Food is culture, that’s a given. But is food considered pop culture? Is there a second tier of American food, an equivalent of The Bay City Rollers occupying some déclassé rank beneath Flannery O’Connor, Mark Rothko, Paul Robeson? And what do we do with that which is both, like pizzas topped with baby arugula and farm-fresh cheese or hamburgers made of Kobe beef? Is the cuisine of the United States spread across the low- to middle- to high-brow?
At Bonnaroo this year, Jack White twisted the universe into songs simultaneously brand new and immutably old, smudging all concepts of sonic social class out of existence. The food for sale presented a more complicated arrangement however. You could spend seven bucks on a tallboy of Coors at a beer stand, or cough up $8 for one of dozens of microbrews in the Broo’ers Festival tent. You could pay $6 for a slice of pepperoni pizza or $8 for a bowl of green veggie curry over rice. Bonnaroo’s food, vastly more diverse than that of most public events of this size, have regularly included both the low- and middle-brow.
Except Bonnaroo is always trying something new. This year a few lucky folks jumped on the festival’s first high-brow dining experience open to the general public. “Bonnaroots”, a four-course, farm-to-table dinner made entirely of ingredients sourced within 100 miles of the site, was a collaboration between the festival, Oxfam International, and a non-profit named Eat for Equity. Eaters sat at long tables beneath an arbor while on a nearby stage a woman in a frog-green bodysuit played trumpet to the beat of a drummer with more hair than “Islands in the Stream”-era Dolly Parton. Cultural tiers converged.
Over the course of two, 100-person meals held Thursday and Saturday nights, folks sampled local cheeses, devoured kale and bacon salad, dined upon parmesan grits with BBQ’d red peas, ate Napa cabbage slaw, munched fresh grilled veggies, and stuffed themselves with whipped lemon cream with blueberries and raspberries. Pitchers of lemonade flavored with lemon balm from the Learning Garden around the Roo post office glistened on the tables. A guy sporting a pirate’s beard and something curiously like a samurai’s flared-shouldered shirt murmured, “Ohhh, man” at the sight of the cheese course. After a bite, he stood up and declared, “Holy shit, I mean, really!!” before politely stepping away for a menthol.
A young man sitting with a girl clutching a Dora the Explorer balloon told me, “Our country is the only country that doesn’t eat local food that’s grown like in the local area. Here you go to the grocery store and you see like meat and it’s been all frozen and shit from like who knows where, like fucking Nevada hell nuclear zone, and it smells like shit for like a hundred miles, but kale! I mean… kale’s what’s up!”
A ticket to the meal cost 20 bucks. That’s less than three of those Coors tallboys.
That young kale fan from Knoxville was dining with kids from Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Wyoming. They’d never met before, but they left the table together, and that nascent community-in-miniature is as much a concern for Oxfam and Eat for Equity as is the meal itself. Oxfam’s mission includes creating long-term solutions to poverty, and popular education and collaboration are core components of that. Meals like the
Bonnaroots dinners bring strangers together in an environment free of the problems of globalized industrial agriculture, the lower health value of processed foods (and possibly GMOs) and the concentration of the world’s food supply in the hands of a miniscule corporate minority. These cultural trends aren’t hidden; they’re already part of the global conversation of the times, spawned by legitimate fears of broad social ruin.
“People at these meals collaborate and make strategy,” Oxfam’s Music Outreach Manager Bob Ferguson told me after Thursday’s meal. “Like the guy who had never had any meal like this and just told me all about how he’s going to change the way he eats when he gets home. These things feel like tiny steps, but they’re transformative moments for people sometimes.”
Community dinners like these reframe the problematic “what is” into the pleasures of “what might be”. They are “Big Girls Don’t Cry” instead of “Teen Angel”.
Oxfam and Eat for Equity proposed Bonnaroots for 2013’s festival but their request was turned down. They responded by setting up their own independent thing out in General Camping, accepting whatever donations came their way. They broke even. And when they brought the idea back to Bonnaroo this year and asked for a single meal in CenterRoo, the festival scheduled them for two. Both meals, advertised only by a single email blast, sold out in less than four hours.
Farm-to-table dinners and the locavore movement have been exploding exponentially across the country for at least a decade. The increasing visibility of that movement—one started by small clutches of people and often jeered as high-brow and elitist—has been an essential supplement to health officials’ alarms over public health. Organic produce fills grocery aisles, and the cultural cache now comes from consuming local, fresh food. Farmers’ markets have bloomed all over the country. Slow Food U.S.A. has over 200 chapters across the states. Even as recently as five years ago, the only nosh found in the junk food aisle that wasn’t fried was pretzels. Now, most every brand of potato chips carries a baked variety.
And you can’t consider a real Pop Culture America without including potato chips.
Although local eating has contributed to a renewed focus on national health and it is an undeniably chic way for individuals to express that focus, there is more at work than health concerns or style.
On one hand, this public shift is a shift of value from what is novel to what is tasty. Wonderbread might have looked like the height of cleanliness and American innovation at the time, but wholegrain bread baked as it has been for millennia and eaten within a few days of creation is far more satisfying. This public shift has also seen a value shift from that raw and reckless independence to a newer level of communal responsibility. The American ideal might include Dirty Harry and Howard Roark, but now we read those cultural figures and examine the effects they have on those around them.
There is a third factor at work, one that is less a new reaction to established attitudes than the resurrection of an old reaction toward a new attitude.
Eat for Equity, the third partnering organization behind the meals, hosts in cities around the country sustainably-sourced community meals in which volunteers do the cooking, eaters pay what they can, and the money goes to nonprofit causes like environmental protection and disaster relief. Charity isn’t the driving force, though. Folks could more conveniently get online at home, donate to the Sierra Club and Oxfam, and click HBO GO onward to the next episode of Game of Thrones.
For that matter, eating healthily and locally isn’t enough of an explanation for the surging popularity of communal locavore eating either. After a long week spent clicking between applications at work, swiping a card to buy lunch at Chipotle, texting with a parent, and using PayPal to buy a book from a stranger on Amazon’s great electronic clearinghouse for all things large and small, a person might be satisfied ordering local ingredients from Fresh Direct and cooking a relaxed dinner in his pajamas. So what gives?
“I think we all have this desire for community,” Emily Torgrimson, the founder of Eat for Equity, told me. “As connected around the world as we are virtually, I think we still have a strong desire to come together physically, and eating brings people together.”
After watching a generation assert the unprecedented ability to forge a global community of lone, “connected” individuals, a growing portion of American society is remembering the preceding generations’ ways of community living and eating. The diners at the Bonnaroots tables talked about music and about themselves, but they also oooh’d over the food, talked about the local eating they do at home, shared strategies for increasing the fairness of the food lives of their families, shared email addresses and declared they would continue their discussions after leaving the festival.
They formed, even if only for 90 minutes, a community addressing food issues, not because food issues are important but because they are exciting. In an era where people are in the clutches of technology, sprouting tendrils of human companionship are re-staking claims in lives.
And that feels very Bonnaroo to me. American culture is pop culture and always has been because of the dollar’s hegemony, the flash of the new, the different, the enviable and the desire for everything Right Now! has always led the cultural charge forward. Yet there is no high power impressing on the masses values that only top tier aristocracy can appreciate and comprehend. Pop culture is neither Kanye nor Little Caesar’s; it is popular: those things that we most agree upon. If we mostly agree that tasty food made close to home and eaten regularly in the company of others is popular food culture, then it would be American Food Culture. We get to choose.
That culture can be inclusive, of course. Just like the Bonnaroo community can find value in a wearisome bitch fest on the What Stage one evening and in a declaration that music is a collaboration between artist and audience on the next, we can find longevity and vibrancy in a healthy, locavore food culture while appreciating the occasional, primal need for something fatty and irresistible and fun. I certainly do.
Four hours after my lemon cream and berries at the Bonnaroots table, I bought a funnel cake. It cost about a third of the whole four-course dinner. After I demolished it, I threw down to a magnificent band that fused about half a dozen strains of rock ‘n’ roll.
Their name? Diarrhea Planet.