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On Growing My Cake and Eating It, Too

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It’s been ridiculously long since my last post! Here are a few of my thoughts on the joys and excesses of eating local, originally published on Food Riot… Is it just me, or is this topic rich with contradictions?

Terroir is the French term — the notion that foods possess an innate sense of place, down to the soil, the air, the shape of the landscape. For example, that a pinot noir grape grown on a farm in Sonoma, California has a slightly different bite than a pinot noir grape grown along the Rio Negro river in Argentina. It’s like the notion, “you are what you eat,” except that before you consume this essence of self, the food is busy becoming what it is — and if you buy into the terroir concept, the essence of food could not be more Scarlett O’Hara-esque — rooted in terra, terroir, the land.

This terroir term makes me think of rap lyrics, a whole range of upwardly mobile artists touting loyalty to their roots. In the world of food, “going local” may strike a hopeful, less defensive tone, but it’s still the same sentiment — “I’m still Jenny from the block” translates into sticking to your roots — quite literally, your root vegetables — putting the brakes on the rather privileged, entitled, modern assumption that “the world is your oyster” in favor of an old-fashioned reverence for your own backyard, and the brand of leafy greens where you were born and raised.

Much like those leafy greens, I suppose that my “taste” is shaped by my environment. On the one hand, I was born and raised in Saint Louis — and in my case, an appreciation for certain Midwestern foodstuffs is somehow built in — cheese (even the much-maligned, processed, Imos-Pizza-topping Provel), red meat and hearty casseroles. On the other hand, as a Chicago resident, I have an abiding taste for Mexican — not the kind you find in Missouri, where the waiter might not be familiar with horchatas. I tend to crave sour, spongy Ethiopian bread dipped in spicy vegetable medleys or Korean barbecue, with its thin, seared meats. My love of onions can take me around the world and back — from Indian curries to Chinese stir fries to Jewish latkes. Actually, scallions alone could do the trick. If I’m starting to sound less reverent and increasingly presumptuous when it comes to this simple, local food thing, what can I say; I came of age during the rise of The Food Network. I’m another earnest member of Generation Y trying to be slow and local, but really, I want to have my cake and eat it too, and I don’t necessarily want to grow my cake in my backyard. Plus, I don’t have a yard. I have a very persistent, slightly manic squirrel running along the rail of my balcony.

Truly, I respect and admire and value this notion of clean, fresh, local food. I’m inspired by Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International, who says that “food is what ought to remind us every day that we are part of nature, that we belong to nature, that we are inside nature — the greatest living system.” Proving Carlo’s point, I had the privilege to enjoy a bullfight “à la mort” (to the death) on the oversized steps of a Roman amphitheatre in Arles, France. This was my second visit — the first time, I opted to watch the bullfighters sort of dance around the bull, no death happening, because I thought it might upset me. But the fight à la mort was not a gruesome experience, it was more of a grounding experience, oddly like clean, wholesome manual labor. I watched the bull reach his fate underneath a pounding sun, alongside little kids chomping on ham and cheese sandwiches. I took a wrong turn on the way out and ended up passing the tremendous, half-suspended carcass on its way into the beef truck. The next day my husband ordered “toureau” for dinner, and there it was, or its relative, on his plate. Yes — that particular day, food was a profound reminder that we live inside nature, much closer to the cycle of life and death than I typically acknowledge.

It was through living in Provence for a short, sweet six weeks that I first experienced a deep appreciation for the relationship between food and terrain. Actually, the impact of terrain in Provence extends far beyond food. For example, I realized that Vincent Van Gogh’s famous paintings from the region didn’t so much exercise artistic license but skillfully capture the special quality of light that exists there, day after day. I didn’t realize until returning to the U.S. that Provence was a destination of sorts, that the richness of the landscape was truly la crème de la crème, as evidenced by certain brands of rose wine or cosmetics companies like l’Occitane. But like many things that hail from Italy or France, the romance and purity of “terroir” doesn’t always mesh with the full-speed-ahead, patchwork-quilt American way. When I come across a green t-shirt that reads YALE KALE or the scrunched up nose of a three year old working his way through a macrobiotic plate, I am impressed by certain Americans’ willful, dogged commitment to eating naturally. We invented fast food, and doggone it, we will just as industriously re-adopt slow flood. With similar intentions, I attempted my first herb garden last summer. I basked in the versatility of kale, the joy of snipping chives onto pasta, the fact that I didn’t need to buy scallions. But there were also times when I felt like the hungry caterpillar in reverse. All I wanted was one, small square of Imo’s Pizza, processed in a factory, delivered in a box. To borrow from another 90s child, Pete Nice, of 3rd Bass, I guess I’m just a product of my environment.

Words To Drive By Part 3

Motives: On Curiosity 

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“Instead of bringing back sixteen thousand new plant species, we might return from our journeys with a collection of small, unfeted but life-enhancing thoughts” (111).

In this chapter, de Botton contrasts his own lethargy in Madrid with the insatiable curiosity of a German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. Von Humboldt’s biography (or one of them) is entitled What May Be Accomplished in a Lifetime, which indicates how active his South American explorations were, leading to discoveries in the fields of geology, botany, physics, anthropology, and more. For today’s curious traveler, do facts merely overwhelm or distract? The author quotes Nietzsche:

“Nietzsche also proposed a second kind of tourism, whereby we may learn how our societies and identities have been formed by the past and so acquire a sense of continuity and belonging… He can gaze at old buildings and feel ‘the happiness of knowing that he is not wholly accidental and arbitrary but grown out of a past as its heir, flower and fruit, and that his existence is thus excused and indeed justified’” (110).

I got you, Nietzsche. It’s hard to feel accidental, sharing this view
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or this one
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or even this one
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But to acquire “a sense of continuity and belonging,” the curious traveler might prefer to venture no further than a lazy vineyard, sip slowly, and enjoy the thought that one’s existence is “excused and justified.”

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See De Botton’s thoughts on landscape, the country versus the city

Words To Drive By

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 9.43.51 AMThe Art of Travel by Alain de Botton was a fitting companion as I road-tripped the coast of California this June and July. Unlike a traditional guidebook suggesting what to do in a given locale, it probes the how — asking what it means to travel meaningfully from a historical, philosophical, and anecdotal point of view.

The book has a clever structure: in each chapter, de Botton explores a big, travel-related topic using a guide from the world of literature, art, or history to offset his own travel anecdotes. For example, in the chapter, “On Eye-Opening Art” Van Gogh’s history in Provence enlightens the author’s first trip there. With the help of Van Gogh’s paintings, de Botton finds that this much-lauded corner of the world lives up to its hype, leading to a more subtle, philosophical conversation about the two-way relationship between beautiful places and their representation in works of art.

I found de Botton’s reflections apropos — universal, nimbly working around clichés — as I found myself lazing next to a cold river reading about Wordsworth’s exultation of the countryside, or greedily snapping photos of peaks and valleys, only to encounter a chapter “On Possessing Beauty,” with relevant, reverent quotes such as

“‘I can never stand long under an Alpine cliff, looking up to its pines, as they stand on inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of an enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like the shadow of the one beside it — upright, fixed, not knowing each other’” (229, John Ruskin).

Allow me to share some more of my favorite musings from The Art of Travel, and how they became words to drive by, beginning with  some thoughts on departure and anticipation.

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