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Beth Barham is finicky about what she puts on her plate. During the winter months, for instance, organic California spinach will suffice for a proper salad. But come spring, when the spinach is harvested locally, it simply must come from a farm near her home in Columbia.
Barham won't touch processed foods. She shops at farmers' markets, organic- and natural-food stores, and a gem of a grocery called The Root Cellar, which sells only Missouri-made products. Little, besides paper goods or an imported cheese a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano for pasta, say will get her to a supermarket.
"Kraft has a Parmesan cheese," Barham points out, her small mouth drawn. "It tastes like shredded rubber. They call it Parmesan cheese, and they have for a long time, and they think they should never be forced to give up the name, just because Americans don't know where [Parma and Reggio Emilia, Italy] is. But Parmesan comes from Italy."
It's where food originates that obsesses Barham.
"I like to buy local food," she says in her sing-song voice. "On the other hand, I recognize that a sheep's-milk cheese from Greece is a special treat, and I like to enjoy that in my life, too. I'm not looking for autarky. I'm looking for balance."
An unassuming woman with the earthy appearance you might expect of an avid Garrison Keillor fan, bird-watcher and scholar who specializes in rural sociology, the 52-year-old Barham has taught at the University of Missouri since 1999. Tablecloths are smoothed across the surfaces of her office, and a "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" monkey lamp oversees a corner of her desk.
Colleagues invariably equate such adjectives as "disarming," "soft-spoken" and "woefully modest" with Professor Barham. "She's like this mild-mannered bulldog," says Hank Johnson, a vintner in Ste. Genevieve County. "When she gets her teeth on something, she holds on, and she's going to hold on until she gets the job done. But she's very calm, very low-key about it."
Fastened to a wall-length bulletin board is Barham's most telling decoration: a blue and gold metal label marked Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée Poularde de Bresse. Left over from a French chicken that Barham feasted on earlier this year, the AOC insignia represents a controversial idea the professor is pushing in Missouri: a European-style system of food and wine labeling in which the place name not the brand name takes precedence.
Barham envisions the day when Missouri's Norton wine or perhaps some of the state's pecans and cured pork will bear ecologically based appellations just as prestigious as those of Champagne and Poularde de Bresse. Her three-year-old effort, called the Missouri Regional Cuisines Project, prompted the French Ministry of Agriculture last year to make her a knight. Barham's project is the first and only endeavor of its kind in the United States.
She believes that local human know-how and terroir a French term suggesting a particular combination of climate, terrain and soil conditions make certain foods and wines distinct. Long ago, Europeans began naming artisanal products for their origins in order to further set them apart from processed fare.
Beurre d'Isigny, for instance, is a sumptuous, salty butter made on the Isigny shores of Normandy, where cattle graze on grass loaded with iodine. Prosciutto di Parma, cured in Parma, Italy, comes from pigs who feed on whey left over from Parmigiano Reggiano production. In Spain the most famous sparkling white wine is called Cava; in Italy the honor goes to Prosecco. Only sparkling white wine made in the Champagne region of France can be called Champagne.
Obtaining an appellation is a highly controlled process, with the government regulating nearly everything in the production chain from growing to slaughtering to aging practices. In the case of wine, appellation boards stipulate which grapes can be used and when they can be pruned and harvested. The rules are strict, and it can take several years to put together an application. In the end, the appellation signified by the AOC stamp in France, or the DOC in Italy is a badge of honor for the producer.
"From one meter to the next, it's a different product because of the terroir," says Marc Felix, a French chef and culinary director of Whole Foods Market in Brentwood. "Where I'm from, the Savoie [in the Alps], we have the most wonderful cheeses: the Reblochon and a Tomme de Savoie. If they didn't have appellations, all these huge companies would destroy the little guys and farms that make them."
Barham says it's the mom-and-pop farms and vintners that profit most from appellations especially in the age of globalization. Unlike trademarks, which can be sold, inherited and affixed to products manufactured anywhere in the world, appellations are a form of intellectual property belonging to a specific region of producers. It's the European governments who typically pursue violators.
In the U.S., though, the cost of purchasing and renewing trademarks not to mention prosecuting those who pilfer them falls on individuals, Barham points out. "Our little producers, they can't even think of buying trademarks or going after thieves. They wouldn't even know where to go get that legal defense." This difference becomes crucial for smaller producers as their goods become more popular. As soon as they're exported, "somebody is going to copy the name," says Barham.