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Newspaper backlash

(article, Caroline Cummins)

In the past few days, the New York Times has published food-trend articles on locavores, tomatoes, and the upcoming Slow Food Nation celebration in San Francisco. 

Eating locally, farming innovations, and food festivals are not exactly news, even for the Times. What's new is the paper's attitude: Taken together, the tone of all three articles suggests that people who eat local heirloom foods and support food reform are at best misguided and at worst elitist.

As Josh Friedland, writing on the blog The Food Section, pointed out, this attitude shift is strange, especially given the Times' recent embrace of such established local-eating trends as community-supported agriculture. Friedland takes issue with Times reporter Kim Severson, who wrote both the recent locavores and Slow Food Nation articles:

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Slow tomatoes or fast? Local or foreign? Heirloom or hybrid?"]

bq. Severson, who is herself a self-declared member of the "church of local food," wrote last year about her own friend and colleague who purchased half of a locally-grown heritage pig; yet this is basically the same thing she pokes fun at in her article.

Severson's article profiles urban eaters who want to eat locally but not act locally — in other words, "lazy locavores . . . who insist on eating food grown close to home but have no inclination to get their hands dirty." Instead, the capitalist economy has evolved to accommodate them, offering locally catered meals and even gardeners who will, for a fee, plant and tend your plot of edibles.

Friedland admits that this makes for an amusing portrait of extreme behavior (Those wacky New Yorkers! What will they think of next?) but points out that paid garden help is not exactly original:

bq. After all, is hiring a professional gardener to weed, prune, and take care of a vegetable garden really any different than the myriad companies that are doing the same for plants and flowers right now in thousands of towns at this very moment?

Severson's second article, about Slow Food Nation, does a neat job of summing up the history of Slow Food and its food-reform movement, pointing out that Slow Food Nation is making a conscious effort to shed its elitist image. But like her "lazy locavores" article, her wrap-up of Slow Food Nation stands out more for its unintentionally hilarious moments than for its message: chocolatier John Scharffenberger airily dismissing Slow Food as "a really good way to promote Italian food," or Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters rhapsodizing, "All I can say is, there are enough really beautiful people coming for it to be bigger than the sum of its parts." 

The best? Steven Shaw, an eGullet founder, remarking, "Most people I know who go to Slow Food events are the culinary equivalents of the guys in college who go to protests to meet girls."

Naturally, these quotes are much more memorable than the yawn-inducing sound bites about how Slow Food is a really, really nice organization. And, hey, if more people read Severson's work because it's funny, that's not a bad thing. (Note to Severson: Several commenters complained that the article never actually explained what Slow Food is all about.) It's only a bad thing if, as Julia Moskin's article on tomatoes suggests, we dismiss all this food-reform stuff as a passing fad. 

Because that's exactly what the New Jersey tomato farmers profiled in Moskin's article are doing. Foodies love heirloom tomatoes for their quirks — their funny shapes, unusual colors, and intense flavor. But farmers hate them, because they're difficult to grow, have low yields, and don't transport well to market. Sound familiar? Yes, folks, you've seen the farmer faves before: hybrid wonders bred for looks and durability, not taste or genetic diversity. Everything old is new again — in this case, a tomato called the Ramapo. Heirloom tomatoes? As a Rutgers extension agent says, they're just "horticultural garbage."

Still, if you'd like to spend some time mucking around the horticultural garbage heap, try the recipes we're featuring this week on Culinate: an Italian menu from Cathy Whims, a Portland chef who's also a member of Slow Food. As John Scharffenberger told the Times, it's all about promoting the Italian food.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is Culinate's managing editor.

reference-image, l