“This book,” Josh Schonwald writes, “is fundamentally a search for people who think they have the Next Big Thing in food. . . . I’ve devoted months to investigating salad, seafood, and meat, but nary a moment to cheese or dairy products. This unequal treatment is due to a couple of things: a gagging reflex that is provoked by cultured dairy products, and my obsession with finding the salad of the future. So full disclosure: this is a look at the food frontier, a search for the next big things in food, through the eyes of a human with some food preferences and prejudices.”
Just about anyone who writes about food comes to the task with built-in positive and negative prejudices, so there’s nothing unusual about that. As one who can’t imagine getting through the day without a healthy (or unhealthy) helping of cheese, I obviously do not share all of Schonwald’s biases, but on broader matters, his views are much to my taste. Though he came to his research much under the influence of Michael Pollan and other prominent foodies who are opposed to biotechnology and genetically engineered foods, what he saw and learned persuaded him to a somewhat more complicated and nuanced view. While he shares their preference for natural, organic ingredients and agrees with many of their strictures about real as opposed to scientifically manufactured food, he also came to appreciate the work being done by scientists on ways to increase the food supply at a time in world history when population is expanding and our ability to feed it with natural foodstuffs is not keeping up.
Schonwald, a Chicago journalist, focuses on three broad areas of interest: the salad revolution, which has brought new ingredients to the table — think radicchio, and weeds, and greens in sealed bags — and altered mass tastes as well as those of elite foodies; efforts to grow meat in vitro, i.e., in the laboratory rather than in the cow; and the rise of land-based fish farming. Every once in a while his prose turns a little flippant, and he does use the first-person singular to excess, but he has come up with a great deal of interesting information, much of which will surprise people who eat food without giving much thought to where it comes from.
A decade and a half ago, when Schonwald was 26, his mother served him “the most transformative meal of his life” while he was visiting her in Wisconsin. It was a salad called “spring mix” that she had bought in a plastic bag at a nearby grocery store. He thought it was delicious and in time came to understand that it was part of a genuinely significant phenomenon: “Bagged salad was a game-changer: it changed the American salad eating experience, ended a half century of iceberg’s totalitarian-like grip on the salad bowl, and brought arugula, frisee, red oak, green leaf, and mizuna to places like Kenosha, Buffalo, and Lubbock.”
So off he went to Salinas, the California city made famous by the early novels of John Steinbeck, most notable now for being “the primary city of a valley nicknamed the ‘World’s Salad Bowl.’ ” Here’s something I never knew, and you probably didn’t either:
“For most of the past sixty years, the ninety-mile-long Salinas Valley has single-handedly accounted for more than 90 percent of the lettuce eaten in the United States. These days, more than 4 billion pounds of greens are grown in the Valley. Salinas is also the nerve center of the industry; it’s the home base of companies like Fresh Express and Dole and Mann Packing, the Apples and Microsofts of the salad world. In other words, Salinas is not only where our leafy greens are grown; it’s where the decisions about our salads are made.”
It was Fresh Express that “started introducing bagged salads to consumers in 1989,” extending the shelf life of delicate greens and posing real rivals to durable but usually tasteless iceberg lettuce. What, Schonwald wondered, is Salinas Valley looking to do next? A few people there believe that radicchio is the salad of the future. It comes in more varieties than the unappetizing red variety that pops up in salad bars and “spring mix” bags, but efforts to gain popular acceptance of those varieties have met with little success. Schonwald is optimistic about the overall future of salad, though, because the “agrigiants” of Salinas are quick to capitalize on changing tastes and to alter supply to meet altered demand. Disbelievers are referred to the nearest salad bar, where there’s a lot more in the lettuce bins than chopped romaine.
It’s a very short step from agribusiness to agricultural genetics, which Schonwald used to call “Frankenfood.” But no longer: What he has seen has persuaded him to be “pro-agricultural biotechnology” and considerably more skeptical about the ideas of the “foodie mainstream,” some of which he finds “dangerously myopic” and “potentially destructive.” Schonwald would much prefer to eat organic vegetables and free-range chicken, as indeed would I, but he now knows that people able to afford such a diet are a minuscule percentage of the world’s population — albeit a disproportionately noisy one — and that the real issue is not how to make them happy but how to feed the world’s vastly less privileged hungry millions.
Thus the move, still in its tentative early stages, toward in vitro growing of meat and the development of fish farms in immense inland warehouses. Whether meat produced in laboratories ever will catch on is problematic, but “warehouse fish farming” is the “fastest-growing segment” of aquaculture, itself “the world’s fastest growing source of food production.” Yes, I’d much rather be eating ceviche made with fresh Maryland rockfish, but more and more that is going to be a privilege rather than the daily norm. As Schonwald says:
“As much as I want craft fish farming, and responsible open-ocean farming, I want, more than anything . . . massive, mono-fish factories . . . that produce tons of cheap, safe, sustainable seafood for Walmart shoppers. There are virtues to big: cost containment, efficiency, waste recycling. Artisanal, small, local, yes; but if we’re going to feed millions of increasingly seafood-hungry, health-conscious, cost-conscious consumers, we also need industrial-scale fish factories.”
So the dining table in 2035 (the year Schonwald chose as his target) will have healthy salads made with unfamiliar as well as familiar ingredients, possibly including a variety of tomato bred to have a long shelf life. The table will have farm-raised fish and may have — this is a long shot — laboratory-raised meat. It almost certainly will have ethnic food in one form or another. Perhaps Peruvian, which is now being discovered here thanks to its wonderful aji amarillo pepper, multi-colored potatoes and pisco sours, but Schonwald has his money on African food, now almost completely unknown to American consumers but beginning to emerge. “It’s the last culinary frontier,” he writes.
We shall see. Not even Nostradamus could say for sure what the culinary future will bring. But Schonwald gets the central point: the “foods-of-the-future question [is] inextricably linked to the future-of-the-Earth question,” a question that self-indulgent, self-regarding foodies simply refuse to face.
Dispatches From the Future of Food
By Josh Schonwald
Harper. 294 pp. $25.99