America's Feel-Good Cuisine
Published: May 2009
By Peter Jon Lindberg
At restaurants across America and beyond, what's on your plate has taken on ethical significance. <b>Peter Jon Lindberg</b> examines the rise—and earthy appeal—of 'feel-good' cuisine.
You are a good person. You are eating a turnip. You are partaking of the virtues of the land, shunning herbicides, giving the finger to the corporate-industrial machine. You are eating a turnip grown by a man who wears blue jeans but likely calls them dungarees, a man named Jeremiah, the owner of a tiny organic farm in Wisconsin. You know this because your waitress has just shared Jeremiah's inspiring story.
No doubt you also felt a rush of well-being when you learned of the chef's commitment to day-boat fishermen. You have no idea what a "day boat" actually looks like (perhaps it's solar-powered?), but, this doesn't stop a tingle of pride from inching up your neck.
Your espresso is shade-grown and fair-trade; somehow it tastes all the better for it. And look at those handsome floorboards, fashioned from salvaged barn wood! The maître d' had been touting this—along with the furnishings by a third-generation carpenter and the restaurant's investment in an artisanal cheese making collective.
If you have dined out in an American city this year, you might recognize this restaurant. You have probably learned a lot about its purveyors, its role in the community, its philosophy and principles. Chances are, knowing all of this has made you feel pretty good.
Call it a genuine movement or a marketing trend, but at many of today's acclaimed restaurants, making people feel "good" has become a primary concern. Goodness extends beyond mere pleasure and nutrition. Lacking consensus on what constitutes good nutrition anyway (bacon or Egg Beaters?soy milk or half-and-half?), restaurants encourage us to consider the ethical connotations of the food on our plates: its impact on the environment, the economy, society at large. We factor in the noble ways of the farmer who provides it, the integrity of the chef who cooks it, the charity affiliations of the establishment that sells it. As restaurateurs see it, diners don't just want a good meal. They want their meal (and their restaurant) to signify Goodness itself.
Goodness is inscribed on the menu at Hugo's, in Portland, Maine, where the root vegetables are "organically grown and thoughtfully harvested." It's at the Savory Olive in Bozeman, Montana, which aims to "restore the connection between people and their foods." It's at the Farmers Diner in Barre, Vermont, whose owners hope to "restore the rural economy," buying two thirds of their ingredients from local producers. And you'll find it on your pizza at Franny's in Brooklyn, New York, where toppings derive from "animals raised in harmony with the environment." Harmony, connection, thoughtfulness...who could argue with those sorts of values?Nearly universal appeal is what makes the Good Food craze so pervasive. Like Slow Food, its closest antecedent, Good Food is more an ethos than a distinct cuisine. Both Slow Food and Good Food subscribe to common tenets: that sustainable, community-based farms are preferable to corporate agro-behemoths and that small-scale production is the key to superior flavor, health, and well-being. And both have roots in the organic movement, which has evolved from a way of eating into a whole lifestyle.
But Good Food takes the organic-Slow Food worldview even further, tackling issues that are unrelated to agriculture. From philanthropy to energy conservation, Good Food restaurants are all about doing the right thing. Drop by the bar at Boston's Legal Sea Foods, and a fish tank occupies the spot where a TV should be, along with this feel-good message: THE ZEBRA FISH IN THIS TANK WILL BE USED IN A LABORATORY AT CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OF BOSTON FOR THE STUDY OF BLOOD DISEASE AND CANCER.
At Jamie Oliver's Fifteen restaurants in London and Amsterdam, proceeds from your meal provide on-site kitchen training for disadvantaged youth. Order an organic pie from Hot Lips Pizza in Portland, Oregon, and it will be delivered in an eco-friendly electric car. Hot Lips's mission statement (every restaurant has a mission statement nowadays) makes explicit the connection between good deeds and good food. "We truly believe that the taste of our pizza is directly impacted by the care and intention with which we create our partnerships and choose and prepare our ingredients."
Is that so far-fetched?Does enhancing our consciousness enhance our enjoyment?Set aside the notion that organic, artisanally produced foods taste better (which they do) and are better for you (which they are). They also make you feel better—more pure, more rooted, more righteous. Like driving a Prius or shopping at a co-op, they confer virtue upon the consumer. And for Americans, good eating and virtue go hand in hand.
Our culture has long conflated food and moral rectitude. In the national conceit, cholesterol isn't just bad for you, it's evil. We've vilified everything from alcohol, fat, and caffeine to red meat and carbohydrates, then proclaimed them worthy after all. Is it any wonder we're the most neurotic eaters on earth?
Many Americans see food not just as something to sustain them but also as something to defend themselves against. They eat with the superego as much as the id, eager to learn all they can about the provenance and moral character of their food. For such people, dining out is a minefield of ulterior concerns, wherein every bite means something and every forkful begs a question: Is the poultry free-range?Are the figs harvested by underpaid migrant workers?Does the chef buy locally?Isn't wild salmon endangered?
These are precisely the people whom Good Food restaurants aim to please, and they are growing in number. That's one reason why menus are now sprinkled with gastronomically correct adjectives like handcrafted and line-caught. (Just as you never see the word knoll without the prefix grassy, seldom is the veal not described as "nature-fed.") It's also why every ingredient these days earns a producer's credit: Anson Mills polenta, Niman Ranch pork chops, Blue Moon Acres arugula. It hardly matters whether anyone has in fact heard of Blue Moon Acres. It may not even matter whether Blue Moon Acres arugula is superior to arugula from industrial plot #KT286.
What matters is the proper noun. Giving a name to the food makes eating personal. It connects the food—and us—to a specific geography. It locates us in a community, even if we're visiting from out of state. And it assures us that what we're eating is real. In the end, we want from our vegetables what we seek in our presidents: honesty, integrity, and, ideally, roots in a small town we've never heard of.
The cult of the small and obscure now dominates the restaurant industry, much as indie cinema once dominated the film industry. In these supersized times, small = good. Small is uncorrupted, free of sin and pesticides. And small is increasingly big business. Every upscale restaurant champions the family farm, the tiny boat, the microgreen, the baby carrot. Most of all, they celebrate the little guy.
The little guy gets plenty of love at Per Se, Thomas Keller's latest restaurant, in Manhattan. Keller, who also owns the French Laundry in Napa Valley, is known for his evangelical devotion to fresh, first-rate ingredients, mostly sourced from (you guessed it) small, artisanal producers. More than a dozen purveyors earn call-outs on Per Se's menu. One of them—fittingly, at this temple of Good Food—is also a rabbi. Or so the waitress told me when I inquired about something called Zvi's Eggs. "Yeah, he lives upstate," she said, adding that besides handpicking the eggs, Rabbi Zvi also forages for ramps and watercress.
Naturally, this information sent our party into a reverie. We were no longer in a steel-and-glass high-rise in New York, overlooking a line of Lincoln Town Cars. Instead, we were 150 miles north, toting satchels of ramps and baskets of eggs, and rustling through the forest with a friendly rabbi.
When I called Zvi Cohen at his home in Chatham, New York, I learned that he is not, in fact, a rabbi. He is Jewish, however, and friendly. And he does supply Per Se with foraged ramps, as well as eggs from a nearby farm. ("They're not really my eggs," he said. "I just drive them down to the city.") When I told him that half Manhattan believes he is a rabbi—thanks to a misconception on the part of Per Se's staff, disseminated in the local media—he could only laugh. "Hey, if that's what they need me to be, who am I to argue?As long as the food tastes good." He's right. At the time, it sure felt nice to imagine that a rabbi was handpicking our eggs. And those were some good eggs.
But we don't need a rabbi to bestow Goodness on our food. The humble farmer does the trick as well. Henrietta's Table in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has even created collectible "farmer trading cards," which come clipped to your check. Each profiles a different purveyor, like Courtney Hasse, a former nun turned cheese maker in New Hampshire. (Nuns, rabbis, cheese makers: they're all holy in our book.)
Sentimentalizing the farmer is hardly a new phenomenon in America. Helen and Scott Nearing made a famous career of it in the 1930's. And in the food world, chefs such as Alice Waters and Odessa Piper were singing the praises of local, sustainable agriculture three decades ago. Back then, only hippies and New Agers spoke of the "spirit of place" and "nourishing the earth and the community." Now everyone's jumped on the haywagon, even three-star chefs proffering $17 salads. So while Good Food is not new, it is newly lucrative. It's no accident that most "field-to-plate" restaurants are in (or just outside) cities. Wealthy urbanites are willing to pay dearly to get back to the land, if only by proxy.
Consider the much-vaunted new project from chef Dan Barber, of Manhattan's Blue Hill. Last summer Barber opened a second restaurant, 30 miles north of the city, at a nonprofit, self-sustaining farm and educational center called Stone Barns, whose 80 pristine acres had been carved out of an old Rockefeller estate. Barber's restaurant on the property, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, sources much of its food from the organic pastures, greenhouses, and barnyards just outside the dining room. Wide windows provide a heartwarming view of pigpens, herb beds, fields of squash. Placards near the entrance offer reasons to buy and eat locally. Log on to the restaurant's Web site and you'll find more inspiring maxims about "creating a distinct consciousness," "expressing humanity," and "valuing the good health of the garden."
Goodness is in copious supply at Blue Hill, and it is arguably Goodness—as much as first-rate cooking—that draws the faithful here in their Range Rovers and Lexii. Among the beau monde, Good Food is like a weekend at Canyon Ranch: it offers the virtues of asceticism without sacrifice, purity with pleasure, the rural life with money. For $125 a head, they reconnect to a simpler, antediluvian world.
This return-to-the-farm impulse is a refreshingly democratic one. But Good Food has another, contradictory allure, and that is its aura of privilege. Handcrafted, artisanal, heirloom—such terms signify not only quality but exclusivity. They don't make a million of them, after all. In this sense, there really are two Americas: one that eats mushrooms and another that eats individually foraged Hudson Valley chanterelles.
PETER JON LINDBERG is an editor-at-large for Travel + Leisure.
Six temples of the Good Food movement:
Blue Hill at Stone Barns 630 Bedford Rd., Pocantico Hills, N.Y.; 914/366-9600; www.bluehillstonebarns.com; dinner for two $150.
Farmers Diner 240 N. Main St., Barre, Vt.; 802/476-7623; www.farmersdiner.com; dinner for two $26.
Fifteen 13 Westland Place, London; 44-870/787-1515; www.fifteenrestaurant.com; dinner for two $110.
Hot Lips Pizza 2211 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, Oreg.; 503/234-9999; www.hotlipspizza.com; dinner for two $16.
Per Se 10 Columbus Circle, New York, N.Y.; 212/823-9335; www.frenchlaundry.com/perse.htm; dinner for two $250.
Savory Olive The Baxter Hotel; 105 W. Main St., Bozeman, Mont.; 406/586-8320; www.savoryolive.com; dinner for two $60.
CHEF-OWNER, THE FAT DUCK, BRAY, ENGLAND
'The whole area of multi-sensory stimulation is going to have a lot more influence in cooking. When we first put liquid nitrogen-poached meringue on the menu, it did shock a few people. But science in the kitchen has got fantastic creative potential.'