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The Broken Promise of California Cuisine
Where good food has gone bad
The “smart casual” aesthetic of California cuisine promised us a better way of living. But its food shrinks the plane of our politics at the expense of labouring bodies.
By Francis Northwood
Drive up from Los Angeles to Sonoma via interstate five: land, land and more of it, feeding most of the state and much of the country. The farms and farmers of this region feed metropolitan restaurants like the infamous Chez Panisse. Opened in 1971 by chef and author Alice Waters, Chez Panisse was designed to provide its patrons with an “everyday agrarian experience”. A fantasy, as no reasonable person would understand this experience as earnest. A dinner costs US$175 per person excluding beverages, tax, and service and it might end with a deliberately modest bowl of fruit.
Irony aside, the restaurant delivered an important genre. In her book, Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America, art historian Alison Pearlman describes how, beginning with Chez Panisse, restaurants began to blur the differences between fine and casual dining, producing a “smart casual” style. Chez Panisse reflects neither just haute nor just hippie. Its first floor was for French fine dining, but so that Waters’ “new establishment [could] be all things for all people,” she made the second floor a cheaper (but still pricey) café meant to evoke an Italian trattoria. This postmodern style is inextricably Californian, catering to both dressed-down tech workers and the old-money elite.
French sociologist Jean Baudrillard famously described Los Angeles as the postmodern city — a city “without space, without dimension”— qualities equally applicable to the hyper-digitized Bay Area of today. Only in such a spaceless place could cuisine be both wholly imported (Chez Panisse’s menu is not rooted in the long history of California, the physical place) and at the same time be described as the way “people have been eating since the beginning of time”. In such a place, where the land had been torn from its original inhabitants and repackaged as wild, it’s easy to see how cuisine could grow without the restrictions of tradition or the demands of history.
But we’ve seen this happen even in places with more coherent culinary histories than California. Proponents of the Slow Food movement in Italy, a movement that, like California cuisine, promotes local food, have been known to grasp onto idealized versions of their traditions that gloss over the histories of struggle — along the axes of class, race, and gender — that have shaped the way people eat. The translucent cured pork fat lardo di Colonnata, “once a common element in local diets and an essential source of calorific energy for impoverished quarry workers,” was a seminal part of the Slow Food Movement’s growth in Italy, which “reinvented and repackaged [the] exotic item for gourmet consumption,” though the proletariat communities who snacked on it didn’t benefit from its commodification.
More austere themes of sanitized tradition appear in New Nordic cuisine (of Noma 1.0 fame) and its minimalist look, which many have come to associate with Scandinavian culture. The cuisine’s founding manifesto proclaims its wish “to express the purity, freshness, simplicity, and ethics we wish to associate with our region”; it’s a sensibility that validates itself both in small plates of simple food, but also beyond the kitchen. These expressions of “simplicity” and “purity” are vague and reek of Nordic tropes. It fits the idea of what consumers expect of Nordic cultural production, making unspoken judgements of who inhabits a body and belongs to a culture worthy of these descriptors. The mostly male chefs who peddle it reject the practices of the aggressive, hypermasculine chef, but also take pains to distance themselves from traditionally “women-like” ways of everyday cooking.
Cuisine in California has undergone similar reinvention and repackaging. But the culinary infrastructure of California is so new that it resists static interpretations or efforts to gatekeep. Is this Californian? Is that? — these questions feel unanswerable, meaningless. This makes it easy for the cuisine to be sold as radical. And thus California cuisine has been marketed as food that somehow feeds and “nourishes” (which Waters believes her food does, in a spiritual sense). A hodgepodge of other cuisines — French, Italian, Mexican, and more — California cuisine “simplifies” what it comes into contact with; in other words, it rids itself of what its interlocutors see as impure. Just as Michael Pollan once called for a shift from commercialized organic farming to “grass farming”, a purer and more artisanal practice, the current food movement, backed by wealthy patrons, is self-purifying. Organic is giving way to “regenerative” or “biodynamic,” local to hyperlocal, heirloom to heritage, and the farmers’ market to the CSA.
Its incessant attempts to purify itself manifest in a problem less obvious than that of New Nordic Cuisine or Slow Food in Italy. Insofar as it lacks a relevant tradition to draw from, California cuisines call for us to care about things like the “soil,” “earth,” or “nature”. The nebulousness of these terms is deliberate — a tool of business to disguise California cuisine’s most harmful practices.
Modern fine-dining culture tends to emphasize the ingredient over technique. Under the reign of cuisine classique, elaborate cooking operations were the hallmark of good cooking, placing significant value on kitchen labour. But as the food culture zeitgeist shifted towards how we grow our food, much fine dining has become an exercise in how simple ingredients are, or how elegantly they’re cultivated. This means that a larger portion of the labour that goes into a “good” or luxury meal now happens on the farm instead of in the kitchen.
Who does the work? Mas Masumoto, the renowned grower of his namesake peach, which Chez Panisse catapulted to stardom, writes that his delicate heirloom peaches need to be picked by many human hands; in an op-ed titled “The better peach,” he calls for immigration reform because only immigrant labour will fill his fields. (Why? Unanswered.) “One fruit requires manual labour,” he writes, “an intensive operation of workers constantly in my fields.”
If only we cared for the labour as much as we do the fruit. Masumoto credits “the food world” — described by NPR as “a world of people who really cared about flavour and how their food was grown” — with saving his collapsing heirloom peach farm. But care for “how food is grown” tends to lapse into mythical reverence of the farmer and the undervaluing of the farmworker. In the California context, we lionize and commercialize the commitment of male farmers like Mas Masumoto or Chez Panisse purveyor Bob Cannard to the land — they have become the pallbearers of agrarianism to consumers. The sensibility of the ruling class — in this case, the once-granola crowd of California gourmands, foodies, yuppies, and other cosmopolitan residents of the state — is shot through these characters. Like New Nordic or regional Italian, Californian cuisine presents an idealized vision of purity. And behind the cleanliness and freshness and simplicity, we hide the labouring bodies of colour who produce the few foods we think of as good and all the other foods that we don’t.
Three-quarters of Californian farmworkers are estimated to be undocumented. Women, representing a third of all farmworkers and so rarely farmers themselves, face a “rape crisis” in California. The relevance of these facts to Californian cuisine may seem tenuous — after all, boutique farms have sold themselves as an alternative, so the wrongdoings of megafarms would seem to only further justify the California food movement. Mainstream alternative food discourse holds that we vote with our forks; taking our business elsewhere signals the type of future we want to see. But critic Mark Grief notes how the endless purification of the organic cannon requires “the patronage of a few buyers at the very top of the income distribution.” The whole operation shrinks, as do the politics. Boutique farms like Cannard’s or Masumoto’s don’t hire as many people as the mega-farm. That’s the point: scaled-down farming. They are an exercise in craft for craft’s sake, as luxury products often are.
But what comes with this territory is a particular brand of consumer politics that further isolates thousands upon thousands of farmworkers and low-income people already in crisis. At best, California’s food movement and its associated fine dining institutions leave most farmworkers politically unaffected; at worst, the growing industry of boutique farms isolates the farm workers of the megafarms because they tend to put the spotlight on farmers and their college-educated farm interns, those with an “interest” in farming, not the farmworkers who more literally feed our country.
I’m not here advocating for a modern future full of mega-farms that feed everyone and employ everyone — that doesn’t taste good and perpetuates the injustice of the status quo. But the contradiction that forms with luxury items — having luxury items in an unequal world relies upon inequality — needs to be solved somehow, and California cuisine is a non-answer. Waters may have claimed that “how we eat is how we live,” that food is political, and this type of cuisine is directed at making change. But there are limits to balancing “countercultural values” and “refined” taste. Waters hints at this in her autobiography, where she coyly remarks of a past lover that “to David, everything was political; to me, too, but I wasn’t about to give up the chocolate mousse.”
The idea, therefore, that there might be something to California cuisine outside of pleasure is naïve. It is a near-pop sensibility — a pleasurable way of living within the system. Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, described slow food as “a homeopathic medicine,” to be “taken daily to remind ourselves that it is we who decide the rhythm of life we want to lead, rather than having these rhythms imposed on us from outside.” Unwittingly, it sounds like an ad for Prozac; funny, because, like Prozac, this kind of approach to food and eating is an understandable response to modern life. We don’t want simple for simple’s sake — at the bare minimum, we want to taste our way out of our anxieties.
Perhaps the anesthetic is beginning to wear off. Chez Panisse’s fruit bowl, once the stuff of “legend”, has become cliché. “Too simple,” writes the San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic in their latest review. And if the fruit bowl is passé, the summer drink of 2022 was nothing, and nobody wants caviar at a time like this. Personally, I’m finding that taste itself, whether in me (biochemically) or in the food (its cultivation, its terroir), is beginning to dull. I throw back tomato sandwiches and tomato-centred BLTs, trendy foods starring the heirloom tomato, the poster produce of a refined green sensibility. But they all taste the same — yellow, orange, big, medium, from the supermarket, the farmer’s market, anywhere in the country. I’ve considered whether or not this means that I’m depressed.
The greater question that remains is how we should eat. It seems obvious — we eat to “nourish” ourselves, for pleasure, and at the bare minimum, to keep ourselves alive. But the question seems practically unanswerable as long as the status quo (capitalism, late capitalism, neoliberalism, whichever -ism you prefer) remains. Right now, for many, food is one of two things: bare subsistence, a limit case on what can keep one alive; or a luxury, an art object. California cuisine was a dream of melding these two things, a promise to provide not just bare subsistence, but everyday art from which life could be drawn. It remains just that — a dream.
Francis Northwood is a freelance writer from California and based in New York City.