NEW YORK CITY secretary Julie Powell endeared herself to scores of fine- food fanatics and blog watchers with her Julie/Julia Project, a one-year undertaking, documented on a salon.com weblog, in which she prepared every single recipe from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But then Powell pissed off at least one food lover—me—with a New York Times opinion piece titled, "Don't Get Fresh With Me!"
The Sept. 21 essay was perfectly timed to preface the release of Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, One Tiny Apartment Kitchen, the book that chronicles her admittedly admirable feat. In the newspaper, Powell wrote that farmers markets annoy her and she's "suspicious of this cult of garden-freshness" because the "snobbery of the organic movement equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics." Powell admits that taking a stand against a movement to "treat fine ingredients with respect" is tantamount to "sneering at puppies or true love or democracy," but, she says, there is a dangerous "temptation of economic elitism" inherent in the ideals of those who commit themselves to only eating tomatoes in season—and then she goes right ahead and sneers at puppies and democracy. Well, if there's a backlash, a pretty strong movement must have inspired it.
More evidence of that strong movement was found at Town Hall last Wednesday, Nov. 2, when Foolproof's American Voices series presented The Future of Food: Savoring Simple Pleasures and Sustainable Choices. The American Voices series is doing a fine job of starting important conversations by putting together intelligent panels. This one included Michel Nischan, renowned New York chef and cookbook author, Canlis master sommelier Shayn Bjornholm, and local chefs Christine Keff of Flying Fish and Kevin Davis of Oceanaire. (Oregon restaurateur Michael Hebberoy wasn't able to make it.)
Immediately (and, presumably, unknowingly), Nischan addressed one of Powell's arguments: that shopping well is the "province of the privileged." (Powell's Times piece insists fine food is not.) We shop for these wholesome ingredients because, Nischan said, in the past 50 years, we have forgotten how to grow them—or at least we've become too busy to. We must rectify this remove from the Earth, and education is the first step. Nischan points to programs like the Alice Waters–led Edible Schoolyards, which puts rows of broccoli alongside swing sets, as leading the way.
Keff, Davis, and Bjornholm spoke about the sustainable choices they've made in their kitchens and cellars, and how these choices, as benefits, are passed on to their patrons. Keff's kitchen has recently gone completely organic—quite a feat, as moderator Hsiao-Ching Chou pointed out, considering that Keff's menu draws from such a variety of cuisine types and cultures. By contracting Kent's Whistling Train Farm to supply the majority of her produce, Keff also sets a remarkable standard for other restaurants and commercial kitchens interested in making a commitment to small farms and sustainable agriculture.
In Bjornholm's business, it's "not an issue of freshness," he joked. However, with the growing popularity of biodynamic farming in the wine industry, he said, we might soon see those techniques used in fruit and vegetable plots. What are biodynamics? Good question. It's a complicated process of "organics with a deference to the cosmos"—plus a little "hocus pocus"—that Bjornholm was at a loss to fully delineate. Suffice it to say it's probably the answer to "what's next?" in the organics market.
No one denies that organic products often cost more, but as Chou remarked, farmers markets and CSA boxes offer a prime example of how we can avoid the middleman's mark-ups and support the local economy at the same time. And if going exclusively organic is not an option, says Nischan, pick one item, like milk, and do what you can. If these simple ideas make one a snob, Ms. Powell, then please, go ahead and lump me in with the stuck-ups.