A couple of weeks ago, E and I spent a perfectly good Saturday night in San Jose to hear a proverbial fireside chat between Anthony Bourdain (of Kitchen Confidential and No Reservations fame) and Eric Ripert (chef owner, Le Bernadin in NYC). In addition to the usual witty banter and good-natured ribbing (laced with profanity from time to time, of course), the dynamic duo also discussed such au courant topics as the meaning of farm-to-table, global food cultures, the role of farmer’s markets, restaurant trends, etc. What I really appreciated from Tony Bourdain is his contention that many people in the U.S. over-romanticize farms, especially those located in developing countries. In this much ballyhooed “back to the earth” type of mentality, somehow being forced to live off the land, as in the case of subsistence farming, is a way of living far superior to our modern ways. A corresponding attitude is the “holier than thou” judgment that rains down on anyone who chooses not to buy organic, not to compost or to drink water out of (gasp!) plastic bottles. In other words, we need to return to a simpler time, before the proliferation of plastics, before the abundance/waste of food and before everything got processed to death.
When I encounter people espousing these views (not without regularity in the Bay Area), I often think about the life of my grandfather and his humble beginning as a small-time fruit farmer. As someone who had actually tilled the land and survived both World Wars (including being conscripted by the Japanese during WWII), his belief system relating to food is not driven by any lofty ideology. Instead, it grew out of a genuine respect for the earth and a perpetual survival mentality. As kids, we were never allowed to waste anything – no banana was beyond salvaging (“see, you just cut out the brown part”) and, with occasional exceptions, no food was too old to toss. Eggshells with residual egg whites were used to fertilize potted plants, and reusable bags were used for groceries. My grandfather’s generation didn’t know the first thing about environmentalism or the organic/local food movement back then, but they lived a lifestyle consistent with many of the core tenets of these philosophies. Despite this, did my grandfather appreciate the advent of supermarkets? Of course he did! How can you beat the convenience of supermarkets and, especially in the summer, the air-conditioning? (This latter part may be my own projection, seeing how he was very averse to turning on A/C even during the hottest summer months in Taiwan.) The year-around availability of all kinds of produce was great too. But modern conveniences complemented, rather than replaced, the traditional markets, and my grandfather and other shoppers continued to go to them for freshly butchered meat and seasonal produce. (As an aside, when I was younger, those places were not the European-style farmer’s markets marked by an excessive concentration of yuppies – they were more like busy markets with harried housewives and puddles of dirty water on the ground.)
I often think that by being overly judgmental/militant/smug, rather than encouraging and inspirational, many environmental advocates and food activists miss out on opportunities to truly influence those around them. When I hear people say things like “we should eat simple diets or cook like the farmers/goatherders/hunters from Ghana/Indonesia/wherever,” I also think about how ridiculous that is and how many of those people would swap lives with us in a heartbeat. Of course everyone can do better and probably learn valuable lessons from other cultures. But no amount of harsh criticism will help the planet. Neither will a misguided sense of what lessons traditional societies can offer.
Anyway, just a bit of reflection after the event. It was so much fun to hear these guys, and the discussion was definitely thought-provoking.