CHICAGO – Michael Ableman may be a farmer, but with in a searing diss of the food system here Thursday morning, he re-established his cred as the Spartacus of sustainable food activism. At the breakfast opener for the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, Ableman stood up at the podium in the Chicago Hilton’s baroque ballroom and smashed to pieces the notion of mainstream organic, even as the speaker that had just preceded him at the podium – Kraft Foods’ vice president for marketing – wove a billowy wad of company spin about the rosy future of corporate organic. Since Kraft Foods is one of the major sponsors of this annual get-together of food writers and editors, chefs, and industry PR flacks, Ableman’s throwdown was the equivalent of slapping the party’s host. It was a magnificent display of ballsmanship.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time for Ableman, founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Santa Barbara. In 1993, after a speech at the IACP conference in San Francisco, Julia Child scolded the activist for spoiling the fun at a convention that was supposed to be a self-congratulatory industry romp through the glories of, say, forty-year-old balsamic vinegar. Julia called Ableman a “food terrorist” for having the nerve to suggest that America’s food system was broken. He wasn’t invited back until years later.
Ableman’s prescription for resisting Kraft-style organic is for chefs and home cooks to beef up their connections with food growers through farmers’ markets and CSAs – in a sense, to go back to hippie basics, before government regulation of the term “organic.” In what was no doubt a direct rebuke to Kraft VP Howard Brandeisky’s description of organic as “an important part of our portfolio,” Ableman lashed out at corporate behemoths Wal-Mart and Kraft Foods for co-opting organic. He described the watering down and narrowing of the very definition of organic, even as he scolded some of his colleagues in the organic movement of the 1960s and 1970s. “We became seduced by the very food system we’d claimed to oppose,” Ableman said. He urged that audience to go beyond organic, citing “ecological, spiritual, and local values.” And Ableman made a direct appeal to chefs in the audience of 1,500 conference attendees. “Folks are wanting to be nourished in a deeper way,” Ableman said. “Even the most delicious sauces cannot bring to life what isn’t already there. Good food is based on relationships.”
Ableman had started out his speech by seeking to build a relationship with the audience. He asked for the house lights to be raised, so he could see the faces in the crowd. Shading his eyes with his hand, the farmer made an appeal to the ballroom’s tech staff: “Is there some reason we’re keeping this audience in the dark?”