Ethicurean headquarters in Oakland, CA, should have been the home stadium for a preview screening of “Food Fight,” the new documentary by Chris Taylor. After all, this “story of culinary revolt” covers the damage wrought by industrialization of the food system and features star players such as Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Dan Barber, and top foodpol writer and friend o’Ethicurean Tom Philpott (who, we’re pleased to report, gets more air time than any of the other three). The Ethicurean’s Marc, I, and my husband were predisposed to like this film: we were primed to sing out some “amens” like good little choir members, in between bites of Marc’s delicious walnut cake topped with some of Tom’s jam from Maverick Farm and Straus whipped cream.
“Food Fight” is among the most professionally shot, lit, and edited of all the food documentaries out there, and it looks fantastic. It is by far the most comprehensive and inclusive to date, chock full of cool old stills and footage and boasting cameos from scores of food-politics writers, chefs, farmers, and activists. And yet. Can you tell there’s a “but” coming? Here’s where I bite the nice hands who fed me the DVD review copy. We three found ourselves squirming restlessly in our pews. Too many putative saints were being paraded past us on litters of glistening lettuces, and the familiar hymns sounded off-key in their new arrangements.
The first chunk of the film plays like the Cliff’s Notes version of Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” although it relies as much on Tom’s pithy analyses as it does on Pollan’s. It races at top speed through the history of subsidies and the effect of artificially cheap commodities on America’s waistline and public health. Here are the now-standard clips of supermarket aisles lined with nothing but branded variations on corn products, or so we’re told - the film is moving so fast it fails to even mention high-fructose corn syrup – and faceless obese people clutching supersize sodas. A 90 mph recap of how the same makers of military chemicals also make toxic agricultural products, the role oil plays in both (and how farming now depends on it), and how convenience foods were created to serve a new army of working women unspools in about 10 minutes, enlivened by cutesy archival footage and a parade of “names” – such as cultural critic Greil Marcus, a Chez Panisse board member – who utter one innocuous line each and never appear again.
The history lesson is followed by the canonization of Alice Waters as the Joan of Arc of the local, seasonal food revolution. Drawing heavily on Derrick Schneider‘s terrific piece “Nowhere Else But Here: The Context of Berkeley’s Food Revolution” for Edible East Bay, “Food Fight” charts the rise of student protest in Berkeley and shows how the Free Speech Movement and the People’s Park episode sparked Waters (a Berkeley alumna) to launch a rebellion in search of flavor – flavor which had all but disappeared from industrial food, and that could only be found in fresh-picked produce from backyard gardens and small local farms. (Schneider is thanked in the film’s credits.) Now, there is no question that Waters and Chez Panisse chef Jeremiah Towers were instrumental in helping America rediscover the joy of what food is actually supposed to taste like. But “Food Fight” presents their philosophy as sui generis, not once mentioning that the main players were themselves heavily inspired by gustatory expeditions to France, where just-picked vegetables and fresh-caught fish were the norm, as they had been in America just a generation or two before theirs.
After Wolfgang Puck gets positioned (awkwardly) as the Alice Waters of L.A. and his media-savviness credited with putting “California cuisine” on the national map, multiple Chez Panisse interns-turned-chefs like Suzanne Goin and Dan Barber rhapsodize about buying from the farmers markets. Around the point where I was starting to grumble about one more wood-burning oven flickering behind a self-congratulatory shiny face, the film took a hard left turn away from “elitism” and planted itself at Will Allen’s Growing Power urban farming project in Milwaukee. Which is the best, most alive part of the film. Allen, who won a MacArthur “genius grant” this year, and his daughter Erika, don’t sugarcoat what they’re up against. Forget local versus organic, “we have kids who’ve never even tasted a fresh tomato…Community food security is currently a missing civil right,” says Erika. But the film doesn’t actually explain what it is that Growing Power does …and then there’s the cheesy “urban” pseudo-hiphop soundtrack that takes the place of the tinkling piano of the Chez Panisse scenes.
I could go on nitpicking, but I’ll stop there. “Food Fight” simply tries to cover too much ground, plant too many seeds. And as much as I revere Waters, Chez Panisse, and the Edible Schoolyard, I’m not sure that she, Puck, or other chefs deserve any more credit for starting the local food revolution than do the farmers growing the food for it, or the activists who devoted years to codifying and passing federal standards for organic agriculture. To me, the tone was off-puttingly hagiographic. The film could have used a little less food, and a little more fight.
Usually when we’re underwhelmed by something we’ve gotten a review copy of, we just don’t review it. However, in this case, to receive the DVD, I had to promise to write a post about it no later than November 5 so as to tell people about the free screening in Hollywood on November 8 at 3:15 p.m. at the Mann Chinese 6 on Hollywood Blvd. And that you can join the Facebook group to get updates of future screenings. (See various clips here.)
I’m curious about what people who haven’t read “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” who don’t know anything about Waters – or any of these other chefs for that matter — will take away from the film, and whether they can follow its breakneck historical summaries. If Ethicurean readers bring such a friend along to see it, please let us know what they (and you) think in the comments.