Eat Small

Posted on December 10, 2008 by psu

Locavore (n): A person who eats local and fresh food, and is particularly smug about it.

This fall we happened to book a trip to San Francisco, where we planned to drop in on Slow Food Nation, the convention of the national Slow Food geeks. So we found ourselves in the middle of our favorite food town surrounded by a national population of the food-obsessed. It should have been a fantastic feast for the senses and the palate. But it wasn’t. I finally boiled over when I got to the front of the line at the one food pavilion and was served a mediocre tamale.

Instead of a rich, soft, sweet substrate of fluffy corn-filled goodness, there was just this yellow lump covered in a non-descript salsa. Salsa, I will add, because I am egotistical, that wasn’t nearly as nice as the stuff I can whip up occasion out here in the wastes of Pittsburgh.

The monotonous entree brought all my misgivings about Slow Food into focus for me. I think the crux of our philosophical differences is that all I care about is whether the food is good, and I don’t really care where it came from or how it got that way. Meanwhile, all of the displays and rhetoric at the Slow Food gathering obsessed over origins and processes and obscure local ingredients that for some reason I was supposed to be impressed with just for the very fact that they existed and someone had bothered to dig them up again. However, all of this bluster and advocacy had failed in one important task. None of it demonstrated that the product they were trying to sell me was any good at all.

A few blocks away at the Farmer’s Market at the Ferry building the situation was completely different. This market consistently astounds me in that jaw-dragging on the sidewalk way, especially if you visit in the middle of November and note that it is basically no different at all from how it looks at the end of August. There was simply nothing there that was not beautiful, and fresh, and tasty, and incredible. There was the one vendor who sold nothing but peppers:

Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building

There was fruit:


Tomatoes of all shapes, sizes, and colors:

Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building

and on and on. Here were 3 or 4 square blocks filled with samples of simply the best product you can buy anywhere. When confronted with this display, all I can ever think is why exactly does California get so much credit for the “local” food movement when it is the easiest place on earth to cook and eat this way? If you can make food like that in the middle of November in Pennsylvania, you have really achieved something. But in San Francisco all you really have to do is just show up. The stuff you need is there literally all the time.

Which brings me back to my tamale. How was it possible that ten blocks from this eden, this ludicrous display of organic plenty, I could get a mediocre tamale? In retrospect the answer was simple. The poor people at the food booth were making tamales for 10,000. They were stretched thin for materials and man power, and whatever could have made the dish great was sucked away by the sheer scale at which they had to work. More than anything else, what always kills good food is production on a mass scale. Something cooked for thousands will never be as good as something cooked for hundreds, or dozens. So when given the choice, always eat small. Find small restaurants, small bakeries, and small cafes. Places where the people care about taking what they have available and making into something great each time they do it, and where they are working at a scale that allows them to keep caring.

This lesson was brought home to me again the next morning when we went to Dottie’s for our final breakfast in the city. As usual, we had to wait a bit to get into the place. But it was all worth it to get those pancakes that Kurt makes every day in small batches, to the few dozen people who bother to seek out the place. We all go there and stand in line for a big meal, cooked excellently, in that wonderfully cramped small space. It would be terrible if they ever over-expanded.