Join Date: May 2007
This Saturday in Los Angeles, you can catch a free screening of a great new documentary called “Food Fight”, starring Michael Pollan and chefs Alice Waters, Dan Barber, and Wolfgang Puck.
Date: Saturday, November 8, 2008
Time: 3:15pm - 6:15pm
Location: Mann Chinese 6, 6801 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, CA
About the documentary:
Eating good food is a sensual experience. We taste it, we savor it, and we remember great meals. Sharing those meals with family and friends helps define our humanity. And the food we choose to eat expresses a fundamental choice about the kind of world we want to live in.
But there is a great lie being sold to the American food consumer about these choices. That lie is that the food being grown for us on the big farms and sold in the big chain supermarkets is tasty and nutritious. The truth is, it is neither. Four out of ten chronic diseases are food-related in their origins. The food we buy today at the supermarket is lower in taste and nutrition and higher in fat and salt since 1960. Our children represent the first generation in our planet's history that will have a shorter life span than their parents. And it is entrenched government policy that has built, supports, and continues this dysfunctional system. How did this come to be?
In the 20's and 30's, the major food problem in America was under-supply and mal-nourishment. Coming out of World War II, newly-developed fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides became standard inputs in an agricultural process that helped create a six-fold increase in farm fertility. When use of these chemicals combined with large petroleum-based farm machinery, agriculture exploded as never before in human history. Small community-based local farming infrastructures were dismantled, and the number of farms nationwide decreased from 6 million to 2 million between 1945 and 1970. As newly-consolidated mega-farms churned out tons of food, and transportation infrastructure developed, a new food paradigm arose that valued shipping and shelf life over taste and nutrition. For the big growers and the even bigger food processing conglomerates, growing food became all about growing dollars, and taste and nutrition did not contribute to the bottom line. Making junk food out of cheap, overabundant commodities (like corn and soybeans) did, and so, in just two generations, the American food consumer went from a problem of under-supply and malnutrition to one of over-supply and obesity.
As these trends in agriculture became entrenched as USDA food policy, a small counter-revolution began to take place. Starting as part of the anti-war counter-cultural movement in the 60's, a group of Berkeley radicals began to protest against the same companies-Dow, Monsanto, and DuPont-that were part of the war machine in Southeast Asia. Not surprisingly, these companies were also part of the industrial food complex and were directly responsible for the declining quality of produce in this country. In protesting these companies, the counter-culture in Berkeley was also protesting against the corporate forces that were driving the production of food in America away from taste and health. In this spirit the Organic Food Movement was born.
One of these Berkeley activists was a woman named Alice Waters. As she protested against these large multinational companies, she was also staking a claim for the role of food in the political protest movement. She felt that in protesting against these companies and their economic values, she was also reaching back into the past to regain the values centered around good food and good meals, a pursuit of pleasure that was under attack by those companies and their impact on our food supply. Having discovered the joys of eating local, fresh food in France, and feeling that a good meal simply cooked could be a revolutionary act of both political and sensual consequences, she decided to open a restaurant.
In 1971 Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse as a meeting place for friends and similarly committed anti-War activists, as well as poets, musician, artists, and intellectuals from nearby UC Berkeley. No one knew at the time that this restaurant would within five years become the most influential restaurant in America. In ten years, that influence would be global.
In starting Chez Panisse, Alice wished to re-introduce pleasure to a food scene that was lacking that most fundamental quality. She quickly realized that the key to great taste was properly-grown, fresh ingredients, and soon she was hunting them down. That search for taste has not only changed American cuisine, it is still to this day, changing American agriculture.
At the time there was no local farm infrastructure in place to sell local fresh produce directly to the restaurant. Alice found a few remaining small farmers in the Bay Area, and some local backyard growers found Alice. By fostering them and their products, she grew and nurtured an alternative to the industrial food paradigm, which had leached flavor out of produce. This key action coincided with vital legislation in 1975 that allowed direct farm-to-consumer sales, and Farmers' Markets began to spring up all over California, providing consumers (and not just Chez Panisse) with access to healthy, delicious, well-grown produce.
Importantly, Alice and her partner and chef Jeremiah Tower took the revolution one step farther. By naming their farmer/suppliers on the Chez Panisse menu, Alice and Jeremiah allowed the fame of the restaurant to shine a light on those farmers who were growing local, organic, sustainable produce. By virtue of this endorsement, a delicious revolution was launched.
As chefs came into and through Chez Panisse, the word began to spread. Helped by favorable press, word-of-mouth, and the departure of chefs to open new restaurants, the style of cooking known as "California Cuisine" began to gain critical media notoriety. When Wolfgang Puck opened Spago in 1982, bringing Hollywood glamour and celebrity to the movement, the revolution was televised. Puck celebrated local ingredients by putting them on pizzas, and in so doing made the ingredients not just accessible and fun, but also the star of the meal. As his fame grew, like Alice before him, he was able to focus that light on the importance of ingredients throughout the whole haute cuisine movement.
As others have noted, this idea of fresh, local, high-quality ingredients is not at all new; it is the basis of many of the world's great culinary traditions. But it was, at this time, counter-revolutionary for American culinary tradition, which had been dumbed-down by a generation of poor quality, industrially-grown food. Wolfgang Puck exploded forever the notion that culinary technique would matter more than the ingredients and their provenance-and his fame and personality made that a national dialogue.
As Americans became fascinated with food, they became equally fascinated with the star chefs who cooked that food. The explosion of interest was amply demonstrated by the new media and cable television outlets, where shows like "Top Chef," "Iron Chef," "Too Hot Tamales," and "Molto Mario" were broadcast on the Food Channel and Bravo Networks. Now the world knew that simply-prepared, delicious food was being cooked in California, and that it was based on organic, locally-grown produce available at your neighborhood Farmers' Market. Just as you could buy a set of Wolfgang Puck cooking utensils on QVC, now you could also buy his same ingredients from the same farmer on Wednesdays in Santa Monica. As you walked out of Spago or Chez Panisse the path led directly to a new choice in food delivery systems, the one in play at the local Farmers' Market.
Today, we as consumers have access to an ever-growing variety of sustainably-grown products from Farmers' Markets across the nation. But the battle is far from over. Although the small farmers at the front lines in this counter-revolution know that flavor and nutrition come from the micronutrients found in healthy soil, the big food corporations continue to lash large swaths of farmland with destructive chemicals, creating unhealthy, tasteless food. And they do so with the support of the federal government. The current Farm Bill, about to be signed into law, completely ignores the local organic fresh food movement, and refuses any investment in alternative or minority small food delivery systems; instead, 70of the crops it subsidizes are actually inedible by humans.
The inner city suffers the most from our lopsided food system. Fortunately, the revolution is springing up amidst the urban food deserts where local minority populations, who have been ignored by food retailers for two generations or more, are starting urban gardens and local farmers' markets in their communities. Where heart disease and obesity are twice as high in the inner city as they are in the rest of population, these urban farms are changing the social landscape of the inner city in literal and figurative, and deeply important ways.
At the end of the day, the movement from California Cuisine to "the way Americans now cook nationwide," with the insistence on local, fresh, seasonal, sustainable, and organic produce, is a combination of art and politics. It is a beautiful revolution, good for us and good for the planet. It sustains us in health, it sustains us as families, and it sustains us as communities.
We can all share in this revolution. We have power through our food choices to put the culture back in American agriculture. We get three votes a day, and they don't all have to be perfect. But if just one meal is made with a mind to the small farmer, the land, and the environment, then we can all make a huge difference, one meal at a time.
Robb Wolf: I'd throw my hat in with the bleached, de-nuded bagel. Live dangerously.