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“I’m basically insane,” the woman said.  We were in an auditorium that was rapidly filling up, and I had to get enough information from her to introduce her, and three others, in moments, and this is all she had to say.  Her name was Novella Carpenter, a writer and an urban farmer. I knew nothing about her other than what I could see—straight blonde-brown hair, glasses, long prominent chin, 30 something?  And that the most salient fact I needed to know about her was that she was “basically insane.”

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I hadn’t been faced with Catch-22 in a while—she couldn’t be insane if she knew she was insane, could she?  Then again what sane person raises pigs, goats, lambs, and turkeys in their living room, in a sketchy concrete neighborhood a block from I-580 in Oakland? I would be introducing her to a crowd of ostensibly reputable and intelligent people in the food industry.  Handlers swept her away before I could retrieve a coherent explanation. 

Maybe they were all insane.  Also scheduled to speak during the next hour and a half was woman whose middle name seemed to be the number 8.  A man, once on a mission of tea, who now might arguably be called a worm whisperer.  And a gray haired fellow who believed we should grow our produce in New York City skyscrapers and burn our shit for fuel.

So this was Taste3, a TED-esque conference devoted to food, wine, art and, well, perhaps the insane people pushing our food world forward.  Over two days in late July, some thirty, activists, chefs, writers, farmers, scientists and artists spoke at Copia, a wine and food center in Napa, California, an event hosted by the Mondavi winery and Margrit Mondavi, wife of Robert Mondavi who passed away in May.

So what is Taste3, really?  I was asked not to speak but rather to introduce the aforementioned people of questionable sanity.  I'm at heart a loner and don't take to crowds well, but here was, I cannot help but say, an extraordinary group.

The conference opened with a presentation by Chris Jordan, a photographic artist and social activist who attempts to make invisible phenomena visible. Click on the "Running the Numbers" exhibit on his home page.  How many plastic bottles we use every five minutes, 2 million, becomes abstract art becomes a concrete sense of the magnitude of our use.  How many aluminum cans we throw away every thirty seconds becomes a Seurat impressionist painting—aluminum, a valuable mined resource, Jordan said—and we just throw it away.  "A form of insanity," he called it.  This would be the bad kind of insanity.

Jordan's point is that if we can’t see something we won’t be moved to act.  But if we can see it then we might feel, and when we feel, we may be moved to act.

Andrew Kimbrell, director of the center for food safety, a founder of a public interest law firm and editor of Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture made the same point—that if we don’t see something, we won’t react.  Evoking Rachel Carson, Kimbrell outlined the crisis agribusiness has created, what we lose by raising our crops in oil (fertilizer saturated soil, that is), the way chemical companies stand to profit from Monsanto’s dangerous, ethically dubiousTaste3edits_073
business practices (modifying our crops genetically so that they might withstand the extraordinary amounts of chemical fertilizer, sold by the chemical companies, which trashes our land and kills our oceans).

Andrew Smith, editor of The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, told the splendid story of our first processed food, refined bleached flour in the 18th century, and before him, the Minister of Bread, Peter Reinhart (pictured here with some whole grain) discussed what is it about bread that makes it so special, on metaphorical, spiritual, and literal levels. (He’s just come out with Whole Grain Breads—I’ve just ordered his Bread Baker’s Apprentice, because I keep hearing about what an amazing work it is, and having met and listened to the man, see no reason to doubt the praise.)

We were treated to the spare evocative photography of Laura Letinsky, who revels in postprandial mess.

We watched scenes from a documentary on the Kauri, the massive tree native to New Zealand, followed by music played on an exquisitely crafted guitar from the wood of this tree by the musician Michael Chapdelaine, a student of Segovia who only recently turned his classical pursuits toward popular music (“the dark side” he called it).Taste3edits_188_2

Moto pastry chef Ben Roche showed films of his far out pastry creations (while we tasted his packing peanuts — tastes just like buttered packing peanuts, rather, popcorn!).  Dan Barber gave a full account of his journey to Spain to visit the farmer who raises geese for foie gras without practicing gavage.

In the auditorium and outside it, I met for the first time and shared meals with two of my favorite bloggers, and met some others.  It was the kind of happening that makes you feel like you’ve been alive for a week but the spirits have done their work in two days and your head throbs with information.  What an amazing and diverse culinary world we live in, and what a great interecting of politics, art, food, innovation, and wine.

And what of the urban farmer (above in the green shirt) and the man (pictured at the top) who wants to build farms in the air?  I’ll hope to give them their due in posts soon.  They and a couple others merit more space.

(Photos courtesy of John Griffin Photography.)

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38 Wonderful responses to “Taste3: a food-art-wine-thought gathering”

  • NYCook

    Ruhlman what a fabulous post. Recently on the roof of our apartment in NYC my girlfriend and I have started our on rooftop garden with the help of a few neighbors. It’s a good time and also helps give our rooftop parties a bit of class, as decorum was generally lowered by my cook buddies. Also was wondering if you had any thoughts on pig trotters and Fergus Hendersons Trotter Gear?

  • luis

    Weird post Michael… This one with so many links will take some time to read and understand. My latest book purchase arrived and I have been paging through it… The name of the book is “The Physiology of Taste or meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy” Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.
    Translation by M.F.K. Fisher.
    A little weird too…. But a good read I think,,, I hope.
    On a more immediate useful tack… Eric did some brioche and quail egg thing…in his toaster and from that I decided I want to make brioche sometime, some day…
    Understanding taste seems like the key to becoming a better than average cook I think. But it is a double edged sword as well.
    chefs taste new things to explore and learn it seems. Basic folks never venture that far offshore their confort level. Part of me thinks there is a payday at the end of this book. But another part of me is very skeptical this book is relevant on so many levels…. we’ll see… I am just gonna experience this excursion into the rationalization of taste. It’s like we are thinking along similar paths anymore?.
    You should post warnings to folks that read you about this cosmic convergence of gastronomic thinking before we all get sucked down the same drain.

  • socalchef(formerly jasonl)

    hey nycook, are you suggesting that all cooks are degenerate, loudmouth party crashing craies? If you are then, thank you. I resemble that remark.
    Ruhlamn, good post. the biggest ting I got out of it was the ‘catch-22’ reference. I believe I moght possibly own that book courtesy of my late father. I read that when I was a teenager. GREAT book. gotta go see if I have it or not

  • Brian

    really interesting post. Would love to hear more about the farms in the air!

    Also appreciate the Catch-22 reference, I too read in as a teenager after finding my dads old paperback copy on our book shelf.

    Cheers,
    Brian

  • Victoria

    This is going to sound unbelievable, but for ten years my friend and I raised European fallow deer for venison on his farm in upstate New York where we spend weekends. (Obviously, we had someone tend to the deer during the week.) We learned what it is to humanely raise animals destined to be food and how difficult farming is. The deer had lots of land to roam and graze and were rotated from field to field to keep the grass growing. They were never given antibiotics, but they did need some vaccinations and shots and supplements, which I learned to give them. For instance, they needed selenium because the soil was depleted of that element. Our respect for animals grew, as did our knowledge about the cruel way most animals are raised – something we didn’t even know about until then. I am always happy to see you focus on this issue. Kudos to you. We no longer raise deer, but we do have a vegetable garden that feeds us all summer. Next year I am going to learn how to “put some things up,” so we have our own vegetables in the winter.

  • luis

    Of the six senses Savarin listed connected to taste, smell seems to be high on the list.
    This morning while sauteeing some tofu and poblano on low heat the sweet smell of the olive oil and everything else combined seemed to slowly begin to emerge from the kitchen. (I don’t sit over anything cooking in the kitchen, choosing to use timers to time my presence in the kitchen). The aroma of food cooking isn’t anything new, however for some reason I seemed to pay it more attention. Long story short there seemed to a distinct point in that process in which the aroma reached its peak and plateau at a particular level. Sight unseen (covered pan) I took the pan off the burner and declared it done. (of course it all continued to cook off the burner for a few minutes longer).
    I am going to assume for the time being unless I learn otherwise that “Peak taste happens simultaneously with Peak smell” regardless of how done/crispy the dish looks.
    Another variation of this and there are several would be to go from burner to broiling just ahead of peak smell to get that extra crispy if texture matters in the dish.
    Anyhow for optimum taste I think smell will take the lead ahead of my timer(hearing) or my sight unless I am deep frying and then the foaming and frothing peak will be a strong consideration. But I have yet to digest Savarins meditations on the subject.

  • ntsc

    nycook

    My wife and I got 100 lbs of tomatoes off the roof of our Brooklyn brownstone one year in the early 80s. Gave up rooftop gardening when I had to get all the containers off the roof because of a possible hurricane in 85(?).

  • ruhlman

    luis,

    what does anything you’ve written have to do with the post? please don’t fill up the comment space with musings not relevant to the post.

    thank you.

  • A

    Calling Andrew Kimball and the Center for Food Safety a “public interest law firm” is a bit of a stretch.

    Step One: Solicit donations from Food Companies.

    Step Two: Sue those Food Companies that didn’t donate.

    Extortionists is closer to the truth.

  • Kate in the NW

    Sounds like a Star Trek convention for foodies. Beam me up!!!!!

    Is anyone doing work on how palates/preferences are “trained” or “learned”? Why do we like what we like? Can we relearn ne preferences that lead us to more sustainable eating?

    My 10-year-old daughter asked to make an appetizer two nights ago – she took some pieces of super-fresh mozzarella, arranged them on a plate, drizzled them with homemade caramel (from the fridge), squeezed a lemon over the top and placed a single fresh rosemary leaf on each one (they were about the size of a half-dollar). It was…AMAZING!

    Why/how do these things happen? How do we learn/unlearn how to create flavor?

    Anyway – I don’t want to get nailed like Luis did…it just seems like some sort of conference (like this one) would offer a forum for exploring such things. They fascinate me. I’d love to hear your thoughts, also being a parent and a gastronome at a level of sophistication I can only dream of. But do kids know something we don’t, being unjaded?

    Just a question I mull over from time to time. I’m sure you have more answers than I do!

  • Garrett

    It was great meeting you there Michael! The conference really was just the most informative and thought provoking meeting of the minds I’ve ever seen! Cannot wait to go back next year!

  • carri

    I’m putting Novella Carpenter on my list of people I’d like to have a beer with! Thanks for such a great post. We are lucky to get such an insiders perspective…way to spread the ‘love’!

  • Claudia (the Original)

    Great blog, Michael – even if it will take me the next two days to read every link!

    Rooftop NYC farming? Sure. There is space for vegetable gardens, and we have several apiaries in Manhattan alone – which might be a particularly fine idea, given the colony collapsing occurring across the rest of the U.S. (A rooftop full of Mangalitzas might be pushing it, though – you know how co-op boards can get!)

  • Kevin

    Michael,
    I don’t miss much from my two-year tenure in CA, but I do miss Copia (which I consider an important institution in the food world). I was a subscriber and must have made half a dozen visits in two years just for events like this. Thanks for the report.

  • Foodwoolf

    A great teaser for what should be a feature story. I’d love to hear more about these people, especially the insane goat farmer.

    PS, I just finished reading your pieces in the Bouchon book–your writing was just beautiful! The story about the lamber was one of the most elegant short pieces of food writing I’ve read in quite some time.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    Brooke

  • Ms. Glaze

    After living in an Indian village for a year with no real form of plumbing, I think that excrement for energy idea would be a real winner. Sounds crazy, but you never know. Who would of thought corn would ever be used for energy?

    I’m happy to see that people are talking about foie gras sans force feeding. Many farms in France don’t force the animals to eat with feeding tubes.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Wow, you had to be away from home for that? You have my unbounded respect.

    (I hope that you find The Bread Baker’s Apprentice the terrific introduction to artisan bread baking that I found it to be. It’s first rate!)

  • Wilmita

    Simply amazing this!

    I had never thought that I should see the day when people were so in thrall to food to take it to this level. I recall when chicken wings were considered to be offal.

    Sounds like a great but curious gathering.

    The PA Horticultural Society has encouraged city gardening for decades. Every sort of urban green gardening I have done. Yet, I remember vividly being mocked, scorned etc.

    Heck, I was mocked when I was a student at Oberlin in the 70’s because I had an espresso/capuccino machine in my dorm room.

    Thank you for your great post.

    Remember, those who remember when will ALWAYS remember when.

    Wilmita

  • Natalie Sztern

    Jennifer 8 Lee wrote a book I am currently reading called the Fortune Cookie Chronicles and I do believe she also blogs….wish i was so talented at that age.

  • Bruce F

    I appreciate the Crazy Dreamers who want to grow food on top of skyscrapers as well as Urban Farmers like Novella Carpenter.

    The ideas of Pollan, et al. can be hard to put into practice without a design team backed by a big budget. That said, it’s possible for city residents to grow a little of their own food on their rooftops. My friends and I are doing just that in the City of Chicago.

    Check it out.

    http://greenroofgrowers.blogspot.com/

  • Elise

    Ah shucks Michael, it was great to meet you too, and share the magic of Taste3.

    FYI, for your readers, you can see videos of past sessions of Taste3 on their website. At the time of this writing, highlights of the 2008 conference aren’t up yet, but there are some terrific videos from the 2007 conference including the bee guy talking about colony collapse disorder, and Dan Barber sharing a love story.

  • luis

    Obviously Michael… I am thrown by the title a bit. “Taste”?????? My bad….sorry.

  • kanani

    What a wonderful day. I enjoyed reading this one a lot. The amount of talent and passion in the room sounds overwhelming.
    Lucky you!

  • p_chefy

    Urban farming. Something I can’t wait to get back into! (Nursing baby right now. Not a good time.)Friends made fun of me for growing corn at the end of my driveway, but it looked great with some fake cobwebs at Halloween. And I am sure the neighbors got a thrill watching me chase of the squirrels. Oh, yes. I am insane. Although I could learn something from Novella.

  • Frances

    Thanks for the links Elise. I thoroughly enjoyed the bee guy. I have a special fondness for bees and we used to see a lot of honey bees on our clover blossoms. But not any more.

  • luis

    Kate, confusing post to say the least.. not even the title fits its content given the body of work Michael has under his belt.
    It’s some sort of poutpourri of ideas… Like an Umpa-Loompa convention of folks working to save the chocolate factory.

  • NYCook

    I don’t get what is so confusing about this post, its about an EVENT with taste in the name–apparently focusing on sustanable agriculture– not TASTE the sense. How you would be able to tie this to Charlie in the
    Chocolate Factory, Brillat-Savarin, Tofu, or Chef Ripert is beyond me. Really, just line after line of drivel.

  • luis

    NYcook…”sustanable agriculture” and that is in skyscrappers?.. containers?…
    Oh Please, common dope dealers have raised the art of sustainable urban agriculture to levels never before attained… At the expense of high energy costs and the polar ice caps melting….ompa loompa you!!!!!!!
    Don’t take offense man… we are just talking and having fun.
    I am watching the openning night of the Olympics… and I made my version of a chinesse paella. Ok! hell if I can account for what I actually made and Hell if I can account for a lot of the stuff I have cooked and shared. ( Look the paella was eaten before I had a chance to serve me a helping)
    You know why?..??… I think it’s because there is an intangible component to a succesfull recipe. And that is “LOOOOOve!!!”.
    How does anyone quantify and qualify that into a dish????????????hmmmmmmmm??????? Tell me smart ass!

  • Brian

    Quick question regarding the urban gardening aspect here. Any of you aware of much of this (or a good blog or site) going on in Chicago? My wife and I moved out here from Idaho 5 years back and both really miss having just space to grow stuff :)

    If you know of any sites/stories about urban gardening in Chicago please do let me know.
    Cheers!
    Brian

  • Natalie Sztern

    FYI here in Montreal, the city and its suburbs offer to golden agers various patches of land for them to grown their own vegetables. These patches of land are completely cordoned off in different suburbs. I am not completely sure how a golden ager goes about getting a patch of that land nor how they get to enter; but it is a delight to drive by and see how many of them are in their ‘gardens’ day in and out.

    also a great motivator and socialization process for them.

  • luis

    NY, disregard previous shoe post.. too much vino. I was reading the chapter on “The Making of a Chef” The thing the new chefs seemed to be most proud off was that they had some control of their process and “KNEW” how to fix sauces etc when something went sideways.
    Love gets you into the kitchen but knowledge determines wheter the dishes make it out off the kitchen.
    Natalie it only takes one bad actor loose in the garden or the lake in my case and the whole experience goes negative fast. Its lobster season here. Folks wait all year to show up and take their six lbs…
    Yesterday they caught someone with six thousand lbs…. Other than that an urban garden for seniors and kids is a wonderful thing. A nice big wherehouse fully hydroponic could be set up such that folks would rent a vertical space and plant it and you could have a flea market/farmers market on the premises. The concept behind the Antique Wherehouses I am familiar with is simple. You get produce/product/ whatever from your rented business space and you mark it with your vendor number. Werehouse staff sell it for you and credit your account. Lots of tax benefits tied to that because as an urban farm you can deduct your travel and other expenses…and you can keep the bad guys out.

  • luis

    shoot…naow I am thinking hydroponics and ferris wheel werehouse urban farms… one click and there is a planting and upsydaisy another click on the wheel and another … you get the idea. Solar Panels or windmills could drive the farm… lots of ferris wheels like a huge vertical three dimensional slot machine Urban Farm Casino. Rows and rows…
    Only variable is climate. This idea needs some considerable work. I think we need to start by trying to figure out where cities lose energy.. waste energy that is going to waste. It is all about using energy efficiently I think.
    And speaking of energy… this is the kind of thing our new young energetic minds need to be comptemplating….Because this requires youth and the fearlessness young people have… That is our greatest resource.

  • novella

    michael;
    congrats, you summed it up better than anyone! and for those who complained your post had too many links, they should know: there could have been more. right? the conference was so inspiring, so brain-titillating, i felt high (john denver style) for a few days afterward.
    and thanks for the shout-out.