June 9th, 2014
When one of the architects of the local food movement opines in the NYTimes that the movement is stalled, I stop, too. The architect in question is Dan Barber, the chef behind the two restaurants called Blue Hill, and most particularly the one located at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.
Stone Barns is a small farm, and an elegant one at that. The eponymous barns were built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. with the intent of making a dairy on the family’s Hudson Valley estate north of New York City. Decades later, Rockefeller money transformed the place into a just-about-perfect farm — a 28-acre polyculture of plants and livestock that is strictly organic, parsimonious of energy, enriches instead of depletes the soil and produces over 1,000 pounds of food per acre, making it superior in productivity to Iowa’s much-touted industrial monoculture cornfields.
Stone Barns’ raison d’être is to demonstrate not what “old time” farming looked like, but to show the way forward. In the words of Barber, the United States has “a history of bad farming. There’s this Jeffersonian notion of the yeoman farmer as the backbone of our country, and that we’re somehow a nation of yeoman farmers. It’s a bit of a farce. We never had a sustained tradition of great farming in this country. Never.”
What he’s referring to is that we never needed to farm well, because we had an entire continent of intensely fertile virgin soils that we could strip-mine before moving on to untouched acreage. Although Stone Barns oozes a nostalgic charm, it actually demonstrates a hypothetical great tradition of American farming.
Barber opened the second Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barns to fit the last piece of the puzzle — the eating. You don’t really get a menu at Blue Hill/Stone Barns. Instead, you get a booklet telling you what the lush landscape of the Hudson Valley is producing, and then you get a meal made with it. By and large, the people who go (and there’s a steep filter by price) love it. That’s Barber’s intent — to get people to form an emotional bond with food that is of a landscape, not just of the restaurant in the landscape that serves it.
But what he’s telling us in the Times is that the movement (“farm-to-table” in his parlance) isn’t getting the job done. Local food is huge and getting huger; it’s a bigger trend than organic and it shows no sign of going away. But at the same time, Big Food is getting bigger, faster. One hundred thousand midsize farms (the genuine “family farms”) have vanished in the last five years, a time during which over one million acres of native prairie were ploughed up, mostly for the net-energy treadmill that is biofuels.
To Barber, the paradox emerges from the fact that a good farmer has to grow a lot of cover crops that don’t have a good market in order to keep the soil healthy for those market crops that do. In other words, maintaining the fertility of the soil means mostly farming crops that go to feed livestock for pennies.
Barber, of course, can deal with this by recognizing that the erstwhile fodder is really just food, and he uses his skills to make that point on the plate at Blue Hill. But it costs $200 a person to learn that particular lesson and what’s more, Barber knows that people aren’t going to be doing this in their own kitchens. His suggested solution is to foster a new class of middlemen who can take those necessary cover crops and perform part of the transformation that makes them accessible to mere mortals.
He’s talking about local breweries using local barley and malt, local mills to grind local grains, local canneries for beans and processors to take those unknown greens and bring them into the realm of knowability at the grocery store. I, for one, would love to see all this. But I do wonder if this solution and the issue are doing more than blowing air-kisses at each other.
A restauranteur I know says, “fine dining is about eating outside of your comfort zone” and he’s right. The patrons of Blue Hill/Stone Barns go in search of the exotic and novel; they are journeying to an experience that is, by definition, not normal. If it was, in fact, normal, they either wouldn’t go, or they’d balk at dropping that much cash. To my mind, the question is: how does eating outside your comfort zone become an avenue to changing your everyday diet?
Now, in one way, that’s essential because our comfort zone has narrowed over time. In fact, during the millennia that it’s taken homo sapiens to ruefully become the namesake of a geological epic, we’ve dined on 80,000 different species, with 3,000 of those making regular appearances. It makes sense; we spread ourselves throughout the world by being the ultimate generalists, able to find subsistence almost anywhere with the help of our ultra-competent sidekick, fire.
But that was then and this is now, and two-thirds of calories in the Western Diet come from four crops. Corn, wheat, rice and soy, it seems, constitute our comfort zone, and Big Food keeps bulking up because Big Food is optimized to pump out endless tons of those four crops and then shape them into an unimaginable variety of processed food disguises. (If you’re wondering about our insatiable appetite for meat, we raise all those animals on those four grains — even the ones that don’t eat grain, like cows.)
How did we get here, to this 2,996-species simplification of diet? Where did this hunger for sameness come from? The irony’s slathered on thick, because while we’re gobbling Big Food Brand Human Chow, we are also inveterate novelty junkies. Our emotional hunger for newness seems insatiable — just ask yesterday’s social media titan, whichever one it is now. But when it comes to food, we have our favorites and, by and large, we don’t want them to change.
If you’ve ever spent any extended time feeding a very young human, you’ll know that the hunger for sameness is where we start; for a newborn, there’s only one thing on the menu. But within that, the newborn can taste the possibilities, because flavors make their way into breastmilk. Babies in Asia, for instance, become habituated to the fiery spices that they will find in solid food long before they have so much as a tooth. But when mom’s diet is largely multiple versions of all the same things? It’s the rare child that learns to — quite literally — go against the grain.
Though grains form a tiny portion of the historical human diet, they have come to dominate utterly. The reason is that, unlike most foods, grains preserve themselves. Keep them dry and away from rodents, and last year’s harvest can feed you for years to come. This ability to time-shift when you gather it and when you eat it made grains significant from the start. The very first cities arose from grain producing fields, with the common folk paying their taxes in barley.
Egypt, too, rose on the foundation of grain fields fed by the Nile’s floods. And then there’s Rome, with her huge grain fleets, bringing food from across the far reaches of the conquered world to feed the Imperial City.
Even this skeletal outline suggests two things — (1) grain and civilization are inextricably bound and (2) societies ruled by absolute power have a special love of grain. It’s not hard to see why; if the kings of Ur had demanded their tax payments in cabbage, they’d only be rich ’til the rot set in.
But grains — durable, transportable, weighable, pourable, tradable — are particularly suited to being the food of empire. Conquered territories can send their harvest to the center and and it will still be valuable when it gets there. Send sacks of grain with the Legions and they can bake bread as they wage war. And you can stockpile, adding to the wealth of the center instead of having to put it on the menu at once.
But the Empire of Grain didn’t last forever. After Rome fell, grains and gardens held parity for a long time. The erratic weather of the Little Ice Age meant that the peasant farmers of Europe had to hedge their bets with root vegetables and hardy greens, and wild foods foraged from the woodlands. But grain staged a comeback in the middle of the 19th century as Industrialism took the spotlight.
England lead the way, overturning centuries of tradition with hundreds of laws of enclosure which made it impossible to survive as a peasant farmer. Enclosure triggered a mass migration to the cities which, indeed, was the point. The pioneering factory owners didn’t want self-sufficient farmers, they wanted needy laborers willing to endure life as interchangeable parts in order to feed their families — and they got them.
But then the problem was how to feed them. The destruction of England’s rural society meant that Britain could no longer supply its own food. They could, however, import it, from the prairies of North America, the pampas of South America and the steppes of Russia, all those waving fields of grain. The fuel of Rome’s territorial empire turned out to be fuel for Britain’s commercial empire. If anything, grain was more suited to the industrial mindset, because this was a food that you could treat just like an industrial material, anonymous, consistent, and interchangeable just like the workers it fed.
Imported grain couldn’t quite replace all the calories that the Britons were missing, but another import could. It was sugar and it, too, was an ideal industrial food, easily stored, easily shipped and devoid of personality.
That was close on two centuries ago, and little has changed, other than the increasing fraction of our diet composed by the four sweetened grains. We have, it is true, become connoisseurs of the infinitely fine gradations of how extruder-cooker technology shapes those few ingredients, but our society’s taste for novelty has largely become something that happens outside of food, which is a place we seek comfort.
But the foods that each of us find comforting — they foods that say “home” — are hardly what they seem. What does the food of home mean when the choices of what to eat are shaped by an industrialized system whose purpose is the production of profit, not the distribution of nutrition? And, in a much, much larger sense, what are the foods of home when the home that all of us inhabit is not what it was a year ago. Or a decade ago. Or a century ago. We’d have to go back about eleven thousand years to find another era where sun, wind and rain were as capricious and hostile as they are now becoming.
That eleven thousand years was, in the big picture, an anomaly — a long, gentle summer, mostly predictable and calm, a time when we became farmers and learned to build cities and empires and gradually forgot about so many foods that had once been our sources of comfort because we didn’t need them. Yes, there were failures and famines, but on balance, the grains did their dual duty of enriching the powerful and feeding ever more of the powerless.
The long summer that birthed civilization and agriculture isn’t here anymore. Our comfort foods, whether they be GMO macaroni doused in processed cheese food, or Andean quinoa served with llama milk, are on their way to being artifacts in the “everyday life” section of a museum not yet built. At Stone Barns, Dan Barber is laboring to prototype a kind of farming suited to whatever comes after the long summer with 200 different species on the menu and a clientele willing to fork out a buck a species for the novelty… while meanwhile at Walmart, and Safeway, and Krogers and Tesco and Carrefours, the crowd shops on, looking for bargains to help subsidize their technology addiction.
By any measure, we — whom I suspect archaeologists of the future will label as the Smartphone People — live lives of unprecedented comfort, awash in calories available cheaper than at any time in history. I sometimes wonder if that’s the root of the problem, the near-impossibility of escaping the comfort zone imposed by layers of commerce dependent upon selling that comfort in the form of cars and appliances and technology and convenience food — never mind whether it all adds up to comfort or is simply branded that way. Having the fabric of one’s life woven largely in threads of total inconsequence seems to breed a restlessness, a desire for novelty.
And that may be a good thing, if we can raise our eyes from the screen long enough to recall that novelty comes in other forms. Before the dog days of the long summer, a sense for novelty was a survival mechanism. Many creatures are fearful of the new, especially when it’s food. But not so us. What is this, our ancestors would wonder. Could it be food? Might there be a way to make it into food? For them, comfort food wasn’t food that reminded them of the good old days. It was food, any kind of food, on this day. They knew what our baby-selves knew before we forgot, that comfort is a side effect of the food — instead of food being a side effect of comfort.