A STATE OF MIND: Moving Right Along?

by Larry Floersch

am here to say we need more food movements. Now I know what you’re thinking, “But Lare, don’t we have enough food movements already? Like the Farm-to-Table Movement and the Slow Food Movement?”

First of all, the Farm-to-Table Movement should not be confused with the Slow Food Movement, which is similar to the Farm-to-Table Movement but the food arrives at your table at a glacial pace. I’ve actually eaten in a couple of restaurants like that except they did not bill themselves as adherents to the Slow Food Movement. It just somehow happened that it took a server twenty minutes to show up at our table with water after we were seated, and the order for our food just somehow got misplaced so we nearly perished of hunger before eating our lunch near supper time.

One of the primary features of the Farm-to-Table Movement is that it provides diners with too much information about the food they are eating. For example, your server might say, “Good evening. Welcome to Chez Pierre. My name is Robert (which he pronounces “Row-bear”) and I’ll be taking care of you. Tonight, Chef Andre recommends the Supremes de Volaille aux Champignons, which come to us from the Happy Valley Chicken Ranch just outside Monkton Ridge. The parents were Rhode Island Reds. The rooster’s name was Gregory and the hen was Camilla. The eggs hatched at 4:29 pm on June 5, and the young birds spent their days frolicking in open pastures and never saw the inside of a cage. They were slaughtered humanely under general anesthesia just four days ago and shipped directly to Chez Pierre, where they were kept in our walk-in refrigerator at a temperature of 36 degrees.”

My problem is that kind of knowledge about the food you are buying is not necessarily rampant at supermarkets. I say this from experience. Just yesterday I was in a supermarket looking for polenta. After three laps around the store, I went to the service desk. Where, I asked, might I find the premade polenta? The clerk looked at me quizzically and asked, “What’s that?” I explained what it was. Her face took on such an expression of revulsion that you would have thought I said, “Where’s the placenta?” Her next question almost had me convinced I had said placenta. “Does it have to be kept cold?” “No,” I said. She directed me to the aisle with baking products, where no polenta was to be found. I finally located it in the cheese case, where it was kept cold even though that wasn’t necessary.

I realize that Italian food to many Americans consists of Spaghettios, so I should not have been surprised. And I will admit that polenta is probably not the best example with which to make my case. In the American diet, polenta is an exotic in the same way that grits are exotic to us Northerners and folks south of the Mason-Dixon Line insist on using cane syrup instead of that exotic maple stuff. But it points out the lack of knowledge on the part of the people in charge of our food supply at supermarkets. How many times have you had a checkout clerk ask you the name of some form of produce? Sure, some things look similar, such as parsley and cilantro and zucchinis and cucumbers. And parsnips, I suppose, could be mistaken for carrots that have been given a fright. But I can’t think of anything else that resembles an artichoke. Or an eggplant. And then there are the varieties of chili peppers. Cashiers have often asked me the name of the dark green peppers I have put on the conveyor. “Poblanos” I say. After a puzzled look caused by the injection of a foreign word into the conversation and a cursory glance at the list of produce codes, they often cave in and just use the code for green peppers.

Just recently it was reported in the pages of this newspaper that Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, in a speech to the Rotary Club, told the story of a colleague who had overheard a customer and a cashier discussing the identity of a bunch of vegetables that had round red globes with leafy tops. The cashier concluded they were radishes. They were in fact, the Secretary pointed out, beets. In this case I was more puzzled by the customer than the cashier. Why, I thought, would you purchase a vegetable the identity of which was unknown to you?

So what I propose is an Eighteen-Wheeler to Supermarket Movement. In this movement the supermarket staff will assemble at the loading dock each time a truck arrives with a delivery, and highly trained experts will name and describe each item of food as it is unloaded and moved into the stockroom. For example, the expert will hold aloft a tube of polenta and tell the curious throng, “This is polenta. It is not to be confused with placenta, which we do not sell in this store because it must be kept cold. The corn for this polenta was grown in the Po River valley of Italy and harvested in August of last year. It was then ground into corn meal, mixed with water and cooked until tender. While still warm, it was packed into food-safe plastic tubes manufactured in a small facility just outside of Modena. The tubes were packed into cases and the cases placed in a shipping container. The shipping container was picked up by the ship Estelle Maersk in Genoa and carried to Jacksonville, Florida. The container was placed on a truck driven by Henry Schultz of Waycross, Georgia, and driven to our warehouse facility in Hagerstown, Maryland. Next, this is a can of Spaghettios. It is not from Italy and should never be confused with Italian food . . . ”

Once the Eighteen-wheeler-to-Supermarket Movement has caught on, I propose a Let’s-Try-Tasty-Foods-from-Other-Lands Movement.

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