Elistism debate can simmer in jars of mustard

A few weeks ago, I chimed in on a Facebook discussion about whether eating locally produced foods is elitist. It was touched off by a Jefferson Public Radio spot with Matthew Domingo, founder of Farm to Fork Event Company, which produces gourmet meals on local farms with their products.

A chef, Domingo also was interviewed for this week’s A la Carte story on making higher-end condiments. In an unrelated project, he wrote an essay for the Daily Tidings on the elitism debate.

But the two features in these sister publications aren’t completely divorced from each other. In fact, I can address many of the concerns around local food in the context of mustard: the condiment you’d make at home versus the one produced at Troon Vineyard that costs $5 versus the one you’d pick up for about a dollar.

Anyone can argue that paying $5 for mustard made from seeds grown in a vineyard and mixed with the estate’s own wine is elitist. Right? Just as elitist as paying $75 for one of Farm to Fork’s meals.

Except neither product — the mustard nor the meal — are staples of anyone’s diet. They are luxury items.

The mustard adds a dash of excitement to otherwise nutritionally significant foods. Maybe it makes a nice gift for someone extremely fond of mustard.

The meal is a special occasion on which most diners are splurging for the sheer enjoyment of it. Maybe they feel good about supporting a farmer they can personally meet. Both of these things are within the average consumer’s reach with some prioritizing.

The problem isn’t that the American food economy provides us with a staggering array of choices. It’s that American consumers are quick to assign responsibility for their food to everyone but themselves.

It’s understandable because the food-processing and marketing industries have trained us to allow them to make our choices for us. The government reinforces this pattern with every version of its dietary guidelines that always tread the treacherous ground of appeasing agricultural lobbyists and subsidizing certain sectors.

Why are we so concerned about the nutritional profile of packaged foods instead of preparing whole foods from scratch? Because the latter is too much trouble. That, folks, is prioritizing.

We all have choices. Buy the $1 mustard because it’s what we’re used to, even if it doesn’t do much to enhance our food. Buy the $5 mustard for special occasions because we like what it contributes to our dining experience and what it stands for.

Or take the much harder (relatively speaking) but infinitely cheaper and more satisfying approach of making mustard to go with locally raised meat and garden veggies. Does it become our standard for stocking the pantry with mustard? Maybe not. But it demonstrates the possibilities and clarifies what’s important in the scheme of things.

Standing shoulder to shoulder in the pantry with whatever kind of mustard we’ve chosen likely is a whole host of processed, packaged foods. They’re probably artificially affordable because they’re made with government-subsidized ingredients. And they’re very likely lacking in nutrition, despite the labels’ health claims.

I’ll cop to keeping certain types of processed, packaged foods on hand. I ate cereal for breakfast because my weekday priorities are geared toward cooking in the evening, not the morning. When cooking, however, I can choose from the containers of beans, whole grains, nuts, and home-canned fruits and vegetables in my pantry.

Anyone whose pantry is filled by mainstream food processing — regardless of products’ price, provenance or pedigree — should stop and rethink the demonization of other Americans’ attempts at taking back some of the control or placing it in the hands of someone they personally know, whom they personally trust and whose hard work warrants a piece of their hard-earned grocery dollar.

I’d rather spend more time thinking critically about my food choices and doing more of the work myself so I can eat better-quality, more healthful, sustainable and delicious foods, all the while saving up for a farm dinner when I want a treat.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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