Spend two hours in a big supermarket, not shopping, just studying the food and customers, trying to take every bit of it in, trying to receive fresh clues about an everyday activity. Ninety minutes in, you may find yourself having an out-of-body experience, as if wandering the aisles with Timothy Leary's ghost. Such is the hallucinatory effect when you open your mind to all the brands, claims, data, memes, and pop culture icons that crowd shelves and packages, hooting and hollering for attention. There are as many as 40,000 products in a supermarket, just one of which, if you stop to study it, is a cereal that offers nine health-related bits of information on the front of the box and 134 bits of information about nutrition and ingredients overall.
Now that you're in the cereal aisle, walk its length. There are 28 paces of product, five shelves high: a staggering number of variations on the single theme of something crunchy to pour milk over. Of 137 cereal products, about 93 look to be sugary. But there are also sugar-free cereals, low-added-sugar products, "natural" products, and products containing urgent amounts of fiber. Blockbuster brands dominate, but here and there, poking up like weeds, are strange species like Alf's Natural Nutrition Red Wheat Cereal, from Beloit, Wisconsin, which contains precisely one ingredient: wheat.
Keep walking and watching—all aisles. If you regularly listen to critics of the American food supply (prince among them Michael Pollan), then you may sink into a funk: Sugar, fat, and salt, the three sirens of the American diet, still seem front-loaded in so many products. A "light" 3-ounce snack pack intended for one child contains 77 ingredients, 17 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, 1 gram of trans fat, and 620 milligrams of sodium. Mark Bittman, crusading New York Times columnist and cookbook author, would say that a lot of this food is not even "real," inasmuch as he finds it not "recognizable by appearance or flavor as what it was when it started." Little cans of propellent-powered cheese spread insist that they are, however, "made of real cheese!"
But if you push beyond the familiar critique, you can see that the supermarket is a dynamic place, in flux, scrambling to keep up with changes beyond its walls. Greek yogurt's takeover of the cultured-milk aisle is stunning: If yogurt were euros, Greece could have told Germany to take a long walk off a short pier, in lederhosen. If you seek soy, coconut, or rice milk, or gluten-free products, they're here. If you want organic foods, they're here, too, in increasing numbers, along with quinoa and other whole grains. In the meat aisle there are hefty packs of as-real-as-it-gets fresh tripe and fresh tongue—immigrant shoppers are being listened to. Over in condiments, there's Sriracha, the new ketchup of the global pantry.
Even the archcritics of Big Food, such as New York University's Marion Nestle, who is busy revising Food Politics, her scathing critique published 10 years ago, are amazed by the changes. "If you look at the difference between the kind of food that's available in supermarkets now and 20 years ago, you can't even compare them. There's so much more available. The quality of the food, the widespread availability of fruits and vegetables is an enormous change. ... The 24/7 availability of fresh fruit is astonishing!"
You are not wandering this supermarket, of course; I am, and it's a Walmart in Birmingham, Alabama, hometown of this magazine. Meaning its selection, though vast, is actually less diverse than that found only three miles away at a Publix supermarket, where you can also get cipollini onions, yucca root, Southern scuppernong grapes, avocado oil, brown basmati rice, ground buffalo, and Plugrá butter. And Walmart's selection of organic foods—though growing—cannot begin to compare to that found farther down the road at Whole Foods, which, by the way, is the supermarket company with the largest public valuation of any in the country.
Supermarkets are in flux because our food culture is bubbling and fermenting like mad. Despite the fulminating about the fatty, sugary excesses of so many products, and despite the haunting tragedy of the obesity epidemic, all this change means that this is the best time to be eating—and eating healthy—in America in the past 25 years. Which, it turns out, is the same as saying it's the best time to be eating in America ever.
BLESSED BE THE CRAFT-FOOD MAKERS
If there are changes afoot in the supermarket, there's a revolution happening on the fringes of the food system. There we find the cheese makers, bread bakers, pickle briners, bacon smokers, chocolatiers, and grits grinders, along with all the market farmers and their heirloom vegetables and heritage grains. Farmers' markets are up 350% in the last 18 years. Sales of specialty foods grew at twice the pace of supermarket sales between 2009 and 2011. Every chef worth his or her sea salt is committed to local sourcing. Craft beers crowd shelves at my neighborhood Piggly Wiggly, more than 200 of them. And all this growth in usually pricey food has been happening through the Great Recession. If diversity is critical to a healthy food ecology, then here, at the craft-food fringe, where the local jobs multiply and the local stories are told, a lot of good news can be found.
I wanted to hear some of those stories, far from the red-hot markets of New York or San Francisco. Brooklyn was my home for almost 20 years; up there, I'd witnessed the rise of legions of hipster-artisans firsthand. But now, having started this exploration in the South, I decided to stay in the South.
I began with AtlantaFresh Artisan Creamery and its owner, Ron Marks. Of the many species of artisans I would meet, Marks, 57, turned out to be one of the more interesting, a Recent Immigrant from Big Food. He's not a Southerner, but rather a no-BS Pittsburgh boy, son of a butcher, a culinary-school grad who once worked for Jacques Pépin at New York's World Trade Center. He spent most of his career with giant restaurant chains before opening his focus-group and product-research business, where he helped companies wring pennies out of dollar menus. "I can't tell you how many rounds of focus-group and product-development work I did where continually increasing portion sizes and salt and sugar [were] the desirable goals. Maybe what's driven me to this is to pay some penance."
Marks considered charcuterie—the most righteous of artisanal avocations—but there was local competition. He turned to yogurt, and his timing was good: Fage and Chobani were about to explode the Greek category. But those companies would dive into a price war for national market share. Could he mine the Greek vein but keep prices healthy—a stellar $2.49 a cup? To do that, he needed a local story, and that meant 100% grass-fed milk.
"Local" is the new "new and improved," and it's plastered all over the 6-ounce AtlantaFresh cups: "Local milk, local cows, local farm, local farmers, locally made!" Also: "We use milk from humanely treated, fully pastured grass-fed Georgia cows." No mention that the stuff is made in a refitted focus-group and test-kitchen facility in an anonymous office park in one of Atlanta's vast suburbs.
Grass-fed milk gets from cow to yogurt in 30 hours. Refrigerated trucks from local dairy farms back right into the office-park loading bay, and the milk is pumped into a little room that's scrubbed USDA clean. The yogurt is strained to a luscious creaminess using a refurbished machine sourced from Tel Aviv. Fruit fillings are made on-premises, of local fruit when available. Other flavorings, such as vanilla-caramel or the throat-catching, intense Mexico City--style chocolate with its warm whisper of ancho chile, are Marks' own formulations. Marks has a tiny staff, knows the farmers, offers samples at small markets, and is the model of the busy modern artisan.
End of story? Hardly. "The issue I wrestle with now is, how many miles can I go from this facility and still have credibility with the 'local' moniker?" Having received a local-producer business loan from Whole Foods to scale up, his product is now in Whole Foods supermarkets in five states. He says he could soon drain most of the grass-fed milk cows in the Atlanta area dry. Then what? It was from Marks that I first heard a notion that other ambitious craft-food producers are advancing: a sort of artisanal franchising. He looks for big cities with no deep dairy tradition and a decent supply of grass-fed milk, and plans to either produce yogurt there under his own name or build a local brand along the same lines.
Another species of artisan is the Dotcom Expat. In 2006, having already left a 1990s Internet-tech career for culinary training, Tasia Malakasis bought a small, pioneering goat-cheese business called Belle Chèvre, not far from where she grew up in northern Alabama. Malakasis first spotted Belle Chèvre in the Manhattan foodie temple Dean and Deluca but wondered if she could get less well-heeled customers in the South, where there is scant goat-cheese history, to eat her stuff. Today, along with several tasty chèvres, she sells brightly packaged "breakfast spreads" (fig, honey, cinnamon) that have broad appeal. Belle Chèvre pops up at farmers' markets and specialty shops but is also sold in 100 Publix stores. "I want to make this cheese whatever the opposite of exclusive is," Malakasis says. "I'm selling to retailers other artisans might look down on."
Her problem, not unlike Ron Marks' problem, is too few milk goats in these parts. Belle Chèvre brings in milk from Tennessee, but Malakasis is now knocking on local farmhouse doors with a goat-positive business plan of her own devising: "I tell them what they'd have to invest, how many goats they need, how much to sell the milk for, what the costs and profits can be. A farmer can earn $70,000 net income with us."
In the farm economy of a poor state, that's serious money. The majority of American farms remain small and often marginal; for them, selling commodity foods at commodity prices is a road to nowhere. Food artisans, and what they represent—customers who will pay more for good-tasting food with a local backstory—are a ticket out of a marginalized life.
THE GOLDEN AGE THAT REALLY WASN'T
Just as it has been for the food artisan, the 21st century has been a fruitful time for another archetypal American figure, the Food Reformer. Not since the hippie era of the 1960s has there been this much gnashing of teeth about the American diet—from Food Politics to Super Size Me to Food, Inc. to Michael Pollan's poetic, concise, best-selling In Defense of Food, which begins famously with these words: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
The critique of the modern food supply implies that something better came before, a Golden Age of whole foods and balanced diets, back when great-great-grandma churned the butter for bread she'd make with branny wheat from the local miller. To some degree, the nostalgic appeal of craft foods, with their old-timey labels, taps into the same idea. But was there ever a Golden Age? The critique itself was framed almost 200 years ago and traces a constant thread of often shrill attacks from generation to generation.
America was, from the get-go, a rough country with a rough diet. Fruitful was the land, but life and sustenance were not easy for the pioneers and the frontier farmers. Nor, with a few regional exceptions, was there a food culture to speak of. "America's never had the kind of strong food traditions that other countries have," Michael Pollan says, "partly because we're an immigrant, mongrel culture, and partly because the Anglo influence proved to be the strongest, sadly, for our food." (When there was some French seasoning in the melting pot, as in Louisiana, things turned out notably better.)
Where food was abundant, it was wolfed down. The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, on his famous American road trip, wrote in the 1830s: "We are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets. Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack." (Sounds like he spent a good bit of time at Waffle House and 7-Eleven.)
It was a meat-centered menu, and a lot of people were probably, as the British would say, bunged up a lot of the time. In the 1830s, there arose a powerful cry for food reform—not the first cry, but the loudest to that point. Sylvester Graham, who opposed the refining of wheat, preached a pure regimen of whole vegetables and grains with lots of fiber to prevent disease and lengthen life, because, he said, at least 99% of farmers and laboring men ate too much. A few decades later came the breakfast cereal titans, Kellogg's and Post, also ardent reformers.
Folks had reason to heed a pure-foods argument: As cities grew in the 19th century, trade in food exploded, often involving horrific adulteration, sometimes with poisons. A convulsion of interest in food-safety laws followed Upton Sinclair's exposé of meatpacking mendacity in his 1906 novel, The Jungle. Where people couldn't get a decent diet in America, rickets and pellagra—hideous vitamin-deficiency diseases—prevailed well into the 20th century.
Then came the discovery of the vitamins, which saved thousands of lives. Science was the new reformer, and the health reformers jumped aboard. If a tiny amount of vitamin C could prevent deadly scurvy, why not toss the lime, eat a pill, and add vitamins to your vitamin-reduced, refined foods? Nutrition researchers wondered: Was healthy diet perfectible by understanding its chemical components?
After World War II, America entered a period of unbridled enthusiasm for the foods of industry. The booming farm-to-factory food supply supported our triumphant modern lifestyle. The message in media and in food ads was this: This is American food culture; it's the best food culture, and we have invented it.
Statisticians began noticing in the 1950s, though, that certain aspects of the American diet were linked to an alarming jump in heart disease. There was something rather imperfect about the modern diet, leading not only to heart attacks but stroke and perhaps cancer, as well—problems less common in populations that ate less fat, salt, and calories overall, and ate more plants. Where the vitamins had been celebrated, research now singled out other food components—types of fat, in particular—as archvillains in the Age of Abundance. The era of fat phobia arrived, and it lasted well past the year 2000.
Michael Pollan has used (but didn't originate) the term "nutritionism" to describe the belief that healthy diet could be achieved by understanding its chemical components. The result was that "real" food—corn on the cob—could seem less valid than a refined corn snack with added vitamins and soluble fiber. "Good" components could be added in the factory to confer a healthy aura.
Today, the reformers say America has been, for many decades, going to hell in a breadbasket. (The new archvillain: high-fructose corn syrup.) It was easy to miss the fact that heart disease rates dropped almost 50% between 1980 and 2000 (reasons proffered include screening and preventive care, statin drugs, and the elimination of a lot of trans fats, a by-product of food processing, from the diet). It was easy to miss that good news because something else started in the late 1980s: the astonishing increase in obesity in America.
SAVING A NEARLY EXTINCT SPECIES
Not far removed from the immigrant food artisans like Ron Marks and Tasia Malakasis are the Accidental Producers, like Nick Pihakis. Pihakis is the CEO of Jim 'N Nick's, a Birmingham-based chain of barbecue restaurants that, with 29 outlets in seven states, sells four million pounds of slow-smoked pork a year. Pork in that volume has to be sourced from huge producers, but Pihakis is part of a brotherhood of chefs and restaurateurs interested in improving the quality and lifestyles of the region's hogs, which they say were made too lean and bland by factory farming.
In 2005, he toured Alabama and Mississippi with former Niman Ranch owner Bill Niman, with the simple idea of finding small producers to supply him with meat. He found almost none. What to do?
Today, an Alabama government grant later, Pihakis has bought a plant formerly devoted to emu processing and is approaching farmers to raise a hog breed of his own devising; he's been playing around with a Mangalitsa-Berkshire cross that produces delicious meat (a rib roast I served with a wild cherry sauce was one of the best pieces of pork I've ever eaten). The business plan he presents to farmers promises $70,000 net income per year (same as the Belle Chèvre proposition) if they sign on to the Pihakis method. Signing on means raising the pigs according to a protocol: "We're looking for farms that raise pigs outdoors, pigs that get fed properly and are behaving properly" (i.e., pigs with a slow-food stamp of approval). Local pigs, living piggy lives.
Consider this possibility, then, if Pihakis were to succeed on a five-year plan that is really just getting started this fall: A nearly extinct breed of small-production hog farmer returns in sufficient numbers that Pihakis can get enough pork to supply his mass-market restaurants. Problem is, mass-market customers are extremely leery of price jumps. To raise prices even a bit, Pihakis needs a story that really appeals.
"My goal is to tell the story that these are Alabama-raised hogs: raised, processed, and eaten in Alabama. There's pride in that. Their feelings [his customers, he means] get shaky when you start to talk about the political side—humanely, ethically raised animals. People just want food that tastes good."
Take pride in local: If Pihakis is right, a slow-food tenet can be sold well outside of the natural downtown habitat of the well-to-do foodie.
Further down the artisanal road, we find the Regional Innovator. Exhibit A is Bill Walton, a former Massachusetts oyster farmer who joined the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory in Dauphin Island, south of Mobile, on Alabama's narrow wedge of Gulf shoreline. Walton had seen farmed oysters from small, local producers located far from the Gulf command premium prices in New Orleans restaurants. These were promoted not by species but by origin: Fanny Bay, Rappahannok River. Just as wine has its terroir (local flavor derived from local soils), oysters, Walton says, have their "meroir," from nutrients peculiar to local waters.
Gulf oysters are good but don't command Botticelli prices. The problem, Walton says, is that Gulf waters, teeming with life, produce wild oysters whose shells tend to be blemished. Walton proposed a nifty farming technique in which oysters live in basket contraptions, suspended in water above the ocean floor, which are periodically yanked into sun and air to kill freeloaders such as barnacles, leaving the mollusks pristine. The first of these oysters, from Point aux Pins, have been harvested, and they are as plump and delicious and pretty, Walton insists, as any from American waters. Here's the hopeful subtext: "We want to make it possible for people to stay here and earn a living. The teenage son or daughter of a shrimper or oysterer, facing hurricanes and regulation, has to ask if there's enough reason to stay here." Premium pricing can provide that reason, extending the craft-food formula to the life aquatic.
THE OBESITY CONUNDRUM
Imagine a wild ecology in which a quarter or a third of the deer were obese. If you spotted a whitetail buck, round as Orson Welles, gorging on chokecherries, you probably wouldn't blame him—lazy ungulate, no willpower, eats too much sugar—you would probably ask what disruption in the environment had produced such odd behavior.
That's the question to ask about a national food ecology in which a third of Americans have become dangerously fat. In 1985, no states reported obesity levels over 15%. By 2001, 49 had rates over 15%. By 2010, all states did, and 12 had rates over 30%. Recently, levels appear to have leveled off.
One thing that appears to be shifting is the blame—away from the individual, toward the ecology.
"The way we address the obesity issue as a country has changed drastically," says Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "In the '80s, the emphasis was on individuals changing their own behavior. There was a new diet every month, and that was covered [in the media]." Now the focus is on how the food supply shapes eating behavior, on supersize-me portions, fatty-salty-sugary snacks, drive-through lanes, and school lunch programs.
Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, agrees. "Everybody thought back then that what people ate was their personal responsibility. ... Now everyone agrees that the personal environment has something to do with the way people make food choices."
What drives food choice in a complex food culture is complex. CDC epidemiologist Cynthia Ogden, an expert on the obesity numbers, doesn't blame any single culprit. "In presentations, I'll show data that show the availability of calories has increased. I'll show the changes in consumption of beverages among children, increases in eating out, increases in portion sizes, in snacking."
Availability of calories may be the loudest signal in the blizzard of clues. After the Depression, industrial farming pumped food into the system in unprecedented quantities. Prices dropped, and prosperity spread. Refining and processing concentrated the calories. Distribution of food profoundly changed, until food was everywhere.
Modern culture expects 24/7 calorie availability. I wondered, though, if obesity itself had simply become more acceptable? No, I was told repeatedly. "We probably do more work than anyone on the issue of bias and stigma," says Brownell. "There may be a greater number of obese people, but if you ask them how they feel, they would do anything not to be overweight."
Why, if obesity is so stigmatized, this national drift toward fatness? It's all those calories, brightly packaged: As a species, Homo americanus "is not that good at looking long term," says Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State and author of The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet. "We go for that immediate gratification—salt, sugar, fat, and attractive packaging."
(None of which is to say that food is the only cause of obesity. One intriguing researcher, David Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, cites everything from the stresses of coping with poverty, lack of sleep among kids, the raising of ambient temperatures in buildings, and disruption of natural mealtimes by schools.)
Some food activists who want to rebalance the ecology believe that regulation of the producers is key, just as the EPA regulates pollution: Tax or curtail the calorie-dense treats, stop advertising to children, and promote the whole-food, slower-digesting staples. Such was the spirit of Mayor Bloomberg's successful move to get supersized sodas out of the New York City food ecology: welcomed by some, received by critics as a nanny-state imposition on basic consumer freedom.
Food producers, of course, abhor and reject regulation—and most Americans do, too, if they're like the 60% of New Yorkers who opposed the soda ban in an August New York Times poll. Twenty thousand products have already been reformulated to be lower in fat, sugar, and salt, says Sean McBride, a senior spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents 300 leading food and beverage companies in America, and more will come at an accelerating pace due to the market demand.
Of the fans of regulation, McBride says: "These individuals, lobbyists, and policy makers may be well-intentioned, but so many of these things are not scientifically sound. I don't expect this to be a trend because bans, restrictions, and taxes are not viable solutions to solving childhood obesity."
One who agrees at least in part with McBride is John Mackey, the co-CEO of Whole Foods. Mackey's marketing and food values lean left, but his politics lean right, and he sees regulations as "steps toward tyranny." His prescription? "Education and consciousness."
It's a naive myth, Mackey says, to think that food sellers can argue with the consumer (though Whole Foods stores are brilliant examples of retail storytelling). "Whole Foods is far from perfect. We sell foods that aren't good for people, either, and we sell them because customers vote for these products. They aren't what I would eat [Mackey is a vegan], but I'm outvoted."
But if the consumer is always right, and not much interested in regulation, what will make him or her less inclined to overeat? Science has turned up no magic pill and, given the behavioral complexity of the problem, is unlikely to do so. This is why the role of food culture is so important: If it got us into this mess, then maybe an evolving food culture can get us out of it.
DAIRYMAID ENTERS THE TWITTERVERSE
There are, in a region that has deeper food traditions than most, also the old-school food makers in the South, and we prize their stories most of all. They face their own challenges, though. The most urgent question: To whom do I pass my business?
In the East Tennessee foothills along Highway 411 is an easily missed cement-block building that is home to Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams, producer of some very fine, long-aged hams and the most revered bacon in the nation. The owner is Allan Benton, 65, who bought the business from another smoker 39 years ago but did not sniff national success for more than 20 years. Benton has a deep and well-honed appreciation of childhood roots in the deepest rural remove, with memories of his family's hogs being let loose in the hollows to feast on acorns in autumn, before the animals were lured home by the promise of easier feed and then slaughtered. The worth of a hog was boasted about according to the quantity of its lard: precious available calories for a lean, poor population.
"I'm doing what my family did for generations," Benton, himself a lean Southern man, says. "It truly was just sustenance food for poor Appalachian hillbillies. We didn't have a lot of money, but we ate really well. That's probably what inspired me to do what I do. My father said, 'Sooner or later, quality will sustain.'"
For Benton, it was later rather than sooner. He was aging ham four to six times longer than the big factories but charging no more. He survived on the appreciation of a few locals who knew ham from ham, and on the custom of greasy spoons and other eateries. Eventually, though, chefs took up his case: first at Blackberry Farm, then at gatherings of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and then, most famously, by New York chef David Chang. Other chef-stars in the Benton fan club: Brock, Stitt, Besh, Colicchio. He is, among smokers, a rock star. There's a four-week waiting list for bacon on his website.
The patronage of chefs, whose menus have become a storytelling form in their own right, is pure sunlight in the craft-foods ecology. "I think," Benton reflected one night with satisfaction over a nip of Pappy Van Winkle rye, "that chefs deserve 98% of the credit for my success."
But Benton has a problem: None of his children want to smoke hams. He has no heir apparent through apprenticeship, either. A crazy-hard worker, he is not slowing down, but the future of a national treasure is cloudy. I asked him how many young people in East Tennessee, far from the emerging food-hipness node of Nashville, are interested in the sort of thing he does. Few, he says. "Not that many are willing to step out and make a commitment."
Then he paused, perhaps a bit wistful, and mentioned a business 50 miles or so up the road. "There aren't a lot of people like Colleen Cruze at Cruze Dairy," Benton told me. "I can only imagine what she will do in the future."
I had already heard of Cruze from Southern Living magazine's Jennifer Cole, who is one of the South's finest food hounds. I arranged by text to meet Cruze on her family's dairy farm in the lush hills outside Knoxville.
Cruze Dairy Farm produces buttermilk and ice cream from its own Jersey cows, including a blackberry buttermilk that's like a smooth, Southern-accented kefir. Cruze's father, Earl, now almost 70, has been milking cows in the area for more than 60 years and watched the almost total collapse of a local milk-bottling industry: "You'd have thought nothing but an act of God could have shut all that down, it was so prosperous, but all those dairies are gone."
To survive, to have a story to tell about the family's buttermilk, which Earl believes is a secret to good health, the Cruze family—with lots of direction from mom Cheri—have lately found a surprising country-hipster groove: They make a home for Japanese exchange-program interns on their small farm and favor a tiny crew that Tweets and Instagrams. The symbol of this groove is Colleen, 25, who is featured on the buttermilk label, hair swept back, walking in a golden field.
"When I graduated from college and came back to work on the dairy," she says, "I thought having all girls to sell the product might make for a good atmosphere. ... We were going off the idea of the traditional dairymaids. Once girls do something and make it look fun, then other girls are interested." The girls go to farmers' markets and offer "milk shots" in their dairymaid outfits. The farm's website, cruzefarmgirl.com, is Brooklyn-cool.
As we talked, generators hummed in the background, keeping fresh batches of cardamom ice cream frozen. The power was out from a ferocious windstorm that had also swept over Allan Benton's house the night before. We were sitting under a shade tree—Earl, Cheri, Colleen, and the young Japanese interns, who appeared mostly baffled by the Tennessee storytelling that flowed, rich and thick, whenever I asked a Cruze a question.
"Colleen's young," Earl said, satisfied that the Cruzes may have found the formula to keep the family business alive. "And they all work hard. As long as we can keep it going, I'm happy."
THE YOUNG GET THEIR KICK AT THE CAT
All this change in the American food landscape gives food lovers, especially cooks, hope. Craft-food producers of the sort I met in the South are busy creating new demand in every nook and cranny of the national food supply: grits, wild rice, rare grains, hard apple cider, heirloom vegetables, on and on. New/old flavors migrate into mainstream foods as big food companies, which will always form the core of the food supply, take them up: Yogurt tastes better than it used to, frozen pizzas are a lot more interesting, and there seems to have been a national hummus boom. Shoppers take their dollars to farmers' markets, while independent supermarkets, seeking an advantage against bigger stores that have a harder time dealing with small suppliers, tap into the local-food enthusiasm.
"I'm very encouraged," John Mackey says, "by what I call a renaissance of local agriculture and local food manufacturing ... The diversity of food that we lost is coming back, in many categories."
As Americans, we ate what we ate for many decades because we had invented a food culture fueled by machine-powered optimism. We didn't have deep, steadying culinary roots to make us also hold on to crusty breads, stinky cheeses, country hams, heirloom tomatoes, or, for that matter, smaller, balanced portions. We put fins on cars and put the equivalent of fins on a lot of our food a long time ago. Now, at a breathtaking pace, that seems to be changing.
It's not that we are moving away from our modern lifestyle, but surely we are rebalancing our diet as we eat new foods. The market, always alert to changing tastes, will follow.
If obesity—the poster child of our national-diet ills, as heart disease was before it—is a sort of massive hangover of an unbalanced food culture, might a new, more diverse, taste-focused food culture (better food, more expensive, in smaller servings) turn the tide? That's only a theory, possibly naive, and it rests, to some degree, on trickle-down changes regarding the poor, who are by no means the only sufferers of obesity but are disproportionately affected. But I looked in vain for a more plausible theory. There is no magic medical bullet or behavioral-change light switch for a cultural malaise. I did find that virtually everyone I talked to is, in some way, optimistic that things are getting better.
Mark Bittman argues that it's consciousness, not taste, that changes diet. Seems reasonable, but it's also reasonable to ask whether taste raises consciousness. It's a taste for "real" food, in part, that drives young activists like those in FoodCorps (a charity this magazine supports) into schoolyard garden programs—that's certainly true of the inspiring volunteers I've talked to. Young Americans understand that they are inventing a new food culture.
"This is really their issue," Michael Pollan says, "and they're very interested in cooking. Many even want to be chefs or farmers. These were not prestigious occupations until very recently. This is how a culture gets formed."
Three years ago, Bittman told me, he drove cross-country with his daughter, trying to eat well, "but the food was unbelievably bad."
This year, another trip, a different experience. "We passed a supermarket in Lander, Wyoming, that was advertising organic products. I'm not a huge organic booster, but it was symbolic of something. And we ate at good restaurants. We ate in places where people were really trying: in West Yellowstone, Montana, in rural Pennsylvania, in Indianapolis, and so on."
Even if changes in the food culture don't move the obesity needle, they are happy news for anyone who loves food, for anyone who loves to cook, for anyone who wants a job shaping this revolution. When it comes to food, everyone, every cook, can make a little difference, one meal at a time—whether he or she shops in a farmers' market or in a supermarket 40,000 products strong. The sure vote is for taste.