That old chestnut: elitism

Small farmer, circa 1931

Small farmer, circa 1931. Thanks to COMFOOD member Shawn and Ethicurean.

In the course of this week’s confirmation hearings for Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture, Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) found it necessary to offer up this patronizing and dismissive description of a small farmer:

That small family farmer is about 5’2″…and he’s a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman’s Quarterly — he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab — and his wife works as stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he’s very happy to have that.

Ethicurean has great coverage of Roberts’ remarks, including his follow-up description of the noble commodity farmer and the hardships he faces as a patriot providing “real” food for America’s families. While it is appallingly misinformed to characterize small farmers growing actual produce as layabout amateurs or dude ranchers, this criticism in nothing new. For decades, it has been fashionable to accuse the people who argue for real, unpretentious food (like vegetables) of elitism for not buying into the processed food system.

This week’s newsletter from online food magazine, Culinate, broached the difficult (and long-standing) critique of ethical eating as elitism. In one article, Caroline Cummins defends her enjoyment of simple cooking against the onslaught of get-on-with-the-rest-of-your-life-prepared-foods. In another, writer Sarah Gilbert deals with her conflicted feelings about the contents of the holiday assistance boxes she received as an Army Reserve family.

Most engaging was Richard Morris’ remembrance of an awkward summer barbecue at which he hesitated to question the origins of the food for fear of embarrassing the hostess, or worse, being marked as a picky pariah. I’ve been in the same position – unwilling to stand up for my values because I didn’t want friends to ridicule my choices.  It reminded me of a recent New Year’s resolution posted by filmmaker Curt Ellis on Civil Eats:

“So this year I’ve decided to make one resolution, and it’s one I intend to keep for life. Having seen animals like that buffalo live and die with dignity, and having seen and (as a consumer) supported the opposite, I will not eat confinement-raised meat again. [...]

I don’t want to be elitist, but I don’t think asking for fundamental respect for the animals I’m eating is pretentious––it seems merely humane. So if I’m in a restaurant that’s making an effort––advertising its “natural” meat and “cage-free” eggs, I’ll have some (and probably order seconds if they’re from an extra good source). If the menu doesn’t advertise where the meat is coming from, I’ll ask. And if quality protein isn’t on offer, I’ll have the oatmeal.”

Ellis’ resolution is a good reminder for all of us who argue for a sustainable food system: there’s nothing highfalutin about eating good, healthy food. Frankly, to call a knobby purple carrot or a simple bunch of greens “elitist” because they don’t come pre-washed in convenient, portioned bags is to seriously misunderstand what it means to be privileged.

Thanks for sharing