According to Laura Reiley, food critic for The Tampa Bay Times, our deepest hunger is for the illusion that our food is organic and locally sourced, or farm-to-table in current parlance. That craving is being met frequently in our minds, but not quite as often in reality.
For the past several weeks, the food world has been buzzing over her series, “Farm to Fable,” that exposes many myths about the local produce, sustainable seafood and free-range poultry populating the menus of Tampa’s hottest restaurants. The series is an excellent piece of investigative reporting, the product of two months of scrupulous detective work. And lest we comfort ourselves with the thought that all this is occurring in a faraway place, the implicit point of Reiley’s muckraking is that it can happen anywhere.
She focuses on the trendiest farm-to-table restaurants in her area, and discovers that their ingredients don’t come from the farmers, growers and fishmongers listed on their menus. She interviews purveyors at chic farmer’s markets, and tries in vain to locate the farms that provide the source of their produce. She names names, and calls out chefs impartially. It is disappointing to read, and delivers the humbling experience of rubbing our noses in our most cherished fantasies.
Of course, the food world is not alone in this deception. A great deal of the “craft beer” that we drink is actually brewed in large quantities by giantic billion-dollar companies. Many of our favorite “boutique wineries” were purchased years ago by multinational beverage conglomerates. Increasingly, more and more of those folksy craft distillers are buying their whiskey from industrial warehouses in the Midwest.
We perceive food differently, although the reality is that most of us are so far removed from the source of that food that we have no idea where it comes from. Reiley does offer specific fixes for this dilemma: understand seasonality, read labels carefully and quiz chefs and servers on their definition of “local.” Ultimately, the subject may require a more intense level of scrutiny than many consumers are comfortable with or have time for.
“When it comes to something as intimate and personal as our bodies’ fuel,” said Joel Salatin, one of the nation’s leading organic and holistic farmers, “I beg people to be as discerning as they are about the Kardashians.”
Logic tells us that won’t be happening anytime soon.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, will be published by Black Opal Books in May 2016. for more information, go to amazon.com