Real Food is Not Hip

Call the sustainable food movement radical. Call it inspiring. You can even say it’s unattainable or even the privileged musings of life seen through the lens of a chilled glass of chardonnay. Just please, don’t call it “hip.”

In conversations about our changing food system, it’s not the words of doubt or disbelief that get me down. “Unrealistic” may be hard to hear but at least it launches an important debate and allows us to really dig into the issues. “Elitist?” Bring that one on, too. It’s the perfect segue into a conversation about inner-city agriculture and the work being done in urban deserts to make those communities more self-sufficient. But please don’t call the food movement “hip.” It’s the kind of comment that, though it may seem innocuous and may even be intended as a compliment, is the most dangerous of all descriptors.

If you hear a note of bitterness about all of this, you’re not entirely off base. As a geek squad lifer there is a frizzy-haired, glasses-wearing, enthusiastic science club member at my core. So I am pretty hard-wired to steer clear of anything labeled “cool” or “popular” lest it beat my socially awkward self to the snub. What can I say? Cafeteria table rejection leaves a mark.

But that’s the power of “hip.” Hip is not only exciting and trend setting, it’s also exclusive in a mean sort of way. After all, the circle of hip can’t be allowed to grow too large or hip will then be average and everyone knows that there’s nothing cool about being common. That’s where the hipsters get it wrong. Yes, the sustainable community lauds small producers—and rightfully so. Small batch production and human-sized farms are valued in the sustainability community for their attention to quality and the hope they give us all for a decentralized, non-industrial food, not as a means of keeping up a velvet rope.

To be hip is also to be trendy, of the moment, the implication being that sustainable agriculture is a “fad,” a fashion that will pass with next season’s hemline. Problem is that trendy things tend to morph into caricature and eventually into burn-out (see women’s shoulder pads, circa 1980 for an example). Mockomedies like “Portlandia” and the sighs and eye rolls that the pickle making, chicken raising, food tattoo wearing Brooklynites are starting to attract among their fellow urbanites are just the start. We need to reclaim the real food movement in the “by the people for the people” spirit in which it started, lest the food movement become too cool for school.

Don’t get me wrong, just because I don’t want sustainable agriculture to be called hip doesn’t meant that I’m not thrilled to see its popularity sky rocket. Local eating on the rise, the increase in the number of farmers markets in the country, CSA subscriptions selling out, heritage and heirloom vegetables finding a place at ever more tables—nothing could be better for eaters, farmers and the planet.

It is simply this. As we grow ever curious about the origin of our food, it is critical that we also remember the origin of the food movement. This is not a trend that was born on the cover of a magazine or brewed up in a Brooklyn basement. The craft of fermenting pickles and hanging sausages was not invented in the back of a pop-up restaurant; it came out of frugal and hungry necessity and has been part of a food culture and practice that has sustained us for generations. The organic food movement was not born with the USDA label in 2001; it is a decades-long struggle that has been fought by generations of outsiders and rebel farmers who want to make a better food system a reality for all eaters. Yes, the real food movement can be a nose to tail dinner at a white tablecloth restaurant but it is also the working parents who cook a locally-sourced dinner from scratch and within their grocery budget for their four kids every night.

Growing food without chemicals, preserving it at home, cooking by hand—these are practices that should never go out of style. We need to be careful not to burden them with the labels of fashion.