Thursday, June 18, 2009

"[Michael Pollan's] chief criticism of Chicken McNuggets is that they are insufficiently delicious. (Has he tried them with the hot-mustard sauce?)"

UPDATED

In the course of orals readings today, I came upon an article that proves, proves, my BA thesis was way off. French Jews at the time of the Dreyfus Affair were not, in fact... I promise if you're not one of three people working on this, you don't care, and even if you are, you've got better things to do, so I'll stop while I'm ahead.

That failure makes me all the more delighted that another theory I'd been tossing around for some time has, if not been proven right, turned up in infinitely-better-expressed-than-I-could-do-it form in the New Yorker.

For a while now, I've been suggesting that there's some connection between the new, artisanal-food, back-to-the-farm movement and the sort of nativism that got Maurice Barrès-types all worked up, back in the good old days of shamelessly racist European nationalism. Let me be clear: it's not that Waters/Pollan/etc. are racists or nativists, but that rejecting the foreign - which is what any pro-local movement does - lends itself to, well, rejecting the foreign, rejecting modernity, etc., etc. Sarah Palin's Real America might dig in at Denny's, but suspicion of cities and of the way things are done in far-off lands brings the ickier aspects of the right together with aspects of the left that, if silly-sounding, have the potential (if not taken over-the-top) to save both lives and the environment.

Anyhow. In the latest New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh explains how the artisanal-food and "very small business" movements have the potential to get a bit... iffy, in the way that rejections of modernity often do. Women, for instance, don't come out so great, nor does, in a larger sense, the feminine:

For [PhD turned motorcycle repairman] Crawford, offices are profoundly feminized places. Reading a study about the sneaky ways in which managers assert their authority, he compares office life to "being part of a clique of girls," with a brutal hierarchy hidden beneath "the forms and manners of sisterhood."
And then of course there's the question of ferners:
An antipathy, however mild, to foreignness is indispensable to the creed of localism, which seeks to make our economic worlds more intelligible by shrinking them. When Pollan visited some of the industrial-scale organic farms that Gene Kahn works with, the first surprise was the workers: he confessed that he hadn’t expected to see “migrant labor crews” on an organic farm.
Hmm. Why might someone who's studied (perhaps more than one should - at least I now know what really went on during the Dreyfus Affair) late 19th and early 20th century European rejections of modernity find anything off-putting about where this might lead?
Part of the appeal of the localist-artisanal creed, for certain liberals and conservatives alike, is precisely that it’s anti-cosmopolitan, anti-corporate, anti-progress—an alternative to the creative destruction of capitalism. It tugs against the shared assumptions of most Democrats and Republicans: that America’s future is bright; that change is good.
But let me back up a moment in his story. Without entering into the European tradition of land-worship (aside from mentioning Slow Food's Italian roots) Sanneh brings up the question that should be on all of our minds - why are mass-produced cheeseburgers assumed to the food of conservatism, and garden-fresh arugula for liberals alone?
Agrarianism, like environmentalism, hasn’t always been considered a progressive cause, and there’s nothing inherently liberal about artisanal cheese, or artisanal bikes—and, just as important, nothing inherently conservative about multinational corporations. Rod Dreher, a National Review contributor and the author of “Crunchy Cons,” is ardently pro-organic and ardently anti-gay marriage. Victor Davis Hanson, the author of “Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea,” is also the author of “Mexifornia,” about the dangers posed by immigration.
As I see it, what holds back the food movement from going down xenophobia road is that it is primarily a product of the left - that there's a PC insistence upon caring about local/seasonal but also about what's consumed in the inner city, that cosmopolitan types (i.e. city-dwellers, PhDs, Francophiles, Jews) loom large in the movement's ranks, these things really do owe something to the cause starting, at least, as a liberal one. It's not that conservatism is always racist and liberalism never that way. It's just that the scary bits tend to come from the most progressive types on the left, and the most anti-progress ones on the right, so it's probably for the best that the pro-farmer sorts making the news are also the ones the least likely to hold forth on what they really think about Mexicans. Of course local/seasonal could be conservatism, we - even most conservatives among us - should just be glad that it's not.

UPDATE
, via.

8 comments:

PG said...

"Agrarianism, like environmentalism, hasn’t always been considered a progressive cause, and there’s nothing inherently liberal about artisanal cheese, or artisanal bikes—and, just as important, nothing inherently conservative about multinational corporations."

This sounds like the article writer is in the typical muddle people have nowadays of assuming that Republican = conservative. Creative destruction *isn't* conservative; by its very nature, it is rolling over the good old ways in order to build something new and heretofore untried. A preference for what is old because it is old and tested by time is inherently unprogressive and possibly illiberal.

I find that what used to be understood by the word "conservatism" is best represented in modern culture by country music, which as a genre is devoted to celebrating how things used to be: the authoritarian father, the home-making mother, the centrality of Friday night football and Sunday morning church in the life of a small town, etc. Alan Jackson's song "Little Man" is a paean to small businesses and home gardens (organic and labor-intensive: ground broken every spring by "an old black man with his mule and his plow").

Matt said...

An antipathy, however mild, to foreignness is indispensable to the creed of localism

I think this bit is too strong. I like local foods and traditions, and think something is lost when they are gone. But I like the local foods and traditions of all sorts of places, not just where I come from or where I am, and don't see why others would necessarily think otherwise. I'd agree that a sort of xenophobia is often enough _common_ among "localist" types, and I think that they often don't pay enough attention to the real costs of their model. But the stronger claim, of a necessary connection, or an "indispensable" element seems much too strong to me.

(The bit about being surprised to see migrant workers on the industrial-sized organic farm need not be quite so sinister sounding, I think. Rather, it might just show a strong level of naivete on the writer's part, showing that he doesn't know much about farms and how they work. Many "on the left" think migrant work is bad because they think it's necessarily exploitative, and think that organic is morally good, so would assume, wrongly, that the two can't go together. Learning this isn't so would then be a surprise and disappointing even without any antipathy towards foreigners. So, I suspect a lot of the trouble is being naive rather than vicious.)

Phoebe said...

To both: I liked Sanneh's piece. I didn't agree with every last word, but in the interests of avoiding this response to it, and because it's nice to see something you agree with in a major publication, I didn't pick it apart.

Anyhow.

PG,

But the fact of the matter is that self-identified conservatives today do by and large identify with, if not Republican party, at least mainstream conservatism, which is not platonic-ideal conservatism. See: the anti-Waters good ol' American National Review piece; a conservative response to one of my posts on food and conservatism. In theory conservatives would be the ones embracing local-seasonal, but the libruls liked it first, so cheeseburgers it is.

Matt,

"But I like the local foods and traditions of all sorts of places, not just where I come from or where I am, and don't see why others would necessarily think otherwise."

I can think of a reason - part of local-sustainable is that both travel and imports are bad for the environment. But assuming you're experiencing the local cuisines of elsewhere in your local area, with foods grow locally, is it better to go to a restaurant or cook a dish representing, say, just one village in or region of Spain? What if the best dish results from a mix of Austrian and Vietnamese traditions? (Seems unlikely - and I say this as someone who likes both - but whatever.) With food, I can get behind the importance of taking health and the environment into account, and of looking for what tastes best, but food as appreciation of particular regions... it's not that it's racist. It's just, I suppose, that I don't see the point. Cuisines always have all kinds of outside influences, dishes are always claimed by a wide range of cultures (falafel, say), so to tie up food with locality for cultural reasons... I know, I should be pro-terroir, what with this being a Francophile blog, but... not convinced. Even if the pro-local, pro-terroir idea isn't in itself racism, and is embraced by all sorts of open-minded people, what it is is arbitrarily claiming that the place a dish comes from should affect how likely we are to claim it tastes good. It's the arbitrary bit, the idea that something beyond taste and even beyond health/environment should enter into it, that I think the author's referring to in the phrase you quote.

Re: migrant workers, not having read what Pollan originally wrote, I wondered whether Pollan actually knew the workers were migrants, or if he assumed, on the basis of race/class, that this was the case, before learning the workers' official status. I think that makes a big difference.

Matt said...

is it better to go to a restaurant or cook a dish representing, say, just one village in or region of Spain? What if the best dish results from a mix of Austrian and Vietnamese traditions?

I certainly wouldn't say that either is "better" in any absolute sense, and as for myself I would like a chance to enjoy both, and would tend to think anyone who thought you had to like only one or the other was a bit limited. Of course there is no social world without loss, and we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking all good things can be combined in one world (or life), but the way you set up the choice (and the way some of the people you discuss set it up, it seems), make it seem like a starker choice than I think is plausible.

It's just, I suppose, that I don't see the point.

Sure- that's fine. You don't have to like it or be interested in it or anything, but why not just leave it at that, and for those who do see the point, let them do that, too? To a large degree this really seems a matter of taste (no joke intended w/ this having to do w/ food), and the quest to make it a deeply moral choice, on either side, seems misguided to me. To paraphrase a foot-note from Camus, why note just says "I like it" or "it makes me feel good" and have that be enough in this case?

Phoebe said...

"You don't have to like it or be interested in it or anything, but why not just leave it at that, and for those who do see the point, let them do that, too?"

I'm not trying to stop anyone from eating only food grown in a four-square-foot patch in their own backyards. What I am saying is that the local-food movement is not about individuals wanting region-specific Italian one night and Asian-fusion the next, but about, along with the health/environment concerns, the notion that region-specific is better than region-indifferent. Once again, I am not saying it's racist or bigoted or unacceptable or something so dramatic to prefer regional foods just for the sake of it. What I'm attempt to do is to defend the quote you mention, which I may not have worded just like that myself, but which I agree with shall we say in spirit. A person more intrigued by a restaurant promising either Northern or Southern Italian cuisine than in an Italian restaurant with no regional descriptors is, even if unintentionally, taking political/non-food-taste-related aesthetic factors (i.e. an appreciation of regional specificity, perhaps for the sake of regional specificity, perhaps for something more involved) into account.

Again, I think people can do what they want in this regard. What I also think is that the food movement would do better to focus on the health/environment/taste (in the sense of freshness) factors than to get all excited about regionalism.

PG said...

I don't think I've ever heard of a local-food type person focusing on how one cooks the locally-produced ingredients as needing to be based wholly in one region. Can someone provide an example of this thinking?

I thought "local food" was about the source of the ingredients, not the inspiration for what those ingredients are made into. My grandmother's East Texas bean curry made from beans grown in her own backyard therefore would be applauded, even though it could hardly be further from the local food traditions of where she happens to live now.

Phoebe said...

My example came from Matt's comment, that he appreciates region-specific cuisine, as well as local foods in the sense of where the ingredients are produced. Moving beyond Matt's case, there's France, where terroir means eating the cuisine of the region and what's grown in that region. So, that would be an example of this thinking. I would not be shocked if similar views exist in other European countries, but even if it's specific to France, France (thanks to Alice Waters' time as an exchange student or similar) is largely the inspiration for the American food movement. For obvious reasons (a culture less enamored of its national or regional cuisines), local has yet to get extensively linked with region-specific cuisine when it comes to cuisines 'native' to the US.

PG said...

I wonder to what extent this is also due to the Green Revolution and other technology (chemical, bioengineered)-driven changes in agriculture being led by the U.S., whereas the organic/local types learn from Belgium.