During my freshman (and only) year at George Washington University, I spent my days traversing DC. Self-exiled and content with my one friend, I spent the year exploring the city. I fell in love with it, the dramatic edifices, the European and slightly Southern gentility, the museums and wide, expansive boulevards. But the heart of my education came from a baker old enough to be my grandfather.
I spent nearly every day at Breadline, a day cafe across the street from the White House. The place was peppered with characters I’d come to love in the New York Times and on the news. Politically obsessed, I would watch as correspondents, aids and Congressman waited in line and ate their meals in a hurry before sauntering off to the latest scoop or deal.
After a month or so the owner, a curmudgeonly man 40+ years my senior with oversized, white eyebrows, noticed my incessant presence. We struck up an unlikely friendship and over the year he became something of a surrogate grandfather to me. He was a foodie in the extreme, as evidenced by Breadline’s globally influenced cuisine. We talked about life and politics, but mostly I learned about food. I grew up eating extremely well, but Mark elevated food to an art.
When I transferred to NYU the following year, he introduced me to the downtown foodie scene and to Nina Planck, who would over the following years, have a profound effect on my relationship with food.
Nina ran the farmer’s markets in London and NY. She grew up on a farm in Virginia. She knew everything about the origins of what we eat. She was eloquent and deeply intelligent, politically aware and engaged. I was mesmerized and enchanted by her similarly interesting circle, including her now husband, Murray’s Cheese founder Rob Kaufelt. I felt as if I’d entered Wonderland.
I had always been health conscious, but Nina taught me about the benefits of raw milk and the neon orange yolk of an egg. It wasn’t until 2001, when I spent my junior year in Italy, that I came to understand her mission. After all, Italy is ground zero of the farm-to-table movement.
Now it seems that mission is everywhere. Why are we so obsessed? Why are we so invested in where our food comes from all of a sudden, after 60 years of manufactured farming?
I think it has something to do with control. Corporations have gotten bigger. The world seems increasingly out of the collective’s hands, governed by an oligarchy. We’re less and less tactile, and we’ve been moving farther and farther away from our roots.
There is a deep desire to let go of the reaching and the grasping and to settle into what’s been true forever: breaking bread with those we love and care for.
Food that is grown and cultivated and prepared with passion and reverence tastes different. The colors are more dramatic, the hues deeper. It’s heartier; it brings us back to our senses, to our presence in the here and now. It’s meditative. And in our nonstop, hyper-connected lives, it feels almost radical.
Maybe the pendulum is swinging, after all. Maybe we’ll start integrating technology into our lives productively and purposefully. Maybe that’s the beauty of Millennials. In inheriting a raw deal economically, they’ve tapped into something far more interesting: lives that are rich with purpose, that are about something more than rageful acquisition and consumption.
Artwork by Michelle Favin of Whys LA for Poppy & Seed. Connect with her @whyslosangeles.