I’ve realized lately that good-tasting food isn’t enough for me. Ditto “fresh,” “local,” “organic,” “heirloom,” “biodynamic” or any other trendy descriptor you might come up with.
I want food that’s grown, cooked and sold by nice people.
The idea crystallized when I read in the Wall Street Journal that “foul-mouthed celebrity chef” Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant empire was teetering on bankruptcy. I’ve never even eaten Ramsay’s cooking – or watched more than a few minutes of him on TV – but the news gave me a flick of pure schadenfreude.
If Ramsay were the most sublime chef in the world (and he does have 12 Michelin stars), I wouldn’t want to eat his food. His persona leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
I have dined at Michael Chiarello’s restaurants, though. The Napa Valley chef came off as a jerk in his Top Chef Masters TV appearances. And while I know “reality show” producers can edit people into caricatures, I’m wistful about a certain Tra Vigne polenta dish I used to love years ago. I feel just a bit betrayed.
On the other hand, the fact that Hubert Keller came off as such a nice, generous guy only amplified my fond memories of a meal at his Fleur de Lys – and made me excited to return. (He can even rinse my pasta in a dorm room shower, as far as I’m concerned, like he did on the show.)
My bias is in full force at the farmers market. I buy whatever I can from Rose, the sweet lady who always calls me by name and saves me some of her sublime haricots verts when I oversleep. My go-to tomato guy is the farmer who slips a couple of slightly bruised heirloom beauties into my bag, gratis, cautioning, “Be sure to eat these today.”
But the best example I’ve encountered of food offered up with compassion comes from organic peach farmer Mas Masumoto. Mas obsesses, worries, fusses over his crops like they’re his own children. He lives for the look of ecstasy on people’s faces after they’ve bitten into one of his luscious heirloom peaches. (He’s particularly delighted if he can spot some juice dribbling down your chin.)
A few years back, Mas put a small number of Elberta trees up for “adoption.” He did it for a number of reasons – but the main one? Mas wanted to connect with the people who were eating his peaches. He was tired of sending his “babies” off into the world, where they disappeared into the mouths of strangers.
When I filled out my adoption application (with several tough essay questions, no less), I was anticipating good peaches. But the real treat was getting to know Mas and his family. Understanding how much they care – how they want every bite to be ripe with joy – makes those near-perfect peaches even sweeter.
Does love or kindness make peaches juicier, tomatoes riper, a meal taste better? Can it put more “good” in food? Probably impossible to prove. But damn it, Gordon Ramsay, I’d like you to try.
Thank goodness for the man from Hope. No, not Bill Clinton. And not Barack Obama, either. I’m talking about the guy from Hope, Minnesota.
Victor Mrotz appeared like a vision, holding a huge tray of bread slices, slathered with slabs of butter from the Hope Creamery. I was standing in a looooong line, waiting to get a plate with three little pieces of cheese at Slow Food Nation, the big event celebrating American foods that was held in San Francisco this past weekend.
Slow Food Nation made me cranky – or at least the Taste Pavilions portion of the event did. With 2,000 people swarming only 16 pavilions for samples of charcuterie, seafood, pickled items, jams, honey, cocktails, chocolate, ice cream, coffee and other goodies, there were bound to be bottlenecks.
Very nice volunteers were slamming bits of chocolate or scoops of scrumptious ice cream onto paper plates and dealing them out at a breakneck speed to attendees who were mostly obsessed with tasting everything available before their 4-hour ticket expired. Slow Food? Really?
But what upset me most of all about the situation is that I didn’t get to connect or chat with the producers – the people who grew, cooked, cured or stirred the things I was queuing up to taste. One server couldn’t even tell me what the ingredients were in a seafood dish she handed me. That’s why I was so happy when Victor showed up and actually talked to me and my line neighbors about the butter his company makes in small batches, using an old churn from the 1940s.
Contrast this with Slow Food International’s big event, Salone del Gusto, held every two years in Turin, Italy. In 2006, there were more than 500 exhibitors from around the world, and at each stand, it was possible to chat with someone who knew the item intimately. It was like encountering Victor Mrotz – times 500.
I learned about cured goat leg “violino” from an artisanal producer, quizzed a man from Sicily about his manna, learned all sorts of details about jamon Iberico (“It is a sacrilege to cut off the fat!”), watched a fish trap being made and found out the Portuguese fleur de sel I was buying came from an area where salt was harvested in Roman times – and the young people selling it were trying to prevent the tradition from dying out by learning the techniques from the few old men who still knew how to work the salt pans.
Yes, Salone del Gusto gets crowded with thousands of people, but throughout the massive convention-style exhibition, it offers an intimacy that Slow Food Nation failed to achieve. In the two times I’ve attended, I felt like I didn’t just sample the food – I got the real flavor of the people who were behind the food. And that always makes things taste so much better.
There were many commendable things about Slow Food Nation – the banning of water bottles, lively panels about food justice, and valet bike parking.
If the event is held again, I’ll cross my fingers that the organizers will take a lesson from Salone del Gusto – and the man from Hope, Minnesota.
“We have lost any sense of the sacredness of food,” Carlo Petrini said. Appropriate, since the impassioned founder of the Slow Food movement was speaking in San Francisco on a Sunday. I felt like I was attending food church.
“We create food pornography,” he said, “But we eat poorly on a day to day basis. Our relationship with food has become schizophrenic.”
Slow Food’s mantra for the past two years has been, “Good, Clean, Fair.” But Petrini was clearly thinking on a larger scale about the fate of the earth. “In just 100 years we have destroyed 80% of the earth’s biodiversity,” he claimed, “Only because we thought we could be stronger than nature.”
The solution? “We have to return to a place where we can reconstruct our relationship with nature. We must live and exist in harmony with the metabolism of the earth. Eat, digest, give back to the earth.”
Petrini meant this literally. “In Italian, the world ‘manure’ comes from the Latin word for happiness,” he explained. “S**t is happiness!”
Petrini also preached the sermon of moderation. “Psychologically, we are still afraid of famine,” he said. “We are all trained to be perfect consumers: Always take too much, always want more, always waste.”
“Our refrigerators are like family tombs,” he railed, “everything dying! And let’s not talk about all that frozen food – underneath there are some rabbits that came from Jurassic Park!”
(Guilty. Last night, as I ripped open a two-week old bag of baby lettuce and shook the contents into my compost bucket, I felt like a true food sinner.)
One place Americans could cut back, Petrini suggested, was meat. “The U.S. consumes 120 kilograms (nearly 265 pounds) of meat per capita. In Italy, we only eat 90 kilograms (about 198 pounds) per capita – but we are just as happy!”
And then, there’s the importance of slowness. Petrini told the story of a cook in Italy who ran a tiny restaurant that was only open for lunch. Her food was lauded by critics and fans, who urged her to open for dinner, too. “I don’t want to be the richest corpse in the cemetery,” she replied, refusing to bend.
“We are all going to the same place,” Petrini reminded us. “It’s better to go slowly, eh?
Slowness is like a homeopathic medicine. Everyday, take one dose of slowness.”
“Calma.” he said, raising his hand like a benediction. “Tranquilli.”
The crowd didn’t need a translator to understand that blessing.