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America's 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.

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