Saturday, November 5, 2011

Local food is elitist? Part II

So I knew I had more to say in response to Mark Bittman's article, "Local Food: No Elitist Plot," which I blogged about a few days ago, but it took a Saturday afternoon at the playground to work through some ideas and thoughts regarding the absurdity of calling local food elitist.

(Here's a total side note: A friend of mine asked today if "eating local" included squirrel. I'd say yes, probably; not much meat on 'em though. Maybe a stew? But I digress....)

So this idea that eating local is trendy or elitist stirred up such an angry ant's nest in my mind. But why? Why did it make me so mad?

Let me step back a little. Throughout our existence as human beings (and probably before that), most food was local. Furthermore, seasons, geography, and weather restricted the availability of ingredients. However, these limitations unleashed human creativity (if for no other reason than to stave off the boredom of eating the same dish for the sixth week in a row because that's all that's left after a long winter or dry season). All across the globe, cooks got imaginative, developing techniques to bring out new flavors in foods, tweaking textures and forms, trying new things they found in their environment--continually innovating, refining, experimenting to make the most of what they had.

Local cuisines and flavor profiles arose around the world based in large part on what foodstuffs were available. And with the Columbian Exchange new ingredients spread throughout the world--peppers bringing their heat to the far east and wheat and apples coming to the new world, redefining what local food was, yet maintaining an essential uniqueness, localness, and authenticity.

Here's the contrast: Industrial food--whether you are talking about fast food restaurants, meals in a box, frozen dinners, snacks, sodas, franchise restaurants of any stripe--promotes sameness. National and international brands of industrial foods value consistency almost above all. As a consumer, the idea is that the soda you find in Waukegan, Illinois, will taste the same as the one you find in Oahu, Hawaii.

So, is consistency bad? Well, no. I am an editor, for pete's sake, I crave consistency. But not in food. In food, it gets boring and generic.

More than boring though, consistency trains the public palate; consistency trains people to expect specific kinds of flavors and textures--most of which are nothing like the tastes and textures of home-cooked food made from seasonal ingredients. It takes away people's freedom to develop their own palates, to make their own judgments about how they think a food tastes. If the standard in taste is a fatty, salty snack with a vaguely chicken-y or cheesy flavor or a sugary, squishy-soft thing with a vaguely chocolate-y flavor, how are beets and turnips and quinoa supposed to hold their own? In other words, if a person were raised with a concept of bread as a ghastly white supersoft substance with a slightly chalky taste, how long would it take for him or her to cease to regard a loaf of home-baked, whole-wheat bread as kind of foreign?

And so millions of industrially trained palates continue to crave the same tastes and textures, with a slight tweak from time to time to keep things "interesting," themselves end up being the product of industrial food.

And it bothers me, because it comes back to this idea that people are incapable of taking care of themselves, of making things for themselves, of making decisions for themselves. We are continually sold the idea that this company can make that easier for you, can take away your concerns about this or that. We are continually trained to lack faith in ourselves. It comes back to this idea that people are just too dumb to take care of themselves. (Michael Ruhlman rails against the idea that Americans are too stupid to cook in this blog post.)

But, hey, maybe it's true. News used to be mostly facts, leaving the work of forming an opinion up to the news consumer. Now people are served prefab opinions. People used to (grow and) cook their own food. Now it's served up in boxes, cans, and freezer bags--all prefab because people can't do it for themselves. Most people used to make their own clothes and furniture--now most people are too scared to even try.

But I don't really believe people are incapable of doing and thinking for themselves. Well, to be completely honest, I don't want to believe they are incapable. I want to believe that ordinary people are capable of making their own meals; adapting to local conditions, flavors, and ingredients; developing their own palates and judgments based on real, natural, whole foods. If that belief is elitist, then I'm an elitist. Then local food is elitist.

But you know it's not. Believing people can do, make, and think for themselves is the antithesis of elitism; what it is is faith in everyperson.

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