Feeding Frenzy

From Celebrity Chefs to Gourmet Guerrillas, Americans Confront the Hazards of the Food World

Slow food stands out from more radical groups because it has found a way to to combine activism and hedonism. Instead of carrying a picket sign, you can attend tastings of regional food grown by small farms. It's where the gourmet meets the guerrilla—or that's the idea, anyway. The organization, which now has 65,000 members worldwide and 6000 in the U.S., started out as something of a lark: In 1986, Italian activist Carlo Petrini heard that McDonald's was opening a branch in Rome's Piazza di Spagna; infuriated, he coined the term "slow food."

Erika Lesser, the group's American director of programming, explains, "The point is to provide consumers with viable local alternatives and a pleasant environment to learn about them. You know, Isn't this delicious, don't you want to know more? On a gastronomic level but also on a social and economic level, it gives you the opportunity to support a local business." Events run the gamut from food festivals to symposia on environmental politics (though the emphasis is on the former); members are urged to buy specific products and to patronize sustainable agriculture. It's a quiet form of activism—voting with your dollar—but it's backed up by education and increasing numbers.

The constituency of Slow Food's ham-tasting evening—mostly white upper-middle-class Manhattan gastronomes with a vague resemblance to Frasier Crane—has an unfortunate whiff of elitism, though. Sure, it'd be great if everyone could eat tasty organic morsels from small ethical farms instead of artificial crap, but can your average American afford it? Standing at the front of the room caressing a humongous pig shank, Dan Latham—the salumiere for Batali's restaurants—explains the difference between ham cured the old-fashioned way and the mass-produced kind. The former requires time and a hog raised on a healthy diet, while the factory ham is cured quickly and comes from pigs injected with sugary fluids to juice them up. "Is my ham cost-effective?" Latham asks his audience. "Nah—it's gonna cost ya about $75 a pound!" The downmarket variety sells for less than $10 a pound.

Nestle explains that commercial, processed food is cheaper in part because of hefty government subsidies. She hopes that, in the wake of Enron, the lobbying system will be overhauled. "The subsidies are all wrong from a health perspective. And fruit and vegetable growers don't get them, especially small ones, because they don't have lobbyists and they don't give huge campaign contributions."

Slow Food's Erika Lesser argues that her fellow believers are therefore in the vanguard of a new rebellion against this invisible imbalance. "The more people support small suppliers, the more viable it becomes for them to make it more affordable."

Daniel Boulud, the French chef who presides over top Manhattan restaurants Daniel and Café Boulud, is more skeptical. While he believes it's important to support small, ethical food producers, he says, "It's just a microsolution." Boulud is sitting in the empty burgundy dining room of Daniel, one floor above the sprawling kitchens where cooks scurry through a maze of ovens and freezers. "José Bové represents something that needs to be addressed," Boulud offers. "But I don't think he's able to understand, what food will we give the masses if we burn down McDonald's? The invasion of McDonald's in France is a terrible thing culturally. But it's very cheap for a family to eat there. And the French don't have another answer for feeding people who don't have time to cook anymore. It's not like you have the grandmother cooking anymore—the new generation of grandmothers, they want to eat out too!"

All of this serious focus on food has resulted in an accompanying boom in theory—valuable because it places food in a wider historical, cultural, and economic context, sifting through the hidden ramifications of objects we mindlessly consume. It feels as if a massive vista has suddenly opened up, like we're seeing the world through the stomach for the first time.

Last year, Gastronomica—a quarterly academic journal with the mouthwatering design aesthetic of a glossy style magazine—hit the food studies world like a cherry bomb. Now in its second year, Gastronomica zooms in on many of the food world's ongoing ideological tussles, gleefully deflating culinary pomposity. There are essays for and against GMOs, articles on patenting food and irradiating it, meditations on the colonialist impulses behind gastronomic tourism.

One of the journal's more provocative pieces is Rachel Laudan's manifesto of culinary modernism, which mocks Slow Food-style Luddites who argue for the superiority of natural or traditional foods over fast, processed products. In olden days, she points out, "natural" usually meant something indigestible and unsafe until processed and preserved. At the same time, ideas of the "authentic" and "traditional" often turn out to be constructs of surprisingly recent vintage—quintessential national foodstuffs such as the baguette and moussaka are 20th-century inventions.

Gastronomica editor Darra Goldstein says that, until very recently, snobbery kept a lot of academics from pursuing their interest in food: "If it had to do with women or domesticity, it wasn't perceived as serious intellectual men's work." Meanwhile, "feminists felt a lot of discomfort about women who wanted to talk about the kitchen." On top of all that, "Everyone eats, so we all feel we can talk about it. So where is the scope for intellectual elitism?"

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