Mar 25 2015
The Way We Eat
A few weekends ago, I sat at brunch, my husband to my right, two friends across from us, forks dipping into eggs Benedict and quiche, a kale salad nudged to the middle for easier sharing. Despite the restaurant’s proud declarations of supporting local farmers, the eggs in the breakfast dishes were almost assuredly less than ideally sourced, a constant dilemma anytime I go out to eat. A bag of Soylent powder lay beside me, its hotel-shampoo-sized oil container resting next to it. Our brunch conversation had started with work and life updates, before transitioning into a passionate discussion about accountability in food non-profits and “healthy eating” initiatives, with one friend providing her thoughts from a medical perspective. The conversation felt rewarding and stimulating, if a bit esoteric, until her husband chimed in with a sobering thought about these food initiatives: “People don’t care. Maybe 2% of people care. That’s it.”
Rather than arguing his point, or brushing away his remarks as defeatist or negative, I leaned back in my seat slightly, looked at him, and agreed. In thinking about our cozy little brunch in the weeks since, I see its various components – the food, the company, the conversation, and yes, that bag of Soylent – as a microcosm of American food culture. A single brunch can exemplify why people gather around a table, how food is grown, raised, and labeled, how food is discussed, and the abundance of conflicting “solutions” to nutrition.
I’ve noticed that many of my peers comment about food with helpless shrugs, slipping into decisions that they’re not completely happy with, but unable to put more energy into what they see as a problem they can’t solve. These thoughts usually dovetail with an emotional reaction of guilt, derision, sadness, or even anger. With so many people lacking a consistent source of nutrition, consumers feel guilty for thinking about food as more than just caloric intake, covering their conflicted feelings with snarkiness about foodie trends, lumping the cronut in with the sustainable fish CSA as if they both play the same importance in conversations about food. Thinking too deeply about food can bring up an uncomfortable sadness: sadness that many can’t feed their children or family in a way that makes everyone healthy, sadness that one will never understand which foods come from sustainable sources or what really makes something ”nutritious”. Inevitably, anger surfaces. Sometimes this anger manifests in righteous indignation, a desire that “the system” could be different. Others feel a sense of personal anger, wanting to be left alone to “eat the way they want”. Then there’s the social anger of “the enlightened” that fellow consumers would have more curiosity about what they ate each day.
Many Americans continues to grasp for a holistic food system, distressed because our current choices are dictated by seemingly unchangeable environmental factors like work culture, minimum wage, inexperience, and time. The distress is real: a change in our food culture can’t happen without an overall cultural shift. Studies have found that it’s much easier to truly learn a second language when you’re young, assimilating the second language while you’re simultaneously grasping at how your native language works. If we learned about all aspects of food at a younger age – the biological processes, the life cycles, the cooking, and preserving, even the fact that it’s okay to eat a two hour dinner and not feel guilty – and equipped adolescents and young adults with skills instead of helplessness, then our cultural norms would more easily shift to allow broader conversations about sourcing, growing practices, and transparency.
In the past year, I’ve read several informative and invigorating books on food, including Dan Barber’s The Third Plate and Philip Ackerman-Leist’s Rebuilding the Foodshed. I’ve also supplemented the global concepts shared in those tomes with targeted books on soil microbiology and nutrition, all while I continue to swat back the onslaught of food articles that fill my Feedbin account, articles about the toxicity of the latest approved pesticide combination, about the conversation around “feeding the world” and the role genetically modified crops have in that overly simplified debate, about young farmers, women farmers, gluten free products, and goat cams. It’s always noisy, and often interesting.
When I think about our interconnected food system, a system riddled with inspiring stories as well as cynical manipulation, it can be hard to see progress on a national scale, especially with the constant corrupt compromises that result in omnibus legislation like the Farm Bill, or in the Reauthorization of Child Nutrition. Does eliminating gestation crates but keeping all the other inhumane conditions of a pig’s short life move us in a better direction? Does fake meat help the current meat system at all, or does it create a parallel industry with many of the same resource problems? And what of that incredibly complicated label “antibiotic free” that’s floated around casually and proudly? Antibiotic-free means what it sounds like, but it doesn’t mean humane standards or the absence of other drugs, and it also means that when an animal is truly sick and given antibiotics, that animal will be sold on a different market, even if it was raised with the highest standards. When I read accusatory or even predatory comments on the plethora of articles about these topics, I don’t feel energized. I feel helpless.
But then, I read books like Barber’s The Third Plate or the thorough manual Rebuilding the Foodshed, both full of literal advice and concrete examples, and I feel encouraged. These are men writing about their peers and national organizations with focused rhetoric and implementable action steps.
Dan Barber is a pivotal leader in food conversations that transcend the conceptual and move firmly, and hopefully, into reality. As a poster child for concepts like farm to table, local, seasonal, or even – and not always fairly – expensive foodie restaurants, at first it’s simple to assume that Barber just belongs to a small, elite team of chefs, with a starting lineup that also includes Andrea Reusing, Sean Brock, and Thomas Keller, with Alice Waters as the team’s coach. Barber runs both Blue Hill in Manhattan’s West Village and the Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barns, an agricultural center and working farm in Pocantico Hills, New York. The ingredients in his dishes are always seasonal and as local as possible, especially if you dine at Stone Barns: an after–dinner stroll around the property will bring you to face-to-face with relatives of the animals or vegetables on which you dined.
In the early stages of Barber’s career, his restaurant and food pushed boundaries aplenty: the concept of total ingredient transparency, the elimination of a tomato as a menu option in January, and the use of meat components like shank or tongue were both rare and unique five to ten years ago. When seated, diners at Stone Barns are presented with a list of potential ingredients they might see in future dishes: each intricately plated dish carried to the table is a surprise, and frequently a revelation. (The West Village Blue Hill also serves a traditional menu). Barbers’ team of chefs create dishes around flavors and availability, items like little radishes and carrots poking out of skewers, beet jelly, chard marmalade, or dried pig hearts standing in as a flatbread. Barber excels at the creative integration of ingredients and textures; both of the Blue Hills are perpetually at the top of any farm-to-table restaurant list ever created.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns hosts numerous food conferences, embraces hordes of curious and hungry food tourists, and is the subject of an uncountable number of exulting articles. One would assume that because Barber has reached such a lauded level in his career, a career that’s changed the lexicon around food, a career that has had a direct influence on restaurants across the country that either genuinely source seasonal, local, ethical ingredients, or at least do lip-service to the concept, that he’d now settle in; rest, even.
Yet Barber has proved that he’s anything but settled. Concocting superb dishes from just-harvested beets or hand-gathered eggs is no longer all that boundary-pushing, a fact Barber recognizes. Instead of celebrating his own past achievements, Barber is itchy, curious, angry, dedicated, and focused on the next way to challenge and nudge American food culture: influencing the way we eat, not just what we eat.
In two of Barber’s Ted talks, “How I Fell in Love with a Fish”, from 2010, and “A Surprising Parable of Foie Gras” from 2008, you can hear the wonder and motivation in his voice. The 2010 talk focused on an interconnected fish farm in Spain named Veta la Palma, a farm that allows, even encourages birds to dip in and eat the fish (as many as 20% each year). The latter talk shared the story of Eduardo Sousa, a Spanish farmer who makes foie gras without force-feeding the geese, instead allowing them to “force feed” themselves, something they’ll do naturally if they believe “they are safe”, as Barber emphasized to Ira Glass in a This American Life episode. Sousa, much like Veta La Palma, willingly loses 20-30% of his geese to predators, a concept that is decidedly the antithesis to American agriculture.
If you were paying attention to Barbers’ commentary from 2008 to 2012, perhaps with a Google Alert and too much time on your hands, you’ve have witnessed Barber’s developing worldview as he explored concepts that extend beyond seasonal eating, both in interviews and his own writing. In 2008, Barber encouraged consumers and chefs to measure the cost of food per nutrient value instead of per quantity, emphasizing that while nutrition and flavor are inextricably linked, Americans will continue to choose the cheapest, and least healthy, options until food industry leaders dictate otherwise. A year before that, when the Farm Bill was slated for reauthorization, Barber passionately wrote in an article titled “Amber Fields of Bland” about rewarding diversity over yield, proclaiming that it’s the agriculture industry’s mindset that’s “effete” and “nostalgic”, not the smaller, family-run farm. His eight year old article could be republished today with only a few tweaks: “Nonetheless,” he concluded, “our legislators continue to marvel at how modern industrial farms have become, and to invest ever more of our tax dollars into them.”
Barber is on record for nearly a decade espousing the link between good food and good farming, the idea that chefs deliver on what farmers grow. It’s not magic; it’s quality food that starts with quality soil. Once, several years ago, Barber tried to employ a little magic in a crop of Stone Barns’ carrots by growing them in almond flour dusted soil. His wistful goal was to serve the carrots unadulterated, just simple carrots naturally flavored by almond flour. Almond carrots! That’s not how it panned out, as Barber hilariously recounts. Rather than positioning himself as some sort of “goddamn genius”, with a cover story in Gourmet Magazine celebrating his brilliant achievement, Barber served carrots that tasted like carrots – carrots that only tasted like almonds when he tossed them with almond oil.
Of course, carrot flavor and nutrition is more complicated than that, as are the flavors and nutrient composition of goose liver, fish, wheat, and legumes. Barber knows that, and in last year’s The Third Plate, he gathered concepts he’s been mulling over for years: soil health, human health, community involvement, a more connected food system, nutrition and flavor, merging these larger themes with those fish and foie gras Ted talks, and adding in similarly exhaustive looks at other farmers and researchers whom he believes are just as influential as Eduardo and Miguel Medialdea (Veta La Palma’s biologist). He spins a yarn that weaves intricate patterns between Spain, South Carolina, New York, and Washington State, connected by soil, land, sea, and seed. Simply put: farm to table has stopped being “good enough” for Barber. The Third Plate, his “field notes on the future of food”, is both an exposé on what’s working and a humbling, honest look at what’s not. This book is Barber’s own pocket journal of connections and ideas, a playbook that he’s now directly applying to Stone Barns and Blue Hill.
Barber’s ideas are made more easily digestible by the side of amused humility with which they are served. When Barber first visited Eduardo the Spanish foie gras farmer, he was skeptical about the whole enterprise, writing that “[Eduardo] looked nothing like a farmer and this didn’t look anything like a farm. There were no tractors, no barns, and no silos. There was only a smiling, slightly chubby man in a green sweater-vest and a phone filled with morning portraits of his geese.” Eduardo had created a “goosey garden of Eden” on his property, complete with figs, olives, acorns, and grasses. The geese eat whatever they want and wander around the property, gorging on food when the weather gets cold. In fact, they have it so good that wild geese often permanently settle on the farm.
In The Third Plate, Barber freely admits he couldn’t initially conceptualize Eduardo’s philosophy on raising geese for their livers. Eduardo’s view is that “we’re not geese caretakers, rather we have geese. They take care of themselves.” But when Barber leaves Spain, after observing these geese in their natural habitat, geese that preferred to stay on Eduardo’s “farm”, free from fences and force-feeding, he’s empowered by the idea of replicating Eduardo’s system at Stone Barns. In the dehesa, where Eduardo and his geese live, people’s diets evolved from and with the ecology, an evolution that prompts Barber to ask: “What if we could coexist with natural systems rather than dominate them?”
Those thoughts in mind, Barber tried to replicate Eduardo’s method of raising geese, encouraging his livestock manager to help him create a system that would allow the geese to forage to their heart’s content. Unfortunately, the Hudson Valley doesn’t have the same established ecosystem as the dehesa. Without additional feed, Stone Barns livestock manager Craig Haney became convinced that the geese would eventually starve, and procured supplemental feed that, at first, the geese happily ate. But several weeks into binging, they stopped rushing towards the food, instead treating it like “filler”, only eating enough to sustain them and no more. This grain had no tie to Stone Barns’ ecosystem; this grain had been grown in some faceless middle-of-the-country monocrop. Barber was forced to admit that these geese would resemble Eduardo’s geese as closely as ham cured at Stone Barns might resemble jamon iberico.
Barber realized “that Eduardo’s work has a lot to do with creating a consciousness – not only in his geese, but in us, too. To taste his foie gras is to kick-start a chain of understanding about the geese (their natural instincts), the ecology that supports them (the dehesa), and centuries-old culture that support the whole system,” Barber writes, recognizing that his error was in trying to create foie gras that mimicked Eduardos’ when his conditions, his culture, and his geese were entirely different.
Five or ten years ago, a just harvested heirloom tomato had the power to alter people’s palates and habits. In the Third Plate, Barber admits that “the farm to table gains haven’t changed, in any fundamental way, the political and economic forces shaping how most of the food in this country is grown or raised. Nor have they changed the culture of American cooking." Our notions of what American food culture used to be are wrong; we’re guilty of assuming that any move to a more sustainable, connected system must be mimicking previous systems our grandparents practiced. But America doesn’t have a history of peasant farming, or of farming carefully, holistically or non-destructively. When we harken to the past, swooning with nostalgia or angrily proclaiming that we need more modern methods to “feed the world”, we continue to deceive ourselves; these “farm to table gains” aren’t about retreating to a previous version of American agriculture, since this style of American farming never actually existed.
“We have a history of bad farming,” Barber wrote in a Wall Street Journal article several years ago. “There’s this Jeffersonian notion of the yeoman farmer as the backbone of our country, and that we’re somehow a nation of yeoman farmers. It’s a bit of a farce.” Barber is tired of visitors to Stone Barns, as with any number of small diversified farms across the country, mistakingly extolling farmers’ efforts as a return to a healthier past. “When older visitors come to Stone Barns and they meet the incredible vegetable farmer, Jack, they’ll invariably say, ‘Oh, you’re farming like my grandfather used to farm.’ No, we’re not. Their grandfather didn’t farm like this. Their grandfather probably exploited the great fertility is American soil, dropped his plough, and then moved on to the Midwest and exploited it all over again. We have a nostalgic conception of good agriculture, a dangerous memory that shrouds the issue in confusion.”
Heirloom is now a ubiquitous, oft-misused word, and while we munch on heirloom tomatoes sold across the country twelve months out of the year, soil health continues to degrade in tandem with our own health and the health of farming communities. Barber believes that an heirloom tomato (a real one) still tastes good, but it doesn’t change a system; rather, it adds another layer on top of a pre-existing system, a layer that can make anything “heirloom and local”, a layer that allows restaurants and home chefs to pick and choose how they interpret sustainable and “local when possible”, a layer that allows mega-farmers and industry to capitalize on consumers’ piqued curiosity, while ignoring the interconnected nature of agriculture. How does an heirloom tomato change anything if it’s grown in a monocrop? How does an heirloom tomato change anything if zero attention is paid to what was grown before it, what was grown after it, and what the surrounding ecosystem looked like?
In Barber’s first section of The Third Plate, “Soil”, he writes that “our job isn’t to support the farmer but to support the land that supports the farmers” – a concept that’s rarely considered by consumers. Actually, on first reading, that concept might seem obvious: I buy from specific farmers, so I am supporting their soil. This is true, but only up to a point. Do you know what methods of crop rotation your preferred farmer uses? Do you know what happens to soil when vegetables from the same family are grown in quick succession, or when that soil is sprayed with an herbicide or pesticide, even just a small dose? It’s not a quiz: most people don’t know the answers. Soil is not only “teaming with microbes", it teams with nutrients, and the nutrient capability and retention of soil differs vastly depending on what rocks formed the soil millennia ago, what has been grown in the ground previously, and how each crop is grown and amended.
The key for anything real or substantial to result from all these heirloom tomatoes is to understand the web of relationships that exist in our food system, a system of extensive breadth and complexity. “Teaming with Microbes”, a surprisingly appealing book on the soil food web, details a system infinitely more complicated than you’d imagine by picking up a handful of soil and staring at it. A soil food web involves a wide variety of bacteria and fungi, creatures that work in harmony with the roots and surrounding area of plants. Bacteria and fungi unlock and deliver nutrients to a plant’s rhizosphere (a 1/10th inch area around roots) in exchange for proteins and sugars, known as exudates. Plants can’t access these nutrients, or fight off predators or disease, without the help of the soil food web. The soil web doesn’t stop with harmonious bacteria and fungi: when bacteria and fungi are eaten by a plant, the nutrients inside them become “unlocked” and are then either delivered to the plant or spread by their attackers/predators, nematodes and protozoa, to other parts of the soil. The web continues as arthropods eat protozoa (or each other) before they’re eaten by snakes, birds, and small animals. Even earthworms have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria: as they tunnel through soil, creating air and water pockets, they’re like tiny taxis, with numerous bacteria attached to them, moving to previously untouched areas of the garden or farm. Earthworms actually can’t digest without bacteria: the bacteria living within them digest organic matter, and the earthworm absorbs these nutrients.
When Barber talked to a Klaas Martens, a second generation whole soil (my words) farmer in New York, Martens explained that if you know what you’re looking for, soil will tell you exactly what nutrients it needs. If Queen Anne’s lace or chicory pop up with frequency, your soil is low in fertility. If you always have a milkweed problem, your soil is low in zinc. Thistles everywhere? Your soil is probably compacted. Eliot Coleman, a four-season farmer in Maine with farmer and chef protegés across the country, has repeatedly said that pests don’t usually attack healthy plants. With minor tweaks, a farm, a garden, your backyard plot can stay in balance, without chemicals. The key, of course, is knowing the characteristics of your own soil, with a deep understanding of the nutrient needs of specific plants. These concepts are more inter-connectedly complicated (and simultaneously beneficial) than growing thousands of acres of one crop, and propping up the “soil” with heavy doses of nitrogen and phosphorus designed to mimic what the soil food web used to do.
If you eat food grown in a chemically intensive way, the soil becomes “so deadened from chemicals that you’re not getting the micronutrients you need, the flavors you need. Flavonoids are based on those micronutrients. That’s what gives you healthy and delicious carrots, " Barber said in an interview with Slate magazine in 2012. And in that same interview, when asked the tired “organic or local?" question, he answered, “I’m more concerned about the soil".
According to Steve Solomon, the founder of Territorial Seeds, farmers and gardeners must balance the relationship between the six essential nutrients that plants require: calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, sulfur, and phosphorus. When we eat food grown in nutrient balanced soil, we harvest food that retains those nutrients. Have you ever noticed that when you eat an organic salad from Laughing Planet or a vegetarian burrito bowl from Chipotle that you’re ravenously hungry thirty minutes later? You consumed the appropriate amount of calories, but you didn’t consume many nutrients, and your body is telling you so. Over the past 50 to 70 years, many vegetables show a nutrient decline of 5-40%, Barber notes. Besides the reality of nutrient depleted soil, for years plant breeders have cared about one characteristic – high yield – which has resulted in food in our grocery aisles and restaurants that’s ladened with carbohydrates, and often little else.
In The Intelligent Gardener, Solomon explains that a food’s nutrient density is related to evapotranspiration ratios. In essence, leached soils (soils that are incapable of retaining nutrients) retain more potassium than any other nutrient. If soil potassium becomes too concentrated, plants grow differently. Instead of making proteins (complex chains of amino acids), the plants make carbohydrates, Solomon writes. Carbohydrates are constructed from potassium, carbon, and hydrogen: if potassium is in abundance, plants can easily make carbohydrates, fats, and sugars. But to make proteins, enzymes, and vitamins, plants need elements like phosphorus, copper, and zinc, elements that disappear as potassium takes over.
Of course, we could ignore all of this talk about nutrition and soil health, not to mention recipes, farmers, animals, and chefs, and just drink Soylent instead. Soylent was created by Rob Rhinehart, a Silicon Valley technologist seeking a quick fix to that annoying problem of what to eat everyday. He believes that meals should be separated between those consumed for utility and function, and those eaten for experience and socialization. Instead of ensuring healthy soil and healthy plants with the proper ratio of magnesium to manganese, we can drink a mixture that contains essential nutrients, reducing the need for agriculture and the need for restaurants, turning real food into something that’s reserved for special occasions only. Instead of remineralizing soil, Soylent remineralizes humans. Depending on your perspective, Soylent might seem unique or horrifying. The good news is that it’s neither: it’s simply another attempt to reduce nutrition to its base elements, a step away from food as a culture and a step towards food as a drug, a fuel we need to do more important things.
A friend recently purchased a week’s worth of Soylent out of complete curiosity. He admits a propensity to become focused enough on his work that he can forget to eat – or if he doesn’t forget, to find cooking and preparing food to be a drain on his productivity. He thought Soylent might act as a temporary solution for drastic times. Instead, he found that while he could drink a whole “meal” and feel “kind of full”, he didn’t feel satisfied in any way. The time saved wasn’t worth it. Drinking your nutrition for five minutes, only to return to work, eliminated a chance for stimulating conversations, eliminated the ritual of cooking and cleaning, eliminated the infinitesimal numbers of flavors available in food, and eliminated a connection to a world’s worth of cuisines. It felt entirely too robotic.
Finding no use for a full week’s supply, and curious to hear my own opinion, my friend provided me with my own bag – a day’s worth of three meals. I took that bag home and apprehensively concocted the mixture, immediately turned off by the sweet smell and liquified-cake-batter taste. Not every meal needs to be a “Sunday Supper spread”, as beautiful as they are – a simple sandwich has greater benefits than this powdery drink. When I drank the Soylent (only half a cup), I felt a strong sense of relief. This isn’t a form of nutrition that will move our food culture into a drastically depressing direction, but a flash in the pan. There are already packaged foods available for simple caloric density, foods that serve the purpose (calories) of a quick meal while you’re through-hiking or working a 24–hour shift. Soylent could be added to that list, but it’s never going to be so powerful as to change our culture into one where people buy homes without kitchens because all they need is a sink and cup to mix their Soylent.
But even though I feel safe betting against a future dominated by Soylent, the motivations behind its invention can still pose a danger. Glenn Roberts, of Anson Mills, adamantly believes that seeing food as fuel is a dangerous concept, telling Barber in The Third Plate that “it’s why nothing tastes good and why our farming systems are collapsing.” Roberts argues that modern agriculture has separated the “agri” from the “culture”; believing that the culture of our food is as important as the production, Roberts created Anson Mills in 1998, initially in an attempt to recapture “Lowcountry” cuisine. In the antebellum South, Lowcountry cuisine rose from necessity. Southern soil was “exhausted” from tobacco, cotton, and corn. The farmers who stayed had no choice but to employ integrated farming methods (crop rotations, intercropping, green manure) to grow crops in this depleted soil, focusing on growing and breeding crops that would succeed: forty kinds of rutabaga, for example, with an emphasis on taste along with productivity. This innovation has a dark side: the farmers’ experiments were propped up and expanded upon by slavery. After the Civil War, agriculture changed: rice fields were abandoned, a focus on quick crops became pivotal, and other states surpassed the South’s production of staple crops. In the 17 years since creating Anson Mills, Roberts has worked diligently to connect with farmers, chefs and consumers throughout the country, not just the South, in turn revitalizing varieties of grains and beans by growing these crops in specific regions where the yield will result in a food that’s flavorful and adaptable.
Barber writes that “a sustained food system is more than a set of farming practices and more than an attitude toward food production and consumption.” It’s work from people like Roberts, work that’s honest and aware, work that creates vital infrastructure and long chains of connections, that will push our food culture into a healthier, sustainable direction. Much like it doesn’t matter if your garden is teeming with protozoa if there’s no predator to eat them and there’s nothing for them to eat, it doesn’t matter if you breed a flavorful, drought resistant variety of wheat, or rotate your fields between spelt, clover, corn, mustard, and kidney beans, if there’s no outlet for those products.
The true work of changing a food culture comes from everyone, not just chefs, but also consumers and community leaders, and Ackerman-Leist’s Rebuilding the Foodshed is perhaps the most comprehensive place to turn for pragmatic ways to think about agriculture holistically, as part of a synergistic system where each person’s actions have a cascading effect. Ackerman-Leist writes that “we must view ourselves as food citizens, not food consumers”, admitting that we’re at the intersection of probability and possibility. It’s probable that environmental and economic challenges will increase in “volume and velocity”, but it’s also “possible that we can shake free of the status quo and rebuild community based food systems by adapting to changes.” Echoing Barber, Ackerman-Leist argues that we’ve had “enough hype”, and emphasizes that “it’s time to move into the complexities.” We need real, true work.
Barber writes that “we’re guilty of reducing sustainability down to what we buy for dinner.” Ackerman-Leist’s book is the answer to that guilt. Rebuilding the Foodshed doesn’t need to be summarized here – it needs to be read by any community or individual interested in moving away from comfortable discussions and half-truths. Ackerman-Leist details dilemmas of American food culture, including the concepts of food miles, landscape, and even the word “local”, admitting that “the front end [cooking and eating] of the local food system is much more glamorous than the back end.” He stresses that conversations must happen around energy, food security, environment, and institutional change. Talking about nutrient recovery or bio-gas may not be as titillating as talking about cronuts or reading Monsanto take-down pieces, but conversations that are honest and detailed are necessary to shake us out of our stupor. For example, while talking about Vermont’s Jasper Hill’s superb, award-winning cheese, we should give equal attention to the latest addition to their farm, “the green machine”. Their recently unveiled nutrient recovery system reintegrates the creamery’s manure, waste-water, and whey, funneling the “waste” into an aerated compost system, an anaerobic digester, and a liquid treatment area. The “waste” is transformed into manure, irrigation water, and heat, which allows their dairy cows to graze longer on healthier pastures and replaces the creamery’s reliance on conventional fuel, all while recapturing previously lost nutrients.
The “future of food” is any day that’s not today. And that future could be very bleak and almost armageddon-like: farmland destruction, never-ending water crises, deaths of many citizens from antibiotic resistant infections, irrecoverable breeds and seeds, unaffordability of fuel, and more drastic weather events. There must be a paradigm shift in how we talk about food, including an honest awareness of the excuses we all make. Only with this awareness can the broader discussions about agricultural yields, animal welfare, sustainability, affordability, and food access begin to connect to smaller day-to-day realities.
But the anger that many feel about food, whether born of ignorance or disappointment or frustration, threatens to strangle our burgeoning food awareness. Food seems impossible to talk about without offending someone, and because food memories, beliefs, and actions are linked like an unravel-able mess of twine, if you tell someone that you went to the farmers’ market that morning and bought the first strawberries of the season, your simple comment will not always elicit a genuine “good for you”, but could instead cue a suppressed emotional reaction that manifests in thoughts like “Glad you can afford it”, or “I was working, how nice you had the time” or “what’s wrong with Safeway strawberries?”
People retreat from talking about their food beliefs because they fear those unaired comments. Instead, it’s: “You do it your way, I’ll do it mine.” But unlike religion or sports – you support the Seahawks, I’ll support the Colts, you go to mass on Sundays, I go to temple – an individual’s food choices automatically impacts more than just that individual. A choice to eat meat only three meals a week really does change the way our country raises animals. And if you eat that meat from a fast food restaurant or from a steakhouse, or if you only buy pastured meat, these choices effect market availability, the local and global environment, community infrastructure, and even health insurance premiums. If you buy a CSA share every year, that choice changes the agricultural environment in your community: suddenly a local farm might be more financially solvent, and other interested farmers might see that they could actually create a similar community nearby, broadening access to others. Buying the cheaper option when you can afford the more sustainably grown option is your choice, but it’s a choice that speaks volumes to those who grow and market food and to those who lobby our government for labeling laws and subsidies.
We’ll never create a sustainable, fair, ethical, connected food system if we’re guided only by a sense of complacency or a fear of stepping on people’s toes.
If you can afford seasonal strawberries but someone else can’t, that’s not something to feel guilty about: it’s a meaningful action in rebuilding a foodshed – your dollars matter in changing options for everyone. If you take the time to list out meals for the week and shop for them, that’s not something to brag about, but it’s also not something to hide: your method could inspire someone else’s shopping system. If you’re confused about labels or standards, it’s okay to say so, and it’s time to learn. If you’re human (and let’s assume you are!), you’ll make food exceptions occasionally, so you can go out to brunch with friends. But don’t fool yourself: make those exceptions for factors like the companionship, the conversation, the flavors, or the fact that you don’t have to wash dishes, but not because you “hope” or “assume” the eggs are okay. Individual responsibility doesn’t have to mean individual guilt: we’re all navigating choices, sometimes none of which are ideal. A favorite brunch place that serves eggs of unknown origin can still be an invitation for a conversation that shows why those expensive farmers’ market eggs are actually a bargain.
We’re at peak food awareness. It’s impossible to ignore the plethora of food magazines and websites, cookbooks, and food delivery services, not to mention the pervasive celebrity food culture and the lines out the door for certain restaurants and bakeries. Couple that with the push for more school gardens, a growing number of cities with municipal composting laws, and a modern lexicon that includes words like pastured, sustainable, organic, and genetically-modified, and suddenly it’s obvious that there’s an entry point in the food conversation for everyone – and a chance for real action. We can turn our growing food awareness into something deeper and richer.
Food grown with isolated chemicals, in isolated monocrops, picked by undocumented workers, shipped to an isolated storage facility, and shelved in a faceless way while you shop in long grocery aisles will never intrigue or nourish you. There’s no reason to care. And yet, food doesn’t have to be precious to be nourishing, nutritionally and mentally. It can be simple and delicious. You can know your farmer without constantly tweeting or instagramming about it. You can pickle in-season cucumbers without turning it into a Kinfolk spread. Ultimately, if we each can accept food as a reflection of our personalities, and as a relationship that will vacillate between steady, exciting, and even occasionally frustrating, our collaborative food conversations and real action steps can move us in a more meaningful way into the future.
Near the end of Barber’s Ted talk about Veta La Palma, he urges us to see the more interconnected picture of agriculture, a picture that’s not just about yield, or industrial inputs and outputs, but rather one that’s about relationships directly connected to health, flavor, and enjoyment. “Look to Miguel, farmers like Miguel,” Barber says. “Farms that aren’t worlds unto themselves; farms that restore instead of deplete; farms that farm extensively instead of just intensively; farmers that are not just producers, but experts in relationships. Because they’re the ones that are experts in flavor, too. And if I’m going to be really honest, they’re a better chef than I’ll ever be. You know, I’m okay with that, because if that’s the future of good food, it’s going to be delicious.”