Can Local Food Cookbooks Live Up to the Local Food Movement?
By: Madeline Chera
In the U.S., the legacy of the contemporary local food movement extends at least as far as the back-to-the-land movement and other social and political countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s (Belasco 2007). Local food is not so much starting up as it is gaining widespread traction, with the term “locavore” acquiring such general currency as to be named the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year in 2007. The concept has garnered support at the White House and in major news websites, like The New York Times, which even has a special Topics pages dedicated to the subject. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, a new sub-genre of cookbooks has emerged to reflect this growing interest in local food, with the stated intention of helping cookbook readers use locally grown and produced ingredients, support local farmers, and experience fresher and more seasonally-appropriate ingredients. At least four such books have been released in 2010: Estrine and Kochendorfer’s Harvest to Heat: Cooking with America’s Best Chefs, Farmers, and Artisans; Fletcher’s Eating Local: the Cookbook Inspired by America’s Farmers; Ryder and Topalian’s Edible: a Celebration of Local Foods; and Lagasse’s Farm to Fork: Cooking Local, Cooking Fresh, and even more volumes have been published in the past several years (see Fletcher; Hayes, Stein, and Webber; Madison and Smith; and Ruben; as well as Nabhan and Jacobsen, which differ a bit from the others in format and focus, but not in theme). To varying degrees, all of these cookbooks incorporate narratives about local food products, their producers, and various experiences cultivating and eating local foods. The directions these books provide extend beyond the preparation of certain dishes, explaining how to embrace the lifestyle of local food, of which, they presuppose, these dishes must be a part.
This presupposition seems a bit puzzling, however, when we come to realize that the idea of local food, and any lifestyle that goes with it, has various and contested meanings. Even dedicated local food advocates have been known to rant in frustration over the confusion and dilution of the terms that their fellows use to describe their philosophies, goals, and choices (see Powell 2010). For serious activists and academics alike, the meanings of these terms seem murky. As anthropologist Jeff Pratt argues, the lexicon of local food has a tendency to become conflated, with proponents of local food acting as if “authentic,” “slow,” and “sustainable” are inextricably linked together and have set and widely understood meanings (2007:291-295). This “self-confirming semantic field,” as Pratt calls it, creates the illusion of universal agreement on the terms of local food, both as concept and as social movement (2007:293). Sociologist Clare Hinrichs argues that the univocal representation of these terms relegates food localism to one pole of a binary of extreme absolutes: the righteous local and the corrupt global (2003:36). Such a view of local food violates the characterization sociologist and activist Amory Starr makes of the local food movement as “a participatory process and long term dialogue” that leaves open the possibility for implementation of a variety of tactics in numerous contexts (2010:8), a definition that sociologists DuPuis and Goodman (2005) seem also to embrace in their proposal for a contextually and historically aware, reflexive, and respectful food localism set within a global framework. Unlike the polarized morality Hinrichs critiques, Starr’s and DuPuis and Goodman’s sophisticated understandings of local food take as their foundation political engagement with the food system through embeddedness in a place, a standpoint from which nuanced specificity can be taken into account and power dynamics on all scales, from the local to the global, can be considered (DuPuis and Goodman 2005; Pratt 2007: 264, referencing Amin and Thrift 2002:397).
At first look, the new local food cookbooks seem to account for this ideal of diversity and multivalence in local food; as a whole, the literature conveys several different approaches, and it appeals to different target audiences. These books ask to be set apart from the quick-and-easy comfort food cookbooks of TV chefs like Rachel Ray and Paula Deen, from the encyclopedic collections of Bon Appetit and The New York Times, and from the overly specialized features on singular items like ice cream and pork (see Lebovitz 2010; Sampson 2008; Weinstein 1999; Aidells 2004; Kaminsky 2005). They feature neither exotic foods from faraway lands, nor the highly stylized and chemically complex techniques of haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy. On the contrary, these books proudly declare their dedication to simplicity, honesty, connection with land and community, return to tradition, and the pleasure such a homecoming brings. However, they too are susceptible to the oversimplifications that Pratt (2007), Hinrichs (2003), and DuPuis and Goodman (2005) critique, and as a result, these nationally-marketed cookbooks run the risk of co-opting local food’s politics in place, to the result of commodity sales and the reinforcement of privilege and social injustice.
The weakness of these books is at least in part attributable to their presentation as cookbooks, which social scientists have shown to play an active role in the construction and reification of social norms. Social theorists Roland Barthes (1972) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1983) might ask what kind of mythology the authors and publishers of these local food cuisines are constructing, through their promulgation of this very specific type of cooking literature. Culture and consumption researchers Brownlie, Hewer, and Horne (2005:9) have argued for the use of cookbooks as “cultural artefacts…which have to be understood in relation to their social context,” and which allow us to interpret them as symbolic objects that bear “veiled messages,” a claim echoed by anthropologists like Jeffrey Pilchner (1995), Arjun Appadurai (1988), and others (see Cusack 2010; Mincyte 2008). By standardizing an area of diverse cultural expression – cooking and eating – into a cohesive set, cookbook authors mitigate difference, projecting it as unity. Therefore, those with the power to choose what is included and what is omitted in a cookbook claim a position of culinary and cultural authority, providing a structured set of steps for the reader to follow in order to act out the lifestyle the cookbook represents. This authority is extended and reinforced through the course of each recipe, as the author’s expertise is recited to the reader. As Appadurai (1988) and another anthropologist, Susan Paulson (2006), have shown, in some cases these processes of cuisine homogenization and differentiation of culinary clout are used to buttress power structures in public life, often serving to create a common national identity among (ethnic, religious, political) groups whose interests the nation-state disparately serves or fails to serve altogether in daily life. Cookbooks use certain images and narratives to evoke nostalgia and traditions, which as anthropologist Jon Holtzman (2006) notes, are to an extent always invented. This appeal to the imaginary shared past can not only strengthen nationalist pride and xenophobia, but can also normalize sexist gender divisions and class hierarchies, as Appadurai (1988) and Csergo (1999) have each shown. Brownlie, Hewer, and Horne (2005:12-13) propose that the cookbook, then, has the power to provide a culturally and historically conditioned view of the world while it simultaneously uses culinary authority and expertise to convince readers that it is reflecting an objective reality mimetically and transparently. When readers uncritically accept this particular vision of the world, the cookbook as cultural artifact is successful in bringing about the fulfillment of its own ideals. If we accept, then, that U.S. local food cookbooks are cultural artifacts that symbolically negotiate socio-political interactions, we find that they too insinuate certain ideals, uncritically asserting a vision of the nation as a unified culture, and veiling the very complexity and variability that advocates like DuPuis and Goodman (2005) have characterized as the goal of the reflexive local food movement.
Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s Farm to Fork: Cooking Local, Cooking Fresh (2010) , is a good example of the way in which cookbooks can reflect popular social, cultural, and political views. Farm to Fork is a local food cooking guide for the culinarily-interested masses, who probably have a basic idea of what “local food as social movement” is all about, but who are not so personally invested in it as to follow agricultural legislation or save their own seeds. Lagasse provides numerous social signifiers in his narrative introduction, as he anticipates the readers’ doubt at the existence of urban agriculture (about garden planters made from recycled tires in New Orleans, Lagasse offers a parenthetical “Yes, I’ve seen it!”) and uses relaxed colloquial language reflecting his southern hospitality (“And that’s what I’m talking about folks – a connection.[…] Go on, make some friends,” and of course, his signature refrain, “kick it up!”). The target reader is meant to accept Lagasse as an unassuming and nonjudgmental guide to local food, a man who promotes the idea simply because it will improve the health of the reader’s family and throw suffering farmers a bone. Yet, as “down to earth” as readers like online reviewer Zeigner (2010) may find him, Lagasse still nostalgically flashes back to his childhood visits to an uncle’s farm and his career-long support of “fresh farm-grown ingredients,” to assert his culinary authority. The purpose to which Lagasse puts his authority is less clear than his assertion of expertise, since the Introduction is the book’s only substantive reference to local food. The other exception is the grouping of the recipes into the structure of a garden, with herbs in one section, orchard fruits in another, followed by cruciferous vegetables and others. While this arrangement is a cute idea, the book’s relative lack of information about ingredients, producers, processes of production or larger political, economic, and agricultural issues seems to indicate an ignorance of locality altogether, with no places mentioned except for a quick nod to New Orleans in context of Lagasse’s career. As a result, he, more than any of the other authors, skips over the political issues at stake in the local movement, and his presentation fails to capture any contextual distinctiveness that might be found by someone practicing a more reflexive food localism. Without even a mention of the economic policies that have contributed to the centralization of agriculture and the plight of the struggling small farmer, Lagasse keeps it light and superficial, presenting one more example in his regular series of cookbooks, with the only novelty here being his attempt to capitalize on the popularity and trendiness of local food.
The other three 2010 releases make more concerted efforts to show their understanding of local food as a movement, reflecting its history as rooted in the communally-focused hippie counterculture of four decades ago. Two of the books, Harvest to Heat (2010) and Eating Local (2010), pay explicit homage to Alice Waters, one of the most prominent icons of the current local food movement and one of the few carry-overs of the food-focused movement of the 1970s. In the foreword of Estrine and Kochendorfer’s Harvest to Heat (2010), Waters uses her ubiquitously recognized authority as doyenne of local food cuisine and fresh food education to call attention to the values of purity and simplicity, which are, we are told, reflected in Harvest’s recipes. In a book filled with success stories of local food, Waters’s own narrative is the first, and her stamp of approval lends legitimacy to the book’s task of “embod[ying] the spirit of collaboration both in the field and at the table” (11). Although philosophical theories of embodiment are not very deeply entertained here (see DeLind 2006 for a look at embodiment and local food), the theme of collaboration is highlighted throughout the book, with each recipe coming from a partnership between a well-known chef and the local producer who supplies the recipe’s key ingredient to his or her restaurant. Each of the over fifty pairs are indexed by region in the front of the book, but the idea of the grand feast is privileged over locality in the actual structure of the book, which is ordered by course. The division of a meal into courses is, as Appadurai (1988:19-20) notes, an element of fine or regal dining, not the usual way of things at a weeknight family dinner or a community potluck, where the food is served all at once. In organizing the book this way, the authors and their publishers attempt to normalize a certain type of eating, which is not merely local; in fact, the local is downplayed in favor of formal gourmet dining in high-end restaurants. The vision of the consumption of local food as an upper-class status marker is reiterated implicitly throughout the book, with recipes featuring expensive and somewhat rare ingredients, like black truffle, and techniques bearing the French mystique, like pâté à choux. Despite the fact that black Périgord truffles are not native to the U.S., and must be imported from industrial production fields in southwestern France and elsewhere, discussion of the trades of culinary knowledge and commodity goods between local and global contexts have no place in this ode to culinary fashion, and are therefore, absent.
Harvest to Heat (2010) mirrors the French concept of terroir, the unique quality each food product bears as a result of the specific factors involved in its constellation of cultivation and processing, a quality which the French government regulates through a system of appellations d’origine contrôlées (AOCs) that raise the product’s cultural and economic value (Trubek 2008:28-31, 65-92). Harvest to Heat (2010), too, uses constellations of cultivation and processing to mark clearly which products should be considered valuable, by delineating the nation’s top chefs and producers, in what one reader calls a “who’s who of the food world” (Meaghin 2010). Since the local food movement calls for a rejection of highly-processed, industrially-produced food and a revaluing of small-scale production and trade, Estrine and Kochendorfer’s (2010) assertion of local food as valuable is to be expected. However, the use of prominent chefs, presented in glossy full-page photographs with their starched whites set against the lush green fields, shows that consumption of locally-produced food is not the most important message of the book. To be a supporter of this kind of local food, one must recognize and respect the proper culinary authorities, and this recognition is an act of cultural capital-building in itself, akin to the modes of taste-making that sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explores in his seminal study of Parisian social distinction through taste. The secrets of which dishes and ingredients are most valuable to the most elite of the local food advocates will only be revealed once the reader has memorized which chefs are the right ones to know. Just as Bourdieu’s (1984) subjects traded university admission for the knowledge of art and music that would be necessary to maintain their class position, the reader here exchanges $40 of economic wealth for the “intellectual property” inside the book. As Brownlie, Hewer, and Horne (2005) relate in their study, the reader can then use the flavor profiles and notes on texture, seasonality, and ideal pairings (relayed neatly with each recipe and ready for quoting among peers and social superiors) in order to feel as if he or she is part of the upper-class of well-educated foodies who are characterized by their finely honed powers of discernment and their high economic status (17). Harvest to Heat pretends to offer the reader personal connections under the banner of local food’s politics of cooperation and place-based specificity, and instead acts as the site for trades of capital that support, rather than challenge, the prevailing paradigm of the impersonal commodity market. Whereas the authors preach attunement to regional diversity and support of the local farmer, the cookbook instead presents a way for readers to avoid any uncomfortable questions about class relations, commodity trade, and international political history, and still feign intimate knowledge of a real-life, named farmer, like famous chef Thomas Keller’s lamb supplier, Keith Martin of Elysian Fields, Waynesburg, PA.
In fact, rather than emphasize rootedness and promote regionally-focused relationships of consumption and production, Harvest to Heat, and the remaining two books, Fletcher and Sur La Table’s Eating Local (2010) and Ryder and Topalian’s Edible (2010) hybridize the cookbook with travel memoir and tourism guide. As a result, they are able to feature panopolied regional offerings and the exotic artisanal producers who craft them, to the effect of bringing all regions within the reach of the reader. Whereas other cookbooks offer a trip around the world, featuring dishes from Asia, Africa, and Europe adapted to fit the cultural sensibilities of the target audience, the recent spate of local food cookbooks falls back on a mode of culinary tourism more limited in space, but no less reductivist in its presentation of the unfamiliar Other. These books offer the reader full access to the variety of American regional cuisines and ingredients, and allow the reader to incorporate this array of culinary facts into his or her own body of knowledge in such a way that maintains a “diversification of consumption patterns” (Appadurai 1988:7) but poses no challenge to the reader’s cohesive identity as an American. Antithetical to local food as social movement, which advocates limiting most consumption to an area circumscribed by a small community or region (Starr 2010), local food as cookbook instead promotes the widening of the area considered as local, to include ingredients and eating experiences from all over the country. Rather than incorporate the exotic Other of foreign ethnic cuisine, the tastes provided vicariously through the narratives and recipes of these books allow the reader to incorporate the domestic Other through their food products and their brief life stories, while ignoring the web of political and economic relationships in which the reader and the Other are entangled, possibly including situations of social injustice. At the same time, the reader is able to continue enjoying the cultural capital of “knowing” the Other and thereby supporting the trend of local food, without actually engaging with any actual people involved in their food production or the social and environmental issues attendant to it.
In the case of Harvest to Heat (2010), Eating Local (2010), and Edible (2010), the domestic Other is the farmer and artisanal producer. Through the profiles of these American heroes, who are pictured on tractors and in cheese caves, with livestock and in the fields, alternatively smiling and staring somberly into the camera, the reader feels that he or she gets to know what it is like to till the soil, to knead the dough, to milk the cows and slaughter the pigs. The differences between the experiences of these local food producers is acknowledged in the distinctive details of each story, but the inclusion of all in single tomes, especially ones presented primarily as cookbooks, also seems to present unity despite diversity. What could be uniting all of these people, varied as their backgrounds may be? The American dream, of course. Each of these producers is carrying on the traditions of our national heritage, working the land and sharing its bounty with neighbors and kin. This agrarian ideal is central to the imagery and language used in local food cookbooks, even though local food as a form of social movement seems to be quite open to the pursuit of manifold strategies for ecologically sustainable and socially integrated food production and consumption, including urban farming and foraging of wild foods (Starr 2010; DuPuis and Goodman 2005). According to the authors of these local food cookbooks, and the figures represented in them, rural life, simplicity, modesty, burlap and plaid are what give America its character. The inclusion of celebrated figures like the farmer-activists and promoters of conservative family values Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin, each of whom are profiled in the cookbooks Eating Local and Edible, corroborate the idea that a pastoral idyll is a desirable and achievable goal. Berry is known for his support of agrarian political philosophy, and one of his favorite themes is tracing the American psychological need for connection with the land back to the colonization of the Americas by people who had been landless, oppressed, and alienated in Europe (The Unsettling of America 1986; “The Agrarian Standard” 2010). The farmer as morally righteous underdog who triumphs against adversity is a preferred creation myth among local food advocates and is clearly voiced in the inspirational stories of local food producers included in these cookbooks. The belief that the U.S. is identified and unified by its agricultural heritage, by the cultural exceptionalism generated by its small-town, country values, is perhaps the most important and alarming veiled message presented in these local food cookbooks. The cookbooks’ implicit normalization of beliefs of U.S. cultural superiority and of nostalgia for a past wrongly imagined to be free of exploitative relationships (both among people and between people and the ecosystem) is a cause for suspicion that these cultural artifacts are offering more than just pretty pictures and clear directions for cooking. Beyond the injunctions to join CSAs (community-supported agriculture programs) and get your hands dirty, the grander – and less explicit – political position of these cookbooks is one of American localism in the service of American patriotism.
Of course, the construction of national food identities is not a new practice, and we already know that cookbooks have long been a way of standardizing national cuisine. As a genre, mass market cookbooks must abstract from the specifics of nuanced experience and complex understanding, and make difference and diversity appear merely as variation, enriching the unified whole rather than challenging it (Cusack 2009, Appadurai 1988). Using the work of historian Alix Cooper (2007), anthropologist Richard Wilk notes that localist sentiment has been tied up in the process of globalization since its apparent invention in the 16th century, and the definition of the self and of the local have always been dependent on a confrontation with the global Other (“Hate/Love…” n.d.:9-10, Home Cooking 2006:10). The fact that localism is a long-used method of mitigating fears about globalization is significant to the discussion of these local food cookbooks precisely because cookbooks fulfill this critical function in a covert way. They help reinforce a loyalty to a shared and storied national heritage in reaction to a global industrial food system, thus illustrating what Hinrichs (2003) calls a “defensive” food localism. This type of local food is based on fear and on ignorance of political and economic interdependence, the cultural construction of boundaries, and the complexities of human history. The 2010 local food cookbooks discussed here have managed to distill regional diversity into a national set of vicarious taste experiences for their readers, and have failed to present local food in the context of a global picture. Instead, these cookbooks reinforce ideas about the culinary authority of the wealthy and elite and reify insular U.S. agrarianism, an ideal that excludes city-dwellers and suburbanites and has often precluded cultural diversity. Rather than live up to Starr’s (2010) and DuPuis and Goodman’s (2005) call for the local food movement to embrace reflexivity, openness, and sophisticated critical analysis, local food cookbooks have revealed that they can at best offer ideas for how one might go about learning local specificity, and, at worst, close-mindedness, xenophobia, and more of the same.
In comparison with local food as social movement, local food as presented in cookbook form is too limited. As commodities that facilitate vicarious culinary tourism, uphold traditional class dynamics, and wave the flag of American patriotism, recently published local food cookbooks defeat the goals of specificity and engagement that the social movement aims to achieve. This contradiction between efforts of the local food producers featured in the books, many of whom are active in the local food movement, and the political work achieved by the standardizing and message-bearing action of the texts is problematic. However, it also serves to illustrate the need for further critical discussion about the variety of definitions and modes of thought at work in the use of “local food” in popular and political culture. If these books are any indication, the widespread currency of the idea of local food has allowed it to take on multiple forms, some much less challenging to the status quo and to superficial understandings of human interaction than others.
Madeline Chera is a graduate student in the Ph.D. track of the Anthropology of Food concentration at Indiana University and is the Secretary of the Editorial Board for the Indiana Food Review.
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