The importance of being earnestly fancy

For my book review, I read Amy Trubek’s indulgent piece on terroir: The Taste of Place. Trubek’s exploration of the concept of terroir ends in her conviction that a food heritage and cultural link between place and consumption can and should emerge as one facet of food activism. This includes a discourse of valuing localness—in the environmentally-responsible sense and because of inherently enhanced food quality and cultural enrichment. Trubek compels her audience to latch onto the concept of terroir as part of a societal shift in thinking meaningfully about what we buy and eat: as she argues, food should be more than just an industrial commodity.

Trubek draws on the success of local food dependence in France, the back to the land movement, and various examples of innovative American food activists to illustrate an emerging American trend toward appreciating the connection between people and food production. Generally, this book was a pleasure to read and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking to learn about the romanticism of localness and social histories of certain food products (such as wine, cheese, and maple syrup). It was also interesting in thinking about the rise of haute cuisine in the United States. Compared to “Old World” countries like France, Americans have had to create the mythologized connections to location-specific food, rather than harness them. As Trubek describes, these relatively new efforts to “eat the landscape” in a way that is decidedly elitist has brought the definition of terroir into question: is it the knowledgeably local people or the land itself that craft these deliciously location-specific foods? (Trubek 240). Any foodie would appreciate this analysis of efforts to root high American cuisine in both nature and culture, and the implications for the greater food activism movement.

Throughout this book, Trubek lapses into mouth-watering descriptions of the exquisite dishes she gets to sample. It’s clear that she relished in this culinary journey as much for the food as for the interactions with ideologically-dedicated farmers and chefs. As a result, the intentionality, quality, and attention to detail that go into these foodie dishes underscore the simultaneous goals of high-quality, responsible food decisionmaking. Trubek uses descriptions of American haute cuisine to make her concluding message more appealing: that localness is integral to food activism, and emphasizing the value of terroir could dramatically change our environmental impact and attitudes about consumption.

One exemplary point that is certainly at least a continent away from American conceptions of meat consumption was the idea that localness plays a significant role in the quality of meat. Trubek cites Madame Pampille’s description of partridges “grown in confined spaces and fed rapeseed as ‘having a taste that is faded and dim,’ whereas the wild or free partridges roaming the plains, which feel hunger and thirst, have another taste entirely” (Trubek 34). Trubek thus proposes to add the motivating factor of better taste and quality to the list of benefits of socially conscious consumerism. I found this line of thinking to be compelling and potentially enticing to consumers who already shop at places like Whole Foods and are drawn to labels like “cage-free” and “organic”—but it is clear to me that in order to engage with the taste of place in the ways Trubek intends, one must have a lot of disposable income.

Additionally, inherent in Trubek’s Francophile ideal of appreciating nuanced flavor and specific variables like soil quality is a certain social capital that immediately reminded me of Bourdieu. Trubek writes exuberantly about progressive French efforts to instill the tools, language, and importance of a sophisticated palate in small children. Trubek links an enhanced and appreciative sense of taste to the Slow Food movement. This set of ideals and lifestyles links “taste, place, and culture,” aims to combat the corrupting influence of “Fast Life,” and works toward implementing a cultural shift toward the appreciation of taste in order to resist the influence of environmentally and culturally harmful pathways of consumption.

Where I had trouble was bridging Trubek’s call for mindful action with neglected truths about agency in the American food industry. It was disturbing to me that Trubek’s intent was to target more than just Americans with the resources and educational backgrounds to make these kinds of changes in the ways they consume. In her conclusion, Trubek condemns “McDonaldization” as if a growing dependence on fast food is simply a side effect of eroding moral values in modern, industrialized America. To me, the Slow Food movement is a luxury and a privilege rather than a realistic solution for most Americans. The indivisible correlation between race, poverty, and food injustice in America is so crucial to an understanding of food activism that it seems strange for Trubek to ignore it. Furthermore, her assertion that a cultural shift toward acceptance of mass-produced, unhealthy, low-quality foods is reflective of moral failure has dangerous implications. While I don’t believe that Trubek had malicious intent, her argument was noticeably missing the key factor of accessibility and refused to recognize the social and economic elitism in terroir. Trubek’s arguments could be a powerful tool for impressionable consumers like me, who might be willing and able to direct our dollars based on ideology rather than necessity. That said, I think she overstepped her boundaries in her conclusion and would be more effective if she implicated people who do have the ability to incorporate terroir into their food philosophies and choices.

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