Watch Your Language: On Sustainability
There is a lexi-con game of sorts going on in today’s confusing food world, and although we consumers read messages from marketers every day, most of us remain unaware of the way food buzzwords have shaped our perception and, more importantly, our buying habits.
Before I delve into the language of food, let me first put it out there that I believe we are better off with these words in our gastronomic vocabulary, because they have at the very least given our consumer-driven economy a common language for discussion and debate. We may not agree on the meaning of these words, but I hope we can all agree on their importance.
Using the language of food correctly is a premise that pivots on the notion that people fundamentally care about the provenance and nutritional content of the food that sustains their lives. I will confess to spending some of my rare contemplative moments wondering whether people really do or don’t care. In the Seacoast area, we have a plethora of food-sourcing options, from farm stands to markets to restaurants like mine, that boost our local economy while reassuring us that we are taking good care of our bodies. This local food climate would not have ever evolved if a viable market hadn’t grown in conjunction with it. So, while readers of this publication may already be singing in the local food choir, we must remember that there still exists a sizable congregation of consumers, the far margin of which fades into utter darkness, that has never even heard of our church, much less learned the language of our gospel. This darkness, being devoid of any concern whatsoever about the food we eat or its derivation, more than likely still accounts for a majority of the population.
Last year, at a Slow Money conference in Louisville, Kentucky, I had the pleasure of meeting Douglas Gayeton, the man who created something called “The Lexicon of Sustainability,” which appears to be in the midst of a re-branding effort and can now be found online. In his artful attempt to present food buzzwords in digestible portions, Mr. Gayeton has managed to document the often-confusing vocabulary of food we all have to muddle through to get answers about the essence of our diet. Given the funding and research that has gone into Mr. Gayeton’s estimable search engine, and taking into account that his posted definitions are culled from quotes of “experts” that are more layperson than lexicographer, I have liberally borrowed for this column some of the definitions his website proposes to clarify the fuzzy terminology we use when talking about food.
The rebranding of The Lexicon of Sustainability itself puts one of the most hackneyed and nebulous food words at center stage. Sustainability lies at the core of several food-based NGO’s and their missions. The vision statement of Chefs Collaborative, an organization I am proud to be on the Board of, boldly aims “to make sustainability second nature for every chef in America.” But what does sustainability mean to most people? It is a deflated term that many organizations I am involved with have shied away from in recent years. Like so many buzzwords, sustainability may have run its course, perhaps having achieved its inventors’ goals, and now lies useless and discarded in its hollow shell, like a jack-olantern in a post-frost compost heap.
Or, if I get a vote, maybe the word sustainability, like so many other words, just needs a little makeover. When I first heard the word, my wife was working for a company that made its money investing other people’s money in keeping with their value set, something that Wall Street has never been associated with. The idea of investment portfolios that had value constraints was relatively new at the time, and I remember hearing the word sustainability bandied about as though I should know what it meant. In short time, local organizations of which I was a member began using the term to describe any individual or entity that was looking at the bigger picture, whether that meant ecologically or just temporally. The former was easier to grasp perhaps: decisions we make as consumers affect our environment, for better or worse. Simple enough.
But soon it became clear that the long view of sustainability encompassed other things that didn’t necessarily fall into the vision of those who used the word. Economic sustainability, for example, seemed to rear its head in any conversation about environmental stewardship. Michael Leviton, a celebrated Boston-area chef whose businesses could be described as pioneers in the sustainable restaurant “movement,” is widely quoted as stating, “Rule number one of sustainability is keeping your doors open.” By which he meant that none of our collective efforts to achieve a more stable and thriving ecology matter if we can’t make ends meet in a world that doesn’t always share our vision.
According to Michael’s rule, the longer my restaurant stays open, the more sustainable the consumable content of our product and service. So, in that sense, we enter our ninth year of business this spring being able to call our business sustainable, I suppose. At this point, it could even be called “sustaining.” Anything beyond that might be myopic in an industry known for its unrelentingly perilous nature.
The Lexicon of Food puts its definition of sustainability in the words of Running Squirrel, a Cherokee forager: “Respect mother earth. Respect the land. Learn from the animals. When foraging always leave something behind for whoever comes next. In this way you’re sure to find something when you come back.”
And I guess that about sums it up. To be truly sustainable, any system—whether we’re talking about food, energy, natural resources, or just about anything else—must “always leave something behind for whoever comes next.”
After you have read this issue of Edible New Hampshire, may I suggest that you do your best to be “sustainable” and leave the copy in the hands of someone who has never heard of it, or of sustainability for that matter.
In the next issue, Evan will take on the word “organic” in all its guises.