Sunday, June 21, 2009

Back to the farm

The Well running blog makes me want to start my own running blog, but seeing as I blog more than I run as it is, probably not the way to go. But I did go running yesterday, setting out to go twice around the Prospect Park 3.4-ish mile loop... but then, somewhere towards the end of the massive hill by the exit, I decided that I felt physically capable of going seven miles, but not mentally prepared to see the leafy scenery of the park once more. While I get that this will infuriate running purists (who are intense, by the way - note the comments telling the Bittman father-daughter pair, both experienced runners, how to hold their arms when they jog), my ideal run is through the city (yes, on asphalt), with a podcast (Dan Savage preferred; NPR will do) for background entertainment, and is preceded by an iced coffee. I'm convinced that once I find a sufficiently interesting and not too car-heavy route, I could reach my one-time distance limit of eight or nine miles, and if I were not in the midst of a packing-and-moving extravaganza, I just might give it a go.

For whatever reason, it's assumed that exercise implies a love of nature, that the only alternative is to suffer in a gym (but what part of watching cable while you work out is suffering?). Real exercise, good exercise, takes place in, if not the wild, than in some urban approximation thereof. But as someone whose running career got going alongside the West Side Highway, during high school track practice, and who still seems to be breathing OK, I just can't fully embrace that ideal. Sure, this means the occasional whiff of car exhaust, but there are enough dangers in life that working out under sub-optimal conditions (assuming you're not running down the West Side Highway) seems a risk worth taking.

If the health-and-nature assumption hits runners hard, it's still more dramatic when it comes to the local-sustainable food movement. It's not enough to care about both health (your own, your family's, and that of the general public) and the environment. You have to be moved by pastoral scenes, to feel personally enriched by all contact with farmers, from whom you can get a vicarious taste of the land. OK, it's not that you have to do this, but that's how local-sustainable is marketed. Knowing where your food comes from - the Alice Waters mantra - means not only knowing cows were not tortured in the process, but also taking the time to get a sense of what food production looks like, the idea being that the problem with how we eat today is not merely that we eat crap, but also that we've been in cities and suburbs too long and have forgotten where vegetables come from.

This view goes beyond thinking kids should learn Biology 101. It's an aesthetic preference, a belief that food will honest-to-goodness taste better if it came with a bit of dirt on it, and perhaps a few bugs nesting in it, often regardless of whether the food in question has, in fact, just been plucked.

Example, from Frank Bruni's review of Braeburn, a Manhattan restaurant where, according to the review, entrees are "$18 to $32":

Restaurants that have opened in downtown Manhattan over the last decade tend to fall into one of two categories. There are those that worship in the Church of Carrie Bradshaw. And those that honor Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Braeburn, named for an apple, is Rebecca almost all the way, with maybe half of a heel of a Manolo thrown in. You’re going to be stunned to hear this, but along some walls are horizontal panels of what looks like reclaimed barn wood, the genre’s inevitable rustic flourish. (It’s actually — even better! — from a tobacco shed.) Many servers dress in checked or plaid shirts: corn-pone chic. And what defines the otherwise plain main dining room is a painting of a white house with a red barn and fleecy sheep, the livestock color-coordinated with the domicile. Apparently all of us who make ruinous housing payments to be a part of Warhol’s city really dream of Wyeth’s world, at least when dinnertime rolls around. We want not only farm-fresh ingredients but also farm-evocative décor.
While I haven't seen this Braeburn (again, note the entree prices), I can affirm that even less formal establishments - groceries and cafés - now go this route.

What I'd like to see, then, is a separating-out of what's rustic and what's needed for public health, for the environment, and, in terms of taste, for food to be fresh. It's not that it's necessarily racist or nativist to appreciate rustic and artisanal - historically, there's some overlap, but today's flannel-clad urbanites are typically another matter - but instead that it shouldn't be necessary to care emotionally about nature or farm life (not that farm life is 'nature', but the two are plenty linked in the urban mind) in order to be a card-carrying food-movement participant. There are enough highly-convincing, rational arguments for moving away from our current food system that irrational nostalgia for The Land need not enter into it. While granted this nostalgia helps push some in the right direction, the potential for this line of thought to be embraced for all the wrong reasons suggests we'd be better off just going with the health-environment-taste reasoning.

Recalling his own farm childhood, Nicholas Kristof writes, "Over the years, though, I’ve become nostalgic for an occasional bug in my salad, for an apple that feels as if it were designed by God rather than by a committee." My point is, that's fine that that works for Kristof, but it's important to remember that you can be a committee person more than a God person and still think Americans eat crap, and that something should be done about it. Some people will always find some or (in my own case) all politicized appeals to Nature off-putting, and there should be room for such people in the food movement.

(I've never read anything by Isaiah Berlin, but having learned that Berlin "went so far as to declare a positive dislike of nature, suggesting that love of sublime landscapes was linked with reactionary romanticism," that puts him right at the top of my post-orals reading list.)


PG said...

"It's an aesthetic preference, a belief that food will honest-to-goodness taste better if it came with a bit of dirt on it, and perhaps a few bugs nesting in it, often regardless of whether the food in question has, in fact, just been plucked."

This seems sort of contradictory of the idea that knowing where the food came from is prioritized. Unless the French food market sellers are lying to their buyers and pretending to have just plucked the lettuce and strawberries that morning, either the buyers know that it comes from the big industrial farmer and don't care, or they don't bother to actually find out where it came from at all.

I think the set of people who traipse up to Blue Hill's upstate farm so they can see the chicken that produced the vaunted morning egg with their own eyes is much smaller than the set who simply like the aesthetics of the farmer's market without much regard for its authenticity as a connection between buyer and The Earth.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I've only read part of Market Day in Provence, but I think the idea is, people like the idea of just-plucked food, and sort of go along with the idea that the land of their region and the farmers they meet at markets are directly responsible for the food, that it's sort of a wink-wink situation. So it's more than liking a rustic atmosphere - it is about getting off on the idea that the food itself was grown locally, but without the added sustainability/Michael Pollan-inspired concerns that drive certain Americans in 2009 to actually check up on these things.

Matt said...

Let me vote against reading Isaiah Berlin if you don't have to. Lots of people claim to like him but I suspect this is more from not reading him than reading him. He's philosophically pretty weak and even his "history of ideas" work isn't really up to contemporary standards, I think. He might have played an important role in getting people interested in some figures (Herder and Hamman, perhaps) but there's much better work of higher quality available on nearly everyone he wrote on, with the possible exception of some of the Russian thinkers. That's too bad about them, as his book on Russian thinkers is bad- you'd never know why they are of interest (if they are) from him. It's full of him telling you that Herzen is a wonderful liberal and Bakunin was a bad phony, but you never get any explanation of this other than that Berlin liked Herzen and didn't like Bakunin. It's hard not to think it's just because Berlin had squishy classical liberal and upper-class sensibilities like Herzen's and so liked him. I don't even think is writing style is that good, frankly. It's soft and syrupy and serves mostly to obscure the fact that he's not really made a point. Anyway, others may disagree, but I think that for any subject or topic Berlin wrote on you can find a better argued, more scholarly, and even better written substitute.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Thanks for the input! Other than Herder, I don't recognize any of those names. Is there someone other than Berlin who does a better job on the nature-and-neo-romanticism question?

Matt said...

I don't know that they will address your specific interests or not, but several of the essays in the Cambridge Companion to German Idealism deal with the German Romantics in interesting way, as do Richard Eldridge's book _The Persistence of Romanticism_, Fredrick Beiser's _The Romantic Imperative_, and Robert Richard's _The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe_. All are more philosophically sophisticated than Berlin. (Beiser, I believe, was a student of Berlin's, but he's a much better historian of philosophy.) Shorter and an easy read is Cassirer's _Rousseau, Kant, and Goethe_. If I remember correctly there might be some useful stuff in there, especially in the comparison of Goethe as philosopher/scientist to the other two.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


All of that sounds about right. Once I finish the seven orals lists, I'll get to it!