Extremism in defense of tastiness is no vice.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


By November of the newly departed year, when the New Oxford American Dictionary declared locavore its Word of 2007, it had become apparent that eating locally was a phenomenon no longer consigned to Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto (or, you know, the majority of the planet).

This phenomenon is, by and large, a force for good, and carefully grown or produced ingredients at the market are generally precursors to delicious food on the table. Fantôme Farm's chèvre, Hook's cheddar, and the wonderful, fresh vegetables from Luna Circle and Harmony Valley Farm are things of beauty, and make strong arguments for buying food from producers who care about their products and what they do. Sure, you could eat the tasteless poultry or so-so cattle from the supermarket--but why, when JenEhr Family Farm raises chickens that taste like chickens and Fountain Prairie Farm raises cows that taste like dove-catered spreads at Calypso's?

Knowing me to be a fan of words, food, and words about food, a well-intentioned friend recently suggested that I read Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, a couple's account of eating only foods local to their Vancouver home.

The problem, however, is that the book totally sucks.

Well, maybe not totally. There are a few, rare, suck-free moments in which Alisa delves into real emotion and passable writing to discuss heartfelt memories of her grandmother, and of the couple's experiences in the tiny, almost uninhabited town of Dorreen. That's pretty much it, though. (Seriously. Save your 24 dollars or the walk to the library. Masochists are advised to stick to 120 Days of Sodom for a slightly less painful but infinitely superior work.)

In the first few pages, James is compared to an eight-year-old, and not the starry-eyed sort who flies extra terrestrials in front of the moon in his bicycle basket. No, he is, rather, a stubborn, arbitrary brat, and his insufferable asshattery, however well-intentioned, is embodied in the book at large.

As our author protagonists carry their crosses as saviors of environment, community, and table, they delineate their simple plan: they may only eat foods available within a 100-mile radius of their residence, a distance conveniently established to coincide with the nearby Pacific coast. Still, they assure us, it's a "strict" rule. Except that they can (and regularly do) bring food back when traveling. And salt from Oregon is fine. And there's a "social life amendment" which says that friends, work, and travel don't count, so feel free to crack open that Cava come New Year's Eve.

Don't worry, though. They're sanctimonious enough to match the hypothetical writers who hadn't given themselves so many Get Out of Responsibility Free cards.

Ethical and philosophical generalizations abound, with little explanation. We're earnestly advised that "[i]t is worthwhile to resist the tendency toward moral panic over our dislocation." I hope the rest of you are doing alright on this front, but everyone I've talked to has apparently forgotten to panic in the first place.

Could this be because we don't bemoan, as James does, "It's no secret that we, as a society, have been losing the traceability not only of our food, but of every aspect of our lives. I cannot reliably list my brothers' birthdates ... [and if] we had children, we'd be too busy to get to know their teachers"? Are these problems of society, or failings of a person who (though he happily reminds us that one gallon of gas produces 19 lbs. of CO2 gas) is willing to drive twelve hours to symbolically purchase 100-mile salt in the final days of a self-imposed experiment?

A bit of self-deprecating hyperbole? I doubt it. When the "famously unflappable" maverick badass cook/author is in the kitchen, he is quick to irrelevantly inform us that he "work[s] with only three kinds of knife--chef's, paring, and bread." Now, as most serious cooks know, those are typically the big three for those who favor western knives. The problem is, this tidbit of information is completely extraneous in a short paragraph about making an omelette. Wow! It's like, simp-li-fy, man cred and cookie cred, all in one pointless comment! Next book he'll be pausing mid-salad to tell us we don't need that crappy new 32-piece knife set from CUTCO, after all.

Didactics is another favorite activity of the authors, and we're not talking Pépin's Complete Techniques here. Celery root is "also known as celeriac," and hazelnuts are "also known as filberts." Rest assured we don't miss any affected erudition when pronunciation or etymology is at issue, as evidenced in the patient explanation that "Cowichan" is an Anglicization of the native "Quw'utsun'." Even inaccessible corn becomes a lesson in pedantry when our heroes are forced "to peel the cobs--to shuck them, if we want to be proper." Where most writers would simply have used the correct word, these never fail to condescend.

Of course, one might be inclined to forgive them if their commentary were well-researched, or even well-considered, but that's gloriously bad, too. Just remember, kids: it was "the bourgeois reform movement of the late nineteenth century that banished livestock to the countryside," not, you know, concerns over sanitation, public health, or anything like that. Upton Sinclair would be proud.

"Do the [blueberries], as some people claim, flush out toxins[...]?" James ruminates in a particularly daft passage. "I don't know, and I don't particularly care." Well, apparently he cared enough to include this non-consideration in a published book, so I doubt he's entirely apathetic. Without delving into the notion of what these mysterious "toxins"are, or how the blueberries might miraculously remove them, the fruit is ascribed vaguely mystical properties, free of any burdensome reasoning. Sure, there's no evidence that the claim is true--but maybe, just maybe, these blueberries contain awesome powers of undefined-toxin removal. Scientific, social, and economic ideas aren't discussed or considered in any depth, and when statistics are given, they're blithe, empty talking points about how far a mango travels to reach a location where mangoes can't grow.

Do my magical cookies, as some people claim, taste great, cure cancer, and get you laid? Send me a cashier's check for $1,000 to find out!

It doesn't help that the book is atrociously written. Superlatives abound, as some ninety-five percent of the world's produce--or that within a particular 100-mile radius, at least--is flawless. Each squash is "perfect," every berry "impossibly" fresh, "impossibly" red, or "impossibly" smudged by a little bit of dirt from when it fell on the floor, but, you know, it should still be OK if you rinse it off. Like Vizzini before them, I do not think that word means what they think it means.

Worse are the sophomorically trite pearls of faux profundity that grace nearly all of the book's 264 pages (and yes, this includes both the dedication and the Acknowledgments). Oprah would cringe upon reading these paginated Hallmark rejections. "Whatever else they are," we are informed, "weeds are survivors." Kale is "tougher than any one of us." New Year's Eve "demanded risk" (describing a choice to eat spaghetti). These hilariously overwrought passages veer into unintentional parody with impressive regularity. "We turned onto River Road--there was a time when road names could be that simple" had me waxing awkwardly poetic on street names and bygone simplicity for days.

Of course, where pretentious, poorly written stupidity might be cause for pity, the myriad hypocrisies are what earned the book my scorn. Prior to the experiment, the authors claim to have been strict vegetarians, down to the claimed "fringe benefit" of better smelling sweat. Meat, after all, requires more grain to produce, and there are starving people in the world, a fact that our intrepid heroes turn a blissfully blind eye to as they happily guzzle wine grown in productive, guilt-free vineyards at every possible opportunity.

Of course, as strict vegetarians, they ate "no meat, no eggs, [and] no dairy." Except for some fish. And meat in "difficult countries" (a phrase so xenophobic I won't bother addressing). And any of those things they felt like during the experiment. (To be fair, they try to justify this through a few comments on industrial farming, but I found it unconvincing and think most vegans would find it unconvincing, too. I'll assume the recipes and techniques listed through the book--nearly all of them use butter, at least--were all conceived during the experiment itself.) If any of my vegetarian friends pulled such ethically inconsistent mind games, I'd be forced to bludgeon them with a rubber chicken (just before trying to seduce them back to the unabashedly delicious side with a plate of seared foie).

In another instance, pages are spent lamenting the loss of indigenous plant life to alien strains. Then, later in the same chapter, the authors obliviously laud a bean farmer growing such Pacific Northwest favorites as cannellinis, Rojo de Sedas, Moroccan chickpeas, and Aztec red kidneys.

Most poetically, the authors continually deplore the wasteful use of food in society, blissfully unrepentant of the pounds of onions and tomatoes they allow to rot in their own home.

If "[d]istance is the enemy of awareness," why did their project became known over the internet? Why were they able to enjoy food locally grown in such Shangri-Las as Minnesota and Mexico? And why was the book written thousands of miles away from this reader, fabricated thousands of miles away from its authors, and published in New York?

Were their knives made locally? Their cooktop? Their Italian pasta machine? What, pray tell, of the sadly lost art of the Vancouver pasta machine maker? And how do they not see the irony in any of this?

Of course, maybe we shouldn't expect more from such a joylessly politicized treatise. As someone who just loves food, I find it genuinely sad when they scornfully write about the guy who doesn't get it, that pathetic everyman "eating an all-dressed hot dog on a Manhattan street corner." I find it shameful that they will deny themselves the simple pleasure of a hot dog, yet berate the New Yorker for his isolation.

Sure, we could return to a state of neoprimitive bliss, in our own city, or village, or tribe, or cave. (We could in the process also happily screw the poor, those who benefit most from cheaply available food on the mass market.) We could huddle in small, isolated enclaves, pretending that our neighbors 100 miles away are more human than those at 1,000. Or we could actually enjoy the bounty of the world and its cultures.

Great food speaks for itself, and is often as close as the local farmer's market. But should I care that my yellowfin or Bordeaux has traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles to reach me? They still taste damn good, and were still crafted with the same care of a local producer, perhaps with even more. Is the Kobe cattleman behind my Wagyu so abhorrent? The Frenchman behind my Brie? The Spaniard behind my jamón? And how about the Quw'utsun' behind my Cowichan River salmon?

Community is important, but so is universality. I love food too much to politicize it into narrow-minded jingoism.


nichole said...

LOL on the magical cookies! Thanks for the impossibly funny review. :)

Brian said...

I'm glad to see that you're reading and enjoying the site! It was kind of you to call the post a review instead of the vitriolic rant that it was, but hey, I calls 'em as I sees 'em.

Thanks, too, for your wonderful blog.

nichole said...