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“If you want to buy a Happy Meal with a horsemeat burger, a can of Four Loko, trans fat fried foie gras, and a side of shark fin soup, I applaud your right to make those choices,” says Baylen Linnekin as we sit on his porch in North Bethesda.
The 39-year-old executive director of the nonprofit Keep Food Legal has a decidedly libertarian perspective on food politics. “We want you to have the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, cook, eat, and drink the food of your own choosing,” he says. “We’re opposed to subsidies that skew those choices and bans that clear those choices off the board. People are not stupid. They can make their own choices and live with the consequences.”
To that end, we’re sipping on cans of lemonade-flavored Four Loko, malt liquor cranked up with guarana, caffeine, and taurine. When I admit my ignorance over the final ingredient, Linnekin offers, “I think it’s approved for use in animal feed as a stimulant, but not in human food.” That’s reassuring.
The boozy energy drink was banned in several states in 2010 after it was linked to illness and, in some cases, death. Before the company pulled it off the shelves, Linnekin ran out and bought several cases, but not because he likes it.
“It’s disgusting,” he admits. “But I don’t believe that my personal tastes should dictate what other people choose to enjoy.”
With its presiding bitterness and lingering chemical aftertaste, Four Loko definitely isn’t Country Time lemonade, but Linnekin is more concerned with his philosophical point than his palate.
Since founding Keep Food Legal in 2010, Linnekin has taken on a number of high profile issues, including arguing against subsidies for soy and corn, as well as bans on foie gras and horsemeat; he’s also weighed in on the battle over unpasteurized milk—known as raw milk—which is illegal in the District. “You can buy raw chicken, beef, or fish,” he says. “Sushi is still legal—thankfully—though it has sickened people as recently as a week or two ago. People should have the freedom to make those decisions on their own for themselves and their family.”
Keep Food Legal doesn’t lobby or buy ads, due to its limited resources; the group raised only $6,011 in 2011, Linnekin says. Instead, Linnekin publishes articles and op-eds, speaks at conferences and events, and works to spread the message through social media.
Linnekin had the idea for the organization when he was attending the American University Washington College of Law in 2006, where he began to realize that law and food were intrinsically intertwined. “A lot of the most important cases of the last 100 years or so center around food, but they’re not thought of as food cases,” he says. “For example, Wickard v. Filburn is about a wheat farmer and whether the government can restrict his right to grow wheat beyond a certain government imposed quota. The court said yes, but I disagree.”
Linnekin began exploring this connection in his writings for libertarian publications, including Reason magazine, the now-defunct food blog Crispy on the Outside, and the law blog Overlawyered, which was founded by a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “I’m getting all jazzed about the idea that rights are wrapped up in food, and food is wrapped up in rights,” he says.
In 2009, he finished law school and immediately enrolled in a yearlong master of laws program in agricultural and food law at the University of Arkansas. There he began the process to register Keep Food Legal as a 501(c)4 group, which he launched in the fall of 2010 after graduation. (So far, all the funding has come from members, who currently number fewer than 100.)
Linnekin recruited a few high-profile food rights activists whose work he admired to sit on the board, including Liz Williams, founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, and chef Didier Durand of Cyrano’s Bistrot in Chicago, who had helped overturn a foie gras ban there. Nick Gillespie, the editor in chief of Reason.com, joined, too.
Linnekin and his band immediately attracted detractors. Michele Simon is the president of Eat Drink Politics, a consulting agency that works with nonprofits and law firms on public health issues. Though she and Linnekin have what she terms a respectful relationship when it comes to sparring at conferences or on Twitter, she doesn’t see eye-to-eye with him on a philosophical level.
“Thanks to the right wing, we have deregulated every single aspect of corporate behavior, so that killing people is perfectly legal,” says Simon. “This idea of the corporate nanny state is complete bullshit and a very privileged way of thinking about philosophical ideas. People are suffering from the overreach of corporations and living in situations where they can’t make the same choices as everyone else. To me, it’s complete bullshit distraction to say, ‘Oh my God, the government is going too far.’ Let’s worry about that when we get the government to do anything to protect the people.”
There is one area where Linnekin agrees some government regulation is appropriate: “I’m flatly opposed to the hunting of endangered species for food purposes,” he says. But even that comes with a caveat. “If you’re dying in the desert and it’s you or the endangered snake, then a person should be free to eat an endangered species.”
* * *
A few days after sharing a Four Loko with Linnekin, I meet him at Wong Gee Asian Restaurant in Wheaton, one of the only eateries near D.C. I could find that still openly sells shark fin products. Here, he has another chance to put his ideology where his mouth is.
The ingredient, which is used in several traditional Chinese dishes and remedies, has been come under fire recently because of how fishermen obtain it. Many use a method called finning, which involves simply cutting off the prized protrusion and discarding the shark to die from its injuries. This practice is a federal offense, another rare example of a food law Linnekin agrees with. “That’s a vile practice that doesn’t conform with traditional, common-law visions of what hunting is about,” he says. “If you kill a deer in the woods, you don’t get to just move on and shoot the next one and the next one.”
But the Maryland legislature has been considering its own law that would also ban “possessing, selling, offering for sale, trading, or distributing” shark fin, even if it was obtained from a shark that had been caught whole for the purpose of being completely consumed. That’s where Linnekin feels that the government oversteps its bounds.
“As long as it’s OK to eat fish—and I aim to ensure that’s the case—then shark fin is just another potential food source,” he says.
At Wong Gee, we each order a bowl of shark fin soup and split a trio of steamed shark fin dumplings.
“It’s probably unconstitutional for Maryland to ban shark fin,” Linnekin muses while we wait for our food to arrive. “Since the federal government already has a ban in place on shark finning, I’d argue that the supremacy clause of the Constitution would preempt Maryland from banning it, though you could probably find a thousand lawyers who would disagree with me.”
The dumplings come out first, looking no different than their pork-filled colleagues. Taking a bite, my teeth meet a rubbery resistance that’s not unlike over-stiffened Jell-O. The flavor is muted, but there is a hint of brine and a smidge of almost liver-like richness. Looking at the cross-section, I can see bits of chive and carrots along with bits of what looks like dark shark meat. There are also see-through strands resembling clear gummy worms. That’s the fin.
“It’s like a Chinese matzo ball,” says Linnekin after a bite.
The soup is an even more gelatinous concoction. Puddled with oil, slivers of chicken hang in suspension in the gloopy liquid, which gives off the faintest scent of bacon fat. Dipping the spoon in brings up the shark fin “noodles,” which are simply slender strips of the cartilage. They add a textural element, but no flavor. Overall—and quite surprisingly—the soup doesn’t taste that much different than chicken noodle soup.
“I’d eat this again,” says Linnekin after a few bites. “Of course, I can’t vouch for the circumstances under which the shark perished. The restaurant doesn’t have a Monterey Bay Aquarium rating for their soup.”
Who knows if this shark was caught whole and used in its entirety? If that was the case, then its possible we’re enjoying relatively cruelty-free shark fin soup. Not that Linnekin cares one way or the other, since he thinks we should eat it no matter how it was procured.
In between spoonfuls, I ask if there’s anything that he wouldn’t try at least once in his culinary rights crusade.
He pauses for a moment, “I couldn’t bring myself to eat dog,” he admits. “I love them too much.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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