Conservation à la Carte
by Paul Rauber
Like Eve's apple, which conferred the knowledge of good and evil, a
perfectly ripe summer tomato teaches us the difference between authentic
and fake - and provides our link to the garden of true tastes.
t was a stroke of genius to choose the tomato as the
first commercial bioengineered product. The sad, pale baseballs passing
for tomatoes in the supermarket are so loathed - especially by anyone who
has ever had a Brandywine, Marvel Stripe, or Golden Jubilee fresh from the
garden - that any improvement looks like progress. Calgene's patented, genetically
engineered FlavrSavr can be picked later and riper; it still tastes only
about as good as a supermarket tomato in the summer, but it tastes like
that all year around.
Will a marginal improvement in the quality of commercial
tomatoes be enough to sweep away what little remains of our indigenous food
consciousness? While the rich, deep yellow of eggs from free-ranging chickens,
the pungency of varietal cucumbers, even the smell of strawberries fade
from our collective memory, the flavor of a real garden tomato lingers.
At the entrance to the downstairs dining room of Chez
Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, there is what can only be called
a food altar, an artfully arranged cornucopia of the same seasonal produce
that diners will soon find just as elegantly arrayed on their plates. While
tomatoes would brighten the mid-June display, however, they are not yet
welcome in this temple of produce. I am in the bustling kitchen preparing
to sally forth with Alan Tangren, a former meteorologist with the enviable
job title of "forager" for the famed restaurant, when the year's
first box of cherry tomatoes arrives - and is unceremoniously rejected.
"Mealy," Tangren pronounces. A cook frowns;
he's getting a little bit tired of fava beans, which have been on nearly
every menu for weeks, and is anxious for something new. But when he pops
a tomato in his mouth, he reluctantly concurs: "No good except for
throwing at each other."
Peak tomato time at Chez Panisse, in fact, will not
come until the Indian summer days of late September and early October. Then
they will be ubiquitous, in dozens of varieties and dozens of preparations:
in salads with cucumbers, olives, and salty cheese; in lightly warmed slices,
dressed in puff pastry; baked, in sauces, roasted, raw.
High time for tomatoes in the Midwest comes earlier
- July and August - and is likewise cause for celebration. At Charles Trotter's
restaurant in Chicago, the eponymous proprietor/chef paints a rapturous
picture: "Tomatoes grown in season, ripened on the vine, picked at
their optimal ripeness and eaten within the day, sliced up, a little drizzle
of basil oil, a few pieces of olive, a little salt and pepper - the purity
and intensity and poetry of the flavor from the tomato cannot be rivaled."
By November, the transubstantiation of sunlight into
explosive taste is no longer possible. (From December to May, half of all
U.S. tomatoes come from Mexico's Culiacan Valley, where they are sprayed
with pesticides every four to seven days.) Yet even though the proper hour
of the tomato has passed, they still garnish fast-food burgers and glow
in great mounds under supermarket fluorescent lights calculated to burnish
their pallor. They are banished, however, from Chez Panisse, Charlie Trotter's,
and a growing number of restaurants across the country that choose to play,
as Trotter puts it, "by nature's rules."
Those rules dictate the use of fresh, local, natural
food in season. What 50 years ago were the rules of necessity are today
the revolutionary prescripts of gourmet cooking. Learn them and you too
could be a celebrity chef in a fashionable restaurant - or in your own kitchen.
And a corollary benefit: by paying attention to what you put on your plate,
you can reconnect to the land and help to save it.
n the boom years following World War Il, a funny thing
happened to American eating: we forgot how to do it. The long migration
from farm to city completed, we soon forgot - or were made to forget - our
link with the land. Chemical pesticides like DDT made possible enormous
single-crop farms; faster transportation allowed perishable food to be shipped
long distances; freezers enabled longterm storage; processing and packaging
innovations produced the TV dinner, and advertising called it progress.
The rapidly growing food industry elevated economy and convenience above
taste and diversity; food changed from something you coaxed from the earth
and cooked yourself into a ready-to-eat commodity in aluminum and plastic,
transmogrified by unseen hands in unknown locations.
"Until I was 12," recalls Moose-wood Cookbook
author Mollie Katzen, "I thought spaghetti came from a can, and that
vegetables grew in the freezer. When I discovered that green beans grew
in the ground, I thought it was a miracle." Today, few American eaters
know or care where their food comes from. It's often hard to tell anyway,
since the food industry makes money "adding value" to food by
altering its taste, feel, smell, and look. (Even the sound of food has become
a commercially determined trait: Red Delicious apples have been engineered
for crispness, not for flavor.) Processed carrots are uniform stubs in cello-wrap,
salmon is molded in patties like hamburgers, and mashed potatoes come in
a box. Fat and sugar, which used to be luxuries, are now staples: today
we get 18 percent of our caloric intake from sugar, and 42 percent from
As food is de- and re-constructed, the social role it
has played for thousands of years is disappearing. The family dinner is
becoming a thing of the past, and fewer and fewer people are cooking at
all; nearly half of each food dollar is now spent outside the home. And
inside the kitchen, the cookbook is shrinking: for many American families,
dinnertime is an endless rotation of burgers, hot dogs, spaghetti, and pizza.
There are consequences other than indigestion. One out
of three U.S. adults weighs at least 20 percent more than they should. Coronary
heart disease, the country's leading cause of death, has been conclusively
linked (as have cancers of the breast, colon, and prostate) to a typical
U.S. diet heavy in red meat and fat, and low in fresh fruits and vegetables.
That diet also typically includes residues of the chemical poisons sprayed
on those fruits and vegetables to make them grow in times and places and
quantities convenient to the food industry's marketing plans. (The main
path for these poisons is through animal flesh, where pesticides bioaccumulate.
Less than 10 percent of the pesticides we ingest come from produce.)
The sickness of our bodies is mirrored by the sickness
of the land. Pesticide runoff into streams and rivers is now the primary
source of water pollution in the United States, and agricultural chemicals
have poisoned the groundwater in many areas: half the wells in Dane County,
Wisconsin, for example, are tainted by the herbicide atrazine, a suspected
carcinogen commonly applied to cornfields. Continuous heavy production of
a handful of crops - encouraged by U.S. farm policy - results in both massive
topsoil loss and chemical poisoning. And while the raising of export cattle
for the U.S. burger market destroys biodiversity in Central and South America,
the diversity of our own barnyards and farms is dwindling as well. Since
the turn of the century, records Martin Teitel in Rain Forest in Your Kitchen,
more than 6,000 varieties of apples (86 percent of those ever recorded)
and 2,300 varieties of pears have become extinct. Nine out of ten eggs now
on the market are laid by one breed, the white leghorn; seven out of ten
dairy cows are holsteins; and two varieties of peas account for 96 percent
of the total. Even though there are 6,000 varieties of potato in the world,
40 percent of all U.S. potato acreage is devoted to Russet Burbanks, the
variety favored by McDonald's for its French fries.
eople have to come back in contact with food and how
food is grown," insists Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse and mother
of the movement back to natural, seasonal ingredients. "They have to
understand that the way people take care of the land really affects the
wholesomeness of what they're eating. But they haven't made that connection,
and it's one of the reasons they can be so abusive to the land and the water
- because they don't see any relationship with what they're putting in their
We are sitting at the coveted front table in Chez Panisse's
main dining room - a room customarily booked months in advance, empty this
morning except for a staffer changing tablecloths and vacuuming the stairs.
Waters is delicate and soft-spoken, yet animated by a passionate conviction
(a quality she attributes to her early career as a student radical, which,
she says, "in all its innocence, prepared me for a lifetime of determination
Waters' interest in food and the environment is not
just the whim of a fabulously successful restaurateur. It is what made her
fabulously successful. When she founded Chez Panisse 23 years ago with a
borrowed $10,000, Waters knew nothing about running a restaurant All she
had was the revelatory experience of her junior year in Paris. "For
the first time," she recalls, "I was seeing how people live who
think of good food as an indispensable part of their lives." Back home
in Berkeley, she sought to recreate that experience, initially by picking
through the produce bins of the supermarket across the street in search
of a handful of perfect beans. She quickly learned to look farther afield.
"The process began when a neighbor offered us radishes
and sorrel from her backyard garden," she says. It continued in small
ethnic markets, at local farms, even in forays to vacant lots that yielded
riches of fennel, nasturtiums and blackberries. Today Chez Panisse has a
network of more than 90 suppliers, mostly organic and local (although truffles
are still shipped from France - the domestic variety having "what some
people consider an objectionable odor," as forager Tangren puts it).
The list is constantly evolving. The restaurant's large commercial dairy,
for example, was dropped this spring after refusing to reveal whether its
cows were injected with bovine growth hormone; its happy replacement is
the Straus family's nearby organic dairy.
Seeking out these suppliers is Tangren's job. He travels
the back roads of the San Francisco Bay Area in search of perfection, encouraging
farmers to plant new varieties, and assessing the sustainability of their
farming methods. In mid-June we visited grower Didar Singh, who has 16 acres
of beautiful organic grapes and fruit trees and tried to tempt us with early
peaches. "We usually wait until the middle of the season," demurred
Tangren with a sigh, "when they're cheaper and taste better."
We did leave, however, with a lug of perfect apricots and a box of green
almonds for the mysterious purposes of a visiting Spanish chef.
"We discovered a pattern," says Waters. "When
we looked for the freshest and best-tasting ingredients, we found that the
people who produced them were frequently the most environmentally responsible.
When we tried to find the products that were certified organic, we found
that if they were fresh and ripe, they usually tasted the best."
A meal at Chez Panisse is a voyage of rediscovery, a
reminder of half-forgotten essences. A group of visiting Midwesterners at
the next table eagerly attacks a starter plate of just-out-of-the-ground
white radishes. "That's how a radish is supposed to taste!" exclaims
one - exactly the reaction Waters seeks to every dish she serves. While
some patrons arrive expecting to find "California cuisine" ("a
gathering of things from all over the world combined willy-nilly on a plate"
in Tangren's definition), they find instead simplicity itself. Like the
platinum bar in Sevres, France, that is the prototypal meter, Chez Panisse
is the measure of foodstuffs.
Producing plates fit for Plato's heaven in a restaurant
with a staff of 100 is a costly enterprise; Saturday prix fixe dinners at
Chez Panisse run $65. Yet it does not follow, Waters argues, that you have
to be rich in order to eat natural, healthy food. The basic elements of
Chez Panisse's menu are available to anyone willing to do a little foraging
"I'm not talking about food for gourmets,"
Waters insists heatedly. "I'm talking about a ripe tomato just sliced.
You can make polenta for 100 people for $6. I'm talking about shell beans,
20 different varieties of shell beans that give you a great deal of pleasure
all winter long, and cost next to nothing. Wholesome, honest food should
be an entitlement of all Americans, not just the rich."
The "stigma of elitism" that has attached
itself to eating well, Waters believes, will be erased by the rising number
and popularity of organic farmers' markets. They are, in her view, the ideal
meeting place of town and country, an opportunity for city people to remember
where their food comes from. "It helps people understand the responsibility
that the farmer has to the person who's eating, and that the person who's
eating, has to the farmer," she says. "The two go together."
Part of the responsibility eaters bear is to support
farmers even when their selection dwindles from its summer bounty. Doing
so requires some invention, but Waters is happy to lead the way. "We
have to learn again how to eat seasonally," she says. "If I had
not made it my business to find out, I would not have imagined the beauty
and variety of the food that's available in winter. We get five or six different
sizes and shapes and colors of turnips; we get little white carrots, bright-red
carrots, and orange carrots; you mix those together and it's as beautiful
as a tomato salad in the middle of summer."
However colorful, tasty, and healthful the organic food
at farmers' markets may be, it may well cost more than the bland, cosmetically
homogeneous, pesticide-laced produce at the Piggly Wiggly. The problem is
actually one of perspective, Waters argues; it's not that organic produce
is too expensive, it's that supermarket produce is too cheap, because large
conventional growers can "externalize" their costs by diminishing
soils and polluting waterways. As is, U.S. consumers spend less on food,
as a percentage of average income, than do eaters in any other nation on
earth - only l2 percent, compared to 20 to 30 percent in most other countries.
"We don't know what the cost of food is,"
laments Waters. "It looks cheap, but it's very expensive when it comes
to the environmental cleanup on the other side. And then there's our health
- the big tab. At the farmers' market, we're supporting the people who are
taking care of the land for all of us. I am always willing to pay extra
money for that."
As Waters sees it, deepdish environmental choices are
made every time we lift fork to mouth. "The good news is that by making
the right choices, you're also giving yourself pleasure. It's not like medicine,
not like exercise, not like eating nonfat. This is a way of coming into
a whole other relationship to food that makes it irresistible to eat fruits
and vegetables. They're no longer something you have to eat - you want to
do it. Because they are delicious."
That sounds all very well for the balmy Bay Area, but
what would it be like if Chez Panisse were in, say, Chicago? Waters seems
to blanch. "It would be - different," she concedes.
meet Rick Bayless at O'Hare Airport. He is just back
from New York and an appearance on Good Morning America where he has defended
the honor of Mexican food against the previous day's broadside by the Center
for Science in the Public Interest. Following blanket condemnations of Italian
and Chinese cookery, CSPI had turned its guns south of the border, declaring
war on the chimichanga and chile relleno ("like eating a whole stick
of butter"), warning against both rice and refried beans (too much
salt in one, too much fat in the other), and even the "tortilla terror"
of the staple of all Mexican cuisine. "The sad part," CSPI concluded,
is that "unlike Chinese or Italian restaurant food, it's tough to make
The klieg lights are off, but Bayless is still hotter
than a handful of habaneros. The CSPI study was based, he said, on only
the most commonly ordered dishes from large chain restaurants. "That's
not what Mexican food really is!" he fumes. He should know: he and
his wife, Deann, are authors of an excellent cookbook, Authentic Mexican
(Morrow, 1987) and owners of the Frontera Grill and Topolobambo, contiguous
dining rooms of what is quite possibly the best Mexican restaurant in the
No burritos or nachos here, no artificial, Anglified
dishes like chimichangas or fajitas. Real Mexican food, insists Bayless,
is low in fat, largely plant-based, and as healthy a cuisine as they come.
A menu he submitted to Eating Well magazine, he boasts, easily passed its
strict nutritional analysis even though the entrée featured beef,
one sauce contained homemade crème fraîche, and the fruit tart
had a butter crust. On average, the meal still ended up below the magazine's
health limit of 30 percent calories from fat.
"It's all in the flavoring of the sauces,"
says Bayless. "Mexican sauces are served in great abundance on the
plates, because all the vegetables are pureed into them. In Mexico, dishes
are called by the name of the sauce, not by the name of the meat."
The Baylesses serve half a dozen kinds of mole, savory sauces of chile,
vegetables, and nuts that range from delicate pumpkinseed-and-tomatillo
concoctions to an intense three-chile coloradito that had sweat dripping
in my lap. At Frontera, as in Mexico, hunks of meat and globs of cheese
are beside the point.
"If CSPI can help the chain operators move toward
a healthier and more truly Mexican menu, I'm all for that," says Bayless.
"But what they do is encourage people to use nonfat sour cream, which
to me is as horrific as those fatty chimichangas. I think we're heading
down the wrong path: Non-dairy sour cream is not the answer. It's more than
just figuring out a way to magically remove or replace the fat so we can
go on eating this incredibly luxurious diet and not suffer serious repercussions
for doing so. We need to look at our roots, at how we have eaten in the
past even if it means a much more local source base, even if it means not
having grapes in the middle of winter."
Yet Chicago's local source base is hardly adequate to
supply the Baylesses' demands. Their search for local suppliers has gone
from disaster to disaster: one farm was sold for a subdivision; then a dependable
elderly farmer retired with no one to take his place. In desperation, the
Baylesses and a few like-minded restaurateurs rented their own farm and
hired a manager to run it. But this spring, with seeds already in the ground,
the manager quit. And when the Lincoln Park farmers' market opened this
year, the grower who always brought verdolaga and other Mexican produce
items wasn't there - no one knows why.
The setbacks sting, especially given his high hopes
for the local farmers' market scene. "In the ideal world," says
Rick, "I'd get all my produce from someone I know, someone I can chat
with if I want to. I can share in their difficulties, they can share in
mine. Unless we can cement that relationship, I don't see a whole lot of
hope for really doing much environmental work. If you've completely lost
your contact with the earth, why should you make environmentally appropriate
decisions? Sure, something can pull at your heart strings - I can listen
with my daughter to environmental songs on her Raffi tape and feel warm
and fuzzy - but that's not going to get an adult to make appropriate decisions,
like doing without something you want or paying more money to do the right
As is, the Baylesses make do (magnificently, as the
two-hour wait at the door attests) with what they can get from the farmers'
markets, supplemented by specialty growers in California. Still, says Rick,
"Some days I'd just like to close the restaurant because the stuff's
not good enough. I just don't know what to do." I suggest that perhaps
reforming an entire region's food-supply system is more than one person
can reasonably expect to accomplish. "I don't mean on a broad scale,"
he replies. "I mean I don't know what I'm going to serve in my restaurant.
I really don't."
f Charlie Trotter had any doubts about what to serve
in his Chicago restaurant, it seems unlikely that he would ever mention
it. A culinary superstar at 34, he has not yet lost the audacity of youth;
his luxury restaurant - where two diners would have trouble getting out
the door for less than $300 - is dedicated to "ultra and absolute purity
of flavor." He features tasting menus of five to eight small, inventive
plates (a tart of artichokes, summer truffles, and pigs' feet, for example,
or quinoa with shiitake mushrooms and lamb's tongue), impeccably presented
and maximally sensual. This is the antithesis of fast food: At dinner that
night, I found it necessary to pause frequently to let my brain catch up
to my taste buds.
Like the Baylesses, Trotter is devoted to ingredients
that are organic and - in the summer at least - largely local. Yet he refuses
to "wave the organic flag," as he puts it; he chooses organic
products simply because they taste better. "Our statement is the pursuit
of excellence; everything else falls into place. We don't look at it as
vegetarian food or alternative food or health food; we look at it as a meal
made up of vegetables, cooked the way we cook meat, fish, and everything
else with precision, with technical expertise, and with love."
While Trotter offers an entirely meatless menu - chosen
by one out of four diners - he calls it "vegetable" rather than
"vegetarian." He is, in fact, openly scornful of what generally
passes for "health food," declaring 99 percent of it inedible:
"Bogus cheese melted into a sauce, those cardboard tortilla things
with bland tofu pieces, a couple of pills and a protein shake with wheatgrass
juice - I don't consider that very healthy. Food is about sensuality; it's
one of the few aesthetic, sensual experiences you have every day. Rather
than saying, 'I'm going to eat healthy,' if we eat healthy foodstuffs, and
prepare them properly, health will follow."
(Chicago, with its temples of beef on every block, is
pretty ambivalent about health anyway. Gordon Sinclair, whose swanky restaurant
also uses mostly organic ingredients, asked rather anxiously that I be sure
not to identify Gordon's as a healthfood restaurant. "I wouldn't want
anyone to think they couldn't get a martini here," he explained.)
While Trotter may not be vegetarianly correct, he does
insist on playing by the seasonal rules. "Some chefs don't really care.
They write a menu and serve asparagus, strawberries, and tomatoes all year
around. You can get those things flown in from South America; they look
okay, but they don't have any flavor.
"When I serve a plate of food, I make it profound
with the vegetable components. Peas cooked just through, using the juice
and a little red wine essence to make the sauce; some roasted morel mushrooms
flavored with garlic, and everything sitting on this beautiful satiny organic
Yukon Gold potato puree - it's just going to blow up in your mouth. When
you paint the picture, a piece of salmon provides four colors of flavor,
but the vegetables provide a hundred others."
Trotter is more sanguine about the organic future than
is Bayless. "It's easier to get these things today than it was five
years ago, and I predict it will be easier still five years from now. It's
supply and demand, and chefs and restaurants have to create the demand.
Rick and I and Odessa Piper in Madison will have to continue to inspire
people, to set the pace."
aturdays in Madison, Wisconsin, that pace starts at
6:30 am, when it is still possible to drag a child's wagon from stall to
stall at the farmers' market. In another hour, the crowds of shoppers will
make the sidewalks surrounding the capitol square nearly impassable. Eighteen
to twenty thousand people regularly show up at this venerable (John Muir's
father used to sell here) and phenomenally successful market, spending an
average of $10 each. In Madison, it looks as though Alice Waters' dream
has come true.
My companion's purchases are sure to boost that day's
average expenditures: a lug of sour cherries, the last red currants of the
season, three boxes of fat and happy tomatoes, a couple of goat boulots
from Fantome Farm, and more corn than our little wagon could possibly carry
from Egsters, where young women behind heaping tables shout to passersby
"Fresh corn, untouched by human hands! Picked by Norwegian goddesses!"
I am tagging behind a woman who, if not the goddess,
is at least the patron saint of the Madison farmers' market- Odessa Piper,
chef and owner of L'Etoile, a restaurant directly across the street. Piper
has been involved with the market since 1976, when she opened her restaurant
and sold filled croissants (an item she invented) at a market stall. Eighteen
years later, she is still a devoted consumer and fervent booster. Ingredients
from the market are highlighted at the top of her weekly menu and on chalkboards
on the wall, and when market day is over - or just cold and wet - the farmers
troop up her stairs to eat and talk. These lucky suppliers are also feted
at a special annual dinner at the restaurant; Piper calls it "the good
By the time the sun is fully up and the market is in
full swing, we are finished with our shopping and can watch the milling
crowds through L'Etoile's front window as we breakfast on double espressos
and venison-and-lingonberry sandwiches. I am put to work with a paper clip
(the tool of choice) pitting sour cherries that will reappear that evening,
along with black walnuts, in a sauce for sliced chicken breast, and again
in a miraculous clafouti for dessert. While I probe for pits, Piper and
her co-chef Eric Rupert (who has since left to start his own restaurant)
plan the week's menu based on what they have just bought. "I'm very
moved by the idea that I can personally select food at the market,"
says Piper. "It's these strawberries I want. I'm feeding my beloved
customers these raspberries."
L'Etoile is the answer to what Chez Panisse would be
like if it were in the Upper Midwest. While the Bay Area's climate inclines
Chez Panisse toward Mediterranean Cuisine, L'Etoile reflects the "regional
palette" of Wisconsin and, more distantly, Northern Europe. An autumn
menu might feature a strudel of wild mushrooms, or whitefish with seared
cabbage and apples, locally smoked bacon, and cider vinaigrette. Hickory
nuts serve where one would find almonds in California, fiddlehead ferns
replace radicchio. The wine cellar is weighted toward rieslings - including
one from nearby Prairie du Sac's own Wollersheim Winery - and may soon include
a selection of hard ciders made from Wisconsin varietal apples. L'Etoile
also has an extensive root cellar for the apples, potatoes, tubers, nuts,
onions, and smoked hams of its winter menu. In her early days as a hippie
farmer, Piper says, "I learned what I could about freezing, drying,
and preserving. I thought about what Native Americans did in this cold climate,
and began to see what I could do, very elegantly, in my own restaurant."
The effect is stunning - not only for taste and presentation,
but for warmth of spirit. Every afternoon the staff dines together, as they
might in a French bistro; the customers are then drawn in, almost as members
of the family. And anyone is eligible: Piper recalls the time she got a
reservation for a large party from an agrochemical behemoth that peddles
poison to the state's farms. They were, she says, particularly insistent
that all the dinner's ingredients come from the farmers' market.
L'Etoile's seasonal menu is constantly becoming more
so. While most places claim only four seasons, Piper has identified (at
last count) nine. Early spring is the time for maple syrup and watercress,
the year's first green; spring is marked by morels, asparagus, and fiddlehead
ferns; late spring by strawberries and mayapples. Early summer sees dill
and the first herbs, plus peas, new potatoes, and early raspberries; high
summer is tomatoes, cucumbers, Door County cherries, stone fruit, and basil;
Indian summer turns to apples, wild plums, eggplant, squash, and wild mushrooms.
Autumn is time to start cidering, and for cruciferous vegetables and peppers.
In late fall come sage, thyme, winter squash, and apples like Golden Russets
that like a light frost. Then the holiday season and snowtime: aged cheese,
Ieeks, hickory nuts, black walnuts, rosemary and other hardy herbs, the
cider turning hard. And finally quiescent January, when one eats from the
garden via the root cellar, "the still point in the turning world"
says Piper, "until you go up the next rung of the spiral."
When one paints from the regional palette, the choice
of colors is limited, but the result is true.
t seems to me that there are two choices," writes
novelist Jane Smiley in her essay, A Wedge of Lettuce. "We can continue
to process our food, as through a machine, from field to table, and continue
to content ourselves with mechanically opening our jaws and processing it
through our alimentary canals, or we can sow the seed, harvest the fruits,
bring care and interest to the preparation of meals, and take our daily
reward in the pleasure of aroma, flavor, and visceral satisfaction. We can
decide that what doesn't taste good cannot be good for us."
This is, perhaps, a challenging message for many Americans,
whose tastes tend toward the utilitarian, who view food as fuel, and who
regard time spent procuring and preparing it as time wasted. Yet that attitude
runs directly counter to our most deeply held beliefs about the land, our
bodies, and how they should be treated. Luckily, we don't have to wait for
change to come from Capitol Hill or the EPA to realize these aspirations;
we can achieve them every time we sit down to dinner.
"You can make your own decisions about food without
needing anyone's permission and without anyone else's help," says Alice
Waters. "If you choose to eat mass-produced fast food, you are supporting
a network of supply and demand that is destroying local communities and
traditional ways of life all over the world - a system that replaces self-sufficiency
with dependence. And you are supporting a method of agriculture that is
ecologically unsound - that depletes the soil and leaves harmful chemical
residues in our food.
"But if you decide to eat fresh food in season
- and only in season - that is locally grown by farmers who take care of
the earth, then you are contributing to the health and stability of local
agriculture and local communities. Actions have consequences, and people
acting responsibly can make a difference. I believe that how you eat, and
how you choose your food, is an act that combines the political - your place
in the world of other people - with the most intensely personal - the way
you use your mind and your senses, together, for the gratification of your
soul. It can change the way we treat each other, and it can change the world."
Reprinted with permission from the Nov/Dec 1994 issue of SIERRA. Sierra
Club membership includes subscription to SIERRA. 730 Polk Street, San Francisco,
CA 92109. Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra and a happy eater.