Monday, December 26, 2011

In praise of non-virtuous food (and drink)

In the midst of the holiday eating and drinking season, I've been thinking about some of the signs that the local/sustainable food movement's emphasis on health and virtue may be starting to include more things that may be good without necessarily being quite so good for us.

The notion of "virtuous foods"--those that are seen to be morally good--comes from food philosopher Lisa Heldke.[1]  Drawing on this idea, Amy Trubek, in a provocative article in a recent Radical History Review issue on "Radical Foodways," points out that "When it comes to food in the United States, our moral compass veers quickly toward the puritanical."[2]  Others--for example, Warren Belasco in his great book Appetite for Change (Cornell University Press, 1989, republished and updated in 2006)--have pointed to a moralizing strain in the search for an American "counter-cuisine" that can undo the ills of our industrialized food system (and society) and set us on the path to a better life.

Trubek notes that food reformers often look to the agricultural past for inspiration, invoking a preindustrial Garden of Eden in sometimes very direct ways (for example, in the brand name at left) and extolling the strengths of peasant farming (as Albert Howard did in the organic food movement, or Rudolph Steiner in biodynamic agriculture) or small-scale yeoman farming (as Wendell Berry and many other American agrarianists have tended to do).  All well and good, says Trubek, but she sees this as a highly selective use of the past, which excludes many of the hardships, complexities, and contradictions of pre-industrial farming (for example, the use of unfree labor in many places).  She calls for "a less puritanical and perhaps more ecumenical ethos" based on aesthetics and quality as well as notions about healthfulness, but worries that, "We can’t quite figure out a concept of good food that can transcend an assumed opposite, bad food... The ideal of eating food that is pleasurable, in sensory and social terms, remains elusive."[3]

I think Trubek is selling short the burgeoning creativity of the local food movement, which is already exploiting the interesting dissonance between "good for you" and just "good."  Here are three examples that come immediately to my mind.

(1) When I started doing my preliminary research for the Martin Van Buren Ethnographic Landscape Study, the national park gave me a list of many of the nearby small farms that were producing artisanal foods.  One that immediately caught my eye was the orchard just north of Kinderhook that makes--in addition to arguably the best cider donuts anywhere--applejack, brandy, and vodka using its own apples.  Golden Harvest Farm has spun off Harvest Spirits, one of many small-scale distilleries around the region.

(2) These distilleries are in many ways following the path already laid down by the micro-breweries that have sprung up everywhere in the past 25 years.  I remember reading Stephen Morris's The Great Beer Trek (Penguin, 1984) shortly after I moved to the U.S., and being saddened by the account of one regional brewery after another closing down as a few giant corporations continued to consolidate their stranglehold on the American beer industry.  The same year the book came out, though, the Boston Brewing Company began making Samuel Adams beer, and the turnaround was well underway by the end of the decade.  The micro-brewery renaissance prefigured the local-food movement, touting local and regional variations, small scale, and freshness as appealing alternatives to bland and industrialized products shipped from across the country. A completely revised and updated version of Morris's book is due out in 2012, turning what had been a jeremiad into a chronicle of local and regional industry reborn.
     "No Farms, No Food" bumper stickers have gotten pretty commonplace over the past few years, but this fall I've occasionally seen one around western Mass. that says "No Farms, No Beer."  Turns out it's advertising Preservation Ale, a limited-edition beer brewed by the Berkshire Brewing Company this fall as a fundraiser for the Franklin Land Trust. The links among local food, history, and farmland preservation don't get much more explicit than that!

    (3) And the Arcadia Center, a social-justice-oriented farming operation based on one of George Washington's farms, has fully embraced the good food/bad food binary with its "Vices that Made Virginia" fundraiser, which features locally-produced bourbon, oysters, and cigars.  An article about the first event, in 2010, describes a menu that makes my mouth water even after all the good food I ate myself yesterday:  oysters fried, roasted, deviled, and on the half shell, a roasted pig, beer-braised bison short ribs, cider-glazed duck, pork jowls, Brunswick stew, Virginia ham carbonara, bacon and corn spoon bread, regional artisanal cheeses, brûléed pears, and more.  This is a feast that refuses the dichotomy between virtue and its opposite and reflects the complexity of a real, living food system.

    I'd be interested to hear of other examples of "good bad foods" being produced on a local or regional scale.  Did any of you discover any new ones over the holidays?

    [1]  Lisa Heldke, “Down-Home Global Cooking: Why Cosmopolitanism versus Localism Is a False Dichotomy, and How Our Food Can Show Us the Way to a Third Option,” in The Philosophy of Food, ed. David Kaplan (Berkeley: University of California Press, February 2012).
    [2] Amy B. Trubek, "Radical Taste:  What is Our Future?" in Radical History Review Spring 2011 (110), 193.
    [3] Trubek, "Radical Taste," 194, 195.


    1. Many of the businesses showcased in Edible Boston's "Spilling the Beans" section show off locally produced "bad" food. Some invoke history, most notably, the old-fashion-labeled Tower Root Beer, which came about after the rediscovery of a grandfather's recipe.

    2. Good connection, Signe - thanks. I was forgetting about all the "vintage soda" products that are out there (some of which hark back to the patent medicine era and herbal remedies which often drew on older/indigenous/women's healing traditions).

    3. I'm in Philadelphia tonight, which is the home of many local "bad" foods, such as Tastykake. But I'll shine the spotlight on Frank's Black Cherry Wishniak, a soda made for many years by a local company that does not sell beyond the city.

    4. Thanks for this, David. Clearly there is a sub-topic here relating to soda drinks! I'd never heard of Wishniak, but from a bit of surfing around, I'm gathering that the word refers to sour-cherry brandy made by Poles and other Eastern Europeans, which was later adopted around Philly as a term for cherry soda. (Here's one discussion I found about the word: An interesting ethnic/regional/commercial layering...

    5. This brings up the very knotty question of "virtuous" foods and their opposites -- what's this about? What we think about nutrition nowadays? In that case, is maple syrup bad? Is corned beef bad? My stepfather made that in a crock in the cellar, and it needed saltpeter. I'm sure it wasn't the healthiest meat, but they didn't think of it that way -- it was nourishing and kept without a freezer. Maybe we can positively place tobacco and whiskey in the "bad" corner. But oysters? Just expensive, right?

    6. Yes, this all gets into questions about how we define health and goodness. Gad, food is complicated! Re. oysters: I guess if they're local, that puts them into a different category - not just expensive, but local food.