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Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack Reimagines Food Policy
The USDA heads in surprising new directions
"[Food] is an education process. And what I'm trying to do is to take the judgmental aspect out of it, because when you have that, you basically create an 'us and them' kind of thing. And…we've got enough of that in this country. Way too much of it. So to me, it's like, it's not us or them — it's us."
I was among the people who were disappointed when President Biden failed to consider a novel choice for Secretary of Agriculture, and instead chose Tom Vilsack, President Obama’s two-term secretary. Secretary Vilsack’s background — he was governor of Iowa, which is really ground zero for industrial agriculture, he did little to endear himself to the food movement during his previous term, and he showed himself to be a friend of Big Food in the intervening years — led me and others to bemoan his appointment. (Of course, Trump’s Secretary, Sonny Perdue, set the bar so low that any change would have been welcome.)
Yet, Tom Vilsack — some call him Vilsack 2.0 — has been more than a pleasant surprise. His department started by supporting the long overdue Justice for Black Farmers Act and has proceeded to make progress in a number of different arenas in the last year, acting especially compassionately regarding the SNAP and WIC programs during the pandemic.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but it’s not just me saying this. My friend Ricardo Salvador, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Food & Environment Program, is among the most knowledgeable people in the country when it comes to food policy, and has also expressed support for the Secretary.
Secretary Vilsack may not be a revolutionary, but the incremental changes he’s making are welcome, if overdue. And, as I think you’ll agree, he made for an interesting interview on this week’s episode of Food with Mark Bittman. Our time was strictly limited, so I tried to keep my mouth shut. There were some things about our talk that confused me, so I reached out to Ricardo afterward and asked him if he would listen to the recording and chat about it with me. So what we have today are two interviews — the first, with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the second with Ricardo.
The recipe featured in the episode, inspired by Secretary Vilsack, is below. Please listen, subscribe, and review! And we’d love to hear your food-related questions, as we’d like to start doing live Q&A soon: Email us at email@example.com.
Thank you, as always. — Mark
One-Pot Pasta with Butter and Parmesan
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 25 minutes
Instead of boiling pasta and making the sauce separately here, you add liquid incrementally to toasted pasta until it’s tender — yes, like risotto, which in fact can be mimicked quite effectively if you use orzo. The starch in thick orecchiette or shells encourages a creamy sauce; breaking long strands into thirds or fourths delivers more contrasting textures. The cooking time and absorption rate might vary a bit, so be sure to add the water a little at a time and check frequently for doneness.
4 tablespoons (1⁄2 stick) butter
1 small onion or large shallot, chopped
1 pound any pasta
Salt and pepper
1⁄2 cup dry white wine or water
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1. Put 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large pot over medium heat. When it is hot, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it softens, about 3 minutes. Add the pasta, raise the heat a bit, and cook, stirring constantly, until it’s glossy and smells toasty, about a minute. Add a little salt and pepper, then the wine, and stir.
2. Let the liquid bubble away. Begin to add water, 1⁄2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition. When the liquid is just about absorbed, add more. The noodles should be neither soupy nor dry. Keep the heat at medium to medium-high, stir frequently, and repeat as necessary.
3. Begin tasting the pasta 10 minutes after you added it; it should be tender but have some resistance when you bite. (It could take as long as 20 minutes to reach this stage.) When the pasta is ready, stir in the remaining butter and the Parmesan, adding a little more water if necessary to coat the noodles in sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve right away, passing more Parmesan at the table.