Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Food and class, part I

The sustainable-food movement has a class problem.

Slow Food, for example, is an essential organization, with its declaration of a universal "right to taste" and its mandate to:
oppose the standardisation of taste, defend the need for consumer information, protect cultural identities tied to food and gastronomic traditions, safeguard foods and cultivation and processing techniques inherited from tradition and defend domestic and wild animal and vegetable species.

The group has undeniably done important work internationally toward those goals; yet its US branch tends to throw pricey events accessible only to an economic elite.

Examples like this abound. Dan Barber, chef of Blue Hill in New York, has been a tireless champion of small farmers and local food. Yet his restaurants, where dinner plus wine easily surpasses $100, must by necessity cater to Wall Streeters and wielders of corporate expense accounts.

Here at Maverick Farms, we've pledged to "promote family farming as a community resource"; yet we ask $40 a head for our biggest fund raiser, our farm dinners. (We do offer a lower-priced work-exchange option.)

The problem is essentially structural. Small-scale farming is labor-intensive. We charge chefs $20 a pound for salad greens; but our produce is meticulously hand-picked and rinsed, "graded in the field," which means chefs can take our greens from the bag to the plate without culling bad leaves.

From a business perspective, it's a bad model. Despite our $40 dinners and $20 bags of greens, no one here gets paid a dime beyond room and board. We'd be much better off pooling our resources and buying a McDonald's franchise.

Historically, people of limited means have tended to scrape by on what's locally available, while the wealthy have used their resources to draw in fancy food from far away. Now, that situation has turned upside down.

Economies of scale brought on by increasing consolidation, vast subsidies, and wholesale, unchecked exploitation of immigrant labor have created a system of cheap, plentiful, and dreadful food.

Industrialization, mass culture, wage stagnation, and Puritanism (eg, prohibition) have almost completely destroyed traditional foodways here, allowing McDonald's and the home convenience-food industry to fill the void. A bad-feedback loop thrives; the food industry shovels billions of dollars into marketing and controls school lunches, leaving vast swaths of the population innocent of alternatives and ignorant of what real food tastes like.

In the meantime, a backlash against industrial food is gaining force in the Anglo-American world. It started when Americans like Julia Child and Brits like Elizabeth David travelled to southern Europe at the precise point when industrialization was swamping our food culture. A prosperous middle class, buoyed by the post-War boom, travelled to Italy and France and tasted farm-fresh food prepared with flavor--not portability, volume, and profit--as the primary motivating factor. Hence the birth of the yuppie food revolution.

But middle-class wages have since stagnated; real growth in wages since the early '70s has been minimal, save for a blip in the 1990s. So the bulk of the people who frequent Dan Barber's restaurant or Alice Waters' place in Berkeley tend to be pretty well-heeled.

Chefs gained celebrity status starting in the 1980s, when the yuppie food revolution gained force. I predict that in places like New York and San Francisco, the age of the rock-star farmer is not far off.

I am reminded of a line from Baudelaire’s notebooks:

If a poet demanded of the State the right to have a few bourgeois in his stable, people would be very much astonished, but if a bourgeois asked for some roast poet, people would think it quite natural.

Welcome to the era of roast farmer. Micro-farms dot the areas outside of metropolises, producing hand-picked, highly nutritious, and pungent microgreens to be plopped on lawyers', accountants', and high-tech professionals’ plates astronomical prices. Meanwhile, the people who staff the vast services economy get the dreck served up by thriving companies like Smithfield Foods.

Find Part II of this post here.


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