"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Politicization Of Food–Dismissing The Joys Of Eating

A few years ago a new restaurant, Shenandoah Farm,  opened in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.  Set high on a promontory overlooking the valley, the Potomac River in the distance, and the mountains behind; and offering food from its own gardens and nearby farms, the restaurant was a perfect match for patrons from Washington looking for good food in an ideal setting.  Moreover, the restaurant had recruited a young chef from California who had grown up on Alice Water’s unique combination of locally-sourced, organic foods creatively combined, prepared, and presented.

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The restaurant prided itself on its local sourcing, and made it a point to explain each ingredient’s provenance, careful to note that only in the case of rare exceptions – fresh fish from the Chesapeake from a trusted, bio-friendly source – all food served was sourced from within a 50 mile radius, half that of the popular Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market in Washington.  One could be sure of the most careful attention to quality – only organic food, never GMO, humanely raised, and respectfully prepared.  The restaurant felt that in keeping with his eco-friendly approach to food, it should hire its staff within the same paradigm, and carried out a vigorous affirmative action search for waiters, kitchen help, and agricultural workers.  In other words, the restaurant hoped to be universally correct - eco-friendly, economically dependent on the local economy, and mindful of the needs of the less fortunate.

After the water was poured, waiters explained the menu; but in addition to describing how each dish was prepared, they gave each ingredient’s biography – exactly how it was grown (levels of acidity, minerality, water, and humidity), the specific farms from which it came (owner’s history and credentials), and the care taken in transport and storage.  “We honor diversity”, the waiters concluded, “and have on our staff African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans who have both productive and supervisory positions.”

“Jamie likes to prepare his dishes with a light touch”, said one server about the chef, “ all organic, of course, with a touch of the foraged and unusual – and the braised baby goat, stewed in Turkish figs and a Mediterranean infusion of rosemary, his specialty, is a good example”.

“Terroir is important”, the server continued, “and Jamie lets our free-range goats graze only on the Northeast slopes of the property.  He can sow sorrel and jimson there in the Spring, and the meat takes on a fragrant, autumnal flavor in October.”

The lettuce was from the kitchen gardens behind the main house – “built in 1880 by the Tylers, one of the few Virginia families who never owned slaves”.  The vinegar had been distilled and confected from the Norton grape, Virginia’s own native varietal. The eggs and chicken livers were from the free range chickens on the southern slopes of the farm.  “Our chickens have over 10 acres to roam”, said Marshall, “more land than any other poultry farm in the area.  We have carefully balanced the need for wide ranging with muscle consistency. In an area any larger than ten acres, the chickens become stressed, the meat less tender, and the organ meat grainy and somewhat acidic.

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The restaurant was hugely popular and reservations had to be made weeks in advance; but after some time the waitlist shortened, tables could be easily had, and both the quality of the food and the service were soon a far cry from what they had been.  The restaurant realized that they, in their progressive approach to the entire food process, had underestimated cost.   Labor-intensive, small-scale, intensive farming was costly and the cost was passed on to the restaurant.  Recruiting minority workers in this rural corner of Virginia was not easy, and although the restaurant offered decent wages and excellent benefits they had difficulty attracting and keeping staff.  Insisting on a diverse, always changing menu designed to source and show-off a wide variety of local ingredients placed additional pressure on the chef who began to rely more on architecture and presentation than taste.

In its last throes and in financial difficulty, the restaurant lost its chef but not its principles; and its few diners were happy enough to be served, for lack of a better term, ‘politically correct’ food.  Taste was secondary.  It was all about the right way to maintain eco-quality, social justice, and local economies up and down the food chain.

The story of Shenandoah Farm is illustrative of the current American food zeitgeist – the quality of the food, the service, and the ambiance are secondary; the welfare of the animals slaughtered, the organic purity of the fruits and vegetables grown, the diversity of the kitchen and waitstaff are far more important than the final, plated product.

A Walk in The Woods is a new Washington restaurant in Adams Morgan, and while in the interest of time a complete tale of provenance, bio-integrity, and diversity is not possible (a written addendum is provided on the back of every menu), the restaurant has become known as a millennial go-to.  Dining there is a way to visibly demonstrate one’s progressive credentials, one more statement in an attempt to construct a completely respectful lifestyle.

The food is ordinary.  The chef has added exotic ingredients – a touch of wild sorrel, Chesapeake bay sea grass, and Dordogne morels – but has included them willy-nilly.  There is no reason why the edible flowers, Western sassafras, and sour Turkish fig reduction go with anything.  Beneath the decoration, the food is ordinary, over-salted, and tasteless. All the right moves have been made – organic, non-GMO, responsibly produced, local or fair trade – but little attention has been paid to the meal itself.

Dining in France, on the other hand, is a completely different experience, one which celebrates the artistry, the talent, and the high quality of both food and preparation.  The waiters at Le Petit Lutece or Le Train Bleu brought out the dish of fruits de mer – oysters, clams, mussels, periwinkles, and crab – without a word about provenance or husbandry.

The choucroute Alsatienne – German-style wurst, bacon, and ham atop a vinegary portion of marinated cabbage and accompanied by steamed potatoes and spicy Maille mustard – needed no explanation.  The lightly sautéed filet of Dover sole, the liver sautéed in porto, or a dozen fines de claire required no introduction, no soliloquy, no detailed explanation.  You didn’t ask because you didn’t have to ask. French brasserie cuisine was standard and uniformly good.

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At the best Michelin-starred restaurants, knowledgeable waiters appreciated a knowledgeable question about the often complex preparation involved in French cuisine.  Sauces were prepared, reduced, enhanced, reduce again, highlighted, simmered, and then only served with meat, fish, or fowl. “Does the chef use sage or sorrel in his rabbit reduction?” would be an appropriate inquiry.  “What’s in it?” would not.

Within the last few months a new food group appeared on Facebook, one originated by its administrators as a place for like-minded (educated, savvy, upper middle class professionals) to share their experiences of food, wine, and dining. In the early going the site was all about the great restaurants of Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York and most interestingly, the hinterland where the new American cuisine had finally arrived. There were pictures of oysters, succulent racks of lamb, bottles of top-flight California wine, French bistros, Asian markets, and Thai, Indian, and Spanish dishes.  It was all about the food, how to prepare it, and where to eat it.

The site featured stories of discovery, childhood memories, and international travel.  Its combination of personal recollections, the wide, eclectic but experienced taste of writers, and the evident delight of eating made the site far more interesting and engaging than commercial sites.

It didn’t take long, however, for the site to be politicized.  Posts were now more about minority chefs, women  who had overcome sexism and misogyny  to rise in the kitchen, inner-city gardens, the effect of Administration trade wars and tariffs on local growers, modern gourmet soup kitchens, the war on school lunches, food as a means to social solidarity, inclusivity, and the minimum wage.  The delights of eating had been derailed by  obligations.  The site had morphed into one of many thousands of political sites on the Internet promoting progressive causes.  Its uniqueness was gone; and many members left the group.

Politicization – or more aptly described, infection by political concerns – is part of the current American zeitgeist.  Things cannot be taken as they are and for what they are, but looked at only through a political lens.  Fractional sexuality becomes lionized and paramount; sex is only about power; dining is no more than the end result of a flawed socio-economic market chain.  Enjoyment means guilt, ignorance, and dismissiveness of underlying causes and their consequences.  America has become even more Puritanical, censorious, and intolerant than one would have ever thought.
So perhaps it is wrong to criticize the new, woke foodies.  They are only one part of a national trend.

Progressivism has become a secular religion, believe-or-be-damned, with-us-or-against-us; and its agenda (doctrine, liturgy, commandments) is showing up everywhere.  No segment of American society has been resistant to its evangelism – for now.  Like all American temporal trends, it will eventually, sooner rather than later, wither and die.

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