I was reading a piece in the International New York Times by Anand Giridharadas, and a phrase caught my eye. He likened the current moment in the U.S. to the Biedermeier era in Germany (1815-1848) when political participation was suppressed and people turned inward.

“What will our grandchildren think of the extraordinary inwardness of this period in America, when the life chances of so many citizens are growing bleaker and more volatile, while so many others devote inordinate amounts of time to worrying about the provenance of their chickens.”

A precious free-range chicken about to become tagine

A precious free-range chicken about to become tagine

There was a recent piece in the same paper concerning a trio of powerful French chefs lobbying to allow the return of the banned ortolan, a bunting, to their tables one weekend a year.

The two are related. We in the food world are having an image problem. We are being teased for our concern about things like free range chicken because it appears precious, and we flirt with elitism.

Our efforts are mostly in the right place. We want to hold onto tradition, and eat clean, healthy, happy food in the process. But as Paul Newman said in the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

We also may have a problem with priorities. Could not powerful French chefs put their collective energies together to do more than bring back a tiny bird that is cooked whole and served at restaurants where less than 1% of the population can afford to go? Could not all of us remember that while we can and do insist on chickens – and everything else – raised purely, that we might balance that with working to make sure good food is affordable for all?

The food world in general is generous to a fault, we are just not communicating it well enough in our chase for everything rare and high end, endless competition, out of reach sensations, and creativity that borders on fantastical science. We need balance.

And we need to use language that everyone can understand. Words like free-range, locavore, organic, seasonal, sustainable risk falling into the same category as natural – meaningless. We need to give them real meaning by making sure that, increasingly, quality ingredients raised by hand close to where they are sold become available to more people.

Food and everything that touches it is a tsunami of energy and possibility to be harnessed for the good of all. I believe it’s our job – all of us in the food world – to focus on a bigger picture, and not fall into a Biedermeier era of our own.

I have some ideas.

  1. Encourage children to learn about and practice farming as a profession. It’s a noble one, filled with risk and uncertainty to be sure, but vital to society
  1. Introduce legislation to encourage and support small, sustainable farms, then vote for this legislation.
  1. Propose that cities subsidize farmers’ markets by giving growers rent-free space.
  1. Require a 1% tax on large companies to subsidize small farms and educational programs to help people become successful growers.
  1. Require education about small farms and what they contribute to society in all civics classes, starting in middle school. Season these courses with samples of food from small farms.
  1. Revamp the USDA so that it puts supreme focus on the health of small farms and rural communities.
  1. Use governmental organizations – or other powerful organizations – to communicate more broadly and more clearly about how it IS possible to grow enough food for everyone in a responsible, environmentally correct way, and how the dangers of irresponsibly used genetically modified foods are real. People – not just food people – need to understand.
  1. Create an Ag Corps that acts like the Peace Corps and sends out young people to work, for pay, on farms and sustainable agricultural projects in the U.S. in an apprenticeship type of program.
  1. Introduce agricultural courses back into schools where they are missing.
  1. 0Eat as local and seasonal as you can, enjoy your food and share it whenever possible. We are so lucky to have food on our plates, and the choice of where to buy it. It’s not THAT big a step to make sure our neighbors have that same basic luxury.
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12 Responses to Food and Focus

  1. Good Morning Susan,
    Joseph from the pacific northwest. I am very glad to receive your latest installment. Just wonderful! Only a few days ago I thought of Struther Martin’s line to Luke in the movie! We have to keep on trying to communicate. Good news here. We have re-enacted our chicken ordinance which allows 2 chickens per residence. (of course there are always more 🙂
    – –
    We are both authors and the only reason I mention that is because I call the privileged diners the “2%”. However as a livestock raiser, I fall into that 2% because I cook and enjoy my produce as well or better than a fine dining chef because I cook the simple French dishes using the livestock from the farm. A few days ago we had “lièvre dans la bière” (domesticated lapin) with a bock beer and some Dijon mustard etc. My book explains, due to the population explosion and the industrial food supply, an inner city child [most likely] will never pick a raspberry off a thorny bush, or brush the dirt off a potato, or pick a sun ripened tomato off a vine. Oh well… I talk too much. There is more than I can have a conversation here. The issues are complex. We will concern ourselves with the USDA. As a fromager I have other issue with them because I make raw cheese! The people of Europe have to concern themselves with the EU as things are getting tighter there due to new restrictions. I had a French family of chefs over to my farm dining provincial style with table clothes and wine under the cottonwood trees saying it was getting tougher and tougher to get a meal that good in France due to the EU. Yes! more advocacy must be in place starting with those French chefs and also the people who must make sure to try to remove EU restrictions. Remember what happened to farm Calvados? That was early! Cheers! Happy Holidays, Joe

  2. Peggy fecker says:

    Susan. I and friend Terri had the pleasure of your cooling class last May in Paris. We learned lots and had the benefit of one of our most memorable experiences on our visit. Aside from that. It was wonderful to have our dinner conversations and get to know you a bit and your thinking. I love this article and brings back those conversations. Carry on Susan and hope our paths will cross again. Meanwhile I have your apron and cookbooks.

  3. Balance, understanding and communication will go a long way in rescuing our future. Thanks for the thought provoking post. I hope it stirs many positive conversations that can bring change.

  4. Laura in Texas says:

    Dear Susan, I’ve thought a lot about your post and agree communication is a huge issue. Based on our farming and ranching experiences over the years, the increase in government regulations have continued to increase which drives prices up and profits down. Many laws are written with good intentions, but can really become harmful to small producers, so more laws are not always the answer. New federal ag laws in the US are limiting what farm kids can and can’t do in the name of protection, but stiflling learning concerns me. Meanwhile some schools are starting gardens which is great, but often being taught by people who have never gardened and can cause serious safety issues. Even the EPA wants to regulate and ag land.
    Fortunately we can communicate and educate our fellow friends, neighbors, family, foodies and anyone that will listen! When people taste a truly fresh fruit or veg, their ears tend to open up 🙂 Thanks for writing a thought provoking post and keep up the great job communicating ideas and issues. Merry Christmas!!

    • Susan says:

      Laura,

      And thank you for your thoughtful response. I will continue to write about these issues. To me, they are THE issues. Happy New Year!

  5. I am with you to the 4th point, which reminded me of a conversation around your lovely kitchen island. I worry that more regulation and higher taxes will only continue to reinforce the flirtation with elitism. In Oregon, a market- driven move toward better ingredients seems to be working. I look forward to your new book.
    Yours truly, Christy

    • Susan says:

      Dear Christy,

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, more regulation may lead to elitism. It is normal that it works in Portland – Oregonians are always ahead of the game.

  6. Julie Franks says:

    Thank you for this list, Susan! It is as engaging and inspiring a read as any of your books, and that’s saying a lot. Implementing these points would also support pioneer efforts to enrich inner city life with farming, from Philadelphia to Detroit to Oakland.

    • Susan says:

      Julie, you are more than welcome! Actually, I’ve discovered there are many inner city farming projects already….so people are listening and paying attention!

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