Salmon Rushdie once wrote, “In order to unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words.” The French term terroir, long isolated to the esoteric analyses of viticulture, has recently emerged from “Sideways” snob vocabulary into mainstream cuisine. Yet this new battle cry of U.S. farmers, foodies and public health advocates has lost its full social significance. There is much to be gained from replanting our roots in local soil, but we must first salvage the nuances of local flavor that have been lost in translation.
In an age of anxious globalization, the flavor of geography offers a comforting reminder of our ties to the land. The recent deluge of locavore biographies, political tracts such as Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food,” and disturbing food documentaries, weave a popular path back to the American earth, following the trail blazed by Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters. U.S. companies have capitalized on the new craze for local foods, transforming organic labels into a lucrative marketing strategy. When restaurants garner acclaim for their private compost heap and innovative use of anonymous meat offal, it is obvious that U.S. eating is undergoing an epic shift.
In the U.S., terroir has become synonymous with local, sustainable food, and is often translated as the “taste of place.” The Oxford English Dictionary roots the term in wine culture: “The growing conditions in a particular region, viewed as contributing distinctive flavours to the grapes, and hence the wines, produced there.” For anyone lucky enough to have tried farm-fresh eggs, free-range chicken or wild strawberries, the taste is self-evident. I-80 beef (corn-fed, free-range cattle from the region surrounding Interstate 80) tastes … well, happier than the average shrink-wrapped steer on the shelf.
Terroir has long been a source of confusion for oenophiles. In her talk “GM Wine Grapes: Culture, Community and Conflict” at the Yale Center for Bioethics last week, Professor Emerita of Viticulture and Enology Carole Meredith (UC Davis) mused that, while terroir is integral to the character of great wines, even the most practiced super-tasters are often unable to detect the specific elements of a wine’s origin. The flavor of wine is a complex interplay of nature and nurture, determined as much by practice as it is by produce. Often, the most pronounced notes come from the means of production and not the grapes themselves, as in the case of oaked Chardonnay (most California Chardonnays are aged in oak barrels, which imparts a trademark fullness to the wine). I challenge anyone to discern notes of crabgrass and dandelion in the grass-fed beef served in Yale dining halls. True, locale influences flavor; but there is more to terroir than taste.
Amy Trubek, author of “The Taste of Place,” provides the missing piece of the puzzle. To Trubek, terroir is both gustatory and cultural, not only told through the taste buds, but also rooted in local narratives of communal identity. Terroir in the U.S. today, envisioned in the concrete factors of flavor and labor, is lacking in social power. To cultivate food’s social symbolism, U.S. farm culture must grow to occupy not only a larger sector of U.S. agronomy, but also a more significant space in the U.S. imagination. National or regional narratives will go the extra length, weaving local products into a story of pride of place and consumable geography. Robert Collier said, “constant repetition carries conviction.” Eat close to the earth, and our minds and hearts will follow.