Dinner with Michael Jacobson, ‘Chief of the Food Police’

February 28, 2011

The kitchen of America’s No. 1 food scold pretty much looks as you would expect.

The contents of the blue cabinets inside Michael Jacobson’s Cleveland Park home resemble the shelves of a food co-op: There are carefully labeled jars of split peas, lentils and whole-wheat couscous, and a box of high-fiber, low-sugar cereal that entreats you to “Discover the toasted whole grain crunch.”

Jacobson, 67, is co-founder and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Ralph Nader-inspired D.C. outfit best known for exposing the nutritional perils of buttered popcorn, Kung Pao chicken, chimichangas and trans fats. After 40 years of telling everyone that what they are eating is slowly killing them, he has earned the unofficial honorific “Chief of the Food Police” and less savory epithets, such as the “Ayatollah of Food,” from restaurant and food-industry types.

His ascetic appearance — he’s a slight 5 feet, 8½ inches tall and 155 pounds — suits his vocation. Yet inside lurks something of a showman who has come up with myriad headline-grabbing ways of demonizing ingredients. He dubbed fatty fettuccine alfredo “heart attack on a plate” and once delivered a bag of 170 extracted, decayed teeth to federal regulators, along with a petition to ban the promotion of sugary snacks during kids’ television shows.

So what does the nation’s food scold eat in the privacy of his home? Does he gorge on Cheetos? Does he limit himself to raw vegetables and bruised fruit?

On this particular weekday evening, Jacobson is host and chef, assisted by his daughter, Sonya, 18, and a new CSPI employee, Lilia Smelkova, 32.

The main course is a dish Jacobson named during a 2007 appearance on “The Colbert Report.” When the comedian challenged him to “name something as flavorful as pepperoni pizza,” Jacobson blurted out, “Pasta primavera with spicy tomato sauce and a little Parmesan cheese.”

In his kitchen, a sign in the window reads,“Mike’s Cafe,” a reference to the fact that his wife, public interest lawyer Donna Lenhoff, “comes from a long line of women who don’t cook,” Jacobson explains. Lenhoff isn’t here to defend herself, as she has theater tickets. On the phone, she says she likes that her husband does most of the cooking because he cares so much about food and what’s in it.

She knew of his reputation before meeting him at a friend’s Hanukkah party. While eyeing the menu on their first date, at an Italian restaurant, she was relieved when he asked whether she wanted some wine, which she took as a sign that “he was not a teetotaler and he’s not rigid.” She recalls that Jacobson seemed relieved when she said she was a vegetarian.

Pre-picky days

These days, when it comes to diet, the Jacobson-Lenhoff household is highly individualistic. Jacobson eats fish, but not poultry or red meat. His wife now eats fish and poultry. His daughter doesn’t like fish but will eat sushi.

“You used to eat everything,” Jacobson says to Sonya. “And then, at some point, you got picky.”

In pre-picky days, when Sonya was small, Jacobson and Lenhoff shielded her from junk food. He was proud that they had managed to keep her out of a McDonald’s until she was nearly 5. At Halloween, they handed out raisins instead of Tootsie Rolls and Hershey’s Kisses. And at Sonya’s first few birthdays, Jacobson bypassed Carvel and served homemade carrot cake, not always with icing.

“It wasn’t Paula Deen carrot cake,” Sonya says. “But it was good.”

Inevitably, temptation arrived in the form of a round cookie with white filling.

“I remember the first time I ate an Oreo,” she says. “I said, ‘What is this? This is good!’ ”

Erring on the side of pragmatism, her parents decided to serve healthful fare at home but not to force Sonya to adhere strictly to their diet beyond their kitchen.

As he stirs mushrooms in a cast-iron skillet, Jacobson sounds sanguine about the matter. Once kids pass age 3 or so, they “go out into the world, to friends, to McDonald’s, birthday parties,” he says. “We said, ‘She’s going to learn. She’ll have to decide.’ ”

So far, Sonja, who is applying to college this year, has inherited her mother’s aversion to cooking: “I’ll just marry someone rich enough so we can order in every night,” she says.

Her father just keeps sautéeing.

Jacobson grew up in Chicago eating brisket, hamburgers, deep-dish pizza, fried chicken and, yes, Twinkies. Though he long ago switched to a low-calorie diet, he acknowledges that he is “a bit thin-skinned” when put on the spot about his gastronomic habits. “If I’m a purist, then I get made fun of for being a purist. If I’m not a purist, then I’m a hypocrite,” he says. “I don’t pretend to eat a perfect diet.”

His reputation also makes him an intimidating dinner guest. “I don’t think we get as many dinner invitations as we would otherwise because people are afraid to cook for Michael Jacobson,” Lenhoff says.

In the dining room, Smelkova, the CSPI employee, dishes out a generous portion of rotini on each plate. Jacobson follows with the sauce. Sonya asks for extra. “If you’re going to make me eat whole-wheat pasta, at least cover it up!” she says.

The only beverage offered is seltzer water. The only garnish is a container of Giant-brand powdered Parmesan. Before setting down the cheese, Jacobson reads aloud the sodium content: 120 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon. “But we’re eating only a teaspoon,” he says, shrugs and puts it down.

Processed food for thought

Jacobson, who holds a doctorate in microbiology, never thought about what he ate until he arrived in Washington in 1970 and Nader set him to work on a book about food additives. He said that once he was aware of the nutritional deficiencies and dangers of many processed foods, he stopped eating a lot of things. For instance, he hasn’t eaten a hot dog since the Carter, or possibly the Ford, administration. His indulgences consist of a white flour bagel with cream cheese and frozen yogurt, which is the night’s only other course.

He co-founded CSPI in 1971 with another scientist and a Catholic priest, both of whom have left the group. The counter-cultural trio were pioneers in turning processed-food makers into corporate bogeymen.

As CSPI grew — it now has a staff of 70 in the United States and Canada and a $17 million annual budget — its props became more sophisticated. To illustrate potential side effects of the fat substitute Olestra, which include diarrhea, the group gave out toilet paper with “Olestra” printed on it. In the 1990s, Jacobson appeared on CNN and chiseled a 50-pound block of lard to show the artery-blocking hazards of trans fats. The unsaturated fat was later banned in California and New York City restaurants.

But it is behind the scenes, where Jacobson takes a more reasonable tone, that companies and regulators have agreed to change policies. In 1986, the group’s work led to a partial ban on the use of sulfites on most fresh fruits and vegetables, after CSPI and federal regulators uncovered at least a dozen deaths, mostly among asthmatics, related to the chemical. Until then, sulfites were heavily used to preserve crispness and coloring. In more recent years, the group has played a big role in sharply reducing the amount of partially hydrogenated oil in the food supply and getting food companies to cut back on salt. Both substances have been linked to heart disease. The group also has been involved in improving food-safety regulations and getting junk food out of schools.

At dinner, the conversation turns to rising obesity rates among children around the world. Sonya mentions a McDonald’s in Asia that plans to host weddings, complete with a “cake” made of McDonald’s signature apple pie.

As Jacobson registers mild alarm, mostly over the apple-pie cake, a smile slowly breaks across Sonya’s face. “If I wanted to get married there, would you still walk me down the aisle, Dad?” she asks. “Or would you die first?”

Her father laughs and pronounces: “Die first.”

“Poor Sonya, the daughter of the food police,” he says later, smiling ruefully. “What a sad fate.”

The pasta primavera proves to be a success. The guests clean their plates, including Sonya.

“I didn’t eat lunch,” she explains to Smelkova.

“If anyone wants more, there are no leftovers,” Jacobson announces, having carefully measured out the exact amount of rotini required for four servings on a food scale. Before anyone can complain, he taps the table gently.

“Okay,” he says. “Dessert!”

shina@washpost.com

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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