The Thinking 

Eat Local

September 1, 2017

AN inspiring resurgence of farmers markets, “community-supported” farms, “organic” produce and interest in locally-produced food has taken place all across America.

The preference for regional food is so natural and so ancient that this trend of the last few decades is not at all surprising.

Many consumers have an innate distrust of factory or shipped food and like to have an actual relationship with the people who provide them with meat and vegetables — and also a relationship with the land nearby. Local food is fresher and healthier. It is beautiful in comparison to the shellacked, artificial-looking products in the supermarket.

But, as natural and exciting as this development is, especially for those of us who have always gone out of our way to buy local products, I sometimes have a sense of uneasiness when I walk through these new farmers markets. The idea will survive, but will these farms?

For the people most interested in local food also often happen to be the people least concerned about family breakdown and least interested in the cultural habitat that undergirds the family. To them, chickens must have an “organic” habitat,” but people? Well, not really. For instance, Alice Waters, the famous California chef and champion of “slow food” who turned local vegetables into culinary jewels and who greatly admired French food, which developed over centuries of Catholic civilization, lived what’s often euphemistically called a “bohemian” life. Her two-year-old daughter was present at her wedding; Waters and the father, Stephen Singer, later divorced. Waters had no more children. We know her daughter, Fanny, got gobs of attention, but she got no siblings and no stable home. Waters is a proponent of slow food, but not slow families — the basis of all successful agricultural communities and all cultures with any impressive culinary heritage. It is ironic when today’s metrosexual chefs rave about the culinary legacy of people they never identify as Catholics whose tables were influenced by the altar and a belief that God himself became food. Sad to say, but modern slow food has its basis in hedonism, not reverence.

And so many of these young and ambitious organic farmers seem to have few or no children. Agriculture over the long term depends on strong family ties. There will never be thriving LGBTQ farm communities. Farming entails not just a connection with the land, but a bond between the generations. It’s just so much darned work, farming is. In the Garden of Eden, apples dropped from the trees and heirloom tomatoes cost nothing. But in this fallen world, good food is costly, arduous and backbreaking to produce.

The work can be lonely and isolating. Furthermore, farming skills take many years to acquire. In stable farming communities, children start to learn the way of life and basic skills early.

These facts of farming will never change. When I shop at local Mennonite or Amish farm stands, I know these places will likely be in existence for many years to come. But when I shop at the trendy farmers market in a local suburb, as great as the products often are and as interesting and enthusiastic as the producers, I question how long many of these enterprises will last unless these people change their worldview.

Organic produce needs organic families.

Just as the open field is the natural setting for sheep or cattle, the secure, flourishing home is the natural setting for human beings, most especially the farmer.


— Comments —

Jane S. writes:

I recommend Waters’ authorized biography: Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution, by Thomas McNamee.

During her college days at UC Berkeley, Waters did a study-abroad stint in France, where she enjoyed drinking coffee and eating croissants in cafes. When she arrived back in California, she decided to try marketing that experience and she opened Chez Panisse.

Waters had zero experience running a restaurant, zero experience running a business of any kind. She had no interest in any of the practical aspects. She had no interest in anyone telling her she couldn’t have her own way.

If you made a list of all the things a person should not do when starting a business, Waters did them all, and many more things that you didn’t include, because you would not think that anyone in their right mind would do them.

Waters liked petits haricots verts—the baby green beans you see in French markets. She could not find them here, so she would buy bushels of green beans and throw out all but the tiny ones. She would blow an entire evening’s profits by impulsively scattering diners’ plates with shaved truffles. She insisted on putting a large table with a floral display right in the middle of the room, taking up space that could have been used to seat dozens of people. She adamantly refused to install fire exits or signage of any kind. The restaurant has been almost completely destroyed by fire twice.

She hired poets, philosophers, dancers, as chefs—people who didn’t know how to cook the same way she didn’t know how to run a restaurant. It often happened that, every time someone came from the kitchen to the dining room, great clouds of marijuana smoke would come billowing out. The kitchen staff dropped acid, too. Okay, it’s Berkeley, so what do you expect. But I don’t care what anyone says, people who are high can’t cook.

Waters did not, however, show the same indulgence to her accounting team. Every time the person keeping the books pointed out the incredible wastage, or told Waters that something she wanted was cost prohibitive, she fired them. Waters went through a lot of accountants. In a similar way, she fired anyone who told her she couldn’t have what she wanted. Her disregard for reality is almost pathological.

Keep in mind—this is her authorized biography. Written by someone who likes her, published with her approval.

Chez Panisse does not take reservations. You wait on line at least an hour. Chez Panisse has a fixed menu, always has. They serve things like rabbit fettucine and sea urchins with squid ink foam. Just what you’ve been craving, right? If you have the audacity to order off menu, Waters will personally come out and scold you.

Chez Panisse ran in the red ink for the first 20 years of its 40-year history. It has never returned anything but a tiny profit. Yet Waters has managed to establish herself as the founder and icon of the foodie movement. Needless to say, she did not do it all on her own. But she does not give credit where credit is due.

Waters and the Chez Panisse story are proof that we are not operating under a capitalist system. This is not a defense of capitalism. But the free market is a harsh disciplinarian. If we had a free market, Chez Panisse would have tanked within a year.

The Chez Panisse story beautifully illustrates that we now live in a society ruled by an aristocracy of experts, specialists and celebrity icons. The most irrational and despotic form of rule there is. Waters is a perfect example of that.

 Laura writes:

Most artists can’t make a decent living. She’s more of an artist than a business person. I don’t fault her for that, but for the contradictions in her ideas.

Stephen Ippolito writes from Australia:

Thanks for reminding us that the simplest and most fundamental truths really are the most conducive to a good and healthy individual and communal life.

Your article took me back to a jarring magazine interview I read recently. The interview subject was the editor of one of the world’s leading “foodie” guides.

When asked why his magazine’s “World’s Best” list each year was  dominated, out of all proportion to their number, by restaurants offering  French cuisine while so very few Italian Italian restaurants were recognised, his reply was to the general effect that French restaurants deserved to be more highly rated because their food was so “complex” and difficult to create whereas he judged that even the best Italian restaurants lacked merit because the best of their cuisine “merely” offered their diners simplicity and freshness of ingredients. As I recall, he observed that Italian food was still too reliant on its traditional “peasant” and “rustic” roots and had not sufficiently progressed to embrace the complex flavors and techniques that apparently are not just the main, but the sole, gauge of good cooking now.

Dishes of the freshest meats and vegetables prepared in time-honored ways and seasoned with the freshest herbs and spices sourced locally and sustainably struck this sophisticate as just “too rustic” to be respected. To this man’s mind fresh and simple foods are a lesser product and to enjoy them is a lesser dining experience.

Now, I do “get” the appeal of complexity and creativity in life, including in food – and especially when dining out. But food ought surely not to be fetishized. The best venue for enjoyment of a meal will in any sane society always be the family table – not the laboratory.

As you so correctly point out, a community’s diet is a staple of life and a promoter and a reflection of individual and collective health. The wise sourcing of local food at its freshest nourishes and strengthens a community’s bonds as well as its economy; cooking that same food respectfully and consuming it reverently and joyously, preferably  in the company of good fellows, nourishes and strengthens the individual’s body and spirit.

Pondering your piece took me back to Meg Ryan’s performance in a scene in “When Harry Met Sally” where she orders a meal in a nit-picking overly-fussy way. Perhaps today’s audiences, used to ordering their diet of largely fast-food from “create your own burger” electronic kiosks might admire her character in that scene but at the time of its release she struck most of us as annoyingly neurotic, smug and pretentious. Food as a vehicle for display of purported sophistication. If Meg’s character had instead been shown being equally picky in a dress shop would we be as put off by her pickiness? I suspect not. Thinking people sense that there is something ungodly and life-negating in treating food as primarily a fashion item or toy, divorced from where it comes from and what it is supposed to be.

C.S. Lewis makes the very same point in “The Screw Tape Letters”. Watching the subject’s mother order a small serving of food in a cafe in the same picky way as Meg Ryan’s character the Tempter observes that gluttony doesn’t only consist in overeating but also in divorcing our food from its source and/or in preparing or eating our meals in a way that is overwrought or unduly precious or virtue-signalling and which doesn’t honor a meal’s place as a joyful gift from god, tasty and restorative of the body and spirit.

I recommended C.S. Lewis to a bodybuilder acquaintance at the gym just a few days ago. I did so after he remarked to me that he thought I too could compete in some upcoming bodybuilding contest, along with him, if  only I would join him in his sad utilitarian  “food as fuel” philosophy and adopt his daily diet of canned tuna, boiled brown rice and broccoli. No thanks. As a Catholic I know that God didn’t go to the trouble to gift us delicious food just for us to shun.

As in so many other fields I think my father’s people, the Italians, have got it right when they say that “No-one grows old around the table”.

Laura writes:

Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

Solange Hertz made the same point about gluttony in her book Sin Revisited.

C.S. Lewis also said that pantheism is the default theological position of humanity. Foodie-ism, or whatever you want to call it, is a form of pantheism. Foodies often believe that correct eating makes you holy and that nature itself is divine, rather than a reflection of God’s glory. Mothers once worried about whether their children would get to heaven. Now they worry about whether their children will eat too much sugar and go to nutritional hell.

Jane S. responds:

You’re being generous!

My impression is that she is a bull-headed person who is good at getting her own way.

I felt sorry for her husband. Towards the end of their marriage, he had a terrible bike accident that nearly tore off his face. At the time, Waters was on the East Coast for a speaking tour. She didn’t even cut short her last couple of days of speaking engagements to rush to his side. They didn’t stay together too much longer after that.

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