New York Times food writer Mark Bittman has spent the past few months in Berkeley, home of fellow food-movement leaders Alice Waters and Michael Pollan. Bittman recently took the opportunity to let readers know that the fruits and vegetables there really are as amazing as we’d been told:
The mushrooms were one thing; there were also a dozen varieties of tangerines, ranging from kumquat-size to almost as big as grapefruits. There were an equal number of oranges (including the superior Cara Cara) and sweet limes and, yes, Meyer lemons. There were fresh chickpeas and shishito peppers, red carrots and a dozen different turnips and radishes, Little Gem lettuces along with probably 40 other edible greens.
In the comments, readers chastised Bittman for sighing over local California produce at a time when that state is experiencing drought, but I had a different concern. Reading his essay, all I could think was, the jig is up. The food movement has officially stopped pretending it has anything useful to offer to anyone with ordinary, or even better-than-ordinary, grocery options. When Bittman was still (mostly) writing from New York, it was plausible that someone could follow his example at, say, New Jersey strip mall supermarkets. Now he’s offering up fantasy recipes like “English Peas With Grilled Little Gems, Green Garlic and Mint.”
Criticism of the food movement has centered on the idea that it’s elitist, catering to those who have enough money to buy kale and enough time to find some way of making it palatable. This is a fair point, and one that, with varying degrees of success, food writers take seriously. But the elitism charge has had the unfortunate effect of allowing food-movement leaders to suggest that—with the exception of the proverbial “single mother of four living at the poverty line”—everyone could eat the way they’re advising and is just a nudge away from doing so. This, alas, is not the case.
Elite food writers aren’t just out of touch with the working and middle classes. They are out of touch with people who aren’t elite food writers. They’re oblivious not just to those who struggle to put food on the table, but to those whose jobs don’t send them on tours of Paris’s finest restaurants.
The true villain for the food movement isn’t someone who buys fast food when they should be eating lentils. It’s someone who, despite having the resources to do so, hasn’t researched where his or her food comes from. Grocery shoppers’ desire to purchase fruits and vegetables—a seemingly admirable, or at least innocuous, one—is recast as consumer demand for out-of-season produce—the height of decadence. In 2011, Bittman had some harsh words for these consumers:
We expect a steady supply of ‘fresh’ Peruvian asparagus, Canadian tomatoes, South African apples, Dutch peppers and Mexican broccoli. Those who believe they’re entitled to eat any food any time seem to think that predominantly local agriculture is an elitist plot to ‘force’ a more limited diet upon us.
Bittman lamented the fact that “we have ceased to rely upon staples: long-keeping foods like grains, beans, and root vegetables, foods that provide nutrition when summer greens, fruits, and vegetables aren’t readily available.”
Is Bittman relying on root vegetables in Berkeley? When he’s in Rome learning the craft of pasta sauce? Or when he was on a food tour of Spain with Gwyneth Paltrow and Mario Batali? Along similar lines, I became somewhat less impressed with David Tanis’s remarks about how he for one is going to stick with “end-of-winter vegetables” until the “local and seasonal” green ones sprout, when I noticed he’ll be giving a cooking workshop in Sicily this April. I point these things out not (just) out of culinary envy of New York Times food writers, but because it genuinely does mean something different to be a strict locavore if you travel around all the time, or live in grocery-endowed part of California, or both.
The place I live—Princeton, New Jersey—is not what you’d call a deprived area. The town center has a Lululemon, a Barbour, and an Ivy League university. For those with a car, supermarket options are plentiful—Wegmans, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s. But buying food-movement-approved groceries is all but impossible. Farmers market season starts in May; a winter market tilts more towards upscale non-essentials—honey, olives, “gourmet nut butters”—than produce. Once that season arrives, even if you make time between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturdays, the “big” market is far too limited to be anyone’s grocery shopping for the week, meaning that you need to add on the time—and, ahem, the carbon footprint—of then driving to a supermarket (where not much is local, and bread without added sugar is scarce) for what remains.
But the supermarket is, for the food movement, taboo. Waters avoids them; it was basically an ethnographic adventure when Michaels Pollan and Moss deigned to visit one. It’s only acceptable to shop at a supermarket if you’ve been given special dispensation: Sam Sifton allows eating supermarket, out-of-season Brussels sprouts, but only if you must, while Tanis recommends purchasing California (but not South American!) asparagus, should you not find yourself somewhere where “green-tipped spears of wild asparagus had broken through the earth in an area of moist soil near a stream.” That asparagus sounds great, but until it sprouts somewhere in my part of New Jersey, the Peruvian variety will have to do.
This piece has been updated to clarify that Bittman didn't permanently move to Berkeley.