them, traced the ancestral genealogy. The next time was 1961 or 1962, more as a reporter. The food was excellent.

Jordan Foti Gulino

Maybe this speaks to your role as a consumer advocate, but what about food in America is most taken for granted in the 21st century? Does produce taste as good now as it did when you were growing up?

Ralph Nader

The evolution of a species is connected with natural products. … As far as the chemicalization of our food supply, it almost goes without saying that it’s not good for us: pesticides, herbicides, fungicides. … My mother was naturally suspicious of this. We never had hot dogs. Why not? Because she didn’t know what was in them. That’s why she cooked from scratch and tried to avoid all processed foods.

When my father had the restaurant, it was easy. He’d bring in bushels of apples, pears, he’d bring vegetables home in bulk. They were fresh from local farms. There’s been a lot of regress in the last hundred years, not just progress; the commercial imperative is focused on [the industry’s] definition of progress. Thinking for ourselves, being critical, questioning, relying on our judgment makes us much more perceptive to the phony definition of progress. The homestead definition is quite different. 

Jordan Foti Gulino

Is food the best means of holding onto one’s culture?

Ralph Nader

Even better is oral tradition: proverbs and stories from the past. Of course that blends with eating. … It seems like every generation knows fewer proverbs. Proverbs meet the test of concise veracity, shall we say. Who are we to challenge a proverb, right? There’s a group emerging called Arab America, it’s all about culture and heritage. It’s run by a Lebanese American, Warren David. It’s got a big blog. They asked me to speak on a conference call about a week or two ago. I said [that] ethnic groups love to start everything by saying, “I’m proud to be a Polish American, I’m proud to be Korean American, I’m proud, I’m proud, I’m proud.” But what does that mean, other than you want to identify with someone that can provide comfort to you, connectedness and some sort of solidarity? 

The importance of ethnic groups goes way beyond that, and one of them is that they all have to deal with the same problems of humanity. They have different ways of doing it. It’s like [how] biodiversity is better than a monoculture in the environment. … That’s why we should treasure varieties of ethnic groups, because they have ways—it’s not just songs and poems and clothing—that over the centuries they’ve dealt with the foibles and problems and hazards and pressures and illnesses of life. They’re all the same problems, pretty much, but [each culture] has different responses that we can learn from.

Cookbook
The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook:
Classic Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond
By Ralph Nader
Akashic Books
April 7, 2020

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