Happy New Year everyone. I read a lot of food blogs and articles. Lately, I’ve come across more and more people who seem annoyed with the growing foodie culture. Even I have become confused with the sheer number of food-based reality shows and I understand there are more to come this year. Others are tired of waiting for tables at popular restaurants that have been well-reviewed online and in the press, and they’ve vowed to never wait for a meal again. Others still are tired of food that they believe has become too complicated, and they want only “simple” dishes. I understand and I’ve certainly found lots of menus pretentious. I also don’t go to restaurants only because they are trendy or popular, and there are many nights when I can’t imagine eating anything more complicated than a simple bowl of pasta. These critics seem to be saying that they are tired of food talk, food entertainment, and are asking quite simply, ‘Why can’t we just be happy with regular food?’
Fixing our food system is one of the most important things we can do for our country. The current system of mainstream food production is devastating to the environment, the lives and safety of its workers, animals, and to the health of consumers. I’m hearing from people who are ‘over’ organic and local foods and are even becoming annoyed when restaurants talk about their sourcing with diners. Don’t get me wrong; I love making fun of foodie culture. A lot of it is silly. When I first heard that an upscale restaurant here in NYC served two different olive oils, one for men and one for women, I was certain it was a joke or an SNL sketch. I’m not sure I could listen to a waiter explain ‘feminine oil’ to me without saying something wildly inappropriate. I also can’t get enough of the Portlandia scene where the waitress gives the diners the name and photo of the local chicken they are about to eat. If you haven’t seen it, it’s hilarious and really worth watching.
But I don’t think the pretension and occasional silliness of the language of the sustainable food movement should be used as a reason to minimize the movement all together – because we’re making progress. The fact is, many restaurants and home cooks are far more concerned with sourcing and sustainability than they were even a few years ago. There is more pressure on big companies to improve farming practices and people are, at the very least, discussing the role that soda plays in our national health crisis. Mark Bittman did a great piece last year that outlines the recent progress we’ve made in the food movement http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/19/progress-is-our-most-important-product/. Bittman, and nearly everyone else involved in improving our food system, is fully aware that fixing our food problems will be neither quick nor easy.
Establishments that make efforts to source responsibly need to inform their customers that they’ve done so. It can indeed be a lot to process on a menu. I might not want to read a lengthy description of the farm where a restaurant gets its eggs, but I can skim it and then at least acknowledge that the establishment went out of its way and probably spent a substantial amount of money to buy a product that wasn’t produced on a factory farm. I read a post recently by a diner who is tired of burger places making a big deal about serving grass-fed beef and just wants a ‘regular burger.’
The problem is that ‘regular’ food is in many ways more complicated than more sustainable food. While a ‘regular’ restaurant certainly could describe in detail how its chickens were raised, it would take lots of space (probably more space than the chicken was afforded most of its life) and it would not make for nice pre-dinner reading. Mass-produced food is still the norm and if a restaurant wants to let us know that it went out of its way to source animals from a specific farm or eggs from a specific breed of chicken, it needs to say so or add a label like ‘heritage,’ ‘pastured,’ or ‘local.’ The labels may be annoying to some people but to immediately peg them as pretentious misses the point. Restaurants are not required to tell diners when meat has been raised on a feedlot or processed with a new ammonia-based cleaning product. We assume that’s the case. They only need to say ‘beef.’ No label and no pretension. It’s just beef and it’s what’s for dinner. And unlike in the UK, eggs don’t need to be marked with a specific label letting the consumer know if the chicken spent its entire life in a battery cage. So we look for ‘cage-free’ eggs because without the label, the eggs are almost certainly not cage-free. The labels are simply giving us information about where the food came from.
Agribusiness has the best marketing I’ve ever seen. They’ve been able to convince people that a Wendy’s burger is ‘Old Fashioned,’ that pork is a white meat and that tomatoes are juicy and delicious 365 days a year regardless of where in America you live. From that perspective, a hamburger from a cow that wasn’t fed corn-based feed or antibiotics is a trendy new dish. Pork from a pig raised outdoors, is a food snob item. And tomatoes grown nearby in the summer rather than picked green and shipped 5000 miles are a luxury.
One recent online critique claimed that the food movement is “only relevant to rich white people” — everyone invested in the food movement needs to do more to make sure that’s not true – and that people from every background benefit from a move toward less processed and more affordable healthy options. Encouraging restaurants to source more responsibly is only one part of the larger effort to improve our food system. There are plenty of neighborhoods with no fresh food available at all. There are also people who simply can’t afford to buy responsibly produced products because they are too expensive. And there are thousands of children who can’t recognize fresh garlic or potatoes let alone worry about how they were grown or harvested. There is far more work to be done.
If you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose more sustainable products, there is no shame in patronizing restaurants that focus on better ingredients or in thanking a farmer who is raising a new type of heirloom plant or animal. Recently, I visited a cheese shop here in NYC that’s pretty high up on the hipster food scale. A very cool employee described in great detail the farm that a new goat cheese had come from. He even talked about how fun it was to visit the farm and share dinner with the farmer after milking the goats. To be honest, I was in a rush and not that interested in the whole story. But I thanked the employee. And I felt thankful again that night when I enjoyed the cheese knowing it had come from a real farm with good people who treat their animals and their surrounding environment well.
I hope this year we can continue to give our food more – not less – thought. Thinking about where our food comes from is not pretentious or out of touch. It’s real. And perhaps it’s the most honest thing we can do as we choose what to eat three times a day.