The day was non-stop foodie heaven. Amazing speaker after amazing speaker took the stage to present their ideas, projects, and share their passion with the crowd. The speeches were broken up by a beautiful string quartet called ETHEL and an enthusiastic piano player named Blair McMillen. They served as the perfect interlude from all the intense listening and thoughts running through my head during the talks!
(If you are short on time, skip to the end here and read “If I came away with anything from the conference it is the following things…”)
I was impressed by all the presenters, brought to tears by some, and wanted to jump out of my seat and into the garden by others. Even the set design was a living wall of lettuce.
Urvashi Rangan from consumer reports carefully constructed and argument for the importance of better labels: “natural”, “fresh”, and “free range” mean nothing. We need labels like “GMO”, “Country of Origin”, and “Carbon Monoxide Added” in order to make informed decisions about what we eat and should continue to head in the direction of labels such as “Grass-fed”, “Animal Welfare Approved”, and “Organic” (though there are some issues there….) so that, in the least we have the CHOICE to pick foods that reflect our values.
There was Howard Hinterthuer, who I not only had the pleasure to hear speak, but also sat next to me at dinner that evening. Howard was depressed when he returned from serving in the 101st airborne division in the Vietnam War. In his depression, he remembered loving to garden with his family growing up. He decided as a last resort to start up again. He brought this passion to his fellow veteran friends in Wisconsin and was soon changing lives and reversing the major side effects that result from coming home from war. He was a thrilling dinner companion, and throughout the course of the evening, I discovered, a passionate musician as well. I loved the way he described his music taste – “lowbrow music for smart people”. In his speech he said “the garden is a sunny place where we can uproot all of our personal weeds”.
Stephen Ritz, a large and enthusiastic white man from the South Bronx, had everyone on their feet and in tears. Stephen is a teacher, “not a farmer” as he says, who is working with his students to grow fruits and vegetables in Edible Walls (see video below). The kids have stopped selling drugs and started selling vegetables, their daily attendance rate went from 40% to 93%, and they are now headed to college and careers that they never before imagined possible. He talked about how edible walls are the “new green graffiti” for his kids and his speech “From Crack to Cucumbers” along with a pretty awesome YouTube video got him and his students an invitation to the White House! Si se puede!
But my favorite speaker of all was Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation. I have been on a journey since my eyes opened to this food world in college to find my place in it all. I want to change the way people eat because I think it is the solution to all our problems. And yes, I just said ALL our problems. I envision myself one day making an infomercial-type TV spot where I get on and say “Hey you! Yeah, you on the couch! Are you tired? Depressed? Have you lost meaning in your life? Are you sick? Do you know someone who has died of cancer? Someone who is living with cancer? Is the air you breathe bad, the lake you used to swim in polluted, the weather you were used to as a kid dramatically different? Well I have the solution!” And the solution is better food for all.
If we started:
- Gathering around the table and in the gardens and at the markets
- Eating foods that have been grown and raised in a sustainable and environmentally way
- Slowing down and taking the time to enjoy the aromas and spices of delicious foods
- Spending more money on food and less on cable
Then the world we live in would be a much more hopeful and decent place to live.
Back to Mitchell. So along this journey of mine, I am constantly looking for what it is that makes people come to the light and start eating better. For some it is illness (did you know Bill Clinton is a vegan now !?), for some it is reading something like The Omnivore’s Dilemma or watching Food Inc. and for some, it just makes sense.
For Mr. Davis – taste holds this power. He told this great story about a trip he took his NYU Food Studies students on to Italy. They spent one evening dining on delicious spaghetti pomodoro at a local peasant’s house. He said that it was one of the most amazing meals he had ever had. After this dinner, on another night, they took a trip to a fancy, high-end vineyard where a nice dinner was built into the tour. That night, they had spaghetti pomodoro as well, and it struck Davis that in Italy, high quality meals were a right for all. His speech was about how we can taste our way to a better food system. He described tastes as a value of society. Wouldn’t it be amazing if in America, good food was just as much a staple to low-income households as it is to the wealthy?? Wouldn’t it be just awesome if we all demanded healthy delicious foods in our schools and our supermarkets? Man. Such a dream.
Sweet, salty, bitter, sour – let’s start talking taste. There’s even a new one – Umami – anyone know what that is?
If I came away with anything from the conference it is the following:
- Good tasting food is a right for all
- Chickens need to be raised cage-free
- We need to care about farm animals in a similar way that we care about our family pets
- Applegate farms, Chipotle, and Whole Foods are awesome – some companies are really setting a good example!
And last but not least:
- Mother Earth knows what needs to be done to make us healthy, happy people – we just need to pay attention to the wisdom of the past and the technology of the future to help us treat her right!
Thanks for reading and please let me know your thoughts if you have some!