2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Pepper Bowen is Laying Down the Food Law in New Orleans

Food and environmental lawyer Shawn “Pepper” Bowen downs a What the Fuck? daiquiri and talks about the regulation of what Americans eat, working with small businesses, and African American land ownership.

New Orleans is so old, so fine, so big in the culture, and so vast in its disappointments and its triumphs, that it feels odd to mention just one side of the crescent kaleidoscope. But we have to call out one thing that has long attracted us to the city: New Orleans is like Disneyland for day-drinkers.

In other cities, we sometimes have to apologize a bit for asking our guests to drink before sundown. When The Trip editor Tafi told this week’s guest, the food lawyer Pepper Bowen, that we were interested in a little midday hard alcohol, she wrote back immediately: “Sounds Festive!” That is our kind of lawyer, our kind of town.

Here is an edited and condensed version of Nathan and Pepper’s conversation. You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Nathan Thornburgh: We’re back at the recording suite, which also happens to be my hotel room, with these Big Gulps.

Pepper Bowen: Oh, stop. They’re not Big Gulps.

Thornburgh: No, I come from New York and I just want the American experience of the 32-ounce, the 64-ounce drink.

Bowen: This is not that. This is a medium.

Thornburgh: This is a medium What The Fuck? daiquiri from Gene’s Curbside Daiquiri. So, tell me about daiquiris in New Orleans because they have a lot of baggage outside of New Orleans.

Bowen: Does it really?

Thornburgh: Well, it’s like a bad tourist drink in Hawaii. There’s a totally different context here, though. What is it?

Bowen: It’s something to get through a Sunday afternoon. It’s like slushy and it comes in gallon sizes for 20 bucks. Five people can drink out of that thing and you’re good to go. So they’re affordable, they’re accessible, they’re tasty. Who doesn’t like tasty drinks?

Thornburgh: They are tasty. They are very sweet. And there was a lot of flavors of daiquiri. We had a lot of choices.

Bowen: Exactly.

Thornburgh: They just basically went down the row and just chugged a bit from each flavor into the cup for the What The Fuck? So, we’re just going down the well soaking it all up. And we did turn down the extra shot on top.

Bowen: We did. Well, mainly it’s because it’s difficult to choose which one.

Thornburgh: Oh, that was the problem? I thought it was ’cause it’s 1:30 pm and we’re professional adults.

Bowen: Well, that could also be a problem.

Thornburgh: I have nothing to do except to drink five types of liquor in one styrofoam cup. No, that’s not true, I’m here to speak with you. I’ve come to New Orleans to do it and I’m very excited to be here. So, tell me who you are and what you do and then we’ll get right into it.

Bowen: I am the founding director of Culinaria Center for Food, Law, Policy, and Culture. I am an environmental attorney by trade, a food lawyer by choice, and my personal mission in life is to bring food to the consciousness of people who eat.

Thornburgh: Food law. That’s kind of what caught my eye, for sure. What are the legal underpinnings of this daiquiri?

Bowen: Food, as odd as it may sound to most people who’ve never had a class on contracts, is one of the most regulated, one of the most contractualized items that we have. I love telling people that part of the reason that we still have these huge issues, delineating whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable really boils down to the taxes that were going to be levied in New York Harbor and by calling it a vegetable they got away with paying less taxes than paying on fruit.

I don’t know how many people have been following the latest discussions coming out of the United States Department of Agriculture around dairy. What is considered milk? Does it have to come from a cow, does it have to come from a teat?

Thornburgh: Is this gonna gross me out? Is this one of these nasty what’s-in-your-milk stories?

Bowen: No it’s not about what’s in your milk, it’s about what gets to be called milk. Is soy milk “milk”? Is almond milk “milk”? It’s not “milk” milk because dairy farmers are upset that they’re calling it milk, it’s not milk.

Thornburgh: What’s your professional opinion on that?

one of the first steps is looking at land access or who has rights to land

Bowen: I think that we have invested quite a lot of time and energy in a naming convention. However, from a marketing perspective, I do understand that it’s not nearly as interesting to drink soy juice.

Thornburgh: Can we just call it milky almonds? Ew, that sounds like somebody with a cataract or something.

Bowen: See, it’s all about the marketing. How do you position this thing? And, especially, for the vegetarians and vegans of the world, their ideas around substitutions of proteins and other things that meat eaters eat or use. Is a veggie burger a burger or is it just a veggie patty? And who wants to eat a veggie patty? It’s not nearly as interesting.

Thornburgh: We had an amazing conversation on the podcast with a vegan chef in Australia, Shannon Martinez. She said that nobody wants to eat a “spicy soy log”, but they will totally go for the “vegan chorizo”.

So, does Culinaria exists mainly for education? Obviously, you’re taking casework around food.

Bowen: So we’ve got a couple of different arms or branches, as it were. The way that we started was really doing a lot of education. So, on the food circuit, talking with folks about food access, food justice, food security, food sovereignty. Talking about what all three of those things mean and how do they intersect with the world in which we live.

Sometimes you have more money than you think. Sometimes you have an unexpected expense and trying to pay for a blown alternator the same week that you’ve gotta buy groceries and things become complicated.

Thornburgh: Right these are some of the great choices that our great republic forces some of its citizens into.

Bowen: So, what we’ve also done is the mission is to work around policy. So expanding the laws in order to support food access and also creating policies that will create more food security. And so that work is really around ensuring that our local economy and our local food production, our local food businesses all have some sort of an outlet to advocate for them in some way, shape or form.

As an attorney, I do work with small businesses. So that means standing up working with maybe a pop-up that wants to become brick-and-mortar or helping folks with copyrights and trademarks. So, if the daiquiri shop ever wanted to put a label on the outside of the daiquiri that said, “What The Fuck?”

Thornburgh: To advertise this fine drink that they’ve sold us.

Bowen: To advertise this fine drink. I also work in environmental law, which brings us to the third arm of Culinaria which is working on a long term project that’s attempting to identify the impacts that lead and heavy metal contaminated water has on urban grown and processed food.

Early markers of lead contamination will manifest in children in things like learning disabilities, in things like neurological disorders, inattentiveness, impulse control disorders, aggression, anger.

Thornburgh: Super pernicious right? It’s a range of tough outcomes that come from something that cannot be seen, or smelled, or detected in any way except through professional measurements, and not available to the communities that are ingesting all this lead.

Bowen: Exactly. So, first things first. When we start talking about urban farmers, we’re not generally talking about marginalized people. I would love that to be the case. I would love for marginalized people to be growing tomatoes on their front stoop and have some greens rolling in the backyard. Generally, when we’re talking about urban farmers we’re talking about people who have dedicated their lives to this space.

These are folks who really do have the best interest of the communities where they are at heart. What ends up happening is that they are not able to maintain their gardens. So one of the first steps is looking at land access or who has rights to land. Culinaria’s objective is to actually bring in the folks who are in these areas, allow them to use their lived experience, and tell us what will work. Now, this is a departure from the way that we ordinarily look at things because those of us with multiple degrees always think we know best.

Thornburgh: So, you’re not trying to hear from anybody else about what they need?

Bowen: Exactly. History has proven that often folks who are most impacted by these issues have the best answers because they spend the most time thinking about it, right?

Basically, my morning routine is foie gras for children. I put Cheerios in a plastic tube shoved down their throats, and then kick them out the door.

Thornburgh: Do you feel like you have partners here in New Orleans? Like in the government? Do people recognize the need for food justice on some level?

Bowen: On some level, we’re getting there.

Thornburgh: You have a podcast called Green Pepper, and you brought a city councilwoman on as your first guest.

Bowen: Yeah.

Thornburgh: It’s like push polling. You’re having an interview with her, but also making sure she’s aware of the things that you want to get done and the things that Culinaria talks about. It’s very clever, I would do the same.

Bowen: What I find is that, especially for lawmakers, they really do want—as much as we give them crap—they really do want to do whatever it is that their constituents want for them to do. But the problem is that sometimes they are divorced from their actual constituents. They are also, sometimes, funded by folks whose desires and needs are at odds with their actually constituents. But by giving them the information they can make a more intelligent decision.

Thornburgh: You have multiple degrees. You’ve had multiple careers. You’re in law and you decided that food policy is your passion. When did that happen?

Bowen: I like to tell people I’ve been eating all my life and it’s important to me that I not die of starvation, which is true.

Thornburgh: You’re going for real universal themes there.

Bowen: Yes, yes. Because that hits on every level. I looked around after thinking that I was going to go to law school and become and immigration attorney. I figured out that I could not do that.

Thornburgh: Why?

Bowen: It is family law across international borders, which means that if I lose custody for a parent who is genuinely trying to do their best, I’ve lost custody for a parent across an international border where they may never see their child again. And I could not be involved in that.

Thornburgh: You as a sentient human being did not want to be a part of some terrible outcomes.

Bowen: I would be an absolute walking ball of nerves, and that is the last thing that you need in a courtroom.

So the scholarship at the time was suggesting to look around at the things that you do for free and the thing that you love, figure that out ’cause that’s where you need to be. I’d already made this unconscious shift into eating with the seasons because I had a couple of kids and it was important to me that every memory around food was super important. It’s a testament to my Type A personality. I was baking little muffins and quick breads every morning so that when they awoke that they would have the smell and-

Thornburgh: Wow.

Bowen: I know.

Thornburgh: I can’t keep up with that kind of game. Basically, my morning routine is foie gras for children. I put Cheerios in a plastic tube shoved down their throats, and then kick them out the door.

Bowen: They like it. Is it cruelty if they like it?

Thornburgh: It’s all right, my kids aren’t listening to this podcast anyway. So, they’ll never know there was a better life out there.

Some studies will tell you that it’s less than one percent of all of the land is owned by black farmers.

Bowen: So, I got into environmental law through food. When I went into law school, there had just been all of this hoopla around organic farmers in the northeast corridor being sued by Monsanto for their intellectual property.

Thornburgh: Love this world, yep.

Bowen: I was horrified. I was horrified because it was wrong, it was evil. They were bad people. Now that I’ve worked in intellectual property, I’m just like, “Oh, I get it.” But it’s still kind of messed up.

Thornburgh: You had also grown up, or you’d went to high school in very small town Louisiana. You were telling me that the farming industry kind of had started to die.

Bowen: I did. We want to grow food in a way that supports bigger businesses. I can honestly say as much as I spent time in small-town Louisiana, their plight was not at the forefront of my mind at the time.

Thornburgh: We bring a lot of our larger societal bullshit to some of these farm issues. There’s a class action lawsuit going on now about poor quality soybeans that have been sold en masse, to African American farmers specifically.

Bowen: I was a panelist last week, and I was saying then that a lot of the co-ops that sprung up during the Civil Rights era in parts of rural Mississippi and parts of rural Louisiana and Georgia and some of the other states of Black farmers were necessary, but the ones that succeeded and were sustained are the anomaly.

At the height of black farmer land ownership, about 14% of all of the land that was owned by farmers were owned by black farmers. Now, we are down to less than 2%. Some studies will tell you that it’s less than one percent of all of the land is owned by black farmers. Part of that is not just the quality of the product that they’re being sold, part of it is the access to loans.

Thornburgh: God that’s a shocking stat to me. I think this is going to be a recurring conversation that I’m having down here in my time, but in New Orleans especially but the agriculture in the south was run by African-Americans, literally.

Bowen: Define irony.

Thornburgh: And now they’re getting run out of it. That feels like as good a place as any to leave it. My daiquiri is gone.

Bowen: Your daiquiri’s done? That’s the end. I’m wondering what would have happened had we gotten the Large cup.

Thornburgh: We’d still be going four hours from now. I could do it. I feel like what I just got was the course syllabus, the outline of all of the things that we could talk about. So the best thing that I could say about that to our listeners and readers is that you have Green Pepper Podcast where you dive even deeper into these issues all the time.

Bowen: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Thornburgh: Thank you Pepper Bowen!

You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 33 Show Notes

Tune into Pepper’s podcast, Green Pepper, to learn more about foodways and the policies that affect them.

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