Rowan Jacobsen, American Terroir

For a small subset of people, it's a genuine question, so I'm glad to see an answer. With American Terror Terroir, Rowan Jacobsen has convinced me that the environmental defense of place can amplify (and be amplified by) the foodie's defense of special flavours.

The worry behind this question, for those who see it as a question, is whether food culture is inevitably faddish, snobbish, and exploitative, or whether these characteristics are avoidable. Jacobsen's talent in his food writing, as with his science writing, is to put place first beyond any doubt, with that term "place" encompassing concepts like surrounding environment, species identity, human relationship with place, and elemental components (like the mineral composition of soil in a particular area). He's writing as a confirmed and dedicated foodie, comfortable in any food conversation imaginable in the world of high-end restaurants, but in a way, that's only flavouring for the main conversation, which is place.

Each chapter addresses a different food from a different place, which Jacobsen discusses in terms of time he spends in each location: avocados from Michoacรกn, coffee from Panama, salmon from Alaska's Yukon River, varietal honey from all over…. Each chapter, too, ends with information about how to order or obtain these specific foods, information about how to get a reasonable version of it without breaking the bank, and some recipes for showcasing the special flavours of the especially local foodstuff. I was hungry the whole time I was reading this book, hating most of my pantry's contents but eating better as a result. With only three people in my house, I still often find myself cooking two and sometimes three different dinners each night, and Jacobsen left me feeling like the effort's worth it if we're getting the flavours we all crave. (Of course, family peace means it's worth it anyway, but it's nice to have the support of philosophy, no?)

I'm teaching an activist-oriented course this fall at my university on the intersection of literature and environment, and as a result I'm spending a lot of energy thinking about battles and opposition and conflict. So great to be reminded that compromise is sometimes possible (though only sometimes, and only with partial effect): it was a real treat to spend time with Rowan Jacobsen, these remarkable foods, and the remarkable people who produce them.

The book's full title is American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, and it's terrific. Sure, the adjective "American" is worryingly expansionist here, encompassing Central America as well as Canada, but it's about place rather than borders, so I'll give him a pass on that. Read it, buy it, give it away!


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