For the Love of Food
During our adventures in Italy a few years ago, my travel partner and I found ourselves in the back of a car on our way to a small olive oil factory in southern Italy. In the front seats were Antonio and Giovanna, a middle-aged couple from Milan[o] who had a summer home in this tiny coastal town in Cosenza. If Italy is a boot, we were in the arch of the foot. Antonio and Giovanna kind of adopted us for the few days that we spent in their town, and they brought us along on their annual trip to stock up on olive oil. I believe they had three ten-litre jugs in their trunk. Our three empty 1.5-litre water bottles were pathetic in comparison.
We get to this place, and it’s all abuzz with olive farmers coming in from the groves with their goods. Forklifts everywhere. Huge pallets of olives. A very cute puppy. I’m totally mesmerized, and we taste the six varieties of oil that they have in stock. It is heavenly, and we are sold. We are warned not to drink it all at once — apparently fresh olive oil is something of a laxative. Giovanna and Antonio, meanwhile, are out tasting the raw olives. She hands me one to try. If you’ve never tasted a raw olive, they are about as tasty as apple seeds. Or maybe soap coated in rubbing alcohol. I don’t know exactly what they were looking for, but they decided that the current selection didn’t suit their tastes, and they’d come back next week to try again.
Yeah. This stuff was okay, but really not the best, and since they were stocking up for the year they wanted the best. Il migliore. No big deal, they’d come back, it was only about a half-hour drive.
The most remarkable part of this story is that Antonio and Giovanna are not foodies; they’re just Italian.
Contrast this with my recent existential crisis over coffee and pastries. I’m in Philadelphia, it’s around ten on a Sunday morning, I’ve just gotten off a red-eye, I’m with a friend, and I really would like some nice coffee and pastries. (I probably got this proclivity in Italy, where I had caffe e cornetti for breakfast whenever I could.) A Philadelphia native directed us towards Hungry Pigeon, on the corner of 4th and Fitzwater in Queen Village. The big painted sign on the side of the building even says “coffee & pastries.” Perfect.
We go in, I order coffee and select pastries to share, we ask for a few more minutes to look at the rest of the menu, and then it all comes tumbling out. I feel conflicted. Hungry Pigeon is a trendy brunch spot in an area that was clearly once working-class now in the process of gentrification and fighting hard to hold on to its scruffy roots. Most of the people inside are white. Not everyone outside is white. I pass for white. The cooks are almost certainly getting paid dirt. Everything on the menu — except for the braised half chicken — is something I could make at home for a helluva lot less money. Do I want to be spending my money supporting the Foodie Establishment? I feel fine with buying nice coffee and pastries because I am super in favor of those things being available for purchase, and I have a real appreciation for good coffee and a good pastry (these were excellent). But — but brunch.
Nu, Ella, what? First it was vegetarian, then it was organic and local and seasonal and fair trade and high-quality and yadda yadda. Now it’s brunch?
Well, it’s complicated. It’s not brunch per se, but the whole business of fancy food. Brunch just happens to be a particularly indulgent habit that’s easy to point at. On the one hand, yes. I take issue with many aspects of the fancy food industry. Nine times out of ten, it is snobby and elitist. It caters to people who have a fair bit of money and creates yet another arena in which you feel that you need to have wealth in order to participate. It’s often deceptive. While there are lots of places that are truly doing things differently, most food establishments are still operating on a paradigm that treats people like shit. Restaurant kitchens are hotbeds of emotional abuse, shaming, misogyny, machismo, physical exhaustion, overwork, and low pay. And while some Farm to Table restaurants are truly farm-sourcing, most of them are getting a handful of things responsibly and buying everything else with every regard to cost and no regard to whence or how they got to the kitchen.
On the other hand, I think the foodie world is great. I like to eat tasty things. I like not being treated like a bizarro moron for asking what’s in my food. While lots of it is stuff I can make myself — often better — sometimes I get taken places like Sorellina that knock my socks off. The foodie world is raising the bar for food, ingredients, and standards. It is literally changing the landscape of our country by creating more and more of a marketplace for small farmers, cheese makers, and producers of other delicious things that can’t be made on a massive scale. More small farms means our land is better tended. We need that badly. More viable tiny businesses means our economy is shifting (whether that’s for better or for worse I don’t know). The foodie trend is even pushing buttons in Big Food.
But that’s just it. It’s a trend. In Italy, it doesn’t make you cool or not cool to understand what a good tomato tastes like. A good tomato just tastes like a tomato is supposed to taste. Not so complicated. Delicious!
Given that we are not all Italian, how do we proceed? Once foodie-ness is no longer trendy, how do we fold the good parts into our cultural fabric — the appreciation of quality, the value placed on small-batch production, the myriad opportunities for genuine connection, the celebration, the un-complication — and pour off the snobbery and the abuse?
It starts with awareness. Awareness that there is a trend, and that there are some dark sides to foodie-ness. I’m not totally sure where it goes from there, but I suspect it has something to do with intentionally cultivating celebration.
In the spirit of more awareness (I’m working on the celebration), here’s a little game of The Price is Right:
How much do you think this jar of granola sells for?
Closest guess without going over wins a batch of my granola.
Stay tuned for the answer!