A few Saturdays ago, I read an article in the weekend edition of Wall Street Journal called “Choose your own food adventure.” In it, the author talks about how today’s maturing foodie is seeking experiences as a means of relating to food and its surrounding culture.
“It’s no longer enough to outfit the kitchen with expensive toys or watch celebrity chefs gobble fermented shark on TV,” writes Katy McLaughlin. “Watching Alice Waters shop at a farmers’ market on the Food Network is old news; now we want to browse the stalls and scrutinize the organic cardoons with her…Everybody has read tales of bouillabaisse burns and garde manger temper tantrums; today’s true foodies want to stand at the saute station and feel the heat themselves.”
McLaughlin goes on to explore a range of startups offering top-of-the-line epicurean adventures for people seeking true authenticity in their food experiences. People forking over $10,000 to shop the farmers’ market with Alice Waters or cook alongside the chef at Benu in San Francisco? A custom-designed kitchen and dinner party from Tyler Florence? A $100 box of fucking bon bons handmade by Thomas Keller? By the time I got to the $250 tickets to a sold-out Coldplay show followed by a meal at AOC in L.A., I was too mad to read anymore.
Why does food have to become yet another measure of social status in this country?
The piece reminded me of a New York Times article about the organic food movement’s impact on cities published few years back. I don’t remember much else besides the part where the reporter interviewed some couple in Brooklyn who only fed their toddler organic foods. Like the two-year-old gives a shit.
When I was two, I wanted a select few things in life: PB&J, ice cream, hot dogs, spaghetti and grilled cheese. And I’m not talking about small-batch gelato sweetened with agave syrup or organic peanut butter with the oil on top that you have to stir in, or handcrafted, all-beef hot dogs or cave-aged, cloth-bound cheddar. No. I wanted Haagen Daazs and Skippy with all their sugar and preservatives, Oscar Mayer dogs chock full of mechanically separated turkey parts and soy lecithin and smeared with Heinz ketchup, and those wonderful, plastic-encased Kraft singles. Because they tasted good. That snobby food would have been completely lost on my two-year-old palate–not to mention a giant waste of money for my parents. And somehow, I’ve still managed to turn into a discerning adult who cares about where her food comes from and is willing to devote a fairly high percentage of her disposable income to quality, sustainable, humanely raised products.
My mom grew up a household of Eastern European immigrant farmers who grew their own food and kept chickens–also known as a foodie’s fantasy upbringing. But her parents didn’t do it because it was trendy or because they preferred that lifestyle; they did it because it was cheap. When I started getting into food in my early 20s, I’d try to coax romantic stories out of her about what it was like to grow up with such real food experiences. But she always made it sound more like it was a pain in the ass. And looking back, I have to agree.
I remember picking raspberries when I was little at a local farm in Connecticut with my sister and grandma. We’d each get a gallon-sized plastic milk carton and an hour or so to traipse through the rows of plants, plucking ripe berries. My carton never seemed to get entirely filled up because I’d spend as much time stuffing them in my mouth as I did dropping them in the carton. I’d return with stained hands and face, proudly presenting my half-full carton and thinking, “I can’t wait to go back to the house and eat the rest till I get a stomachache.”
But that wasn’t my grandmother’s plan. Instead, she confiscated most of my beloved raspberries and dumped them into huge pots of sugar and boiling water. She’d stir and sweat until the whole thing shrunk down to a glossy, bloody pulp that was then poured into jars and tightly sealed for another day. As I got older, I learned that making jam was, in fact, not some cruel punishment for chubby grandchildren, but rather the most cost-efficient way to use up all those berries.
Now it’s become trendy to work in food trades–to can food, make cheese and cure meat at home. We all wish we had grandparents who were butchers or owned a winery, bakery or dairy farm. I’ll admit, I sometimes fantasize about quitting my job to go volunteer at a butcher shop for seven months like Julie Powell. I’d love to harvest frozen grapes to make icewine, pull fresh mussels out of the water off the coast of Croatia, suck down wild onions with romesco sauce in Cataluna or gut fish on a dock in the U.P. Or maybe I just want to be able to say I’ve done those things.
But I also spend a lot of time interviewing people who do those kinds of jobs full time. And they are almost always unromantic, really hard fucking jobs, involving lots of physical labor, bad pay, working when everyone else is on vacation, and dealing with loud, opinionated customers and their impossible standards.
But we’re captivated by it all the same. So we pay a couple hundred dollars to sample the edited version of the world of food production–where we don hairnets and plastic coverings on our shoes for a couple hours to squeeze out a few pints of milk from a goat, hack at some animal parts or knead a little dough so we can talk the talk and share in a bit of the glory.
Honestly I’m thrilled to see people embracing where food comes from and appreciating the craft of preparing it from scratch. And I can also see the escapist appeal of spending time doing something so tactile and rewarding–hell, I write about it for a living.
But it makes me inexplicably cranky to know that authenticity now has a price tag. So allow me to kill the dream just a little: Making jam from scratch with my immigrant grandmother who grew her own food and raised chickens wasn’t fun. It was a hot, sweaty pain in the ass.