Friday, January 19, 2007

Food: As Fashion, as Identity, as a Political Statement

Recently there was an NPR segment on how Americans now choose which brands of foods to eat based on what’s fashionable. The reporter claimed this was a new development in our relationship with food. I beg to differ with that opinion.

Fashionable Food

“Local Food", the “Slow Cooking” movement, and Organically grown/produced foods are all the rage these days. The local movement is exemplified by the current provenance-listing restaurant trend. The latest cooking rage, “slow cooking", does not necessarily indicating the use of a crock-pot or “slow cooker”, but the idea of taking the time to cook something without using prepackaged goods. Organic food is a sticky wicket to define. In California there are stringent legal descriptions of what can be labeled as organic. They are often more ridged than national standards. I'll just use the generalized idea of organic. Meaning grown with no pesticides or herbicides, the use of beneficial insects and other natural methods to produce a food crop (or animal).

As the wheels of my car slid over the road, the way water rushes over rocks in a snow-melt stream, I mentally masticated this topic. I’ve always preferred local produce. In our family, a good portion was provided by my dad’s customers. I can remember his arrival home, on alfalfa-smelling summer nights, with a lug box of produce. One evening the box would contain assorted melons; honeydews, cassavas, cantaloupes, musk melons, and watermelons. The next there’d be a lug of tomatoes, or peaches, or kiwis, or grapes, or plums, or pears … you name it, if it’s grown in the Central Valley of California – it ended up at our house.

My favorite was when he’d bring home fresh picked field corn. It’s best if you grow it in your own garden. First you start the pot of boiling water – or get the bar-b-queue coals looking blood-orange colored hot. Only when they're hot enough, or the water is at a full boil, do you go pick the corn. Every minute between picking and cooking is a minute when the corn's natural sugars turn to starch.

If we weren’t gifted with generous bounty from growers, my Mom and I would load up into the vanilla soft-serve ice-cream colored ’62 Chevy and drive out highway 99. We'd stop at the Farmer’s Wife’s Fruit Stand to buy Freestone Peaches, Bing cherries, Bartlet, Bosc, and Red Pears, cucumbers, tomatoes, persimmons, pumpkins, almonds, walnuts and Fuji Apples. The pears and the peaches were placed in a dark closet to finish ripening. When they reached perfection it was canning day. Homemade pickles, canned pears and peaches. Mom left the jelly making to Dad’s mother. Grandma H made the best orange marmalade and plum jelly you’d ever want to spread on a biscuit.

Today our purchases of fruit-stand produce for canning might be viewed as "cutting edge" or fashionable. It's certainly a combination of the "slow cooking" and "local cooking" sensibilities. Is that why we used local food, because Californians are always ahead of the curve and we were trying to be fashionable? Is it because we were frugal and local is cheaper? No. It is because like most people who live in rural areas, we understand the F-L-A-V-O-R, texture and quality of food was superior when it's local and in-season, compared to shipped in, cold-stored, not tree/vine ripened fruits and vegetables. It may be the latest "fashion" to claim all the food you eat/cook comes from within a 50 mile radius, but it's nothing that serious epicureans haven't been doing for centuries.

"Slow Cooking" is another segment of this "fashionable food" idea. Also? Not a new concept. Don't you remember the 70's? Maybe it was different outside of the West Coast, but there, the thing to do was to bake your own bread, grow your own food, and to shun anything that wasn't natural. Live off the land was the hue and cry of that hippy generation. Look at the great chefs and cuisine that started during that time frame. Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in the Bay Area and Wolf Gang Puck down south at Spago. While the East Coast was trying to polish their continental cooking skills, opening high-end French and Italian restaurants left and right, Waters and Puck were inventing "food cuisine". They knew the secret. Amazing ingredients, picked at the right time, grown with care, cooked gently so the few ingredients glittered like bright jewels on the palate when they touched your tongue. They didn't bury their work under sauces, pastries, or mix it with a hundred other ingredients.

Tying Identity to What You Eat

The point the reporter wanted to make is people are buying organic, high-end, locally produced food, because they felt it reflected who they were, much like gangsters wearing Mercedes emblems to show their street creed, or Academe Award hopefuls wearing Oscar de la Renta, Givenchy and Jean-Paul Gaultier gowns to highlight their sophistication. But hasn't food always identified who we are? If I say Italian, what do you think? Pasta, olive oil and garlic, right? Jewish? Matzo balls, gefilte fish, and pastrami. Chinese? Hundred year eggs, crispy ducks, and bean sprouts. Japanese ... yep sushi, sashimi, sake, and seaweed. Fried Chicken and greens? Why you must be from the south! Dry-rub ribs are your favorite? Are you from Tennessee? Say the word beef brisket - and if you're from Texas you're thinking barbecue.

So is it really news that people are buying certain types of food to solidify their identity? Ooooh, Foie Gras? Only from the Hudson Valley. If you're sourcing Artisan Cheeses I expect they're from Wisconsin, New York or California. So what's my point? This is nothing new that people will look for the "best" and spend money to acquire it. Back in 1849 if you wanted people to know how rich you were, and you were in San Francisco? You ordered a "Hang-town Fry". A combination of eggs, oysters and bacon. Why those three things? Because they were rare and hard to come by during the gold-rush. In the 40's and 50's if you wanted to to flash your credentials when throwing a cocktail party - only the best booze, imported booze would do. Beefeater's Gin, Stoli Vodka, Glenlivet Scotch.

If you're an immigrant you recall with fondness the foods from your homeland. Heck, I'm not an immigrant, but as a former Arizona resident, I long for good Machacca. This desire for foods from home often translates into importation of those items. Isn't that why our grocery stores have burgeoning isles of Hispanic and Oriental cooking ingredients? It use to be you could only find candied ginger and wasabi peas in small oriental grocery stores. Now they're in my local grocery store.

Food as a Political Statement

Political action through food consumption (or lack thereof) is not new to this century. What was the grape-strike led by Cesar Chavez all about? It was about encouraging consumers to picket the purchase of table grapes harvested by poorly compensated immigrant workers. The politics of food production dove-tail in with the "Food as Fashion" idea. Did you know $7.8 billion dollars was spent on organic foods in 2000? Were all those people buying organic because they feel strongly this is a healthier choice to conventionally grown meats/dairy/produce? That might be a big segment of the consumer base, but I would say there are a lot of people who are buying organic because they want to portray themselves as environmentally active, caring, and involved. I think this is ironic. People who buy organic because they want to help out the "small-family farmer" are really deluding themselves if they're buying organic at the local grocery store. They're even more mistaken if that grocery store is a mega-mart, like Wal-Mart! Anytime a supplier can deliver enough of one product to every store across a nation, they are no longer a "small family farm". If you want to make a political statement about the food you eat, go to your local farmers market. Pointedly ask if the produce was LOCALLY grown. You'd be surprised how many times those wonderful looking "local" tomatoes are really "local" to Florida. Finally, they tried to portray "Fashionable Foods" as a United States only phenomena. I find this hard to believe. I know people in the UK and Europe have huge concerns about "Frankenfoods". Strong enough concerns and convictions to block the importation of genetically modified corn. Which brings up an important point. Why are our brothers and sisters across the Atlantic so much more effective in transforming their agrarian staples to match their politics?

Tell me what you think

Do you know someone (or do you) buy certain types of food because they're "fashionable" right now? If so, which foods fall into that category?

Do you believe you can strengthen your "identity" by purchasing certain types of food? Do you purchase San Pellegrino water because you want people to identify you as having enough disposable income to afford water imported from Italy? Or is it all about the taste? When you purchase a specific brand of food are you making a political statement? If so, what's statement and who's hearing that statement?

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1 comment:

Joe said...

I buy thing&s like lard because I want people to know that I'm a frakin' freak! And I try to buy local lard, not some lard from Illinois or wherever. Woot!