What I Said Last Night at the Good Food Awards
Saturday, January 14, 2012
I made these remarks off the top of my head, and I forgot to say some of this. So here's the keynote address as I meant to deliver it. I wish I could include what everybody else said, because the speeches - from farmers, charcutiers, pickle-makers, cheese-makers, beer brewers, chocolatiers, distillers and preservers were heartfelt and truly interesting. This artisanal food movement is truly changing the way that we eat.
Good Food Awards Talk
Most of you are too young to remember an America with awful food. An America where every strawberry was like cotton, where every salad was made with iceberg lettuce and had a sweet orange dressing called “French,” an America where good coffee was unknown, bread was white, and cheese was imported from France. So you don’t also have the joy of remembering the little moments when it changed. I want to tell you about what those moments were for me.
The first was a summer in the late seventies when I walked into the Cheese Board in Berkeley and someone said, “taste this.” It was a fresh goat cheese - soft, rich, fluffy, and I loved it. “Where in Franc is it from?” I asked.
“A little place called Santa Rosa,” was the reply. I spent an entire summer living on that first American goat cheese - and then I decided I had to go meet Laurie Chenel, the woman who was making it.
The second moment was when Larry Forgione opened An American Place restaurant in NY in the early 80s. One day he came into the dining room shaking something in a jar. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Whipping cream for the strawberry shortcake,” he said. I was stunned. I had no idea that you cream could be so rich that you could whip it with a few shakes of a jar. It was, for me one of those lightbulb moments when you realize how much the raw products matter.
But the most important moment for me was when I was working on a piece for California magazine called "Artists of the Earth, “They are,” I wrote, “perfectionists who work very hard not because they expect to get rich but simply because they expect to get the best. We are finally recognizing that the people who have made our food the finest in the worl are some of California’s most valuable resources. "
For this piece I interviewed a group of people who were leading what was then called “the California Food Revolution - people like Paul Johnson who was changing the way fish was sold, and Frank Dal Porto who was growing pigs and lambs for Chez Panisse. (Incidentally, he told me, off the record, that he thought Alice was crazy; he couldn’t understand why she’d pay the same for a 30 pound lamb as for a hundred pound one, but if she was buying he was willing to sell.) And Billy Marinelli who was touting West Coast oysters to a world obsessed with Blue Points.
But the real aha moment came at the Chino Ranch in Rancho Sta. Fe. I went down there with Alice, and we spent two days in the fields, exploring the most beautiful produce I’d ever seen in my life. I remember standing there eating raw corn so wonderful I wondered why anyone would ever cook it. And then, just before we left, we went out and picked strawberries for that night’s dinner at Chez Paniss.
We each carried a flat onto the plane - one of those little planes that flits between San Diego and Oakland. And the scent of those berries rose up and spiraled through the plane, reminding people of the way things used to be. You ahve to remember that this was a time before farmer’s markets, a time when people had forgotten what a real strawberry tasted like. And one by one they came over to where we were sitting, begging for a tsate. “Just one berry,” people would plead, “I’d forgotten that’s what strawberries were like.” As I watched Alice giving away that night’s dessert to the people on the plane, I said to myself _ this is why things in America are going to change. When people realize what we have lost, they will want to get it back.
But still, I never imagined that we would come so far, or so fast. Back then you could hardly manage to eke out an article on the artistans; there just weren’t enough of them. Today you could fill an encyclopedia. People like you are out there growing and baking and preserving. While the rest of the world is slowly losing its heritage, we Americans are reclaiming ours. Artisans like you have made American food the best in the world. In my book you’re not just artisans of the earth - you’re heroes. And I want to thank you - so much.