A recent article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker explains the French movement known as Le Fooding, which is concerned with wresting French cuisine from its traditional home on the political right and relocating it to a more politically neutral locale. Basically, the movement seeks to de-snobbify French cuisine. Typical of Gopnik, it is an excellent piece of work, the kind of thing that makes me wonder why I’ve let my subscription to the New Yorker lapse. Crazy…
Everything Gopnik writes is ridiculously well-researched, well-written, and insightful, but for me one of the most salient points that he makes in this piece is not about the French, but something he says about Americans (and Brits). To make the point about how difficult it is to draw parallels between French eating habits and political orientation, Gopnik contrasts the French with Americans and Brits. He writes:
In America and England, you are what you think about eating. Tell me where you stand on Michelle Obama’s organic White House garden and (with the exception of a handful of “Crunchy Cons” and another handful of grumpy left-wing nostalgists for whiskey and cigarettes) I can tell what the rest of your politics are. People who are in favor of a new approach to food—even if that approach involves a return to heritage breeds and discarded farming methods—are in favor of a new approach to social life.
When I first read this, I thought he was spot on, but then I started to think of really quite a few people that I know who are exceptions to Gopnik’s generalization: that is, conservatives who are in favor of progressive farming methods and liberals who just don’t care. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms comes to mind as an example of the former. Perhaps he’s one of the “crunchy cons” that Gopnik cites as exceptions to his rule, but I’ve encountered enough folks like Salatin around here to seriously question the assumption that those who are agriculturally progressive are also socially progressive. I’ve made embarrassingly wrong assumptions about enough people based on how they think about food that I’ve learned not to do it anymore. Not all organic farmers love Barack Obama as much as I do.
It’s true that I live in one of the reddest states in the nation — Alabama — so I encounter more than my fair share of conservatives. However, it seems to me that food might be an area of discourse that cuts across political divisions. Or, possibly, this “new approach to food” has become so trendy that is now divorced from its ideological origins. Both liberals and conservatives shop at Whole Foods, don’t they?
The American food movement has done something more than to unearth traditional farming methods and to educate Americans on the dangers of pesticides. It has also introduced us to heritage breeds of turkeys, pigs, and cattle. It has presented us with lacinato kale, bright-lights chard, and broccoli rabe. In short, it has unearthed new (and sometimes old) products and new markets. Now that we know they’re there, we want to eat these delicious, nutritious greens and succulent pork bellies. And we don’t want to be bothered by harmful chemicals or rumors about the unsavory goings-on on the “kill floor.”
It’s worth remembering that stories are powerful marketing tools. They sell products. The American food movement has given us, along with heirloom tomatoes, stories of little old ladies carefully saving their seeds from year to year and passing them down from generation to generation. It’s given us tales of bachelor organic farmers carrying contraband San Marzano tomato seeds back from Sicily in the waistbands of their underwear. Such narratives are compelling, so compelling that we literally buy them.
Of course, that’s not a bad thing … not at all. I just think it’s imporant to understand what’s going on. And, as much as I admire Gopnik, I think he’s wrong — or at least not quite right — to claim that we Americans “are what we think about food.” Maybe we were nine years or so ago, but we aren’t any more. Our eating habits are not necessarily aligned with political orientation. In that way, maybe we’re just a little bit like the French, not something you can often say about Americans.
One claim that does seem to be true, however, is that “we are what we can afford to spend on food.” That is, folks with a bit of discretionary income can afford to eat well — however you want to define that — and they do. Folks who live from hand-to-mouth eat that way. Some Americans simply cannot afford to be interested in “good” food.
Environmentally responsible and nutritionally sensible foods should not be financially prohibitive. They should not be exclusive. However, American agricultural policy does nothing to correct this imbalance. Even under a president who is socially progressive (and married to a person who is passionate about organic food), the farm subsidies that structure food prices still do not go to small-scale farmers. They go large-scale, industrial farmers, farmers who produce large volume crops that wind up being processed into mostly unhealthy products. Until that changes, organic produce — like the produce grown in Mrs. Obama’s much-lauded White House garden — and ethically raised livestock wil be purchased mostly by the privileged few. And there is something seriously wrong with that.