Before I get to something I actually liked this weekend about Alabama, I’ve got to dish on a development I definitely abhor. My little corner of the state is Homewood, a suburban city of about 25,000 that sits adjacent to and south of Birmingham. It is a leafy suburb of formerly-quaint, now monstrously-upgraded homes for formerly uber-hip singles now become new uber-hip and urbane parents to do the Norman Rockwell thing with their very young children, except with more panache–like throwing outrageously-overwrought birthday parties for their kids (well, really for themselves, but that’s another rant). Homewood’s small town feel is so alluring (meaning, it’s so densely settled until everyone knows immediately what everyone else is doing, so the place comes with a built-in ease for impressing the neighbors with the latest lifestyle acquisition that was purchased for just that purpose) until people never leave. They just trade houses when they wish to move. This insular quality of intra-city transfer has yielded a massive appreciation in real estate these last few years that was only just delayed for a while by the recent “troubles”. Or, so it has seemed. The verdict’s not yet in on whether the city’s housing will withstand the furious economic winds blowing through the country, particularly since a goodly portion of Homewood’s hipster parents work in the medical centers that have all but completely colonized Birmingham’s business district. There’s really no telling what may come of the health care industry when ObamaCare kicks in.
But as cool and as hip as the place is, it had generally been spared much of the food snobbery of the coasts, from the local-vores to the organics-only to the vegan crowd. Then a few years back, a Whole Foods opened up on the highway leading into the town from Mountain Brook, an even richer suburban ringlet city that is adjacent to Homewood on its east side. So people with more disposable income and time than they knew what to do with could finally now jump on the organic food wagon, and exhibit their exalted status relative to their fellows through snobbishly refusing to eat food grown with chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Never mind that the food itself was made of chemicals, and so too were the people eating it. The rich and bored doctor’s wives in Mountain Brook had to have some existentially-viable means of proving that indeed, they were better than everyone else, because their food was fertilized with cow manure instead of (gasp!) industrially produced nitrogen and phosphorous and potassium (what do they think is in cow manure?). I don’t suppose they paid attention in those nursing-school classes (where they went to get a doctor) about the role nitrogen and phosphorous, whatever its source, plays in human and all other eukaryote metabolism through the ATP cascade. The doctor’s wives are made of cow manure, or its synthetic equivalent, just like the rest of us living matter with nuclei, no matter how badly they’d like to believe otherwise.
I am, however, thankfully aware of very few vegans in these parts. Veganism has got to be the most irrational and delusional of foodie distinctions. A cow is effectively nothing more than processed corn. Do vegans believe that corn can’t “feel” the swipe of the scythe at harvest time? Just because it’s not furry, doesn’t mean corn hasn’t any feelings. Does corn wish to get ripped and shredded and chewed any more than does a cow? All food was once alive. You have to kill to eat. Making a silly distinction between whether the killing is done to plants or to animals is solely a product of emotional biases we project onto plants and animals. It is yet another foolish way to spend excess money and time. Eat what you want, but don’t believe for a moment that your decision has any cosmic or moral significance whatsoever.
But with Whole Foods’ arrival, I knew it would only be a matter of time until local-vorism trickled in from the coasts as the next way to for people to prove their innate superiority by dint of the perceived wholesomeness and tastiness of the foods they consumed. There was already Pepper’s Place, the farmer’s markets for hipsters, open only on Saturday’s during the summer, down in the old warehouse district, where the incipient local-vores could go and be seen gathering their healthy local produce by others in their cohort–which was always the point–impressing them with the superiority of their food choices. A tomato in a basket that says it was locally grown organically could have been grown on a factory farm in Florida and trucked in, and would any of the food snobs been able to tell the difference? Of course not. Double-blind studies have shown that people can’t even tell when they get a placebo instead of a Valium. Are we to believe that taste buds are more refined sensory receptors than are the mechanisms for pain and anxiety? Perhaps the food snobs would have us believe that their taste buds are more refined. That would prove their superiority, wouldn’t it? Of course, they also probably believe they could tell the difference between a placebo and the Valiums they’ll take when all this shallow food snobbery leaves them as unfulfilled as before. The Pepper Place market, in a good section of town (read that south of downtown or as we call it here “over the mountain”), effectively siphoned sales away from the farmer’s market down on Finley Avenue in the industrial section of town that operates everyday and has for so long as anyone remembers. But going down there in the grimy parts of town out of sight of those who might be impressed by progressive-minded food choices just doesn’t cut it, even if the produce down there is fresh and locally grown, and with only the minimal of pesticides and chemicals necessary, because poor dirt farmers can hardly afford to waste money on such luxuries if they don’t have to.
Local-vorism arrived full-on in June, when an outfit called Urban Cookhouse opened in the upscale section of shops and restaurants in Homewood. The local rag, The Birmingham News, raved:
The decor is sleek and urban, metal and wood in tones of pewter, chrome, green and earth tones. Dine-in or take-out, the emphasis is on good locally-produced food served fresh, fast and casual.
Urban Cookhouse is another in the growing trend of counter-order and deliver-to-the-table establishments. On the way to the counter, there is an opportunity to buy fresh produce from the restaurant’s sources.
In a cooler by the cash register there are fresh berries and other goodies available for purchase. Place an order, take a number, find a seat and lunch (or dinner) will be delivered shortly. A board over the register lists who grew what’s being served on a particular day.
Get that last sentence? They’ll tell you, as if you’d know the guy, which farmer purportedly grew what you’re eating. Oh, that is so cool, isn’t it? Perhaps one day they’ll let you order out of which field the food came, and maybe they’ll even tell you the hog’s name that was slaughtered for the chipotle-braised chops on the menu. Maybe it’ll be Charlotte.
So the Urban Cookhouse opens up, and then since they are so hip to the local-vore movement, they promptly open a Saturday farmer’s market of their own. Wow, so much fresh, locally-grown food it’s hard to choose.
Of course, long before the local-vore movement arrived, down from the old farmer’s market in the grimy section of town, was Nikki’s restaurant, that–you guessed it–specialized in cooking the vegetables they’d get next door at the market. They’re still at it after several decades, serving the best for the money meat and three in town. All the businessmen–a dwindling class in the city that once hosted several large, but not too big to fail banks, and all the lawyers such money-shuffling engendered–still go there regularly. The lines snakes out the doors at lunch time. But even if it’s still very good, it’s not new, so it doesn’t get much attention.
You see, every age thinks it is the only that ever existed. And the people of the age that think they are the hip steadfastly ignore that their cool new ways are just recycled ways of solving problems that legions before them had confronted and solved in just the same manner. Local restaurants have always specialized in fresh, locally-grown food because it’s cheaper and it’s what the locals ate before they left the farm (where they were true local-vores).
So, local-vorism is another reason to hate this silly little city that wishes so hard to be cool and grown-up and trendy. I think local-vorism swept the coasts about two years ago, but is now yesterday’s news for them. Whatever is happening on the coasts right now–I hear dumpster-diving is gaining vogue–will be here in a couple of more years. Such is the way of fashion trends for people whose sole ambition in life is take a step up in rank, status or class, which as Peggy Noonan pointed out in Saturday’s Weekend Journal is the whole raison d ‘etre of these United States of America. (Maybe then it’s the whole country I hate). Which is why Homewood is so desirable to the hipsters. It provides a ready-made herd upon which the dreams of stature can be projected.
After returning from my bike ride Saturday morning (sans helmet, or bike shorts or anything else that remotely look like a cyclist that wishes he were Lance Armstrong) that led me past the local-vore market, my wife decided that we should go on a little trip that would turn out to remind me that everything’s not to hate in Alabama.
The longest yard sale in the world stretches through the Northeast section of Alabama, starting about Crossville and running up through Ft. Payne and on into Chattanooga and eventually on to Kentucky and Ohio. We have some unimproved land in Ft. Payne that I all I do at the moment is occasionally visit and wistfully dream of the day when I might become something of a true local-vore myself. With kids in this “good” Homewood school system (read that “mostly white with a student to school system to employee ratio of about ten to one with the tax bill to prove it) moving to the land would be out of the question, at least for the rest of the family. My opinion is that they’d get a better education there, working a farm, than any stack of books could ever provide them, but my opinions are mostly ignored. The oldest kid is a high school junior and the youngest an eighth-grader. The time is coming when I can cast free the shackles of the education system.
I was a bit shocked when the wife offered that we ought to go up to Ft. Payne for the yard sale. For me, any trip to the “farm” as I call my dirt, even if it isn’t a farm yet, is good. For her, not so much. Without any improvements, there’s nothing to do but just walk around or sit and enjoy, which is like heaven to me, but she likes air conditioning. So we did the yard sale, and I got to go to the farm, if only for a little visit to check on the feed corn I scattered about to lure some game animals in so I might shoot them later this year.
I love Ft. Payne. It’s populated with good, mostly unpretentious people that wouldn’t even know what “local-vore” means. They’re hillbilly people that drifted down from the Appalachians in the historically-ignored migration of Scots-Irish down from North Carolina and Tennessee into the foothills of Northeast Alabama. Ft. Payne was a center of iron and steel making until cheaper and more plentiful ore and coal were found in Birmingham. I grew up with folks whose parents and more distant ancestors came down from the “mountain” as it’s locally known, in order to follow the iron and steel money. My wife’s parents are both from the mountain, and on her mother’s side, are mostly still there. After steel-making petered out, it became the “Sock Capital of the World”. For a while. Now the sock factories have all moved to Central America. But it still has plenty of farms and cattle ranches. There was a movement up there recently to graze cattle only on grass, and not fatten them up with corn–sort of a similar mind-set as that of the local-vores down in Birmingham–that grass-fed beef tastes better. But that too is just a return to the way things were done before.
The longest yard sale was fun. There was a virtual unlimited supply of junk that I didn’t know I needed until I saw it. My daughter got a pair of cowboy boots for five dollars. My son, a pair of Levi’s jeans for a quarter. The people were friendly. I know they aren’t saints. I don’t want to make them out to be “noble savages” like the European Romanticists described America’s natives in the seventeenth century. Meth is a big problem up there, and the place is being inundated with immigrant farm laborers faster than it can reasonably accommodate them. But fashions on the coasts just sweep over without a flutter. There will never be something so silly as a local-vore movement because, by and large, the majority of the people already eat fresh, locally-grown food–out of their gardens. It feels a bit like home every time I visit, even if I’ve never lived there.