Carlo Petrini, Elitism, and Real Food

This morning, the food section of the San Francisco Chronicle covers the conflict between Carlo Petrini and the Ferry Plaza Market farmers. There’s a really interesting conversation going on in the comments over at Steve Sando’s blog — Sando, who runs Rancho Gordo is one of the farmers who sells his stuff at Ferry Plaza, and he’s on the board for the non-profit market. He also is one of the folks who met with Petrini when he was in town last week promoting the upcoming Slow Food Nation event next Spring. Petrini has a book out, and was supposed to do a reading at Ferry Plaza, until the folks who work there read what he’d written about the market in his new book. Apparently he went for a visit with Alice Waters, then slammed the market as a boutique, seriously misrepresented one farmer and seems to have made another up out of whole cloth. His implication is that Ferry Plaza is only for rich people, and that the farmers are dilletantes who have artificially raised their prices so they don’t have to work so much. In the book, just after this dismissive report on the market, he repairs to Chez Panisse with Alice Waters for a nice, egalitarian, price-friendly dinner. (You can read the whole excerpt here.) As you can imagine, folks are pissed.

I left a couple of comments over on Steve’s blog, because while I think the Ferry Plaza is terrific — it’s great fun and the food is fabulous but it is something of a showplace — it’s not what I’d think of as a regular neighborhood farmer’s market (and the high percentage of tourists has caused some vendors to leave. Apparently, they’re losing money because tourists don’t buy, they just look, and eat the samples). Which is not to say that the farmers who sell there are not as dedicated to good food at fair prices as any of the farmers at the smaller markets around the Bay Area (or around the country for that matter). Urban farmers markets are crucial to the sprititual health of cities — I know I would have sunk under my own despair those couple of years I lived in New York without the Union Square market — it felt like my lifeline to real people, people who did things — people who grew food and made cheese and baked bread.

But what does bother me about the whole thing is the same thing that bugged me about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, there’s a problem in the movement, whatever you want to call it — slow food, real food, old food — and I’m not sure if it’s elitism as much as it is that many people find the evangelical zeal off-putting. For all the folks who walk into someplace like the Bozeman Co-Op and love the educational signage, who love the hipness of the place, there are any number of people who find that same zeal alienating. What worries me is that we lose people like my darling Mighty Hunter, a man who truly loves good food, a man who wooed me on our first date by whipping out of the back of his fridge a container of duck confit that he’d put up himself. The MH is truly from here, he was raised by folks who survived the depression and who never paid more for something than they had to. He gardens. He forages for mushrooms. He hunts and butchers his own wild meat. But he was appalled to find out I’d spent six bucks a pound for organic, local lamb (to my credit, that was butchered and packaged. If I’d bought a carcass it would have been significantly less). Or I think of Apryl Kennedy, whose husband was my dad’s fishing guide. Apryl was one of my idols as a kid — she was a great cook who fended the deer off her garden, put up her own applesauce from the trees in her yard, and cooked all the birds and deer and fish that Ray brought home. She was someone who really lived on authentic local food, and the slices of spongy white store bread that often accompanied a meal at Apryl’s house didn’t negate that.

I think Petrini, an old socialist of the 1968 school, used the Ferry Plaza Market unfairly in order to deflect accusations of elitism that have been aimed at his own organization. But I do think that elitism is something that we in the food movement must address. How do we reach out to all those people in the middle of America who still hunt, and fish, and keep vegetable gardens, and can their own tomatoes in the dead heat of August because it’s a sin to let good food go to waste — but who still shop at the regular supermarket and buy Doritos and white bread and pop? How do we bridge that gulf without coming off as smug evangelists? And how on earth are we going to start educating people about the real cost of food, when so many are already just scraping by?

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