There are still a few people around, I suppose, who remember when culinary fashions had an innocent, slightly carnivalesque feel. Menus were the size of mortar-boards. Many were inscribed with baroque French lettering instead of the urgent buzzwords of our relentlessly artisanal age (‘line-caught’, ‘locally grown’). Members of the insular, eccentric food community spent their evenings discovering exotic new ‘delicacies’ from as far abroad as possible (Hunan! Lyon!), and marvelling at quaint inventions like engorged duck livers and translucent foams tipped with gold leaf. Gold leaf hasn’t appeared on stylish menus for years now, of course, and the stuff is probably toxic anyway. It’s been replaced by a whole universe of simpler but equally snobbish gourmet signifiers – the perfect asparagus, the perfect tomato. In this Slow Food era, the grandest, most self-important home chefs talk in grand, self-important tones about composting techniques, and food lovers are more likely to quote Michael Pollan on the perils of mass corn production than, say, Escoffier on the proper proportion of flour to milk in a béchamel. Even microwave-savvy junk-food cooks have begun looking for organic mac ’n’ cheese.
We’re in the midst of more food-related revolutions and enthusiasms (pickling, natural wines) than ever before. But with this obsessive knowledge comes a heavy dose of obsessive worry, and thanks to many of these same revolutions – actually, because of them – we seem to be in the midst of more food-related neuroses, worries, scares and assorted phobias than are possible to count. There are times when this doesn’t feel like a golden age of food at all, especially when you find yourself wandering the aisles of your local quasi-organic, possibly locally sourced, semi-seasonal supermarket, rummaging through the bountiful avocado bin for this evening’s healthful salad, trying to remember whether it’s a good thing that none of the avocados seem to be very ripe, or how much water they consume while growing, and what exactly ‘blood avocado’ really means.
Every week, it seems, there’s some new study or labelling debate in the news to get righteously scandalised about, and unless you happen to be camped out in the hinterlands subsisting on a diet of wild berries (or blissfully mainlining double-roast-beef sandwiches in a state of innocence at your local takeaway), there is no escape. Those brightly coloured bags of frozen prawns over there in aisle five? They were quite possibly farmed by slave labourers in Thailand, in case you didn’t know. Which of the healthful options in the bountiful vegetable and nut sections aren’t relentlessly sucking up precious water supply? And, with the possible exception of tofu (depending on how you feel about GMOs!) or a few varieties of chaste cheese, is there such a thing as a guilt-free protein in this entire cheery, subtly guilt-ridden operation? Did you know, for instance, that the octopus tentacle you’re thinking of grilling tonight (because what moron doesn’t know that beef contributes as much to global warming as cars?) was chopped off a highly sensitive creature capable of problem solving?
The writer Larry Olmsted, whose new book Real Food/Fake Food documents a whole litany of deliciously horrifying food scams, calls this new age of food hysteria “the Great Terroir Terror”, and he sees all sorts of reasons for its arrival. The food industry has always been murky and haphazardly controlled, but these days it’s bumping up against more concerned and informed consumers than ever before. Fast Food Nation was just the tip of the iceberg lettuce; journalists and watchdog groups of all kinds have begun to concentrate more on the food supply – and the results go viral online. And for hordes of righteous citizens, worrying about what you grow, cook, and put in your mouth also seems to be a much more immediate and meaningful way to connect with (and attempt to control) an increasingly uncontrollable world than worrying, say, about the rise of Donald Trump. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out that when it comes to purity, freethinking liberals are really just as prudish as the conservatives they enjoy mocking for their publicly puritanical approach to sex – only liberals tend to focus obsessively on what they put into their bodies, instead of on what they do with them.
There are more places to purchase a morally acceptable dinner these days than ever before...
What can a rational, thinking person do to survive the Great Terroir Terror with his or her conscience intact? It helps to remember that amid all the fashionable doomsaying and distress, there are a few glimmers of progress. On the broadest, macro level, if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford health food market prices (and even if you’re not), there are more places to purchase a morally acceptable dinner these days than ever before. A new generation of innovative ecofarmers, not just here but around the world, are turning out all sorts of promising innovations. And even in the grim, gut-busting world of fast food, the appetite for vegie burgers is on the rise, McDonald’s has promised to go cage-free, and those dark lords of the chicken gulag, America’s Chick-fil-A, are pledging not to pump their birds full of antibiotics.
Meanwhile, on a more personal level, is it possible for ethically sensitive souls to sleep at night on a reasonably full stomach? The first step is fully understanding and then weighing the consequences. Does human exploitation bug you more than animal abuse? How do you feel about carcinogens versus carbon emissions? Olmsted suggests, for a start, eliminating farmed prawns and salmon almost completely. But he’s also got a hot tip on the next food panic: “Honey will be the big sexy story,” he says, the faintest whisper of glee in his voice. After all, worrying is half the fun.
This article appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of New York Magazine. © 2016.
Supermarket image by Davide Graceffa via Flickr