Exhibit – Politics of Fashion – Fashion of Politics


When you choose your outfit in the morning, do you ever think about the statement you’re making? Sure, what we wears tells the world about who we are, but what about consciously choosing to make a political statement to the world? The latest exhibit at the Design Exchange is all about people who do just that – and the clothes they’ve worn.

Politics of Fashion – Fashion of Politics, guest curated by Jeanne Beker, is really a two-part exhibit. In the first section, political statements through fashion are laid out semi-chronologically, starting with the 60s youth-quake in Britain and the raising of hemlines as a means of self-expression and creativity.

Issues such as the Vietnam war, sexual freedom (the topless swimsuit by Rudi Gernreich), homosexuality (Bowie’s boots, Klaus Nomi’s tuxedo, RuPaul’s corset for the MAC VivaGlam campaign), and racism (a selection of pieces by African-American designer Patrick Kelly, who intentionally incorporated imagery of racial stereotypes into his designs, as well as pieces from the 1998 collection of varying length chadors by Hussein Chalayan) are all represented.

Various western sub-cultures and their “uniforms” are also prevalent, with a vast selection of Vivienne Westwood pieces from the 70s punk era, as well as pieces demonstrating the mod and skinhead styles that were worn at the time.


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How Justin Trudeau Inadvertently Convinced Me to Not Buy a Pink Tool Set


“She’s not much into dolls yet, but she’s been asking for a tool set.”

My brother and I are discussing what to buy my 2-year-old niece for Christmas. Up until this point, we’ve showered her with pink clothes and toys; and made her quite a stylish little thing in the process (it’s no secret that I live vicariously through her awesome wardrobe, sending her care packages of clothes each month, mostly selected because I want an adult version of the thing). But as she approaches her 3rd birthday, she’s developing a personality with likes and dislikes of her own. And I’m happy, nay, overjoyed to buy her a tool set.

The item in question is super-cool, made from recycled plastic with each tool labelled with what it is (pliers, wrench) right down to the screwdrivers which specify a Phillips and flat head. The box is pink, with the tools in shades of pink, mauve and green. But as I peruse the Amazon website, I discover the “blue” version of the same set. Same contents, same price, but the colours are darker (blue, red, bright green).


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First and Foremost – For the Greater Good

Like so many people who watched and took part in the proceedings at Toronto City Hall yesterday, I was enthralled by the sense of coming together to support the city. People from disparate groups and organizations all took the time, despite Mayor Ford and the committee making it more and more difficult for them to do so, to stand up and tell the committee, and the people of the city, what they believe in. As a city, as a community, I think this will make us stronger. I think that it will provoke more and more people to become engaged in municipal politics, which is a very good thing – that lack of involvement is what got us into this mess in the first place.

But I’m not sure I believe it’s going to do much good.

The hand-picked executive committee went into these sessions having clearly stated that they were not going to be swayed by the deputations. Councillor Mammoliti made it clear that he was there because it was his job but that he wasn’t interested in opposing points of view, something that he continually made clear through the 22 hours of deputations with his attitude and condescending questions. In the end, the committee voted unanimously to take the advice of the KPMG report and look at making cuts, essentially telling every deputant that their time and effort didn’t matter.

The hope now is that the deputations DID sway all of those other, middle of the road councillors so that when it comes time for the full council to vote on the recommendations, decisions will be made with consideration for issues other than budget line items.


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Well, Now We’re Screwed

This is the letter I just sent to the Minister of State for Agriculture regarding the announcement that the Conservatives are considering loosening the restrictions on functional foods. If you care about the fact that food companies are allowed claim their foods are healthy because they’ve added extra vitamins, or “healthy bacteria”, please contact the Agriculture Minister and the Minister of State, as well as the shadow cabinet ministers from the opposition parties and your own member of parliament and let them know that you want these restrictions tightened, not loosened.

The Honourable Jean-Pierre Blackburn
Minister of State (Agriculture)

cc: Gerry Ritz, Minister of Agriculture,
Wayne Easter, Liberal Agriculture Critic,
Alex Atamanenko, NDP Agriculture Critic,
Olivia Chow, Member of Parliament, Trinity-Spadina

Dear Mr. Blackburn,

I am writing to you regarding the announcement that the government is considering easing federal restrictions on “functional foods”, as detailed in today’s Toronto Sun: <http://www.torontosun.com/news/canada/2011/01/24/17017606.html>.

Given the overwhelming research indicating that function foods are merely advertising ploys; that the addition of vitamins and minerals serve only to help sell products; and that front of package nutritional claims are intentionally misleading, why would our government be so foolish and naive as to consider loosening these restrictions instead of tightening them?


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White as the Driven Snow

Thank you, Morgan Clendaniel, for using the phrase I was recently too afraid to use for fear of pissing people off. I’m not sure why I was afraid of pissing people off, I tend to live my life assuming that most people are pissed off by something about me, and undoubtedly my Loca-Bores piece (despite all of the positive comments it got) pissed people off. Because that’s how I roll. And I’m okay with that, as long as it gets people thinking about stuff.

But in employing fancy words like xenophobic and elitist, I really wanted to just rant about “white people food”, and the subtle undercurrent (that would undoubtedly be denied if you pointed fingers at specific people or groups) of racism (another word I wanted to use in that piece but was afraid to).

But seriously folks… white people food. Not that it isn’t good. And tasty. And ethical. And local. But. But, but but… It makes us shoves our heads up own own asses, really. It means we wear blinders to the other delights around us. It means we treat people who make non-white people food as second class citizens.


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Backs Against the Wal

I would be surprised if anyone, let alone anyone in the “foodie bubble” hasn’t heard the news of Wal-Mart‘s new commitment to selling healthy food. I’ve got a list of links below, but some points to remember on the new program:

  • it will be officially rolled out in the US only – Wal-Mart Canada will be affected only in terms of house-brand products, and any influence to other corporately-produced foods
  • the goal is to reduce added sugars, salt and industrial trans fats in Wal-Mart’s own branded products and to pressure corporate food processors to do the same  – this is really just making unhealthy processed foods *slightly* less bad, it is NOT a concerted effort to add healthy foods, or brands with health as part of their MO to the shelves
  • junk food, particularly soda, will remain unaffected, leaving the “choice” up to consumers

However, we cannot overlook Wal-Mart’s huge buying power – it is the only corporation in the world that can get away with dictating to producers how their product must be made, right down to the packaging. (Wal-Mart is in the process of implementing sustainability ratings for all products it sells, which will include disposal of said product and its packaging.)

The new program also vows to bring food to food deserts, support smaller farms, bring back staple crops to areas that have been hard hit by competition from California and Florida, and shorten travel distances for the food it sells.


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So… MacLean’s magazine reported last week that the Hamilton Farmer’s Market had plans to oust a number of long-time vendors because they didn’t fit the market’s new image of upscale, focusing on “local” ingredients grown within a 100-mile radius. Regular readers of this site will know just how much utter bullshit I believe the 100-mile diet to be. It’s elitist in its time demands (only people with a lot of money and enough free time to source local ingredients are able to eat this way); it makes huge assumptions about food miles, something that is almost impossible to calculate accurately; and it creates what is essentially a two-tier food system, with those of us with free time and free money being able to congratulate ourselves on helping the poor, downtrodden local farmer, while those with no time and little money having to shop at the oh-so-frowned-upon supermarket.

Andrew Potter, the author of the piece, makes allegations not only of elitism but of xenophobia. This undoubtedly will get people’s hackles up. But in the case of Hamilton, the majority of the long-time vendors given the boot were not white, but Vietnamese, Colombian and Middle Eastern. And when you think of “local” food, when it is featured on menus or touted in magazines or books… it’s pretty much old skool white people food. Sorry, immigrants, you don’t fit our elitist ideal.


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Should Taxpayers Have a Say in How Food Stamps Get Used?

I came across the following piece when compiling the weekday Food For Thought column, but I’ve got a bit more to say about this than I could fit into a typical line of snark.

In the US, where food stamp use has become prevalent because of the economy, there is much debate over what the stamps should be used for. Experts now want to ban junk food from qualifying for food stamp use. This currently applies to hot prepared food, household products, tobacco, dietary supplements and alcohol (note – this probably varies from state to state). The idea being that food stamps are to be used for healthy nutritious food. Which totally makes sense. Under a junk food ban, food stamps could not be used for pop, chips, chocolate, etc.


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All That and a Bag of Chips

Somewhere, Jamie Oliver is crying.

The new conservative government of England (hey, what happened to the balancing forces of a coalition?) has caved in to demands from the junk food industry and has scrapped the Food Standards Agency (the equivalent to the FDA). Which means that junk food companies are now free to self-regulate.

It seems that the junk food industry and its lobbyists weren’t terribly impressed with a motion to put stop-light style labels on the front of food packages indicating healthy and poor choices. The industry won that battle, arguing that consumers could use the existing nutrition labelling to calculate the percentage of each nutrient that the food item provided. This is similar to what we have in Canada and the US and let’s be honest – who sits down and calculates their daily intake of every nutrient?


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F*ck You, I Won’t Do What You Tell Me

Okay, so I put the asterisks in there to make the title work safe. Because this is not about Rage Against the Machine lyrics, but a not-especially surprising trend amongst food shoppers who are just tired of the whole local, sustainable thing.

In a piece from the Canwest News Service in the Vancouver Sun titled Consumers Fed Up With Food Politics, people are revealing that they’re overwhelmed by the expectation that they’ll research every single morsel they put into their mouths.

The proselytizing extends to almost every aisle of the modern grocery store, leaving few choices safe from the critical gaze of a food evangelist. As a result, experts fear the pleasure is being sucked from one of life’s most pleasurable activities.

“We have food police here,” says Mary Bailey, a bestselling Canadian food author. “We’re caught up in this pattern where every time we turn around, something else is ‘bad.’ “



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No Cake For You, Kiddies!

Moderation. Does anybody know what this means anymore?

Schools across the Western world are demonstrating knee jerk reactions to the “childhood obesity crisis” by banning anything at all that includes sugar or fat. School lunches and cafeteria foods are still full of crap and chemicals, but everything else is fair game for an inquisition-like search and banishment. As we saw with Jamie Oliver’s school dinners program in the UK, there is usually a reaction to this, and parents bristle at someone telling them how to raise (and feed) their kids.

There are so many things wrong on every side of this. First, the nanny state that provokes schools to haul a parent in for a talking to when junior pulls a chocolate cookie out of his home-packed lunch. And in retaliation, the parent makes something like a birthday cake a point of contention.

In this piece in the UK’s Telegraph, writer Judith Woods explains how she is baking a birthday cake for her child despite the kid’s school having banned the things. The school’s theory being that if every kid shows up with sweets to share on their birthday then that’s too much crap for the kids to be having on a regular basis. And while I’m a defender of all things cakey – I’m going to sort of agree and reiterate the “moderation” rule.

Because while I agree with and defend Woods’ right to let her kid have birthday cake on their own birthday – I don’t agree that it needs to go to school. In a class of 20 – 25 kids, that works out to a lot of cake over the course of a school year. Not to mention that it looks like a little bit of dick-waving and one-up-man-ship as parents compete for the best and biggest cake (it’s probably cheaper than a party with a bouncy castle, clown and pony rides, but still…). Have a party for your kid in their own home and by all means have cake, but I don’t believe it should be in schools in that context. I can’t remember taking cake or cupcakes to school for the whole class on my birthday – or getting cake or treats for anyone else’s birthday. Despite the fact that they’d provided us with sweet, sweet sugar, any kid who did that in my day would have gotten themselves pegged as a show off. It speaks to  society’s obsession with making kids into little stars and reinforcing how special they are – which isn’t good for the kid, or society.

Parties and treats for holidays seem like enough occasions for kids to bring food to school – with someone ensuring that most of the snacks are healthy. In that context, there is room for a slice of cake or some cookies or chips, and kids learn to associate party food with actual parties.

There are people out there who don’t know how to feed their kids, and their ignorance makes life tough for everyone else as authorities work on the lowest common denominator factor and apply condescending rules to everyone. But we also need to ensure that kids aren’t expecting treats and party food at every turn – by allowing kids to take cake to school to celebrate their own birthday, we’re creating a sense of entitlement that is not only fuelling the childhood obesity problem but society’s downfall.

Have a party for your kid; have cake, by all means – but do it at home. Don’t force others to match your efforts, don’t create more reasons to stuff their little faces full of junk, and don’t coddle them into believing that cake for the whole class – for every student’s birthday – is normal or healthy. Moderation and common sense – if more people used these, we wouldn’t need a cupcake nanny state.

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Trauma Farm

Trauma Farm
Brian Brett
Greystone Books, 320 pages, $21.95

I almost didn’t give Trauma Farm a chance. Salt Springs Island farmer Brian Brett is also a poet (it’s his main source of income, in fact, and he jokes throughout the book that it supports his farming habit), and the first couple of chapters came off as overly-flowery. After stacks of tomes on farming and sustainable food that are dry and full of statistics, Brett’s descriptive, poetic style seemed too disconcerting.

Likewise, the style of arranging the book – stories that comprise the “18-year-long day” of life on a B.C. farm, can be confusing at first, as Brett bounces back and forth to different points in the farm’s history, while loosely arranging the chapters along the lines of a typical day at the farm. A story about the death of a cherished pet or animal will be followed by another story on a different theme where the same animal plays a role. Until the readers gets all the characters straight, and accepts the non-linear train-of-thought style, the whole thing can be hard to follow. Settling in and pretending that you’re sitting on Brett’s back porch while he sips tea and shares stories of the farm seems to be the best way to approach the book.


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The Savvy Shopper – Not Milk

Southern Ontario’s food community was shocked earlier this week when news came down that dairy farmer Michael Schmidt was acquitted of all 19 charges against him with regards to the production and sale of raw milk. Because of laws created in the early 20th century, it is illegal to sell or give away raw milk in Canada. Milk pasteurization laws were created to protect the health of citizens consuming a product that, left untreated, could contain e.coli, salmonella and other deadly organisms.

It is still illegal to sell or give away raw milk, although it is not illegal to consume the stuff – Schmidt won because the case was really about the constitutionality of his business model, which is to sell shares in a cow (and their output) to private individuals. As “owners” of the cow, they can legally consume the milk from it. Schmidt’s fight was also against Ontario’s quota system, used in the dairy and poultry industries, which strongly favour large-scale farmers. The Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) run the quota system, which can cost farmers as much as $20,000 per cow, and all milk in the system is pooled and pasteurized, and sold through the DFO. Small scale farmers like Schmidt generally cannot afford to pay quota to the DFO, and besides the issues of right to choose and health and safety of the product, Schmidt likely makes more money selling shares of his product than he would by being involved in the DFO’s corporate system.

As would be expected, the DFO is not happy about Schmidt’s recent win, claiming that his system puts public health at risk.

One of Schmidt’s points in his defence (he represented himself in court) was that consumers should have freedom of choice. Food activists will continue to press this point as they begin to put pressure on the government to make raw milk publicly accessible and more widely available for sale. Personally, I think this is a bad idea. While I believe in the right to choose the food you eat, we need to remember that raw milk is a special product that requires considerable care both in how it is created and how it is stored by the consumer.


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The (Not So) Festive Special

For many Canadians, Swiss Chalet‘s Festive Special is an annual tradition. Even if they rarely eat from chain restaurants, most people I know admit that the chicken dinner with stuffing, cranberry sauce and a chocolate treat is a seasonal guilty pleasure.

Greg and I are no different. When the ads appear, we run around the house yelling “Festive SpeCHULLLL!” at the top of our lungs. It may be the only chain restaurant food we eat all year, but for some reason we have to have it.

So when the ads appeared recently we hopped online and started to place an order via the chain’s website. As we got to the point where it adds the tax, we noticed that the website automatically added a 5 cent surcharge for a plastic bag.

Besides the fact that we think Toronto’s freaky plastic bag bylaw is really stupid, we didn’t actually want Swiss Chalet’s bag. As an apartment dweller (no yard and no green bin) and the owner of two very large dogs, I regularly show up at friends’ homes and raid their plastic bag stash. I have been known to go to No Frills, well before the silly bylaw, for the sole purpose of buying plastic bags because I was out, and desperate. But those Swiss Chalet bags – those things are nasty; they don’t fold well in your pocket, they don’t tie well, and because of the condensation from the chicken dinners, they tend to smell of rotisserie chicken for days after.

So we cancelled the online order and called.


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Probiotics Revisited

It’s been a couple of years since I posted my rant about probiotic claims on yogurt containers. Recently, Dannon/Danone settled out of court rather than face a lawsuit that would make the research they based their product on public. In Europe, the Food and Safety Association has rejected health claims on packaging outright.

One science food writer believes that companies will rally and come up with better research and better strains of probiotics, becuase they actually do a lot of good. Marion Nestle would like to see the US take on a similar approach that the EU has and ban health claims on products completely – her point: foods are not drugs and we shouldn’t be treating them as such.

One other thing that I don’t see addressed by anyone…

Dannon is working hard to get an approved health claim from the European Standards Agency which annoyingly wants to see some science behind health claims before approving them. Dannon has now added a tomato extract to its yogurts with the idea that this substance, which appears to help deal with diarrhea, will strengthen its bid for a health claim.

Tomatoes are an allergy trigger for a lot of people. Just as adding fish oil to bread so it can be enriched with Omega 3 could trigger allergic reactions in people sensitive to fish, might we begin to see reactions to products with tomato extract added? This all seems a desperate attempt to confuse and mislead consumers into believing that they can buy a tub of yogurt instead of visiting a doctor or taking real medicine.

And of course, as even Dannon’s research made clear, the probiotics don’t work as well as the company is claiming they do. Add to that all the sugar and flavourings most people need to make yogurt palatable, and you might as well be eating candy. Plain, unadulterated yogurt contains natural probiotics that can (maybe) be beneficial to your health. Don’t be fooled by the hype and the pretty package.

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Loving the Lobster

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in Chives restaurant in Halifax with my brother and his wife. Our mains arrived and I dug into my lobster risotto. “You guys want some?” I asked, in between inhaling mouthfuls of the rich and creamy dish.

They both wrinkled up their noses at me. “No thanks… we’re kind of tired of lobster.”

Whu-whut?? Who could possibly be tired of lobster? Don’t they realize how good this stuff is? Why, if I lived, as they do, a mere 10 minute walk from the local wharf, and it was as cheap as it has been this summer, I’d eat lobster at least once a week. “We do.” They do. And they’re getting kind of sick of it.

Blame it on the recession. When times are tough, we give up the luxuries first, and this past year, even the people who could still afford the luxuries mostly gave them up, so as not to seem ostentatious while their friends and neighbours were losing jobs, homes and life savings. Which means that items like lobster, fine wines and truffles have been getting a bad rap, and people began avoiding them.

For a while it was fine – the price of lobster dropped and those of us who couldn’t afford the crustaceans on a regular basis ate our fill. But then the prices dropped even further, and the wholesalers began offering a price that was so low, it would actually cost the lobster fishers to go to work each day.


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Blood, Sweat and Takeaways – The Other Side of Local

This weekend marks the opening of Food. Inc, a film about the food industry in North America. Early reviews describe it as shocking and life-changing, revealing aspects of food production that most people are blissfully unaware of.

We are encouraged to know where our food comes from, and mostly that means local food. Know your farmer; know what’s in season; eat organic, sustainably produced food. And be willing to pay for it.

But as much as we can all sing local until the cows come home, much of the western world still relies on majority world countries to supply our foodstuffs. And we want it cheap.

The BBC 3 series Blood, Sweat and Takeaways, which ran over the past four weeks, followed 6 young British people (who were all accustomed to eating cheap junk food) as they travelled across southeast Asia, working in factories and rice fields to find out the human cost of their cheap food.

The 6 Brits try their hands working at a tuna factory in Indonesia cleaning and gutting fish; a prawn farm (where they spend their days rebuilding a mud levee to keep the prawns from being washed away in a storm); and a prawn factory where some of them are fired for not working fast enough. During the first two episodes they stay in the homes of  factory workers, and are appalled by the living conditions and outdoor toilets. They can never keep up with the local workers and are often embarrassed when a job they’ve been assigned has to be assisted or redone by locals.


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Happ McAnniversary to Me

It’s my 20 year McAnniversary this month. April of 1989 was the last time I ate anything from McDonald’s. I don’t remember the exact date because it wasn’t really a marker at the time. My boyfriend and I had been to the Toronto Zoo where we visited the Americans pavilion. There were huge info walls explaining that the Amazon rain forest was disappearing as more and more land was cleared to make space for cattle farms – to raise beef for US and Canadian burger chains. At the time, McDonald’s was the only food available to purchase at the Toronto Zoo (how’s that for irony?) and I made the decision then and there to never eat at McD’s again.

The task has been a surprisingly easy one. Living in downtown Toronto, I have plenty of other options and am still boggled at how people can choose McD’s over a block full of great ethnic restaurants. There has been some pressure over the years, with many people not understanding or respecting my decision, but I’ve managed to stick to my promise to myself.

In those 20 years, I’ve been inside a McDonald’s exactly four times. Twice on road trips in the early 90s along highway 401 when I needed to use the washroom, back when the rest stops consisted of a service station and a fast food restaurant. I won’t eat their food, but I will pee in their toilets, thank you very much. Rest stops are now more like tiny malls with a donut shop and a magazine/variety store as well as the restaurant and gas station, so I no longer have to go inside the McDonald’s to pee, and can usually find a candy bar or something to eat if I’ve not bothered to pack a snack. The other times were to drop off toys for a holiday toy drive and once when I was meeting someone at Dundas subway station, which has its own McD’s outlet.


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The Compassionate Carnivore

The Compassionate Carnivore: Or, How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald’s Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat
by Catherine Friend
Da Capo Press, 2008, 291 pages

I read this book over the holidays and it’s been sitting on my desk waiting for a review ever since. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk about it or discuss it, but rather that the message seems somewhat mixed and I haven’t been sure how to approach it.

Maybe I’m too much of a “seeing the world in black and white” kind of gal, because while I know that there are plenty of farmers out there who treat their animals well, who advocate for better lives and more humane slaughter methods for livestock, there’s still a part of me that can’t help thinking, “Yanno, if you really loved animals, you just wouldn’t kill them for food at all.”

This is even more difficult to parse when Compassionate Carnivore author Catherine Friend admits that she’s addicted to ready-meals and county fair pork on a stick. Yes, she and her partner raise sheep in an ethical and humane way, keeping to organic and sustainable principles as much as possible, but her own eating habits are less than stellar and certainly don’t put her in a position to preach to anyone else.

Therefore, I tried to concentrate on reading the book as an account of life on a farm, similar in context to the book Sylvia’s Farm or the blog Farmgirl Fare. And from that point of view, The Compassionate Carnivore scores well with plenty of stories of how Friend and her partner deal with all the issues of sheep-rearing from birth to slaughter.


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