Author Raj Patel’s Food Revolution: From Chips to Salad

by Sarah Henry on April 1, 2011 · 24 comments

in berkeley bites,food books,food politics,food security

Raj Patel (left) is fêted by Bill Schechner at the recent Berkeley Public Library Foundation's Annual Authors Dinner. Photo: Richard Friedman.

Raj Patel is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, an honorary research fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, in Oakland.

Such affiliations allow the academic activist to hang out with his brethren in both camps. At the same time it affords the Oxford, Cornell, and London School of Economics educated writer the time and freedom to turn out newspaper think pieces and serious tomes on weighty topics served with a healthy dollop of his trademark wit. (Perhaps a legacy of his British upbringing, Patel has a fondness for Monty Python).

His first book, the well-received Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, documents the toll on human health of industrial agriculture’s global food production.

His second, The New York Times bestseller, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, chronicles the failures of the free-market economy, the hidden costs of consumption (see him discuss $200 hamburgers on the Colbert Report) and the social movements seeking to fix the system around the world.

Bizarrely, while plugging his second book, Patel, 38, developed a cult following of fans who claimed he was, um, The Messiah. This title came courtesy of an obscure religious group that refers to God by the name Maitreya. Devotees flocked to Patel’s readings and flooded his email. He debunked his exalted status in the press, joked about it on his blog (Monty Python fans can guess how), and now prefers not to comment on the strange matter.

A recent U.S. citizen, he was honored — with a slew of other authors — at the Berkeley Public Library Foundation’s Annual Authors Dinner in February. We met in San Francisco where Patel lives with his wife and young son.

What was you relationship to food like growing up?

My parents — my mother was born in Kenya, my father in Fiji — ran a corner shop in London, so I grew up on a diet of salty and sweet crap. I was literally the kid in the candy store. Britain’s contribution to cuisine then seemed to solely be its incredible selection of crisps [aka, chips]. I was fond of cheese and onion crisps. There were even hedgehog-flavored crisps. I was a fussy eater; I’d only eat roti smothered in ketchup.

When did that start to change?

When I was working on Stuffed and Starved. Prior to that I seemed to survive by chugging Red Bull. I met people in Brazil, India, Italy, Senegal and elsewhere for whom food wasn’t just about survival; they took eating seriously. It was about growing, sharing, and cooking together. That blew me away, it was like I was eating for the first time.

Sooner or later everything seems to come back to food with you. True?

Yes, because food ties everything together that we should care about and that is currently in crisis  — the environment, climate, wages, labor, poverty, health and so on. It’s about what we need to survive on this planet, the way we interact with the earth, and the way we replenish or don’t replenish the earth. It’s something primal that unites us all.

Raj Patel explains food sovereignty on Cooking Up a Story.

Your books detail a lot of wrongs around the world. But you also see reasons to be hopeful, particularly in the food arena. Why?

The food movement is one of the most vibrant areas of social change in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world right now. The concept of food sovereignty is a democratic way to seriously address some of the big issues of the day. The farmers and landless people known as La Via Campesina, are an inspiring global example. Close to home, the Oakland Food Policy Council — local doesn’t have to mean parochial — are doing good work. It’s an exciting time to be organizing around food.

Are there academics at UC Berkeley you admire?

Many. The professor of soil science, Ignacio Chapela, because he flagged the extent to which the university was willing to sell off some academic freedoms in exchange for a large donation by the corporation Novartis.

In the Department of Geography people like Gillian Hart, for her work on South Africa.

Michael Pollan in the journalism faculty because his food writing largely paved the way for people like myself. I’m grateful for his work.

What’s next?

I’m researching a project about the future. It’s early days yet. Food will probably be in there somewhere.

What do you like to cook?

I make a mean salad.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

You might also like:

Michael Pollan Talks Food Rules at Ferry Building
Farm Together Now
Darra Goldstein’s Global Gastronimical Tour

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Margulis April 1, 2011 at 11:31 am

His books sound so interesting, Sarah. Thanks for introducing me to him. I’m impressed, and looking forward to reading something he’s written.

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Sarah Henry April 1, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Raj Patel has a way with words, Jennifer, I think you’d enjoy his books.

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NoPotCooking April 1, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Hedgehog flavored? Wow, never heard of that before! I will look for his book – I would like to read it.
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..The No-Pot Cooking Cookbook!

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Sarah Henry April 1, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Seemingly unbelievable but true. Read all about the UK’s crisp flavors right here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potato_chip

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Alexandra April 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Another reader for his books here. I wished you could have asked him what he thinks of GMO crops, which are being touted as the solution to world hunger, but, in my opinion, not at all good for us and a real danger to organic plantings since the seeds spread.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Why We Are All Canaries

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Sarah Henry April 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Patel has plenty to say about GMOs in Stuffed & Starved, in a chapter titled “Better Living Through Chemistry.” Methinks your kind of book too, Sandy.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. April 1, 2011 at 5:42 pm

I don’t know why I find it so endearing that he admits to formerly subsisting on Red Bull. Everyone has their guilty secrets, I guess!
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Foraging with the Wildman

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Sarah Henry April 2, 2011 at 10:01 am

Indeed, Casey, indeed. Yours?

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MyKidsEatSquid April 1, 2011 at 6:52 pm

I like his quote: “It’s an exciting time to be organizing around food.” Interesting interview–any way he’d share his recipe for a “mean salad”?

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Sarah Henry April 2, 2011 at 10:02 am

I think, MKES, Patel’s salad may well be a free form affair, depending on what’s growing in his garden.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi April 1, 2011 at 7:06 pm

We have a lot of meat flavoured potato chips in New Zealand, but I’m happy to say no hedgehog flavoured ones. I’ll be parochial here and say I don’t want to know what a hedgehog tastes like. I find it weird enough as an expat Yank that there are Lamb and Mint chips and Hamburger chips. Hedgehog is taking it too far for me!
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Vote for Your Fave Hen Names

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Sarah Henry April 2, 2011 at 10:03 am

Lamb and mint chips? That’s just gross. Ditto hamburger. Who thinks up this stuff?

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merr April 2, 2011 at 7:05 am

Food truly is a mobilizing force in our world. I learn a lot from your blog by the people you interview. Thanks, Sarah.

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Sarah Henry April 2, 2011 at 10:03 am

Thanks, merr, for the feedback. Much appreciated.

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Jane Boursaw April 2, 2011 at 8:18 am

So cool that you got to meet him. I’ve seen his name, but will pay more attention now. And yes, so true that food ties into everything.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..New Movie Friday- Hop! Insidious! Source Code!

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Sarah Henry April 2, 2011 at 10:05 am

You’d like Patel, Jane. He’s a very witty speaker and knows how to mix things up with academic, political, and cultural references that keep an audience engaged.

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Sheryl April 2, 2011 at 5:09 pm

What a brilliant, accomplished guy. I must admit that the hedgehog chips gave me pause. I guess it’s no mistake that he’s garnered so many loyal followers.

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Sarah Henry April 10, 2011 at 1:00 pm

How do you imagine they might taste, Sheryl? I’m thinking kind of game-y.

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Donna Hull April 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Thanks for introducing me to such a brilliant man. The fact that he admits to junk food eating during childhood gives him credibility, in my mind. I appreciate his comment about food tying back to everything.
Donna Hull´s last [type] ..April Announcements

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Sarah Henry April 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm

It’s fun to watch Patel in action talking to a crowd, Donna. That brilliant brain of his is going a mile a minute. And yet he’s able to mix things up and throw in pop culture references to explain complex concepts in an accessible way.

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Alisa Bowman April 7, 2011 at 7:05 am

Interesting about people calling him Maitreya. Maitreya is one of the known Buddhas (people who have reached enlightenment). Buddhas are thought to come back in human form and there is often a search after an enlightened one dies to find his/her reincarnated self. So the people who are seeing this think that Patel is the reincarnated Buddha Maitreya. Interestingly, true Buddha’s never boast about themselves or claim to be Buddhas. So even by denying it, Patel will be strengthening the belief that he is the actual reincarnated Maitreya.

I know, way off topic, but I found that interesting.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..Are you a happy mom Or dad

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Sarah Henry April 10, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Not at all off topic, Alisa. And I was familiar with the Maitreya-Buddha connection but others may not be so I’m glad you raised it. As Patel himself told me: If he talks about the situation, he’s indulging his fans/followers, if he chooses not to say anything, he’s accused of being precious. It seems, though, that things have calmed down some on this front (perhaps the Maitreya crowd have moved on to another candidate for the position.)

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