“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.”
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 dubious
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).
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.)