Monday, August 31, 2009

Against 'terroir'

It comes as no surprise that Roger Cohen, who gets just about everything wrong, devoted his latest column to praising the French notion of terroir, "the untranslatable combination of soil, hearth and tradition that links most French people to a particular place."

I find it telling that Cohen translates this 'untranslatable' term as being about French people, when the term is, I believe, about French wine, and to a lesser extent foods, that can, according to myth, only be done right if produced on certain land. The people involved in this production - farmers and the like - should, in theory, be able to come from absolutely wherever. What with France's massive history as a destination for immigrants, the notion that to be French is to have timeless ties to a particular dot on the French map is just... no.

However. The innocuous if irrational idea that one can only produce a certain gastronomical product in one locale has historically been a short leap away from the belief that human beings are in some mystical and eternal way tied to their ancestral lands. This take - most memorably expressed by right-wing intellectual Maurice Barrès - is, of course, essentialist racist ridiculousness of the sort that has long, long been discredited. Applying 'terroir' to people not only denies the possibility of integration (of immigrants from far-off lands, but also, potentially, of people from the next town over) but conveniently ignores the 'mixed' heritage of those who can supposedly trace their history purely to one given spot.

That America doesn't have this concept is, I'd say, among the country's greatest strengths. Americans are better-positioned than Europeans to embrace local food, small-scale production, farmers' markets and the like without holding nonsensical beliefs about the 'sacred' quality of their land, without believing 'local' has to go beyond just food produced in the area to being food native to the area, preferably produced by a farmer who's family's been on that land for countless generations. I, for one, want it to stay that way. The worst possible direction the American food movement could take - and while there already are hints of this direction, it's hardly the dominant view - would be to start blurring the edges between where one grows good food and where one grows good people.

8 comments:

Thomas Manndrill said...

Roger Cohen is a terroirist. What this country needs is a war on terroir!

Phoebe said...

Brilliant. I'm kicking myself for having not thought of this.

Anonymous said...

Vidalia onions were a huge success for American terroirists - and there was a reason, Vidalia soil is remarkably low sulfur, which makes a lot of difference in the flavor. A setback: the soil around Walla Walla is similarly low-sulfur, and now we have competition from the Walla Walla Sweet. dave.s.

PG said...

The innocuous if irrational idea that one can only produce a certain gastronomical product in one locale

As dave s.'s comment adverts to, this isn't a wholly irrational idea. Some foods taste a certain way based on the soil, weather, and farming techniques used to produce them. People are fussier about fancy wines so the nuances are noticed more there, but it is a real phenomenon in other products as well (including meat/ seafood products whose taste depends partly on where the animal was raised and what it ate).

Withywindle said...

FYI, Community Supported Agriculture has the same acronym as Confederate States of America. This vaguely aligns with your terroir worries.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Admitting that a variety of factors beyond which seed you plant affect agriculture is different from insisting that something spiritual and unknowable - and inherently related to the ethnic makeup of the humans working/owning the land - determines how the crops turn out. It's the difference between saying 'the best X grows where it's cold' and 'the best X grows where people are blond, so we should only get X from blond farmers.' Correlation, causation...

Withywindle,

CSAs are so not for me - who wants someone else determining what's for dinner, year-round? - but I can't imagine there's a connection...

PG said...

What do the blond people have to do with locale? Your assertion to which I was responding was that it's an "irrational idea that one can only produce a certain gastronomical product in one locale." I'm saying that connecting food to locale is not always irrational.

Phoebe said...

What's irrational is to say that what's important is the locale, not the specific and potentially replicable conditions in that locale.