Putting the “Good” in Food

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.
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