Monday, December 05, 2011

Forage for your porridge

I can't seem to get that "food" issue of the New Yorker our of my head. Growing one's own tomatoes on Cape Cod. Shucking scallops in Nova Scotia. Beginning the summer at one's summer writing abode in Umbria and then moving on to forage across Europe, culminating in Denmark to forage with a chef the author admits has been forage-profiled already to the point of cliché.

I mean, it's great to know that the wild asparagus that one can jauntily pluck in Italy is as far from what one gets at the store as a truffle is from a normal mushroom. And I'm sure that a tomato lovingly grown at a summer home tastes better than the ones I purchase year-round - fresh and spray-painted red by exploited workers, or packed in BPA-lined cans, after being spray-painted red and bearing text that misleads re: country of origin stamped on them by, one can assume, modern-day slave labor. I don't doubt that the great trough from which I ladle out my weekly feed is less succulent than what's being described.

But this move towards food so slow that it takes a New Yorker writer with a work-vacation home in a charming part of Europe (and I promise I'm endlessly charmed that this part of Italy is so local that oregano is considered foreign - how fun and variety-packed that must be for the residents who don't spend the rest of the year in New York) approximately a decade to forage across "bleak" Scandinavian beaches, not for the non-plot of a movie with the yellow subtitles to be shown at Cinema Village, but for the contents of a small salad.

The food movement has this way of veering off to its extremes. (And I'm not convinced this "Noma" isn't a parody endeavor.) Either you have to fly to one of your many homes where you are a free-range, pesticide-free intellectual and pluck individual wild asparagi from distant corners of your property... or you're being gently chastised about lentils. Being informed that you can totally abide by food-movement rules on any budget, as long as you devote your every waking minute to eating like a yuppie. Being preachily preached the virtues of great-grandmother-emulation, without regard for the tradeoffs this entails in terms of quality of life. In other words, the problem is that the food-movement retort to accusations of snobbery that things like the sound of Alice Waters pronouncing "Frahnce" or that issue of the New Yorker elicit is to swing far the other way, and earnestly discuss the plight of those for whom lentils stretch the budget.

It's nice that food-movement sorts are concerned with inclusivity, and understandable that they approach this by reaching to the opposite end of the spectrum from themselves. But the movement ignores - or maybe just rolls its collective eyes at - the vast swath of not-impoverished, not-undereducated America that has yet to be converted. People who could afford daily arugula and have the cultural capital necessary for knowing about Michael Pollan, but aren't interested. The movement pretends that the only possible reason someone wouldn't be eating slow-roasted garlic scapes is that they're too needy to have access.

This leads to odd choices. Such as, it's very food-movement to speak ill of newfangled kitchen gadgets. And not just the silly one-purpose ones (a pear-slicer!), but even things like food processors. All you need is a good knife and a hot-plate! Try a mortar and pestle, it worked for your ancestors! As I've said before, that's technically true but misleading. Some newfangled devices save time and, in doing so, vastly increase what's feasible to make from scratch. (E.g., were it not for the food processor, I'd never make pizza dough.) There's no hard-and-fast rule for which are sensible, because it of course depends what you cook. But the fetishization of the premodern kitchen marches on, because it seems like a way of killing two birds with one stone, of returning to "real" food while at the same time making cooking more accessible. Don't have the money for a kitchen remodeling? Don't have enough for a knife and fork? Fear not, you can still make a ten-course meal!

Also such as: if you can cook, you're in on this cool secret: you can turn unexciting ingredients into feasts. Food-movement sorts kind of get this, but also kind of don't. They're not insisting on truffles or caviar, but they waver between wanting a return to home-cooking and "real food," even if that means canned or subpar ingredients, and celebrating heirloom produce, farm-to-table, and so on. Eat your vegetables, they insist, but be sure to write a letter to your representative if you see asparagus from Peru in New Jersey in November. Eat whole foods, but anything not-local, not-seasonal doesn't count. No market nearby, or the only one there is just has turnips? Deal.

If this issue gets me riled up, it's because I'm basically a food-movement supporter. Better produce ought to be available, and more meals should be produced at home. It's only the approach I find troubling. Perhaps, rather than focusing on getting consumers to "know where their food comes from" as a way of knowing where/how to shop, they should focus on having this come "from above," and on having individual home cooks shop from what's available and devote their limited time and energy for food to cooking, not research. And perhaps, in their quest to make it clear that you don't need to have a summer home in Nice to eat right, they could more respectfully address not just the poor, but also those who know about what they're advocating, but shun it for not-unreasonable reasons.


Maria said...

I think in principle most everyone regardless of class agrees with the foodies' idealism but the realities of modern life require one to choose between braintime and preparation time, which is why one should not be ashamed of using modern gadgets or cooking mixes to facilitate homemade meals (if said meals are nutritionally superior to and more economical than their ready-made counterparts, as is usually the case). How else can one who works 50-60 hours a week have any sort of weeknight cultural life and eat at home? But then the ingredients must be analysed according to one's values (does the bouillon cube contain MSG/HFCS/artifical colours, flavours, GMOs, etc. Is it kosher/vegan/halal/gluten-free? Palm oil?) or, in the case of gadgets, the global emissions load (the breadmaker does use a lot of electricity after all, especially if every household cooks his own bread (and does his own washing up) and eventually the appliance will break, programmed obsolescence, etc)(along the lines of your previous post about checking lotions for parabens, ça revient au même, ça rend dingue in fine). It is also a feminist issue as women are traditionally responsible for meal preparation inter alia and lack braintime. The foodies have a point in that chopping leeks and foraging for nuts and mushrooms can lead to some healthy existential nombrilism, but then again so does literature, so does art...and suddenly the mashed potatoes (from a mix or homemade?) become more about class than they ever were before. As one who is loyal to the two slices of chorleywood I was raised eating, it is becoming harder and harder to defend amongst my wholemeal brown bread-eating Anglo friends as once sophisticated "refined carbs" are getting an increasingly low class reputation. Thankfully the French, foodies and intellos as they are, still haven't shunned their baguette, ubiquitous red box of Mouseline, or pain azyme. Only then will I consider converting.

Phoebe said...


It would seem that white bread would be food-movement approved, what with it being unmistakably real food, not newfangled (unless we're talking pre-packaged). But Michael Pollan disapproves.

But this is where the food movement screws up. They don't just want us to eat better (something that could be accomplished, for example, by dealing with corn subsidies and whatnot). They want us to spend more time and money and energy on food. They want us not merely to know where our food comes from, which could happen through better labeling, but to have put in the hours to learn it. The obstacle then becomes less one of class or wealth than one of interest or priorities.