A broad look at the culinary landscape reveals devastation on many levels -- mountains of flavorless chicken breasts harboring multiple varieties of antibiotic-resistant pathogens; boatloads of insipid tomatoes harvested by people making sub-poverty wages and housed in conditions not unlike those of Apartheid-era South Africa; suburban landscapes pockmarked by endless carbon-copy outlets selling such suspect fare.
But the big picture isn't the only picture. Our food system is actively generating dreadful places, but if you hone in, you'll also find that all throughout the country, people are creating great places based around food, too. Corporations wield plenty of power in this country, but they don't control everything. Even as hyper-consolidation of the food industry lurches forward, citizens are creating their own alternatives on the ground.
To illustrate my point, let's look in an unexpected corner of the culinary world: beer. (Don't smirk -- can there be great places where there isn't great beer?) By 2004, Anheuser-Busch brewed fully 45 percent of the beer consumed in the
And yet, look what's happened in the
As recently as 1980, fewer than 50 gigantic brew facilities produced all of the beer consumed in the
What happened? Put simply, a critical mass of people got sick of drinking corporate swill. A home-brew revolution was launched, and some of those home brewers got really good at their craft and opened small breweries. As those small regional breweries flourished, the circle of people who enjoy a good beer widened -- drawing more craft brewers into the market. In 1980, the
There are a couple of "great places" lessons to be drawn here. First, regionality. Who wants to live in a country where the food and beer is the same wherever you go, as nondescript as a Walmart looming at the edge of a suburban freeway? Our new-wave beer culture is helping revive something that has been eroding for a century in this country: regional identity. When I travel, I can now think in terms of beer-sheds. Here is just a sampling: Stone, Green Flash, and Port in Southern California; Lost Coast, Russian River, and Lagunitas in the north of the state; Bells and Founders in the upper Midwest; Five Points and Brooklyn Brewery in New York City; Highland, Duck Rabbit, and Craggie here in North Carolina; and so on. All of them are world-class breweries, and none of them existed in the pre-1980 Dark Ages. You can now go nearly anywhere in the country and experience a robust and varied local beer culture.
There's also an economy-related "great places" aspect here. I don't want to live in a place where a small class of "knowledge workers" flourishes, catered to by a large and de-skilled "service" class that's barely able to scrape by. In my vision of a great place, economic prosperity is shared broadly, and communities benefit from the presence of skilled artisans producing a variety of things in their midst.
By 1980, the brewer trade had essentially disappeared in the
And we've barely tapped the economic potential of de-corporatizing our beer supply. After 30 years of explosive growth, craft beer still represents just 4.9 percent of the
Moreover, craft beer is starting to become more intimately knit into regional agricultural economies. Right now, barley and hops -- two of beer's main ingredients -- are grown in mono-cultures concentrated in a few places. Craft breweries in the Northeast typically source these staples on the same commodity markets as those in, say,
To me, food is integral to the concept of "great places." It represents the opportunity to rescue our culinary culture from the clutches of corporate flavor engineers and replace it with something that ties us to landscapes around us and to the skills of our neighbors. Economically, it represents the opportunity to revalue labor, and create economies based on respect and care, not exploitation and the race to the bottom.
There are many obstacles between present reality and my vision of a delicious food future, chief among them the lack of infrastructure -- as I've written so many times before, including in my very first column as a Grist staffer in 2006. But as the story of craft beer shows, things can change for the better fast -- especially when people band together in pursuit of deliciousness.