The valet made me do it. We bared our souls and talked with each other about food. We did it in the middle of the tastefully decorated lobby of a reputable Cannery Row hotel in Monterey, CA. It began as a very unexpected moment, and has become one of my all-time favorite experiences talking about access to good food. Because it was a conversation not with a chef, foodie or expert. It was with a regular person who longs to connect to food and is somehow stuck, marooned on an island alone, full of latent desire.
The valet—let’s call him Paul—asked me the very question I yearn to hear, and with him I had the discussion that I never tire of. Paul had parked my car when I checked into the hotel, had smiled professionally at me and held the door three mornings in a row when I sashayed excitedly out into the sunlight. The cause of my excitement was a food issue conference hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Cooking for Solutions Sustainable Media Institute is an annual gathering of journalists and experts who cover food system issues ranging from sustainable seafood to GMOs. It is the highlight of my year, second only to the Ecological Farming Association annual meeting.
The third morning, Paul held the lobby door open and commented that I looked happy. I told him yes, I was happy because I spent the last three days at a conference talking and thinking about food. He immediately grabbed my arm. He looked a bit shocked at his intensity, but recovered quickly and said: “You were at a food conference. Tell me, what should I eat? And why? I know there’s a big debate now about food but I can’t follow it. I can cook, but I’m confused about what’s good for me. The grocery store? I go in there, I walk around…it feels wrong, and I come out with stuff I don’t like. Can you talk with me for a minute?”
Although he spoke quietly, his interest was so intense that the small lobby grew quiet. The receptionist, guests checking out and the other staff stood waiting for my answer. Where to start? Full disclosure: I’m a communications professional who relies on the power of my words to make a living. I know I’ve got about six seconds to keep him or lose him. Do I start with a slogan: Know your farmer, know your food? Nope, too abstract. Do I punt to Michael Pollan’s now famous: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much? Nope, too abstract again for a lobby conversation. Marion Nestle wrote a huge book about this, like War and Peace for the American eater.
Plus, do I need a pundit or am I ready to be my own? I took a deep breath: “I like to shop at farmers’ markets because they sell food that’s grown right up the road. I bet there’s one near here. I walk around the market, talk to a few farmers, see what looks good to me and buy what I can afford and know I can handle in the time I have available in my basic kitchen. Did you know artichokes are grown in Castroville, just a few miles away from here, and you can steam them in about five minutes?” He burst into a smile. “I’m Italian, from Florida. My family loved artichokes! Growing up we’d save money to buy the good ones, from Italy, in olive oil, in a glass jar, for pasta. You mean I can get them fresh here?” Ah, what a moment.
Several contradictions bear illustration: We’re on Cannery Row in Monterey, CA, where super-green list sustainable seafood sardines had their heyday until the species collapse in 1950s. Right near Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the shrines of ocean conservation, sits the restaurant Bubba Gump, a shrine to farmed shrimp redolent of butter, garlic and disgusting chemicals like disinfectants, pesticides and antibiotics used to keep filthy shrimp ponds teetering on the brink of legal seafood production. Another contradiction: My food conference is teeming with experts on food system sustainability. A few hundred feet from that, a hotel valet wonders what to eat, and has the guts to talk to me about it. If only more people dared to, and if only we could build a real community around real answers. And buy those artichokes from right up the road.
For me, Paul is an archetype of the struggle around food access. He didn’t just open the door for me mornings. He opened the door to a conversation that needs to happen in every walk of life. Where do we find food that speaks to us? What impact might a deeper connection with food have on our local communities, our health and our environment? We all want to know how to make this connection.
Paul isn’t the only one who wants to talk. I frequently find myself drawn into these conversations. My neighbors, strangers on public transportation, and also people at farmers’ markets want to engage around food. Seems everybody always wanted to make five minute blender mayonnaise but it takes a catalyst in the community to make it happen. We should all share knowledge, not just about the joys of homemade mayonnaise, but also about why we should use a pastured egg from a farmer we know rather than an organic supermarket egg. And we should be talking how to cook a beet and why it has a low carbon footprint. It probably helps when information is shared from simple home cooks, not chefs. What’s clear to me is that engaging with each other around food is the gateway, the first step to transforming our relationship. It has to come from each other, no matter how unexpected the place or the time.
I recommended Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything to Paul as a straightforward tome featuring all the basics, then riffs, galore. But I don’t think cookbooks are the silver bullet. A community connection which starts that dialogue would be a better answer. Steps away from where Paul parks cars and opens doors every day, a food conference was trying to open the door. But it didn’t go far enough. For this movement to thrive, it will take community, connection and deeper dialogue. Let’s start a conversation about food with unexpected people in unexpected situations. I think we’ll all benefit from the results.