True That Chez Panisse Woman

Luigi homed right in on the money quote when he nibbled an Economist article about changed foodways in one small part of America:

35 years ago, I was bringing seeds from France to California. Now I’m bringing seeds back to my friends in France.

Alice Waters, founder of the fabled Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and the soffrito of the US food movement, with a pithy sound bite. But what does it mean? The Economist quotes other luminaries to suggest that the Europeans are defending a food culture while the Americans are building one, whatever that means, but doesn’t actually unpack why the trade in seeds should have reversed direction.1

I can think of two reasons.

First, plant breeders in the US have been busy at work creating new varieties that are particularly suited for the loving local care now being lavished on food. That certainly is true. I know of a few examples, some of whose wares are being grown in Europe.

Secondly, and more likely, varieties that French gardeners and growers developed and nurtured are no longer freely available in France. They successfully made a new life in the New World, and now, like lots of older first generation immigrants, they’re coming home on an assisted passage in Ms Waters’ luggage.

European regulations guarantee that seed you buy will be distinct, uniform and stable and will actually be what it says it is. America and all other countries often have a similar system for those who want it, but they’re also willing to let growers take their chances on an unregistered variety. In Europe, it’s registered seed or nothing. Even the latest regulations, to permit the marketing of so-called conservation varieties, do nothing to encourage further development. They simply preserve in aspic seeds that can be grown by besmocked jolly peasant farmers, equally pickled.

I’m a little surprised that the staunchly free-market Economist has not itself had a go at the monolithic European regulations, and I would have said so there. Alas, comments at high-traffic web sites are almost uniformly unreadable, a perfect example of Sturgeon’s Law in action. Perhaps I’ll just pop in to link to this.2

  1. Long-time readers will realize that I am about to rail against The System. They can move smartly along. New readers, start here. []
  2. And hope that the traffic it drives by won’t wreck the high tone of our own comments. Obscurity has its benefits. Later … Blast! The Economist, rightly probably, allows no links in comments. Ah well, maybe readers will find us anyway. []

2 Replies to “True That Chez Panisse Woman”

  1. “Europeans are defending a food culture while the Americans are building one”

    Well, no. America isn’t a monoculture. There never has been and never will be an American food culture, or any other sort of culture, since it is hugely diverse. Seeds from all over the world as well as indigenous seed and promiscuous crosses of all of them live cheek by jowl in America.

    “I’m a little surprised that the staunchly free-market Economist. . .”

    The Economist has no interest in free markets, it supports highly regulated markets but quibbles about which regulations are best.

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