A Culinary Modernist Reader | Volume One | Opening Salvos

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Food and Farm Discussion Lab member Rachel Laudan’s essay in Jacobin entitled “A Plea for Culinary Modernism” set off more than a ripple when it appeared two weeks ago. I would locate Culinary Modernism as an emerging point of view. One that turns a clear eye on the current food system, without sentimentality and demands better through the best technology available, without recourse to lamenting a mythical Golden Age.

In a follow up interview, she was kind (astute) enough to mention the Food and Farm Discussion Lab Facebook group as notable exemplar of culinary modernism.

I thought it would be a great occasion to collect together much of the best writing that I’ve come across that describes or advocates for Culinary Modernism. This is the first of a ten part series. Throughout the series, Mother Jones columnist Tom Philpott makes a number of appearances, some times making the case for Culinary Modernism, but more often in the role of critic, refusing to let the worst abuses of an industrial system slide, offering counterpoint to a number of pieces by other authors.

Volume One:
Opening Salvos, starts us off with some broad brush strokes – essays that stake out some terrain and define the terms of the debate.
Volume Two: COMESTIBLES: WE NEED BETTER FAST FOOD, JUNK FOOD, AND CONVENIENCE FOODS
Volume Three: A CORRECTIVE TO [SMALL. LOCAL. ORGANIC.]
Volume Four: ON THE FARM: THE QUEST FOR BETTER
Volume Five: BIOTECH CROPS: A TOOL FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Volume Six: MEAT YOU IN THE MIDDLE
Volume Seven: THE FUTURE BELONGS TO CRICKETS, ALGAE & YEAST

Volume Eight will be a collection of writings by Food and Farm Discussion Lab members, some well known, others obscure. Volume Nine will be a collection of writings by Steve Savage who has done more too banish sentimentality from our conception of what sustainable agriculture means. He’s been a major influence on myself and others. Winnowing down his writings to less than ten essays would be a slight to his contribution. Volume Ten, will be a collection of my own writings, as Culinary Modernism has been a central theme in my work for the last two years (an indulgence of being your own editor and publisher).

OPENING SALVOS

RACHEL LAUDAN | JACOBIN
A Plea for Culinary Modernism
The obsession with eating natural and artisanal is ahistorical. We should demand more high-quality industrial food
As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the gray industrial present. My enthusiasm for Luddite kitchen wisdom does not carry over to their history, any more than my response to a stirring political speech inclines me to accept the orator as scholar.

TOM PHILPOTT | MOTHER JONES
Stop Romanticizing Your Grandparents’ Food
Laudan has delivered an evocative corrective to the culinary romanticism that pervades our farmers markets and farm-to-table culinary temples.

Yet her “plea for culinary modernism” contains its own gaping blind spot. If Laudan’s “culinary Luddites” feast on tales of an imaginary prelapsarian food past, she herself presents a gauzy and romanticized view of industrialized food.

… What she misses, of course, are the downsides. She celebrates the year-round availability of fruits and vegetables, but doesn’t mention the army of ruthlessly exploited workers (Mexicans in the US West, and in the South, until recently, the descendants of enslaved African Americans) required to plant, tend, and harvest it.

NATHANAEL JOHNSON
| GRIST
3 Big Food System Problems Begging For Innovation
I’ve been asking myself: where specifically can innovation make a difference?

The first step is to identify the problems that are susceptible to technical solutions. Again, even good technical solutions are likely to be secondary to political solutions — but in many cases they can help those political solutions along. This is a both/and situation, not either/or.

I see three big problems: We consume too much food, we produce too little food, and our farming screws up the environment.

BLAKE HURST | THE AMERICAN
The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals
On the desk in front of me are a dozen books, all hugely critical of present-day farming. Farmers are often given a pass in these books, painted as either naïve tools of corporate greed, or economic nullities forced into their present circumstances by the unrelenting forces of the twin grindstones of corporate greed and unfeeling markets. To the farmer on the ground, though, a farmer blessed with free choice and hard won experience, the moral choices aren’t quite so easy. Biotech crops actually cut the use of chemicals, and increase food safety. Are people who refuse to use them my moral superiors? Herbicides cut the need for tillage, which decreases soil erosion by millions of tons. The biggest environmental harm I have done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides. The combination of herbicides and genetically modified seed has made my farm more sustainable, not less, and actually reduces the pollution I send down the river.

TOM PHILPOTT | GRIST
An ‘Agri-Intellectual’ Talks Back
I’ve said for a while that I see three big challenges for the sustainable-food movement as it scales up: 1) soil fertility–in the absence of synthesized nitrogen and mined phosphorous and potassium, how are we to build soil fertility on a larger scale?; 2) labor–sustainable farming requires more hands on the ground; who’s going to work our farm fields, and at what wages?; and 3) access–in an economy built on long-term wage stagnation, how can we make sustainably grown food accessible to everyone?

… (Hurst) barely acknowledges climate change. The EPA reckons [PDF] that half of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture come from fertilizer-related nitrous oxide–a greenhouse gas some 300 times more potent than carbon. The Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist, has concluded [PDF] that the EPA is dramatically underestimating the amount of nitrous oxide produced by industrial farming. Given that reality and the looming climate emergency, how long can U.S. farmers keep churning out titanic corn harvests? Hurst never goes there.

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  1. A Culinary Modernist Reader | Volume Four | On the Farm: The Quest for Better | Food and Farm Discussion Lab
  2. A Culinary Modernist Reader | Volume Five | Biotech: A Tool for Sustainability | Food and Farm Discussion Lab
  3. The Culinary Modernist Reader | Volume Six | Nathanael Johnson’s Panic Free GMOs | Food and Farm Discussion Lab

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