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The ‘Other NRA’ and the Future of American Food

The 2016 annual meeting of the National Restaurant Association is all about “local” food — with a very liberal definition of “local.”

By David M. Perry


A man dressed as a Belgian Waffle at the National Restaurant Association’s 2016 annual meeting. (Photo: David M. Perry)

A man in a white lab coat sticks a two-foot-long cucumber in his mouth, then leans in profile against an upright wooden board. Another man, similarly attired but wearing a microphone and carrying knives, saunters into the middle the crowd. “Let’s see how many slices I can get!” he cries. Thwunk. “One!” Thwunk. “Two!” Thwunk. “Three!” The throwing knives quiver in the wood board as the cucumber man stands, impassively, the produce now reduced to just a few inches protruding from his lips. “Maybe one more,” cries the knife-thrower, grinning evilly. Thwunk. The crowd goes wild as the cucumber man pretends to be relieved not to have lost his nose.

It’s the annual meeting of the National Restaurant Association, also known as the other NRA, where, for four days in Chicago, over 65,000 people — buyers, sellers, distributors, restaurant groups, media types, academics, and hungry tourists who have wrangled or bought a membership — descend upon McCormick Place, the giant convention center pinned against the shores of Lake Michigan. There are companies selling commercial cooking appliances, pots, plates, flatware, chef’s knives, soda, aprons, microgreens you can grow in your home or restaurant, IT solutions, menu solutions, marketing services, music playlists, seafood, pasta, spices, cake infused with booze, hot dogs, cheese, cheesy restaurant decorations, security solutions, and about 30 different types of ginger beer (which is clearly the it product of the year).

Put simply, any product that you eat, sit on, wear, look at, smell, feel, or can imagine being any element of the restaurant and food-service experience, you’ll find a dozen people trying to sell it on a vast industrial scale at the NRA.

“It’s not that people don’t know or are ignorant about good food, it’s that they can’t afford it. They’d love to have better food and are willing to cook it.”

Above all, though, the NRA is place to craft, test, and sell the stories that define the position of restaurants in the American cultural imagination. Sometimes the stories are about the food: where it comes from, how it was made, the flavors produced in the mouth, the authenticity. Other times, the stories are about us, the customers, and what going to a restaurant says about our class or our values. There’s earnestness, but there’s also plenty of flash and show business (hence the knife throwers).

In many cases, of course, both the restaurants and the customer are producing and consuming lies.

Recently, Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley published “Farm to Fable,” an exposé of Tampa-area farm-to-table restaurants, many of which she had given rave reviews to within the last year. After detailing the many fictions within menus and purveyor boards, Reiley came to the conclusion: “If you eat food, you are being lied to every day.” Reiley spent months tracing the supply chain from restaurant to farm, finding again and again that some or all allegedly locally sourced produce, in fact, came from major food suppliers. The Food and Drug Administration heavily regulates words such as “light or lite,” but “local,” a powerful term in today’s food markets, isn’t regulated. True local ingredients are expensive, so chefs do what they can, then contract with the suppliers like Sysco and U.S. Foods for the rest. Ye Olde Farm down the road gets announced on the menu; mega-corporate food suppliers conveniently drop from the picture.

Sysco and U.S. Foods, of course, both had huge booths at the NRA show, where they held court and received the supplications of humble manufacturers and ingredient companies hoping to strike big deals. Meanwhile, the NRA surveyed restaurant chefs and revealed the top 20 food trends for 2016. Number one? “Locally sourced.” In fact, eight of the top 10 trends focused on “hyper-local,” “sustainability,” “healthful,” and other concepts far divorced from the massive industrial scale on view at the NRA. Is this all just wishful hype?

The providers to whom I spoke at the NRA didn’t think so (though, oddly, I met no one who admitted to having heard about the Tampa exposé). One major producer of Mexican food, who asked that I not use her name, told me that getting ingredients to food distributors required major investment in food safety protocols and insurance, which was very expensive at smaller scales. To afford special local ingredients, most chefs have to surround those ingredients with standard bulk. Then she served me guacamole, carnitas, fresh tortillas, and newly baked tortilla chips, and I had to agree, bulk can be delicious.

Other attempts at “sustainable” were more promising — or at least intriguing. A salesman for Wild Planet convinced me (as his chef fed me a tuna melt) that their canned seafood was, in fact, sustainable and packed so as to minimize waste. Of course, Wild Planet isn’t selling to restaurants, but rather to “colleges and universities because Millennials care about sustainable and nutritional.” Rumi Spice, truly the most inspirational booth I visited all day, was founded by two female Army veterans as a way to help rural Afghan farmers grow and export saffron. Such enterprises, though, were the exceptions in the broader onslaught of scaling up, mass production, and an apparent glut of choices that in reality offered little real variety.

Meanwhile, the whole affair was extremely white. That Mexican food company? I’m sure it’s got plenty of Mexicans working in the plant, but everyone at the booth was white. So too with the larger Indian booths. There was even an Anglo teriyaki chef who got prime real estate and a barker to call out his latest display of knife skills. It was the trade-show version of the pattern Anthony Bourdain once excoriated in the restaurant industry in general: Most of the work is done by people of color, while management and celebrity chef gigs go to white people. The NRA, meanwhile, has lobbied heavily against raising the minimum wage.

Above all, the NRA is place to craft, test, and sell the stories that define the position of restaurants in the American cultural imagination.

Despondent (if full), I called Paul Freedman, professor of history at Yale University and author of the forthcoming Ten Restaurants That Changed America. For Freedman, restaurants not only “reveal a way to explore how American cuisine has changed,” but also much bigger issues. “American social features like immigration, race, or gender,” he said, not to mention major food-related movements such as the rise of organic foods, “are all reflected in the cultural history of America’s restaurants.” Despite his clear-eyed perspective on the ways in which restaurant culture reflect all sorts of inequalities — now and historically — Freedman is increasingly optimistic about changing our cultural, social, and economic relationships with food.

He says that, while there’s still huge investment in “processed and industrial variety,” it���s clear that “the movement to emphasize quality is going to go further than people who dismissed [it] as a yuppie/hipster phenomenon predicted.” Americans have shifted, he argues, from focusing on preparation (such as classic French techniques) to ingredients. That shift has turned cities such as Nashville and Charleston into food destinations, challenging the hegemony of New York and Los Angeles. At the high end, the goal is to find authentic American tastes.

Meanwhile, Freedman believes that this elite obsession with all things “local” might be permeating American food culture more broadly, even if only in small ways. He’s excited, for example, about the growing use of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) that doubles benefit levels if users spend their credits at a farmer’s market or similar venue. “It’s not that people don’t know or are ignorant about good food, it’s that they can���t afford it. They’d love to have better food and are willing to cook it,” Freeman says of lower-income consumers. “I don’t think we’re headed for some kind of paradise of absolute sustainability,” he continued, “but when [food is] conscientiously cultivated and tastes better, it can actually have an impact on people.”

Back at the show, I did find one sign that Freedman’s optimism might be justified, even in this hyper-industrial maelstrom of carnival barkers and appliance manufacturers. In the far right corner of the most distant of the three showrooms, I found a few dozen booths of individuals, mostly with heavy accents indicative of their foreign origins, proudly displaying the finest products from their home culture. Their materials emphasized words such as “single-source,” “artisanal,” and “pure.” When they said “local,” they really meant within a few miles of their homes. They were, of course, all Italians.