Scary Times

It has taken some time for the United States to be taken seriously as a culinary culture and that culture is currently as advanced as it has ever been. America has produced some of the greatest chefs and most amazing restaurants in the world – people like Grant Achatz, Wiley Dufresne and Daniel Patterson amongst many others as well as providing homes for chefs originally from other countries like Jose Andres, Fabio Trabocchi, Sotohiro Kasugi and Paul Liebrandt. It is developing its own food culture while also incorporating food cultures from around the world. The agricultural quality available around the country is probably as great as it has ever been even if the varieties of what is available are significantly fewer than in the past. The consumer has become ever more sophisticated as has the producer. This is true not only for products from within the United States, but also for products from around the globe as well. The availability of quality products like Jamon Iberico from Spain, mangoes from India and pocky from Japan has never been greater. Unfortunately, all of this is at grave risk right now with the downturn in the global economy.

It has always been true that the food and service industries have always been risky. Farming is not an easy life and can be difficult to make a living from in the best of times. The same is true for restaurants and elsewhere in the food industry. Farms will come and go and restaurants will come and go as they always have for a variety of reasons. That will not change. What may change is the quality of what is available. In a good economy, a good farmer or a good chef can generally make ends meet or at least be able to get another job within the industry. As people have less discretionary income and are less willing to part with the little they have, the areas that will suffer first and most are those areas not deemed to be essential. People will need to house, clothe and educate (hopefully) themselves s best they can. Indeed they will still have to eat, but their eating will more than likely revert back to a more bottom line approach. First and foremost, they will ask themselves, can they afford it? How can they stretch their purchasing power? Perceptions of luxury will likely be deemed frivolous. In many cases that may not be a bad thing, however, my fear is that America will slip back into the culinary dark ages. Will food that uses quality ingredients, is prepared well and tastes good be deemed a luxury? Of course, those farmers, chefs, cooks and restaurants that can provide good food most affordably and with the greatest value will likely do better than others. That trend was already apparent even before this latest economic drop, with the advent of "bistronomic" cooking in Europe and the United States. That is certainly not a bad trend, but one of the elements that have raised the profile of cooking and dining in the United States is that chefs and food producers have been rewarded with acclimation and in some cases money. Farming, long a dying occupation in this country with little cache, has regained a status. People have been able to make livings and gain recognition by providing quality produce. Chefs and restaurants have done the same by taking that quality produce and turning out amazing dishes with it. Of course all of this has been fueled by booming economies, both in the United States and around the world.

Will the United States and the rest of the world still be able to support quality on our farms and in our restaurants? Most likely that will not be the case, unless those who have come to rely on that quality and have come to value it continue to support it. The likely consequence of not supporting this cultural treasure that we have developed is that it will be lost, perhaps forever, as people with the interest, inclination and talent can’t work and their knowledge and skills are eventually lost. It is important that those who can, continue to support those farms and restaurants that they have come to value. That is not to say that anyone can single handedly preserve the fabric of our culinary culture. It will take many, a little at a time. It is all the more important not to waste those available dollars on bad food. It is not too far to say that many in the United States can afford to eat less and probably should for their own well being, myself included. My prescription would be to eat less food, but maintain or increase the quality of what is eaten. In addition, eat foods that are wise for the stewardship of the planet such as seafood that is sustainable. Make food dollars count and support those who most deserve it. We must put our money where our mouths are, now more than ever.

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