Once upon a time Americans had a culture of food to guide us through the increasingly treacherous landscape of food choices: fat vs. carbs, organic vs. conventional, vegetarian vs. carnivorous. Culture in this case is just a fancy way of saying “your mom.” She taught us what to eat, when to eat it, how much of it to eat, even the order in which to eat it. But Mom’s influence over the dinner menu has proved no match for the $36 billion in food-marketing dollars ($10 billion directed to kids alone) designed to get us to eat more, eat all manner of dubious neofoods, and create entire new eating occasions, such as in the car.
“Elitist” is just about the nastiest name you can call someone, or something, in America these days, a finely-honed term of derision in the culture wars, and “elitist” has stuck to organic food in this country like balsamic vinegar to mâche. Thirty years ago the rap on organic was a little different: back then the stuff was derided as hippie food, crunchy granola and bricklike brown bread for the unshaved set (male and female division).
Late last month the Chicago City Council took the incredibly courageous step of banning the sale of foie gras — the livers of ducks and geese that have been force-fed corn — within the city limits. The move, which followed on the heels of an equally bold ban signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, risked offending such well-organized and powerful food-industry interests as, well, let’s see …. the two tiny farms, one in Sonoma County and one in New York’s Hudson Valley, that produce the entire U.S. foie gras crop.
I’ve been traveling in the American Corn Belt this past week, and wherever I go, people are talking about the promise of ethanol. Corn-distillation plants are popping up across the country like dandelions, and local ethanol boosters in Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and even Washington State (where Bill Gates is jumping into the business) are giddy at the prospect of supplanting OPEC with a homegrown, America-first corn cartel.
Several readers of my last few posts about eating locally have asked for some resources. Certainly it can feel daunting to leave the familiar confines of the supermarket, where you can find just about everything you want, arranged according to a comfortingly predictable map.
So which side of 14th Street should we shop on? The south side, where Whole Foods has planted the flag of industrial organic food, or across the street at the Union Square farmer’s market? The last time I was in that neighborhood, I stopped by the meat counter at Whole Foods and was delighted to see they’re now carrying grass-finished beef, the only kind I buy. It’s one of the most sustainably grown foods you can eat. But I was dismayed to discover that the grass-finished beef at Whole Foods had traveled all the way from New Zealand.
At the risk of sounding more equivocal than any self-respecting blogger is expected to sound, I’m going to turn my attention from the benefits of Wal-Mart’s decision to enter the organic food market to its costs. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the advantage of making organic food accessible to more Americans is outweighed by the damage Wal-Mart may do to the practice and meaning of organic food production. The trade-offs are considerable.
Let’s take another look at “the elitism question” – the idea, trumpeted by the industrial food companies and their defenders – that because organic and other alternative foods cost more, they’re an upper middle class luxury or, worse, affectation. It is true that organic food historically has cost significantly more than conventional food, but now that retailers like Wal-Mart have decided to move aggressively into organics, as reported in Friday’s New York Times, that is about to change.
Thanks for all the great posts from readers — you’ve given me a lot to chew on, and there are many questions and comments I plan to address in future posts. But for today, I want to look briefly at the “elitism” issue raised by several of you. As you will see it also ties into the good question raised by Paul Stamler about whether consumer action — voting with your forks — is adequate to the task of changing the American way of eating.
Whenever I’m in the company of other journalists and the conversation turns to our respective beats, mine — food — usually draws a silent snicker. It’s deemed a less-than-serious subject, and I suppose compared to covering war or national security, it can be viewed that way. Even when someone is ostensibly complimenting a food story, as a colleague of mine recently did, it comes out backhanded, like so: “You wouldn’t think a piece about food could be so … interesting.”