Labun Jordan: New Food

Aug 12, 2013

I was in on the ground floor for this generation’s rediscovery of a local, community-based food culture. My very first word was “more”, asking for more wax beans my mother canned from her impressive garden.

And while “more” could describe many different American food philosophies, I followed it up later in life with lots of Localvore type activities: all-local eating challenges, subscribing to farm CSAs and a restaurant CSA, hauling bins of apples to a communal cider press, agitating for more locally produced flour.

In summer, Vermont’s local food scene can seem close to food nirvana. It combines fresh ingredients with traditional recipes - often with bacon fat – and i t builds a sense of connection with our neighbors. It leaves diners feeling empowered to create a sustainable, tasty, food supply. What could be better?

Well, sometimes, taste buds need to wander.

I’d trade a whole season of backyard produce for a chance to explore the avant-garde molecular gastronomy I’ve heard about. That’s where chefs toss out all notion of what’s possible and invent astonishing things like smoke in edible clouds or glasses of champagne that are nothing but the bubbles. Its definitive cookbook was written by Microsoft’s former Chief Technology Officer and costs $600. Unlikely this food will show up at my neighborhood potluck any time soon.

I’m curious about how we might engineer vegetarian foods that taste like actual meat. I’m even more curious about bugs . Bugs can be locally sourced, but they’re not part of current local traditions. After the United Nations declared insects important to global food security, I went out and bought a book about bug-based cuisine to try to be open-minded.

Then there’s my fascination with food from 3-D printers. Or vaportinis – cocktails that are entirely vapor.

I feel like a dieter circling a forbidden tray of cookies. I’m wandering awfully far from community food principles. And I’m not looking at anything my great-grandparents would recognize. It’s debatable whether some of these dishes even qualify as food – there’s not much sustenance in an edible smoke cloud or in vapor.

But then, what seems like a novelty today might not be tomorrow.

Ten years ago Localvores experimented with challenges to eat only local foods for a week. A lot of folks labeled that a gimmick, but a decade later I wouldn’t even consider it a challenge. So who am I to turn my nose up at what currently seems like flights of fancy? Maybe these daydreams indicate greater things to come. Maybe in a generation the culinary arts will be like the space program – throwing off engineering innovations that show up in many different fields, the Tang experience in reverse. Or, maybe we’ll go super-practical, and bugs will have their turn in the spotlight. You never know.

Our attitudes towards food are always evolving. Vermont’s food culture today is a pretty great baseline, but that doesn’t make it a final answer. We got here by asking: what’s next – and we shouldn’t stop asking that question.