Friday, February 1, 2013

John McPhee, Edward Behr and Natural Winemaking

“Natural winemaking” is one of the wine world’s most prominent slogans. Its advocates favor grapes that are grown sustainably with minimal fertilizer and wines made in a “non-interventionist” way – that is, without new oak, which can overpower the flavor of the wine, and with minimal sulfur, which helps preserve wine but can also be an easy way to mask flaws in it. The natural winemaking crowd wants a product that expresses “terroir,” the unique qualities of the precise place in which the wine was made. Its bogeyman is mass-produced wine, particularly big reds with lots of oak, from Yellow Tail at the low end to Bordeaux at the high end.
Natural winemaking is a subset of the slow and organic food movements. Every ideology needs its popularizer, and Michael Pollan filled that role for slow foodies with to his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Behind Pollan lies Edward Behr, who moved to Vermont in the early 1970s to become a carpenter and in 1987 launched The Art of Eating, a quarterly magazine devoted to the search for the truest possible ingredients from vanilla to coffee to pork, which was the subject of a 1999 Behr essay that moved Chipotle founder Steve Ells to source his meat from the most agriculturally honest producers possible. In 1992, the Atlantic Monthly Press published a collection of Behr’s essays, and coincidentally or not, over the next generation various authors have produced a series of popular books focused on a single foodstuff.
Behind Behr’s work and its progeny is John McPhee’s 1967 essay Oranges, about the fruit of that name and the juice produced from it. McPhee became most famous for his books on geology and the environment, culminating in the 1998 book Annals of A Former World, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. Oranges is the third of McPhee’s 25 or so books and the first to focus on the concerns that would dominate much of his writing. He recorded a key inflection point in American agriculture and, while he was at it, a consumer mentality against which today’s environmentally conscious eaters are reacting.
Behr’s essays are often charming, and it’s a shame there aren’t more of them in book form so that the reader can track the development of his writing. Some of his best work comes in his shortest essays, on bay leaves or sorrel or various kinds of mint (a biological class that includes hyssop and lavender, we learn). Behr had read the classics of food writing and cookery and placed himself squarely in that tradition with the title of his quarterly, a nod to M.F.K. Fisher’s collection of that name. “Don’t worry about thieving The Art of Eating,” she reassured him in a letter; “I think I thieved it too, because it’s taken from something said by Brillat-Savarin, something about how men and animals may eat, but very few of them know the art of it.”
Behr is among that select group. In an age before bloggers posted photos and absurdly detailed descriptions of long tasting menus at Michelin-starred restaurants, he knew that Paris chef Alain Senderens favored a preparation of lobster with vanilla. He hunted down ingredients all over the U.S., including the dried Greek oregano and sage sold at Kalustyan’s on Lexington between 28th and 29th in Manhattan. (He doesn’t mention the deli, though, purveyor of my favorite sandwiches in New York.)
Behr is fundamentally an aesthete rather than an environmentalist and a cook rather than a scientist, but his obsessive focus on quality aligns him with the opponents of mass-produced food. That orientation comes to the fore in his essay on pork, which has became leaner in the 1990s as food companies sought to brand the meat as a healthy alternative to chicken. Not only is such meat flavorless; the pigs from which it comes are raised in an unnatural, unhealthy way that requires they be pumped full of antibiotics and cooped up in buildings that generated a horrible smell and immense amounts of waste, all to generate standardized food that gives no joy to those who consume it.
Behr takes endless delight in the diversity that comes with small-scale farming. He expresses the sentiment best in the final paragraph of his essay “A Multiplicity of Apples,” where he writes, “If you sample different varieties from one orchard to another, you come to understand that an essential apple virtue is its unexpected variety of flavor, its surprises from apple to apple, tree to tree, and especially from year to year – produced largely by the imperfectly understood influences of soil, cultural practices, climate, and weather. They are filters through which the flavor of each variety is expressed. And, in fact, it is the surprises – the unending variety, not only the high points – that goad you on.”
Variety is the enemy of the process McPhee explores in Oranges. Florida producers want their concentrate to taste the same from can to can to can. Even in a motel in the heart of Florida orange country, a waitress tells McPhee, customers want consistency. “Fresh is either too sour or too watery or too something,” she tells him. “Frozen is the same every day. People want to know what they’re getting.”  They want the same predictability in their fruit – no blood oranges, and oranges must be that color, even though the ripe fruit may be completely green. Whole processing plants are devoted to achieving that color after the oranges are picked.
But most of the oranges grown in Florida go into concentrate, and “an individual orange means nothing” in making it. Instead of selling oranges, growers sell “pounds solid,” especially sugar, as in the years to come Perdue will sell white rather than dark chicken meat and Iowa farmers will be paid more to produce lean pork. “We are growing chemicals now, not oranges,” one grower tells McPhee, a sentence that could stand for the course of big agriculture generally after World War II, and for the standardization of American life more broadly. Even in the mid-1960s McPhee could write, “Gas stations, Burger Queens, and shopping centers so dominate the towns of central Florida that the overall effect on a springtime visitor can be that he is in Trenton during an August heat wave.”
Surprisingly to the modern reader, wealthier, more educated consumers led the move to concentrate. “Farmers, craftsmen, and laborers buy the least concentrate,” McPhee writes, while “doctors, dentists, lawyers, and corporate executives are the heaviest consumers.” That relationship has been inverted. People like Behr and Pollan have helped change attitudes among the wealthy, while the ever-declining cost of industrialized food has made obesity and diabetes serious public health problems in America. The oenological debates about natural winemaking techniques often sound tinny and intellectualized, but they mirror more serious issues elsewhere in the world of food. 

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