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America's Feel-Good Cuisine

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.

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