Aug 30, 2011

planting thoughts: a symposium without dissenting views

[the article about planting thoughts that i wrote for the atlantic is here.]

i spent last weekend in copenhagen for planting thoughts, a symposium primarily for chefs and other people connected to the food world and designed to stimulate new thinking about the food producer's role in the food system. in many ways, this was rene redzepi's brainchild, born out of a conviction that good food is important enough to warrant effort, serious discussion, and questioning. the list of speakers they'd managed to assemble was impressively diverse and accomplished, and all of them shared this basic conviction. but partway through the first session of speakers, i developed a sense of unease which grew as i listened to both the presenters and the audience over the course of the symposium.

don't misunderstand: i've never seen a group so committed to thinking about food in nuanced ways and so able to express what it is that drives them to cook and makes them cook the food they do. what's troubling is that the symposium's speakers and audience mostly spoke with one voice and one mind. i heard almost no dissenting opinions about the value of good food.

during the lunch break, i got to talking with christian nedergaard from ved stranden. he pointed out that everyone at the symposium has made sacrifices for good food but that none of the speakers had a good solution for those for whom those sacrifices don't even appear to be an option. at the end of the first day, i messaged a question to rene, who was taking questions for speakers via twitter. he asked them: "what advice can speakers give to people who don't think they have enough time to find or cook good, real food?" there was an awkward silence. finally, rene said, almost helplessly, "there is no short cut or easy answer to good food." then kamal mouzawak, who runs a farmers market program in lebanon, took up the microphone to disagree. "there's no fuss," he said "you just need access to good food. stop watching cooking shows and start cooking." and the tent erupted in applause.

i found myself nodding reflexively, with everyone around me, in response to kamal because i'm the guy who arranges meetings around his bread baking schedule because otherwise i'd have to go to brookline to buy a baguette that doesn't have a crumb the texture of a pullman loaf. i'm willing to put some money down that most people in the tent this weekend are similar. they've spent lots of effort deciding for themselves what food counts as good. maybe they take the occasional short cut and eat a microwave pizza, but they don't do it often.

but millions of people don't think they have enough time to find or cook good, real food, or that good food is worth the effort. you can't get around that. what rene said contains a hard truth, maybe the only really hard truth in food: good food is nothing but fuss and effort, often for many people. you eat a perfect grilled sardine and you have to thank the fisherman who makes less money because he fishes responsibly and avoids bycatch when he fishes for sardines. and if you didn't buy your sardines at the docks, you have to thank the fishmonger who ate the cost of yesterday's unsold sardines rather than sell them to you. and if you didn't cook the sardines yourself, you have to thank the prep cook who took the time to scale and gut the fish carefully so the stomach doesn't break (it's bitter), the grill guy who gave it just enough char without burning it. everyone who brought you that grilled sardine was free to choose: the fisherman didn't have to fish responsibly, the fishmonger didn't have to sell only impeccably fresh fish, the prep cook did not have to spend that extra 4 seconds gutting the fish carefully.

when we make choices about the food we cook and eat, we decide based on what we value and what we don't. deciding what to value means asking the really hard questions: what makes food "good" or, for that matter, "real"? if you have to choose between spending time playing with your child and spending time so she can eat good, real food, which should you choose? these questions cannot be asked and meaningfully discussed in a room full of people who believe at base in the same set of values.

nevertheless, planting thoughts brought together over 300 people, chefs and non-chefs, many working at the very edge of the innovative top end of cuisine around the world, and gave them many examples of the myriad definitions people have of "real" and "good" food. this is a staggering achievement. even at the high end of cuisine, critical discourse about values in food is the exception, not the rule. planting thoughts is a much-needed start. massive change begins when we find others who share the same ideas and values. the next step, a crucial one, will be to bring into the discussion the millions of people who--for whatever reason--don't share the premise that good food is worth the considerable effort it takes.

summariessession 1, session 2, session 3, session 4.

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