Dreading a Sustainability Backlash

We talk a lot at CHOW.com about how San Francisco is obsessed with food and dining to an extreme we never thought possible. Seriously, you would think there is nothing else to do in this town. No bands to go hear, no theater to go see, no trails to go mountain bike on, no sex to be had. All anybody wants to do is Try the New Bar Agricole! Get Into Flour + Water Restaurant! Wait in Line for Hours For the New Pop-Up Ramen Place! As a reporter at the now-defunct Internet business weekly the Industry Standard, I saw this same hysteria during the dot-com boom. And I saw it die and people move on. What frightens me is not that this will one day happen to the food fetish movement, but that when it happens, we will lose some of the exciting gains that have come about as a result of local/sustainable sourcing becoming "cool."

We're rediscovering lost varieties of corn and cucumbers our ancestors ate, before they were almost driven out of existence through genetic modification. People are getting into making things they formerly just picked up at stores, whether it's growing their own herbs or canning and pickling. Studies have shown that humans attain greater happiness through experiences than purchases. A growing chunk of the American public is beginning to tune in to the fact that our country's meat production system is cruel, environmentally harmful, and physically dangerous. There are so many more good things, I could go on and on.

And yet. Yesterday, I was interviewing a prominent young chef in the city who shall remain nameless, because I fear his comments here are a little taken out of context. He said that he "wasn't into the local/sustainable thing," because it "wasn't efficient." If he had said, "I don't believe women should vote because they're too emotional" I do not think I would have been more surprised, considering how ultra un-P.C. this stance is these days. He later went on to dismiss a local trendy ramen maker for putting Blue Lake beans in his ramen, and other types of designer produce, rather than working on the fundamentals of his broth. "I think he's missing the point," the young chef said.

It was clear to me that this chef objected, ultimately, to the tiresome trendiness of the local/sustainable thing. His contrarian, intellectual-satirical streak had a problem with the naive idealization of a fantasy agrarian lifestyle. It reminded me of that great scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen's Alvy character, despite his better judgment, goes on a visit to California, where he's predictably alienated by the mantra-spouting, sprout eating, fashion hippies he encounters there, and hightails back to NY in his tweeds.

So how do we make sure that the baby isn't thrown out with the bathwater, when consumers and chefs ultimately tire of the preciousness of the homespun farm aesthetic, and turn to the next cool thing?