October 18th, 2014
Looking Glass Foods
We’re a complicated enough species that it’s tough to be sure about what we see in the mirror. That’s where looking at humanity through the lens of food comes in handy, because it’s awfully hard to hide what we are when it comes to how we eat. There are few activities that are simultaneously utterly ordinary and life and death and consequently, it’s hard to hide the truth there.
That’s the case in Berlin where a (wisely) anonymous Israeli hipster triggered a firestorm with a Facebook post on chocolate pudding. Interviewed by Der Spiegel, his point is that Berlin is much more affordable (and hipper) than Tel Aviv and he suggests that young Israelisf would be smart to relocate just as he has. The explosion has caused the New York Times to pick up the story, too, because the chocolate pudding at the center of it crystalizes the economic and lifestyle issues that radiate outward from this most modest center. A tempest in a teacup to be sure, but also a bracingly clear window into the change of generations in Israel, where the generation in power is defined by a past and a century that — for pudding-eating hipsters — are history.
The apple has been a human companion for longer than recorded history. Thanks to a wildly adaptive genome — and the ancient grafting techniques that allow humanity to replicate the versions that appeal the most — the apple has traveled with us for thousands of years, radiating out from its homeland in the mountains of Central Asia, effortlessly shifting to suit the climates and taste of wherever and whenever it happened to find itself. This singular adaptability makes the apple an uncanny mirror for its times… and the long-lived nature of the trees means that apples can preserve the sensibilities of other times.
Past and present collide in the truly inspiring work of a German arborist, Simon Junge. A short film introduces us to his work, the “Apple Observatory.” What he’s up to is restoring abandoned apple orchards — productive landscapes that fell out of production not because there was anything wrong with the fruit, but because of shifting business models. Junge has found a new, collaborative, model and in so doing, enables the doing of what you suspect is his real motivation, restoring the “dignity” of the trees. Lovely in all ways.
But it’s not so lovely across the channel in the UK. The Guardian reports that the fall of 2014 is seeing a bumper crop of English Apples, which turns out to be a bad thing because of another kind of business model, one that prioritizes something other than growing apples. However, what’s interesting about this piece isn’t the bumper crop of the headline, rather it’s the remarkable view into the pathology — really, there’s no other word for it — of modern apple production, right down to the computers repeatedly examining each apple for “flaws” while the pickers make do with crap wages. This piece is essential to really understand what Junge is up to, and a lot of it is in the images, such as the contrast between the traditional ladders that Junge uses to harvest and and the stunted and ugly plantation that “rationalizes” production in the English orchard. The missing dignity doesn’t just belong to the trees.
The third piece of our apple triad comes from orchardist and ugly apple advocate Eliza Greenman, who points out something interesting about brix in ugly apples. Brix, in case you’re like me and don’t know, is a measurement of sweetness, and she’s found higher brix in apples afflicted with the cosmetic disease “apple scab.” It seems to be part of a continuum where apples (and grapes) respond to certain kinds of stress by becoming sweeter. This is very interesting news for the booming return of apple cider in the US, but it suggests something larger, too. When industrial reproduction of visual images replaced taste as the primary means of understanding what is good — and when the industrial food supply chain replaced local food production — we got the Red Delicious. Taking a bite of an ugly, scabby, russeted apple is a chance to rediscover the good stuff that got lost on the way.
And lastly, a really elegant and intriguing examination of just how complicated our relationship with food really is. Emma Marris has written an engaging and lucid account of how locavorism has evolved from Alice Water’s upmarket effort to reproduce humble European peasant fare to the undeniably impressive but absurdly uncookable hyperlocavorism of titan chefs like René Redzepi (Noma) and Daniel Patterson (Coi). What’s interesting about this contrast is Marris’ suggestion that Waters’ food-of-the-people path is incapable of feeding as many people as we have now, while the overtly elite Redzepi/Patterson path just might open that door. Maybe.