Food and Focus


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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