Dinner with Michael Jacobson, 'Chief of the Food Police'

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 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.

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