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Eat Republican

How an organic movement born in Berkeley exemplifies conservative values

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Schwenkler
July 20, 2008

ALICE WATERS SEEMS at first like an unlikely conservative. A veteran of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement who once cooked a $25,000-a-seat fund-raising dinner for Bill Clinton, she eagerly compares her campaign for "edible schoolyards" - where children grow, prepare, and eat fresh produce - with John F. Kennedy's attempt to improve physical fitness through mandatory exercise. Her dream of organic, locally and sustainably produced food in every school cafeteria, class credit for lunch hour, and required gardening time and cooking classes is as utopian as they come. The name she has given her gastronomic movement, the "Delicious Revolution," strikes the ear as one part fuzzy-headed Marxism, the other David Brooksian bobo-speak.

But a closer look reveals a different story. Waters, a Berkeley chef who is regarded as the originator of the fusionist "California cuisine," proposed in a 1997 talk that to teach schoolchildren how to grow, prepare, and eat good food is to teach them "ethics" - to help them reject the crass materialism of popular culture and instead find "redemption through a deep appreciation for the real, the authentic, and the lasting." Waters laments the decline of the communal meal as a centerpiece of family life, and writes in the introduction to her 2007 cookbook, "The Art of Simple Food," that good cooking "can reconnect our families and communities with the most basic human values {hellip} and assure our well-being for a lifetime." Hers is a vision that is focused on the family, and on the ways in which healthy families lie at the very foundation of civil society.

Set against books like National Review editor Jonah Goldberg's best-selling "Liberal Fascism," which glibly suggests affinities between the organic food movement and Nazi totalitarianism, it is easy to treat views like Waters's simply as a liberal phenomenon. But this is not as it should be: For in her deference to tradition, her focus on community, and her understanding of the role of the family in society it is Waters, not Goldberg, who is giving a voice to genuinely conservative values.

Conservatives, after all, style themselves as the great defenders of the family, of local community, and of traditional cultural mores. In the words of Russell Kirk, the intellectual godfather of the modern American conservative movement, conservatism is fundamentally about respect for the "Permanent Things": those convictions, institutions, and forms of life that - to borrow Waters's terms - are real, authentic, and lasting. Obviously this is not the only strand in the tangled weave that is present-day American conservatism, but the suggestion that we should consider how we eat in broad terms - as expressions of our cultural and political values - is one that surely ought to resonate beyond the boundaries of the left.

It is also crucial for free-market conservatives to recognize that the rise of the modern American diet was anything but the product of Adam Smith's invisible hand. McMaster University historian Harvey Levenstein has argued that the spate of government regulations that followed early 20th-century food-safety scares played a crucial role in the rise of centralized, industrial food processing. Early nutritionists and home economists, many distinctly of the quack variety, found a key ally in their attempts to reform American cuisine in Herbert Hoover's Food Administration, and official dietary guidelines inevitably became the product of collaboration between government agencies and representatives of the industries that stood to benefit.

The same goes in spades for the industrialization of agriculture and the global "flattening" of our culinary economy. Price controls and multibillion-dollar farm subsidies prop up corporate agribusiness and discourage smaller producers from seeking out alternative market niches. Regulatory standards and production practices are forced to be uniform, because regional diversity makes for economic inefficiency. The natural capacities of location, season, and regional culture to link people together and shape the ways they farm and eat are countered by artificial measures designed to maximize overall yield.

In the face of all of this, many of our best food writers are in full-throated rebellion against the corporate-industrial-governmental nutrition establishment. "In Defense of Food," the newest book from best-selling food author Michael Pollan, deconstructs the pretensions of modern "food science" in often hilarious fashion and then distills all you need to know about eating into three easy directives: Eat food; not too much; mostly plants. Nina Planck's "Real Food" takes the traditionalist counterculture to the extreme by denouncing veganism and extolling the health benefits of everything from eggs and lard to beef and raw cow's milk. And Waters's wonderful new cookbook offers a step-by-step course in keeping a kitchen and preparing a range of dishes that, though indeed simple, are an utter joy to eat.

These writers' attitude of deference toward traditional foods and forms of agriculture is also in keeping with an important aspect of the conservative mind-set. A writer at the popular blog Obsidian Wings recently noted that Pollan's take on food is similar in many ways to the thought of the conservative statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke. Burke did not defend tradition simply for its own sake, but rather argued that since longstanding social and political customs were the product of many centuries of trial and error, they deserved a strong presumption in their favor. Pollan, whose critique of contemporary "nutritionism" is paired with high praise for the almost mysterious properties of traditional diets, arguably does very much the same thing for food as Burke did for government and Enlightenment rationalism.

Contending with this is a system dominated by political, scientific, and industrial power-brokers bent on ensuring the hegemony of the current establishment. Efforts to resist these forces, primarily through local and small-scale action, are crucial parts of the kind of cultural renewal that traditional conservatives see as a necessary precedent for meaningful political reform. Neighborhood gardens, cooking classes in schools and church basements, and the promotion of local and co-operative markets are the kinds of projects that will build community; revitalize regional economies; encourage stable, healthy families; and instill the kinds of civic attitudes that make expansive and centralized government appear burdensome.

If writers like Goldberg are any indication, though, there is likely to be resistance from many corners of the conservative movement. (One of the original subtitles for "Liberal Fascism" was "The Totalitarian Temptation from Hegel to Whole Foods.") Certain populist conservatives may be turned off by a perceived elitism in criticisms of the way we shop and eat, while others might object to Waters's calls for the government to use public schooling to promote good eating. But these objections have little force: The ability to buy good food and cook it well is within pretty much everyone's reach, and there is no reason why culinary education cannot also be the province of private and parochial schools, home-schooling parents, and churches and voluntary associations.

Things will need to take root in our kitchens first of all, and it is here that Waters's cookbook provides as good an introduction as one could hope for. Each Friday, my wife and I walk with our 1-year-old son to a house down the street where we pick up a box of just-picked produce and pastured eggs from a nearby farm. As with many community-supported agriculture programs (where customers buy seasonal "shares" in a farm in exchange for regular deliveries of fresh produce), our farm box comes with a newsletter that suggests recipes for some of its less familiar contents. But of late we've been making a point to turn to "The Art of Simple Food" whenever possible, and so carrot soup, summer squash gratin with homegrown herbs, marinated beet salad, and wilted chard with onions are likely candidates for the days ahead.

Renewing the culinary culture, and restoring the kinds of values required for the health of our Republic, is not the sort of thing that can be left to activists, environmentalists, and government bureaucrats. This is a conservative cause if ever there was one, and it is going to have to begin at home. The revolution is coming. And it's sure to be delicious.

John Schwenkler is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. This was adapted from an article in the June 30 issue of The American Conservative, amconmag.com.

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