|Mmmm. Cascadian huckleberry.|
Americans who want to seem high class sometimes adopt Britishisms, but when they want to seem sophisticated, they often resort to French. Sometimes, as with "laissez faire," it's to hide the ugly truth ("unfettered capitalism" sounds more sinister), but the general idea is to make something ordinary sound fancy--"C'est magnifique" has a flair that "yum" just ain't got. Eventually, the word may become American as apple pie, or at least quiche.
Food is a realm where these migrations occur regularly, and one of the newer arrivals is "terroir," which refers to the peculiarities of flavor bestowed on a food by its place of origin. There is no obvious Engish word that conveys the same concept, which makes sense when you think of most English cuisine (ah, see? the very word "cuisine" had to be imported--I rest my case). But in wine country the soil, climate, and a host of other influences affect the outcome, sometimes on a scale so minute that a location 100 meters away--but on the wrong side of a ridge--cannot replicate the terroir of a prized place.
Americans cling to some remnants of this concept, and seem to be rediscovering it. When I was a kid, Hanover County tomatoes and Smithfield ham had this kind of aura. But for most of my life, farming has trended toward uniformity and commoditization. The 'market' allegedly wanted not just all wheat to be the same, but all cucumbers, tomatoes, hams,...everything. Micro-breweries (and wineries, for you fancy drinkers) and farmers markets, which continue to sprout in new places and thrive where they gain a root-hold, offer hope that we're turning around as a culture, remembering and reviving local flavors.
However, if you get beyond the surface, you see we have a long way to go. The new locavores rail against the authoritarian uniformity imposed on the food supply by Monsanto, ADM, Con-Agra, and...well, the point is that the list is not very long. A lot of ink (how much of it GMO soy-based?) is devoted to lamenting and opposing the monotony of the produce, the loss of diversity and heritage varieties that occurs when all corn is Silver Queen and all cukes are Marketmore. Being a staunch evolutionist, I'm with them on this. Besides being boring, it is incredibly stupid to put all your eggs (mostly laid by just one breed) in one basket. And as a lover of things old, a conservationist at heart, I hate seeing old varieties disappear.
Fortunately, gardeners and small farmers have done a huge amount of work preserving and spreading old varieties and the genetic diversity. There are breeders selecting their way back to plants and stock that were impossible to get a generation ago, and for that matter, coming up with new varieties that do something other than maximize shipping durability and superficial attractiveness.
Meanwhile, the war against terroir is still winning on the terre itself. Relentlessly pressured by that 'market,' farmers try to eke out more production with bigger machines, mechanized irrigation, and chemicals that kill the soil and pump up the produce. Now that there are enough buyers for organic produce, industrial production techniques have emerged in that realm as well, from hydroponics and greenhouses to cloistered chickens that never see the sun or drink the rain. Organic or not, most of hat you find in the grocery store could have been grown anywhere; there is no terroir when the earth is a platform for industrial agronomy.
I am fortunate to live in Western Washington, where there are abundant small farmers who take good care of their land. Like just about everything else about me, my palate is not refined, but I still think that food grown in black prairie loam tastes better than the same thing trucked in from a mega-farm in California. (And it's not entirely about locavorism, either, coffee from my friend's farm in Honaunau tastes like the volcano, not chemically assaulted Brazilian dirt.)
So I guess I am a terroirist. For the time being, it's not illegal. The US may have decided that it's OK to snoop without warrants, to detain bystanders and citizens indefinitely, and launch missiles at people who disagree with its policies, but consumer choice remains sacrosanct, for now. But when Monsanto can sue a farmer for planting seed that, simply because the wind blows, contains some of its patented genes, we are experiencing a level of corporate power that suggests even that freedom may be imperiled. What happens when the industrial producers--too big to fail because they control the food supply, after all--bribe enough politicians to have non-industrial production be labeled dangerous and subversive, outlawed? Maybe this sounds silly to you, but the harmless hippies who sat in old growth trees were transformed into "eco-terrorists" even a generation ago.
We are still free to taste terroir. When we support the Columbia River winery and Yakima hops farmers, we support local roots. When we eat a Quilcene oyster or a Mima camas bulb, we enjoy flavors that exist nowhere else. When we learn to appreciate terroir, we develop senses dulled by our bland modern culture.