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Organic Semantics



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In a recent conversation about the organic/green restaurant scene, I asked several people what the word organic meant to them. Answers ranged from “of the earth” to “not a whole lot anymore,” and “mostly bullshit.” These people are all in the restaurant business and are dealing with the ideology on both sides, from the growers to the diners that come to the restaurant with their own expectations. The understanding is essentially that you trust the restaurant to deliver an organic meal, though organic means something different to each of us. At a minimum, I would expect food free of pesticide and any growth hormones.

No city jumped onto the “organic” restaurant bandwagon with a louder thud than San Francisco. But what does organic even mean? The philosophical latitude here leaves room for a lot. I think it comes down to what your motivation for an organic meal is: health, ideology, political agenda?

Everyone involved in organic practice, from farmer to diner, is participating in a labor of love that has dividends in both literal and figurative terms. The responsibility of all parties involved is hefty, so for a cynic like me, it often requires a leap of faith. A leap that includes a belief that what I am eating is actually organic, and that even if it is, I am better for it. The priorities of diners vary widely. I have listened to restaurant patrons in San Francisco split hairs over how their lamb was treated as it was raised. How was it treated? It was murdered at a young age so you could eat it—what else do we need to discuss?

Scrutiny is at an all time high, and diners are more educated than ever. We waiters and bartenders are fielding questions all the time, "yes, but is it local? Is it bio-dynamically farmed?" I grew up in Florida, where the fish was always local and fresh, but no one gave a damn if the lemons were grown in some hippy's garden or in Bolivia with Agent Orange. My family came from Canada, where sustainability in the 70's meant hopefully there was another yellow fanged, slimy green pike fish to be lured out of a hole in the tundra somewhere.

The truth of the matter is, there are plenty of small farms in the Bay Area that are organic, but are not certified organic. Like a world-class winemaker giving the finger to the AOC, many local farmers are organic, but can’t be bothered to spend the time and money to become certified - a bureaucratic system full of flaming hoops that serves who?

The real glue that helps a community eat better is the close relationships between those who grow the food and those that prepare it. Organic foods and green living were not developed as a blunt instrument for San Franciscans to one-up each other. Leave it to six figure democrats to take something pure and turn it into an accessory that puts them ahead in a race to be the most legit.

In a town where it's hip to resist, where dissent is king, how long can it take before it’s cooler to shun organic food than to embrace it? After all, how many of us grew up on enhanced milk and ground beef, Sunny Delight and Oscar Meyer; I glowed in the dark until recently. Now my blood runs rich with the iron of Niman Ranch Prime and organic goodness of a three hour Ubuntu lunch date.

One thing is for sure, put it in front of me and I will eat it; even if Alice Waters doesn't respect me in the morning. I just feel lucky we live in a part of the world where we are deciding between the best tomato in the history of farming, and the next best one. People are drinking out of ditches and dying in life rafts all over the world, so if there's a little growth hormone in my milkshake or some cancer in my sandwich, I still feel like a lucky guy.