One Critic's Take on "The Locavore's Dilemma"

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Why bother? - Image via
Why bother?

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Why bother?
On Monday, St. Louis Magazine restaurant critic Dave Lowry posted "The Locavore's Dilemma: One Critic's Take" on the magazine's food blog, Relish. The piece is a merciless and often quite funny critique of the locavore movement.

The preoccupation with "local" foods is, at best, like water in plastic bottles and unlikely, hypochondriacal food allergies, an upper middle-class fetish. Saddled with too much income and untethered by the discernments of a serious education, they roam the more barren plains of the cultural landscape, looking for any place that will offer them some sense of specialness. These are the same people who contribute money to combat clinical depression in polar bears. Or bring electricity to needy Amish. Those people who don't have any kids of their own and who buy yours those stupid wooden craft fair toys as gifts? Likely locavores. Insisting on eating locally is an affectation, a posture. Locavores are the sorts who live in constant fear of being identified with the McRib-gobbling proletariat.

Push the hyperbole aside -- you really have to put your shoulder into it, but still -- and Lowry makes a couple of good points about the practical limitations of locavorism. Yet most of his diatribe is only tangentially related to the pros and cons of locally farmed or raised food.

In truth, it's a raging against the death of a certain way of thinking about our relationship to what we eat.

The most obvious criticism of "The Locavore's Dilemma" is also the least interesting. Yes, Lowry draws a ridiculous caricature of the locavore. His technique bears some semblance to the broad, class-based generalizations that New York Times columnist David Brooks loves to make, though while Brooks' broad brush is sincere, if flawed, Lowry's is thick with disdain:

Their condo walls are festooned with Indonesian masks and the folk-detritus of third-world cultures. Their yeasty, leftist, muffin-headed politics are iced with concerns for Amazonian tribesmen and freeing Tibet. Yet a serving of beets that didn't come of age within five miles of the restaurant where it appears on a plate turns them into snooty chauvinists.


Lowry's dislike of locavores is directed more at their (presumed) politics than their concern about the sources of their food. He derides their "progressive, anti-capitalist sensitivities" and "eco-smugness." He compares their logic to Sean Penn's plan for world peace. The subject might be food, but this is the same reductive red/blue, left/right, us/them approach that passes for political discourse these days.

I don't know Lowry personally. I don't know -- nor, frankly, do I care -- what his politics are. However, he makes the classic conservative (in the universal sense of the term, not its specifically American political connotation) argument against any new idea. Andrew Veety, a local food blogger and occasional Gut Check contributor, summarizes this beautifully in a comment he left on Lowry's post as well as on his own blog:

Sadly, Dave's argument is additionally weakened by a secondary theme that appears throughout his essay -- namely a sense of entitlement and arrogance associated with being an accomplished eater. Without specifically saying it, the locavore is regulated to the same group as the often maligned foodie. To many, the term foodie is an affectionate term, used to describe the fraternity of eaters. The darker side of the term foodie is an insult -- a method for the experienced to point out the amateur status of another. If one can stratify eaters, one can maintain one's position at the top of the dining heap.

Are those who believe that eating has a moral and political component (to expand the discussion beyond the very few people who eat local produce exclusively) blameless? Absolutely not. Its most outspoken advocates come across as strident and out-of-touch with everyday life. Read Michael Pollan codify his beliefs into "rules" for eating or hear Alice Waters suggest that we should spend less on sneakers and cell phones and more on food, and you, too, might be tempted to reach for Lowry's poison pen.

Yet by concentrating on the extremes on either side of the issue, by falling into the easy pattern of outrage and snark, we ignore the serious questions about our eating habits that we must address, and we avoid the compromises that we must inevitably make.

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