. . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of German Butterballs

What locavores, wine geeks, and indie rockers have in common.

Back in April 2004, Sage Van Wing, then a grass-fed-beef rancher and chicken farmer in northern California, read Gary Paul Nabhan's Coming Home to Eat, a chronicle of his experiment to eat only food produced within a 200-mile radius of his Arizona home. "I thought, this guy did this for a year in the middle of the Southwest," Van Wing says. "Surely it ought to be possible to do the same here. So I asked my friend Jessica [Prentice, a chef and cooking instructor] if she'd join in. We picked the easiest month of the year, August, and decided to stick to 100 miles." They got a few more friends to join in, and came up with a catchy word to describe their group: locavores."Then we wrote a press release for the hell of it," continues Van Wing, now off the ranch and living in Seattle. "We thought, why not invite other people to join us? Within the first couple of weeks, over 800 people had signed up for the challenge. We'd really tapped a vein." In 2007, locavore was added to the Oxford American Dictionary. Van Wing and company's 100-mile-diet challenge spawned best sellers like Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, influenced thousands of menus, and pissed off more than a few people, most of whom didn't realize that the 100-mile diet was meant to be a short-term thought exercise, not a barbed-wire perimeter. The local-foods movement continues to be the largest, most influential food trend in the country.Those of us who now favor the local over the certified organic certainly do it out of deeply felt beliefs about how to spend our dollars, support producers we trust, protect our bodies from pesticides and e. coli, and preserve the planet. But the local-foods movement has also been wildly successful because it taps into the way the indie-rock generation forms its ever-shifting musical allegiances.When I walk down East Thomas Street to the Broadway Farmers Market every Sunday, fold-up tote in hand, I'm not there to revamp the food system—I'm out to see what's new in the crates this week. Take the Olsen Farms Potatoes stand, with its ever-rotating supply of purple, red, yellow, and white lumps. I remember when Yukon Golds became the darling of early-1990s bistros, but at Olsen's stand I pass them over in favor of varieties like German Butterball, Maris Piper, or Mountain Rose. Never heard of something before? It's going into the little red bag.When I went seed shopping for the first time this year at City People's in Madison Valley, there were shelves and shelves of Sweet 1000s and Early Girls, which are proven to work in the Northwest climate. But of course City People's doesn't stock only the tried-and-true—there's also a set of rarities for foodie hipsters and the early adopters like me. I spotted a tag on a tomato start that two of my friends had just been raving about. There! That was going to be my tomato. Should the slugs not intervene, I foresee a day when I bring my friends fist-size, bright-red tomatoes. Oh, that? I'll say offhandedly. It's a Moskvits. Heard of it? I grew it myself.Trumpeting a band you're devoted to—or a specific farm's lacinato kale—isn't just about love for the product. It's about making the product part of you. In his book Buying In, The New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker writes about the rise of microbrands like Barking Irons, whose T-shirts have made it into Barney's, GQ, and People. If you're a Barking Irons consumer, Walker says, the important thing isn't to advertise your possession of the brand to the general public. It's to be recognized by other people who are clued in to the exclusive nature of Barking Irons. Even more important is that when you wear the T-shirt, you know you're a member of that elite. The effect reminds me of the tiny pins I affixed to my coats in high school, laying out the contours of my (social) identity as if I were drafting my own astrological chart.In an age when we're trained from birth to acknowledge brands—and everything becomes a brand—my Moskvits tomato is yet another one. When I dice it up with a bunch of onions and herbs to make salsa fresca, who's going to know that it's a Moskvits? Only me and a few other people in the know. That's a huge part of its appeal.A food's status has been defined by its rarity since the days when Marcus Gavius Apicius talked up the succulence of flamingo tongues. Black truffles are getting scarcer and more exorbitantly priced by the year, and thousands of people buy Opus One for two reasons: because Robert Parker gives the small-production Napa red great marks, and because everyone around the dinner table will know the bottle cost several hundred bucks.But there's another kind of rarity valued by generations X and whatever-you-call-the-one-after-mine: specificity. In an age when I can walk into a Sam's Club near my parents' house in the Chicago suburbs and recognize three-fourths of the products from the Capitol Hill Safeway, a potato that I buy off Brent Olsen carries a special aura. It's not a 79-cents-a-pound-on-sale potato, a commodity potato, a shove-this-in-your-mouth potato, a just-a-potato potato. What am I hunting for, exactly? A new flavor, perhaps. A different texture. Something that will taste unique even when I boil it until tender and roll it in melted butter and fresh parsley like I have so many times before—if only because there's a story (farmer, market, name) wrapped around it.Our generation is addicted to keeping up with the entire planet—in real time, no less—yet we nurse a deep romance for anything that helps us feel anchored in the here and now. And the seasonality of local foods is just as significant an element of their specificity. Asparagus in January used to be a luxury food precisely because it had to be flown in from across the world. Now when asparagus shows up at Whole Foods at least half the year, I prize the fact that I can only get fat Washington spears in April and May. Do my local asparagus taste that much better than November's Chilean asparagus when I toss them with olive oil and shallots and roast them for 20 minutes till they shrivel and brown? No. But I'm prizing something I won't be tasting in July.Locavores like to believe that their focus on specificity—on terroir, on knowing the farmer who sells you your food, on heirloom varieties of vegetables that grow in odd shapes and colors—provides "a sense of connection to their food." Let's face it: Specificity also confers cachet.It's the same branding magic that occurs in the indie-music scene. As Michael Jaworski—singer for the Cops, owner of Mt. Fuji Records (Maldives, Whore Moans), and Sunset Tavern booker—puts it: "[We're] people who love to find things, people who are attracted to something a little more interesting than cookie-cutter, top-40 mass-media pop. Not that I can't appreciate a well-written pop song, but I feel much better when I'm supporting something more honest and genuine, not huge marketing machines. It feels really satisfying to be part of something that is starting out, and not so huge—when you feel like there's a stronger connection between you and whoever's making the music."The same reaction against universal familiarity—the longing for what's novel, direct, and specific—is permeating the early adopters of the wine world. As has been widely documented in films like Mondovino, regional varietals are being pushed out around the world in favor of the popular heavyweight grapes. "A lot of regions are being taken over by merlot, cabernet, and chardonnay. It's easier for winemakers to sell their wines abroad," says Shawn Mead, former wine director at Pike Place Market's Campagne, who now works for Louis/Dressner, a New York importer specializing in natural wines from small growers in France and Italy. "The use of modern winemaking techniques, combined with the [wine critics'] point systems," continues Mead, "have conspired to create a very homogeneous style of wine. These wines could be from anywhere. They may taste yummy or lush, but don't suggest, say, the Loire Valley."In reaction to this trend, the new generation of wine importers, merchants, sommeliers, and wine lovers have become smitten with inexpensive, unique, obscure varietals—falanghina, mondeuse, xynomavro. (Just knowing how to pronounce the name confers a certain status on the drinker.) To achieve even a base level of respect among this crowd, a wine list can't just have chardonnay and syrah anymore, but must include grapes like Argentinian torrontés and Piedmontese arneis. While the phenomenon seems the very opposite of locavorism—pursuing obscure wines from the far reaches of Europe and South America—the passion for specificity is the same. And as with endangered local farmers, your purchase is meant to preserve a legacy and a lifestyle. Says Mead of her company's pineau d'Aunis and mondeuses: "For us, it's important to focus on the endangered species, the spotted owl of the grape world—we have to commit to these varieties now or they'll be lost."The popularity of these little grapes tends to follow an arc that will be very familiar to observers of the indie-music scene. For example, five years ago, a dry Austrian white named grüner veltliner, whose unique flavor is often described as "licking a stone," started moving out of supergeek circles and into the consciousness of the general food cognoscenti. Articles in wine magazines led to articles in the food sections of newspapers; grüner veltliner went from being offered by the bottle to making by-the-glass lists. Now it's at Fleet Foxes popularity—not top-40, but readily acknowledged by the Pitchfork masses. Who knows: If American winegrowers start planting grüner, someday it may follow in the footsteps of viognier and reach Coldplay status. Meanwhile, the geeks who first embraced it have moved on to touting blaufränkisch and scheurebe.I'm still a fan of both grüner veltliner and Fleet Foxes, whom I saw, dainty cough, at the Sunset before their EP dropped. I also use my (limited) knowledge of obscure grapes as a secret handshake to get me better service in restaurants. When I ask a waiter about smaller Italian whites or trendy little regions in France, he'll refer me to the restaurant's wine pro, who talks to me longer and more specifically about the food and wine pairing, and often gets enthusiastic about my final selection even if the bottle costs less than $50. (On the flip side, during visits when I'd just as soon be left alone, I ask for sauvignon blanc. Conversation stops there.)It's been almost five years since the first 100-mile-diet exercise, and quite a band of activists, writers, cooks, and consumers has united behind the belief that the industrialization of American agriculture has gone far too far. We're putting a lot of pressure on the family farms we're now desperate to save, believing that by rebuilding the local food system we'll do everything from rescuing the ecosystem to lowering our cholesterol counts. But the advocates are butting up against an emphatic objection: that organic and local foods are exclusionary and elitist.Cost is always at the heart of the skeptics' charge. What's so great about Willie Green's broccoli that I'm supposed to pay $4 for a head of it? Who gives a whit about pasture-raised pork when it's on sale for $4 a pound at Safeway and I have to feed a family of four on $200 a month? The cost argument is the one that local-foods activists are scurrying to refute (at least the ones who aren't floating on the same cloud as Alice Waters). They argue, for example, that CAFO (confined animal feedlot operation) meats are so cheap because of government subsidies. They show evidence that farmers-market apples cost about the same as QFC apples, and that they're less expensive than the mushy, spotted apples at your local convenience stores. Nevertheless, the elitism charge seems impossible to shake off.Price matters. Of course it does. So does time: Once you get around to subscribing to an affordable CSA box that fills your fridge with antioxidants and idealism every week, how are you supposed to finish up all the calls you need to make that day at work, pick up the kids from their aunt's house, get the dog walked, check your home e-mail, and then figure out what to do with five rutabagas and your fifth bunch of rainbow chard in three weeks before the kids crankily raid the freezer for Dinosaur Nuggets?It's a legitimate concern for the partisans of locavorism. But food activists have been so focused on refuting it that they're not addressing the subtler ways the locavore movement shapes, markets, and promotes itself. Specificity has become the cornerstone of the appeal of local foods—driving out to Oxbow Farm in Carnation with the kids so you know exactly where your weekly produce box comes from, getting to ask Brent Olsen himself about his Maris Pipers at the market. But the specificity that carries so much cachet for the people who buy into locavorism is exactly the thing that makes it so suspicious to the people who don't. There are thousands of Seattleites who will drop $35 a person on dinner at Outback Steakhouse because they mistakenly think 35th St. Bistro is way too pricey. Even more will pass over the Charentais melons at one farmers-market stand in favor of plain old cantaloupes at another—if they're not already put off, of course, by the gelato carts and freshly made pasta vendors flanking the fruit. If you really want the movement to go mainstream, O locavore, you're going to have give up the cachet.The worry is that local foods will follow the same path as organics. Just as Nirvana's hipster cred plummeted the moment Sam Goody started papering its windows with Nevermind posters, the mass production of organic food has sullied the purity—and cachet—that we longtime believers relied on the label for. Fewer and fewer people would call certified organic food "elitist," but in exchange for this new populism we've been given corporate lobbying to relax certification standards, organic spinach E. coli scares, small-scale farmers dropping their organic certification once the bureaucracy becomes too knotty, organic corn dogs. To many of the people now backing local foods, the word organic has all but lost its connotation for being, as Jaworski might say, "honest and genuine."Not surprisingly, corporate America has its eye on the locavore movement. Two weeks ago, the University Village Safeway mounted a poster in the produce section, part of an initiative that began in northern California a few months ago. The poster, titled "Locally Grown," displays a map of Washington state and lists the names and locations of the Washington farms—most of them large-scale commercial enterprises—that supply Seattle stores. Now, is this a success or a betrayal of the movement? The answer depends, perhaps, on the values you're investing local foods with.If we're talking about reducing food miles and strengthening your personal 100-mile food system, then it's fantastic to see a major grocery chain prioritize Washington lettuce and carrots. But if "local foods" to you really means opting out of industrial farming, paying farm workers a living wage, buying fragile, deep-red shaksun strawberries instead of those pink monsters from California, and, above all, sustaining that oh-so-ambiguous sense of personal connection to our food—well, then, Safeway's campaign is a cheap stunt that flouts everything good and true.Van Wing, for one, takes a sanguine stance regarding the future of the movement she helped publicize. "I don't think eating only local food is ever going to be a sensible option for most people," she says. Interregional trade has been important throughout human history, after all. She continues, "I think that there's going to be a large change in our food delivery systems, however, and that change is beginning to happen."That hipster hunt for a new farmer from Carnation, a rare heirloom variety, or some unpronounceable wine from Austria may just be the new mechanism by which great tastes get discovered and publicized. Lacinato kale, which I first discovered on restaurant menus back in the early aughts, is on every grocery store shelf now, and it's still the kale I buy for sautéing. The heirloom tomato craze that began 15 years ago weaned me forever from February Flavr Savrs from Safeway—not because Green Zebras and Black Princes are the most interesting thing in the market, but because they made me so disgusted with mealy pink tomatoes that I've sworn off them throughout winter. And I take heart that the wine-geek passion for scheurebes and blaufränkisches means that more restaurants will serve wines that are less jammy, more distinctive, and under $40.Perhaps if the locavore movement is looking for ways to expand without losing its core audience, they should look to the success of one of the world's largest rock bands. In 2007, Radiohead—a band that could prop up the Alaskan Way Viaduct with its platinum records—pulled off a stunt that savvily maneuvered between independent and corporate tactics to market a great product. The band split from longtime label EMI, produced In Rainbows themselves, and released the album online, charging customers whatever they wanted to pay. In a Wired interview published a couple of months later, Thom Yorke claimed the release made the band more money than all its previous albums together, but acknowledged that that wouldn't have been possible without the decade of corporate marketing that preceded it. Indie? Hardly. Pitchfork gave the album a 9.2 rating anyway.jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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