Planting Seeds of Elitism
Yesterday I did an interview with a magazine reporter for a story she was doing on eating local in the Dallas area. My first reaction was to think how incredible it was that this idealistic and ultimately unachievable aspiration—basing our diet on what’s produced locally—was still prime carrion for media vultures. Then, however, I realized that, tired as the topic seems, I appreciated the opportunity to publicly reiterate yet again the most important takeaway from my book Just Food.
And that message is this: while the global food system that we’re inevitably a part of is mind-boggling in its complexity, we can, as individual consumers, simplify it immensely by eliminating all animal products from our diets. That’s it. End of message. For all the headaches that Just Food left me nursing, the chance to make this point—this simple point—and have people respond to it with appreciation, remains deeply gratifying.
The forces of obfuscation, however, can be daunting. We generally tend to think of the industrial food producers as the exclusive source of this calculated confusion. Spew out enough fog, the reasoning goes, and we’ll eat the industrial food cake. Look closely at what’s happening in the world of Slow Food, however, and you’ll find another kind of confusion at work. Basically, in the world of elite eating, nothing is ever good enough, everything can be made more “natural,” and depth of preciousness is endless. When this is the case, culinary elitism prevails.
The cycle of foodie one-up-manship spun with blinding speed last Sunday, when the Times published a piece by Margaret Roach arguing that it’s no longer enough to give ourselves ulcers over how far our food traveled. Real foodies must now also fret about the kinds of seeds that were used (and not GMO vs non-GMO—but something more basic) to grow that food. Remarkably, this warning holds true even if we grow the food ourselves in our own garden. It’s not enough, in other words, to worry about conventional/organic or local/imported or farmer’s market/supermarket or dependent/self-sufficient. Oh no. We now have to furrow our brows over seed quality.
I suppose we can frame any peripheral issue to make it seem central. And perhaps I’m being dismissive over this upping-the-ante of agro-anxiety. But my problem with journalistic fear-mongering over non-GMO seeds is two-fold, both of which bear on the accessibility of our reformist message. First, as I’ve alluded to, only the rarest kind of consumer is going to spend the requisite time researching the endless iterations of these distinctions. When it comes to reaching a critical mass with an important food message, simplicity is a necessity. “Eat plants” is simple and meaningful and inclusive and compassionate. Eat local, organic, shade grown, fair traded, picked by virgins, and now grown with “proper” seeds is confusing, often meaningless, and almost always alienating.
My second point bears directly on this alienation. When foodie fashionistas gain access to the most valuable journalistic real estate to set the bar of culinary behavior even higher, I cannot help but think about Pierre Bourdieu, the French social theorist whose book Distinction brilliantly crystalized the politics of cultural capital. It goes like this: when an agricultural distinction starts to reach the masses, the owners of cultural capital—in this case agricultural capital—sanctify a less attainable distinction in order to maintain their monopoly on cultural power. That’s what I think telling concerned consumers to start worrying about seed quality is all about. That’s what I think slow food is all about.
Tomorrow: book review of The Lucky Ones by Jenny Brown (apologies for saying it would be today)