Judith Klinger
April 19, 2016

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Juliet declares Romeo would be the same man, no matter what he was called. With all due respect to Shakespeare and his Juliette, I must, most lustfully, disagree.

What you call something matters. How you label something matters.

And so our recent onset of “Internet Outrage” erupted with two articles nearly breaking the internet: the French Carbonara Recipe and Tampa Restaurants Bait & Switch.
carbon-no-no

The over-flowing pasta pot kerfuffle was about a ‘carbonara’ recipe.

Italians take their carbonara very seriously and to have a French website publish a recipe with farfalle (butterfly shaped) pasta with an egg on top and adding crème fraiche, and call it carbonara, was considered the epitome of Gallic arrogance with a large splash of ignorance.

In Tampa, tempers flared over “Farm to Fable”, part of a comprehensive series by Laura Reiley.

I don’t think she set out to be a Myth-Buster Superhero, but she’s mad as hell at restaurants who say they serve local fish but are actually opening boxes of frozen fish from South Asia to serve their clients. She’s right. It’s very, very wrong for restauranteurs to make claims about their produce or protein that are blatant lies.

At first glance, it would seem these are two unrelated topics, but they’re not. They’re both about labeling. Just as you can’t label a creamy pasta concoction carbonara and get away with it, you can’t label ‘blue crab’ on a menu when it’s really ‘krab’ (an accepted name for imitation crab meat).

When your restaurant says it’s ‘farm to table’ then we expect that somewhere along the line there was actual contact with farmers. And if the word local is involved, then we wouldn’t expect to need an airline ticket to get to the farm.
farmfresh

local-ish

While this level of deception is akin to expecting caviar and getting a plate of tapioca pearls, let’s take a step back and ask “Why would a restaurant do that?”

The simple answer is because consumers have been bludgeoned into believing __________(insert your favorite word: local, organic, natural) is the ultimate answer to good, fresh, nutritious, clean, top quality food at a too-good-to-be-true price.
Running a restaurant is hard work, profit margins are as thin as a dime, and the lure of using these lazy buzzwords to bring in customers, is far too tempting.

But lets say you live in a state like Florida that forbids the use of the term ‘climate change’. Or there is a massive fish kill, caused by pollution, going on along the Atlantic coast of Florida.

In terms of revenue generated, Florida's top five agricultural products are greenhouse and nursery products, oranges, cane for sugar, tomatoes, and cattle and calves.

Isn’t there a part of your brain that wonders where all this allegedly local stuff came from if your state is not exactly known for a cornucopia of top-notch food products? If you actually stopped to think about this at all, then it clearly wouldn't make sense.
Eating is an intimate and seductive act and you want to believe in the integrity of the restaurant, farmer's market or recipe you’re trying out. It’s part of the romance of food. We want a feel good story with our food.
handpumped artisinal water

Can we handle the truth?
Are we really ready for truth in labeling?

Would you rather be served the fantasy of a $9.95 “Delicious Lobster Sensation” roll that magically contains extremely cheap Maine lobster meat? Versus a menu item described as “Faux Lob$ter Roll” a sensational blend of white fish and chemicals that will make you think you are eating something almost like lobster.

Wouldn’t you rather support your local farmer’s market than the national grocery store chain? Of course, we all want to be virtuous with our cloth grocery bags and halo of local righteousness. But what if you knew that the produce at the farmer’s market came from sunny Mexico, it looked fresh, tasted OK, and was at a price you could afford? Would you pass it up or put that asparagus in your cart?

Would you pay for sushi grade fresh fish if you knew that by law it had to be frozen first?

Food consumption has always had a whiff of the snob about it. What you eat tells people who are.

During the Renaissance, sugar was loaded onto just about everything, including roast chicken. The abundance of sweet crystals informed your guests of your wealth and generosity.
In our trend-obsessed era, reinforced by relentless and insidious marketing, we have been trained to believe words like: premium, natural, local or farm fresh confer status along with their alleged ‘goodness’.

Remember, in the U.S., we have no standards in place to define those words so they can be liberally sprinkled on any label that has some empty space.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Mars Food, has just announced they are labeling their Dolmio brand pasta sauces and some Uncle Ben’s rice mixes as suitable for ‘occasional’ consumption versus ‘everyday’ consumption.

“These include Dolmio lasagne sauces, pesto, and carbonara and macaroni oven kits, and Uncle Ben's oriental sauces.
The company said some foods were higher in salt, sugar or fat to maintain the "authentic" taste of products.”

That’s some hefty truth in labeling. They are acknowledging that their product is so reliant on salt and sugar that you must be warned not to eat too much.

Is some sort of balance between food romance and truth achievable?
I hope so, because we all need a little bit of romance in our lives.

Can we admit that we all cheat a little and not all of our food is clean, local, organic, in season, picked by farm hands at a living wage and processed with no waste? Can we live with the guilt? Can we transform that guilt into action?

Identifying that we have labeling issues: some are market and media driven, and some are regulatory, is a good first step.

Next is the harder, second step, of transparency and truth.

Especially with something as divisive as GMO food, why NOT be transparent if there are no problems with GMO crops?

It’s about time, we started treating ourselves as reasonable adults and not like a flock of dimwits running from one hot trend to the next. Let's be grownups and start ignoring stupid marketing click bait, or better yet, have editors who veto what is clearly lame. We need more Laura Reileys to callout out untruthful restaurants and disingenuous producers. And we need to shine a light into the very dark hole that is our food supply chain. Or we can pretend everything will be just fine and the internet never lies. It's our choice.


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