Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I don't

-"I Don't Feel Entitled, I Feel Guilty" is an interesting (bleak!) essay, but everything you need to know is right there in the title. If you can't point to any broad, structural reason why you're not making a zillion dollars a year doing something fabulous (and note that the author is employed, and not trying to make it as a hipster), it's on you. Whereas if there are structural reasons, it might just be you, but it might be something else. The timeless disadvantage to advantage.

-"I DON'T want to buy a food magazine with a model on the cover."

Thus an "Into The Gloss" commenter sums up the problem - well, one - with a new (and much-hypedmagazine "about women and food," called "Cherry Bombe." The concept appears to be, well, glossiness. Models pretending to eat. Fashion insiders (Garance Doré among them) and what they (ostensibly) eat. A "Spring's Best Cookbooks" section recommending Gwynnie's now-notorious tome in which she apparently reveals that she's allergic to foods that make you fat. Farm-to-table meets luminizer makeup accurately applied. 

And it all seems like a lot of good, decadent fun, until you get to the part where the magazine's founders are asking for donations. Not just subscriptions. Not investments. Donations, as if this were some kind of charitable or at least for-profit but scrappy enterprise. The word they themselves use on the Kickstarter page is "indie." The cover model - yes, cover model - is a woman you might know as a Victoria's Secret "Angel," which might beg the question, alternative to what? But, if it were in front of me, I'd read it.

-Speaking of reading material, commenter Moebius Stripper reminded me of a book denouncing locavorism, one whose co-author I'd heard interviewed by a skeptical Leonard Lopate. The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu. And, I read it, but I confess to some skimming when it got very technical. The writing style, or maybe the subject matter, keeps reminding me of reading-comprehension exercises on standardized tests. I feel as though I'm going to need to fill out a scantron sheet about emissions and rice yields. But because I'm not entirely sure any book on this topic wouldn't make me feel that way, I'm prepared to declare the problem mine, not the authors'. (Those with what must be a stronger caffeine source than I have have provided a helpful point-by-point counterargument, which is in turn countered by one of the co-authors in the comments there.)

In any case, it's an important argument that will lose a lot of readers when it meanders from contrarian to conservative. If the point were simply that local food isn't necessarily any better for the environment or whichever social-justice concerns, then, fair enough. But there's a lot of economic liberalism, some climate-change agnosticism. If the point is that libertarian climate-change skeptics shouldn't be locavores, well, presumably they aren't to begin with.

The book was strongest when it made the point that projecting the aesthetic preferences of certain wealthy urbanites onto the global food system may not pan out. This might seem intuitive. Even in the prosperous West, even if one is prepared to overspend on groceries, even if one lives somewhere sufficiently coastal-elite, "local" ends up being, in effect, a garnish, not a lifestyle. I was at the local "farmers' market" recently - a room on the first floor of the public library. There were these small bunches of ramps - just the leaves, perhaps to conserve the bulbs - and they cost $3. That's not dinner. Same with foraging. From what I understand, it would be a time-intensive way to add some interesting herbs to a dish 99.99% of whose bulk and calories come from normal, store-bought ingredients. So policies that suggest bringing local eating to all - or retaining it where it's the subsistence norm despite what people might want - do raise the quesiton of where that food would come from.

Let me put it this way: I have never actually met a locavore. People who shop at farmers' markets and sign up for CSAs, sure, lots. But people who exclusively eat food from nearby, even just in summer? Not once.

The book was weakest when it failed to address, in language accessible to non-experts, why subsidies aren't currently shifting things away from local. Also when it claimed that farmers'-market food is not any better-quality, or possibly worse, than the supermarket variety. Even going as far as to claim that local strawberries taste no better than ones hauled in from California. It of course depends which market - not all are as regulated as the NYC Greenmarkets. But the real-deal local food, in peak season, is that much better. But even if it were not, fetishization of vegetables is one way to get people to eat vegetables. Thinking of them as a delicacy rather than a chore has its positives.

Meanwhile, there are such strong criticisms of the locavore movement that never make an appearance. The authors object to Japan being referred to as "parasitic" for its reliance on agricultural imports, and praise multiethnic cuisine options, but never mention that there's something sinister and xenophobic about some back-to-the-farm ideology. I'm not saying they needed to go all Liberal Fascism - it's for the best that they did not - but some acknowledgment of the racist undercurrents of agri-romanticism would have been interesting.

Less controversial, less debatable: they might have spent some time discussing the fact that the big proponents of local eating tend to be high-profile food writers who not only eat out all the time, but get to jet around and eat "seasonally" in whichever climate they feel like writing about that week. They're not subsisting on turnips all winter long. Or that ever since "local" became a marketing device, there's greenwashing with "local" flavor. They get at this a bit, with farmers'-market fraudulence, but it goes so much further. A "farm-to-table" restaurant is effectively one that, season-permitting, garnishes normal food with something grown on a rooftop nearby. And the thing where restaurants list which farm some ingredient came from - assuming it's even accurate, what percentage of a dish comes from a farm? Point being, even if locavorism is the way to go, consumers might be content with things that give the appearance of being local, but aren't. Which... might actually be fine by these authors, and thus might be a critique for another book.


Moebius Stripper said...

Good to read your thoughts on Locavore's Dilemma, and I agree your assessment of the book potentially losing readers with its economic bent (which it's fairly upfront about). Where it lost me, a vegetarian, was when it applied the anti-locavorism arguments about efficiency to livestock farming. If the goal is to maximize yield while minimizing both cost and environmental damage, then, ok, industrial farming is quite possibly the way to go; the authors lost me when taking for granted that those are the only considerations when animals are involved.

There was some (albeit brief) mention of the xenophobia behind locavorism, when the authors pointed out that the amount of environmental damage done by flying one's food from Kenya is negligible compared to the amount of damage caused by the average Canadian/American flying him or her self from one locale to the next, and that it's arrogant at best to make lifestyle choices that harm poor African farmers before forgoing a vacation by plane. Perhaps locavore purists wouldn't be taking the vacations anyway, but as you point out, whatever the big proponents of local eating save in food miles, they more than make up in travel miles. (The authors of the 100 Mile Diet the book that "started it all", travel to Mexico at one point, but of course make sure to eat locally there, so this argument really isn't a strawman by any means.)

Phoebe said...

The authors were clear about their stance - as clear as they ever were, at least - but that ended up being the book's main problem. Those not already convinced re: economic liberalism aren't going to change their view from this book, while those who are already with them on this aren't pro-locavore to begin with. And the arguments about how small a % of emissions come from transportation are important, and worth repeating, but hearing this from climate-change skeptics, it ends up seeming less convincing than it would from authors who seemed to believe emissions were in fact a problem.

Yes, absolutely, re: animals. I'd forgotten about that part of the book, but yes, that was weird. And is problematic not just for vegetarians - also for omnivores who believe it's ethical to kill animals for food, but not to give them miserable lives prior to doing so.

And indeed, not strawman at all. I just posted about this, actually, but the amount of travel done by those who most promote local eating is astounding. And that's not even getting into locavore tourism - the hip new thing is to celebrate local-seasonal ingredients wherever you travel to. Which, fair enough, if this is about taste, but if it's about the environment, one might do better to stay home and eat at Burger King.