Elite Food

March 2, 2014

I got on an airplane last week for the first time in several months. For the first year of the blog I would routinely reflect upon my peripatetic ways, almost always from a different locale every week. 2010 was particularly dense with travel for me, and included an unplanned and enforced 3-day vacation in Rome when an Icelandic volcano decided to disrupt European transportation infrastructures. After about six months of this I realized that the blog was starting to be a bit more autobiographical than I liked—as if I thought that anyone beyond my family cared to read a thousand words each week on where I happened to be journeying. (Well, in truth, my family probably cares even less than the rest of you. But that’s a rabbithole that we won’t pursue today.)

So with the obligatory tangential ruminations out of the way, I was on an airplane for the first time in several months last week. And not so much the being on the airplane as the NOT having been on one for a longer than normal interval caused me to notice more vividly than usual how much the travel culture is oriented to food. Exhibit one is, of course, the in-flight magazine. Itself a curious artifact for people of my age group who can remember general interest magazines like Life and Look (I suppose People is the closest contemporary comparable), the in-flight magazine has to provide a few distractions and an opportunity for advertising, but the readership is just a random sample of the traveling public. Not much direction for the editors to guess what a given individual strapped in and awaiting take-off might find interesting and engaging. They are targeted to the traveling public, however, so there’s a bit of a tip-off for the “exotic destination” theme, usually tempered by a balancing dose of the “you might actually get to go there someday” theme. For the road warriors on the plane (I being a junior member of that group) this latter group includes a few places they’ve already been.

And guess what? It’s largely about going someplace and eating something. But I must say (and here’s what led me to blog in this particular direction in the first place) I’ve never been especially keen on the food destination theme, and I seem to be getting less keen on it as I get older. And lest I fall back into my bad old ways of 2010, I hasten to add that although it’s clear that this comment does indeed reflect on me and my tastes, I don’t think today’s blog is about me as opposed to the nominal food, farming and environment thrust that the Thornapple blog is represented to pursue. No. Being on that airplane helps me understand why some critics of the “local food movement” think that it represents an “elitist” turn. It’s about finding that cute little bistro, recently created by a celebrity chef, of course. It’s the one that is offering handmade bucatini fashioned from locally grown wheat and cage-free eggs, topped with sustainably harvested scallops and mussels in a sauce from heirloom tomatoes and local zucchini. Or maybe there is some pasture-raised veal with a picture of the celebrity chef embracing the farmer, who is either an only slightly disheveled man in his mid-thirties with a single strand of hay in his professionally coifed haircut, or even better, an only slightly disheveled woman in her early forties who looks like that only a dash of lipstick and a change of clothes would be needed to prepare her for a night at the opera. The in-flight magazine may or may not include the photo, but it lurks in the subtext, nonetheless.

And even the in-flight food (such as it is) aims to make a pale impression of the élan being more richly embroidered in the magazine. So, oh yeah. Now I remember. That elitist thing. That’s what lots of people think this “food ethics” trip is all about. Funny how only a month or two out of that world can make you forget that. But maybe not so funny that it’s the world many people seem to be inhabiting even when they are not on airplanes.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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