Thursday, September 23, 2010

Watching food terroir go national

I've read about the phenomenon in national newspapers and magazines for years, and I've seen evidence of it on the east coast and in the midwest while traveling for work and pleasure. I get that -- sticking strictly to numbers, on average, across the whole U.S. economy -- it's still a fringe practice. But something about the traction of 'local food' clicked for me earlier this month, while bopping around New York. Something simple, basic, and ubiquitous. What was it?

Every cup of coffee I drank in New York was terrific.

Now, granted, I didn't visit a single one of the 200+ not-terrific Starbucks locations in Manhattan (I caved once we got to JFK, homebound). And, granted, coffee is not local food in the United States, period. But the attention to bean sourcing, roast, grinding-as-needed, brewing-as-ordered, and skilled baristas makes for compelling quality at Gimme Coffee on Mott St. a couple blocks from where we stayed (6 locations in New York State); Think Coffee (4 locations in NYC, all below 14th St.); Grey Dog Coffee (3 locations in NYC); the Doma Café & Gallery (Perry @ 7th Avenue); Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie (86th St @ 5th Ave); Café 2 at MOMA; Veniero's on E. 11th; and ... there must have been another one or three I'm forgetting. Anyway, with apologies for channeling The New Yorker's Patricia Marx just now, the coffee at each and every one of these places was terrific. The least remarkable? Probably Veniero's, maybe they're getting a little tired after 116 years in business. The best? Probably Gimme Coffee, with Doma a close second. We're talking thick, silky rich, redolent of earth and fruit, hella good espresso, hot or over ice.

So, no, coffee's not a local food in this part of the world, but I submit to you: almost every one of the coffee places we visited paid meticulous attention to terroir. Gimme Coffee, for example, on their website, describes twenty or so coffees with attention to origin, whether the beans are shade-grown, whether the producer farms organically, whether distribution is fair-trade certified. And attention to nuances of flavor? Brazil Santa Andre is described as having "orange and caramel notes." Ethiopia Amaro Gayo Washed is "from the only female coffee exporter in Ethiopia, subtle lime and sugared lavender." Guatamala Guaya'b is "a lush coffee with flavors of peach, pineapple, and cherry."

Okay, I know, all you cuppa-joe types out there, your eyes are rolling like Vegas slots. But bear with me for a moment. The point -- whether you believe in coffee that conjures subtle lime and sugared lavender or not -- is that vendors and their customers are paying very careful attention to a food that forty years ago, in the U.S., was more or less universally extruded by the railroad car, using brutally flattening industrial processes.

You could dismiss it as gourmet fetishism practiced by people loaded with more money than they need. But I think there's something different about consciousness of food and place these days. Part of it can be found in coffee shops and cafés like those I visited in New York: the average drink served at these places costs a few bucks. No, it's not as cheap, per calorie, as a government-subsidized Happy Meal. But it ain't Chez Panisse either.

And this brings us to restaurants and farmers' markets.

Now, I live in Berkeley, California. Berkeley is home to Chez Panisse run by the indomitable Alice Waters who is more or less the acknowledged doyenne of contemporary interest in artisanal food. At UC Berkeley (where I work), Michael Pollan is a professor of journalism; Pollan, who has written four books on the relationships of industry to food to people, is another seminal figure in the local or slow food movement (I blogged about his ideas in Broken food chains last month). I volunteer at the middle school where Alice Waters' "Edible Schoolyard" pioneered the development of hands-on curriculum about where food comes from. So in my town there's plenty of visibility for local food, farmers markets, restaurants that identify the farms where ingredients in their dishes are grown or raised, and coffee that's consciously brewed (Peet's and the contemporary craze for boutique coffee was born at the corner of Vine and Walnut, around the corner from Chez Panisse -- Peet's is the mothership that spawned Starbucks).

Slow or local food culture has been taking root all over, not just in Berkeley and not only in movements that originated here. I got one view of this in New York's Union Square a few years ago, when I walked through the farmers' market that convenes there four days a week and found Alice Waters herself parked behind a table signing books. The Union Square market is one of dozens in the five boroughs of New York that originated in midtown in 1976, five years after Waters opened her restaurant at the opposite end of Interstate 80. I visited the farmers' market in Union Square earlier this month too. No book signings, but the end-of-summer bounty was mouth-watering: heirloom tomatoes, fat ears of corn, honey from bees that gather pollen from the city's rooftop gardens (!), mellons, berries, stone fruit, all kinds of herbs and greens, and even early-ripening apples.

And the restaurants we ate in? From Pulino's around the corner from where we stayed to Momofuku at the north end of the East Village, who-grew-what was prominently chalked on boards or printed on menus.

It was no different in Providence, Rhode Island, where I visited on business this year and last. Local 121 is a restaurant mere blocks from the Providence Biltmore where I had meetings in April 2009 and this past June, and, as you'd expect from the name of the place, they're all about locally sourced ingredients ... and even about supporting local artists in selecting tableware and art to hang on the walls.

The National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, features the Mitsitam Café. Here the emphasis is not local to the District of Columbia, but attention to foods that are local to indigenous cultures "throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America and the Great Plains." I had the pleasure of eating there with an old college friend while in DC for yet another meeting.

Let's not pretend. All this flying between coasts for meetings and vacations isn't helping to limit carbon emissions, and traveling thousands of miles for someplace else's local food flies in the face of the core concepts here. But, having flown the miles and burned the fossil fuels, at least some of the news I can report is encouraging.

True, there are leagues to go, and we may not get there. This week's FDA hearings on genetically modified super-salmon, Chinook that have been turned into Goliaths by DNA-twiddling that changes regulation of growth hormone, didn't inspire my confidence: however the AquaBounty hearings develop, it's truly frightening that the behemoth of industrial food is headed in directions like these.

But changes in massive economies and cultures (like ours) have to start somewhere. The fact that knowledge of where food comes from is spidering out from universities and upscale restaurants to middle school classrooms, national museums, farmers' markets everywhere, and coffee shops where the price of satisfaction is a few bucks instead of fifty or a hundred -- all that can't be a bad thing. Knowledge is a critical element of choice. Choice is key to change.

Thanks to My Eye Sees for the flickr-posted photo of New York City Rooftop Honey.

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