June 6, 2011
Fresh from Cliche Ranch: Are "farm to table" and "locavore" over-hyped?

mark1.jpgThanks to a link on Facebook, I recently read a short essay by local chef Mark Liberman about the "farm to table" movement, along with the "even worse newly anointed locavore movement."


Yes, the backlash is at hand, thanks to people who seem a little too happy with themselves for buying locally grown food and looking down their noses at those who dare to eat something imported.

(If you have an opinion about the politics and/or glorification of eating locally, please give your two cents in the comments section).

The thirty-something Liberman is no stranger to controversy. In 2005, on his way out of town after a mercurial stint as chef at Cascades Restaurant in Roseville, Liberman said, "People in Sacramento are afraid to eat, and I think it is our job as chefs to instruct them. I just don't feel enough restaurants are interested in that. They only want to make money.

"For a town that is supposedly wanting to become a big city, its culinary scene got left behind somewhere in the early 1990s."

Part of Liberman's frustration stemmed from the artistic but challenging dishes he was serving, including an homage to Julia Child in which he prepared pig's feet stuffed with chanterelle mushrooms.

Yes, it's shocking that people would rather eat a nice thick piece of salmon or pork tenderloin than the hooves of swine.

But that was then. These days, Folsom native Liberman is back in town and looking to open a restaurant in midtown. When I asked him a few months back about those 2005 comments, he said he has softened and Sacramento's dining habits have grown more sophisticated. Now, he is lamenting the whole farm-to-table/locavore thing. Is it a bad idea? Not at all. Is there a self-congratulatory component to it that tends to be annoying? Exactly.

Liberman writes: "What I don't like is this new self-indulged movement that says to be a locavore you need to go to a farmers market, pickle something from the winter to enjoy in the spring, buy from local vendors, go to a farm and meet the man who raises your chickens and make your own vinegar from leftover grapes during harvest. Do I agree with all these?? Yes, of course I do!! But these are things that have been around for centuries. In fact I have several cookbooks in my library at home that date back to the 1800′s that focus on this. So, when I hear someone tell they are a locavore, I have nothing to say. Locavores have good ideas, relevant ideas, but there is nothing new."

Liberman is not the first chef to address this. Many months ago, Rick Mahan of Waterboy mentioned on his blog that he was seeing too many names of farms on too many menus around town and that he was going to tone it down.

In my job as restaurant critic, I get to see this trend repeated at plenty of restaurants, sometimes to the point of being goofy. I see farms mentioned that I have never heard of. I even encountered a menu in Roseville that touted "local" halibut. I'm not a fisherman, but I didn't think halibut were found wending their way through the shallow waters of the American River, though I have spotted a sea lion at Sutter's Landing. I had always thought that the biggest and best halibut were caught in Alaska. When I asked the server, she wasn't sure what "local halibut" meant, so she checked with the chef. Turns out, "local" meant Pier 36 in San Francisco.

When the local halibut arrived at my table, it was overcooked, dry as toast and as bland as golf without Tiger the Trainwreck.

Too often, touting local or farm to table is an excuse to take the rest of the night off. I mean, if it's local and we can even name the farm, we don't have to do anything interesting to the cooking or even to the prepping. Yes, I've eaten plenty of steak of laudable provenance only to encounter lots of local gristle.

Does Liberman suggest that getting local ingredients is a bad idea? Not at all.

But maybe now is the time, in this new and improved and more adventurous dining climate, to dial it back a little. It's great to celebrate local and it's great to showcase farms, but let's not get smug about it.

That said, the 1970s and '80s are the reason many of us are so giddy about the new and improved food values, even if they turned out to be old-fashioned. Yes, if you look at an original edition of "Joy of Cooking," you could easily call it "Joy of Farm to Table Cooking." But I grew up, like many kids of my generation, on package deli meat, Velveeta cheese, TV dinners (loved the fried chicken, hated the mashed potatoes that were still frozen in the middle), Shake 'N Bake, Kool-Aid, instant pudding, Sanka and individual cheese slices. Oh, let's not forget pancake mixes and cake mixes in boxes, along with frosting in a tub.

I also grew up on Kentucky Fried Chicken (loved it hot, loved it cold), Pizza Hut, McDonald's and on and on. In my late teens, I worked two days at McDonald's as a "chef." In that role, I would take frozen discs of beef, place them on the griddle and "cook" them, apparently until they had thawed out. Then I would squirt ketchup, mustard and these freeze-dried onion-like things onto the bun, wrap it up and contribute to the billions-served phenomenon.

So, if we're overusing farm to table nowadays, and if we tend to forget that this way of cooking and eating goes back centuries, maybe it's a reaction to those terrible days when we all thought our food came out of boxes and packages. And if we decide to tone down the self-congratulatory component and a bit of the smugness, let's just not go back to inner circle of hell known as the 1970s and '80s.

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