Thursday, November 10, 2011

"[T]hey turn thrift into a guilt trip"

Felix Salmon is, once againonto something:

I blame farmers' markets in general, and the Union Square farmers' market in particular, for the way in which this phenomenon [ingredient origins on upscale menus] is reaching endemic levels in New York. When you see a farm named on a menu, you might never have heard of the supplier in question. But any name next to a listed ingredient is meant to bring to mind those piles of super-expensive veggies, and tales of organic farmers struggling mightily to make ends meet. 
The genius of farmers' markets is that they turn thrift into a guilt trip: Anybody looking to pay less money for a pound of carrots must also want to cut the income of hardworking farmers! And when menus name their suppliers, even unto the purveyors of broccoli or scallions, they're effectively trying to make their diners as price-insensitive in the restaurant as they are in the farmers' market.
He adds that even if restaurants are indeed doing what they claim and paying a lot for, say, an especially carefully-farmed turnip, it's still a turnip and not a steak, so they still profit from this trend.

Salmon's writing about food is basically what I wish mine were, and what mine would be if I had more of a brain for economics, and more of a capacity to summon contrarianism without counterarguments that may add nuance but also weaken the argument.

If I were writing this, I'd have pointed out that there are real differences between, say, a summer strawberry and a foamy giant winter one at the supermarket. That "taste" is complicated, such that some people really will experience more pleasure from consuming a turnip they know to be farmed nearby, either because this fits with their ethics or because they're full-of-it yuppies or because faux-scarcity makes food taste better, it doesn't matter, the point is, the objective physical difference between supermarket and Sustainable Farms turnips isn't the only thing we're considering. Diners are not overpaying if one turnip is really worth that much more to them than another. And yeah, maybe it isn't such a terrible thing, for health as well as the environment, if we-as-a-society decide to get excited about turnips and to treat them like steak. I was kind of surprised Salmon didn't mention Alice Waters when describing the food trend that he sums up as: "Take inexpensive ingredients, do very little to them, and sell them as premium products worth savoring in their simple purity," but I suppose he's looking at the trend as it currently exists, and not aiming to trace its origins.

What Salmon correctly picks up on is the irritating conflation of thrift (yay, an opportunity for the much-neglected Cheapness Studies tag) with... for lack of a better term, assholishness, the corollary of enlightened consumption as the path to righteousness. Even absent any knowledge of how whichever product is produced, the consumer is blamed for "demanding" low prices. You may have no reason to think the more expensive t-shirt or tomato was produced more ethically, but the mere act of choosing the cheaper one is a way of announcing one's utter indifference to the hard work it takes to produce whatever it is. Think of the farmers! Don't dare think of your own family's need to pay bills or have money for emergencies. If you can't afford the expensive tomato, maybe you shouldn't be buying tomatoes in the first place.

This particular brand of hypocrisy reaches its height with the phenomenon "farm-to-table" tourism, something I've mentioned here before, but that seems to be going strong. Given that "local-sustainable" is about taste, yes, but also about it being tragedy of all tragedies for a truck-full (plane-full? am I supposed to keep track of this?) of asparagus to makes its way up from Peru, how exactly is it more efficient or eco-friendly or admirable or brag-to-the-neighbors-ish for individual travelers to fly in commercial airlines packed tightly, but not asparagus-tightly, just to get a taste of the asparagus in its natural habitat?

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