Published in Macalester Today
Josh Schonwald ’93 is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, and Salon, among other publications. The following excerpt is from the conclusion to his first book, The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food.
A few questions inevitably pop up when you write a book about the future of food.
First, people want predictions: “So tell me…what are the foods of the future?”
Second, other people will want to know about foods of the future that have miraculous properties for a variety of highly personal health needs.
And third, some people will expect that because of your food wanderings, you might be able to advise on what to eat.
Well, after a couple of years on the food-future beat, I still can’t give a definitive “thou shalt be eating” answer to the first two questions. But…I have developed some pretty strong feelings about question #3. One day I sat down for coffee and assembled the Perfect Sustainable Meal.
Seasonal, Local Salad Mix from Farmers Market:
It doesn’t matter if it’s radicchio, if it’s puntarelle, if it’s iceberg, or even sorrel. It doesn’t even matter, really, if it’s a salad. What is important is that you go to your nearest farmers market and buy something local and grown outdoors from a small farmer. This purchase symbolizes the continuation and importance of the local, seasonal trend, as we reconnect to our land, our farms, and our communities.
Genetically Engineered Hawaiian Papaya:
Track down some Hawaiian papaya, but not any papaya. You must make sure that is it genetically modified. Eat this papaya raw, share it with your friends, use this experience to dispel fears and myths about genetic engineering. Talk about how genetically engineered crops could help feed malnourished people of Africa and Asia.
Re-circulating Aquaculture System Farmed Barramundi or Tilapia:
Go to a live fish market in New York, Toronto, Washington, or Boston. Buy a fish that is raised indoors in a re-circulating aquaculture system. As you eat your barramundi or tilapia, talk about how your fish choice symbolizes your acceptance of two realities: wild-caught fish should be a privileged indulgence these days, and indoor farming is a safe and environmentally responsible way to raise a boatload of protein. Why not cobia? You’re choosing barramundi or tilapia right now because of their lower feed conversion ratio (this is the perfect sustainable meal, after all).
If you do not have time to prepare this meal, you can simply recall this slogan: Go to Farmers Markets. Eat GMO Papayas and Fish from Indoor Re-circulating Systems.
This 13-word slogan is an homage to one of the most important people in the Food Universe, a person so important that he’s spawned a book genre, “the post-Pollan book.” He’s a regular topic of discussion at food industry conferences, i.e., consumers in the Age of Pollan. An email from Henry’s Farm once reported: “NEWS FLASH! The rumors are true, Michael Pollan dropped by Henry’s stand at the Evanston Market last Saturday, bought some sugar-snap peas.”
I long ago concluded that the world’s reaction to and celebrification of Michael Pollan are not solely because he is a brilliant and uncommon species, part journalist, part philosopher. It’s because, more than anything, of his timing.
This is the Age of Food TMI. We’re bombarded with information on carbohydrates, sodium vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, saturated fats, transfats. New ethnic foods, new superfoods, a nearly continuous influx of new and often contradictory health findings. Is caffeine good these days?
Amid this chaos, Pollan emerges. His ideas are complex, drawing from natural history, economics, cultural studies, but he always boils things down to a simple, sensible, adoptable message.
“Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”
“Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” “Don’t Eat Packaged Food.” “Don’t Eat Anything With More Than Five Ingredients.” “Eat Real Food.”
Ultimately I came to believe that these sticky, easily adoptable, cult-creating expressions were about 75 percent good. There were some negative side effects to the Pollanisms—particularly this one: “Don’t Eat Anything Your Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize as Food.”
As the technie-foodie Nathan Myhrvold has observed, the Pollan philosophy has a disturbing implication: “If everyone follows his rule about great-grandmothers recursively back into history, nobody would have tried anything new…. Somebody had to be the first European to eat a tomato.”
I met two types of food innovators during the past three years, which I came to think of as romantic heroes and unromantic heroes.
Bob Cannard, microfarmer in the drop-dead gorgeous Sonoma Valley, friend of Alice Waters, who cares about the “souls” of his Swiss chard and feeds his crops lavender tea, is a romantic hero. Jason Matheny, health economist, who wants us to eat meat spawned from stem cells raised in a factory in the outskirts of Chicago, is an unromantic hero.
The romantic heroes have revived traditional foods, expanded our culinary consciousness, and reconnected us with the land and the sea and the pleasures of growing and cooking and eating.
The romantic heroes are often famous. Most people in America today who read, watch TV, or have Internet access know this type. As I write this, I’m looking at The New York Times Magazine food issue, theme “Community and Cooking,” which features Michael Pollan’s 36-hour dinner party. There is also an Annie Leibowitz-esque photo essay spotlighting 20 food pioneers—artisanal bakers and urban chicken farmers and food truck evangelists. The connecting thread: they’re doing wonderful things for the world through the medium of food.
It’s undeniably harder to wax poetic about the other type of food revolutionary. Growing fish in a warehouse isn’t quite as stirring as pulling them out of a choppy Alaskan sea. A meat-spawning bioreactor doesn’t have the same allure as a dew-covered Virginia pasture.
But I think we should set some space aside in the foodie pantheon for the unromantic heroes. Let’s continue to celebrate our heirloom fava bean growers and our grass-fed goat herders. Let’s carefully scrutinize the claims of nutritional science and keep a wary eye on new technologies, especially those with panacea-like claims from multinational corporations with monopolistic aims and a history of DDT and Agent Orange production. But let’s not be so black-and-white; let’s not be reflexively and categorically opposed to any and all technological solutions.
Savoring the slowest food and foraging for wild asparagus shouldn’t be viewed as at odds with championing lab-engineered vitamin-A enhanced rice that could save children from blindness. Pairing a locally grown, seasonal mesclun mix from Henry’s “All Organic, All the Time” Farm with cobia, a saltwater fish grown in a warehouse, is not an incompatible, ethically confused choice.
I make this point because of the rising tide of food-specific neo-Luddism in America. While entirely well intentioned and often beneficial in its impact, this foodie fundamentalism is unfortunately often associated with a dangerous anti-scientism. If we’re going to meet the enormous challenges of feeding the world’s still growing population, we are going to need all the ingenuity we can bring to bear. My modest hope: Let’s keep an open mind. Let’s consider even the fringy, sometimes yucky, maybe kooky ideas. Let’s not miss opportunities to build a long-term sustainable future for our planet.
THE TASTE OF TOMORROW: Dispatches from the Future of Food by Josh Schonwald. Copyright © 2012 by Josh Schonwald. Reprinted by arrangement with Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.