When “we” go out to eat, we want freshly sourced, local, pesticide- and GMO-free food. We also want asparagus in September, oranges in New England, and a menu that reliably includes our favorites. And keep in mind that we’re using McDonalds — well, maybe Applebee’s — as a cost yardstick. (The economists’ Golden Triangle, reduced to a bumper sticker: Good, fast, cheap: pick any two!) In the back of our minds, we know these demands are, shall we say, difficult to balance. Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley is getting attention for her excellent reporting on how “At Tampa Bay farm-to-table restaurants, you’re being fed fiction”:
… This is a story we are all being fed. A story about overalls, rich soil and John Deere tractors scattering broods of busy chickens. A story about healthy animals living happy lives, heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy and earnest artisans rolling wheels of cheese into aging caves nearby.
More often than not, those things are fairy tales. A long list of Tampa Bay restaurants are willing to capitalize on our hunger for the story…
It’s a trust-based system. How do you know the Dover sole on your plate is Dover sole? Only that the restaurateur said so… Your purchases are unverifiable unless you drive to that farm or track back through a restaurant’s distributors and ask for invoices.
For several months, I sifted through menus from every restaurant I’ve reviewed since the farm-to-table trend started. Of 239 restaurants still in business, 54 were making claims about the provenance of their ingredients.
For fish claims that seemed suspicious, I kept zip-top baggies in my purse and tucked away samples. The Times had them DNA tested by scientists at the University of South Florida. I called producers and vendors. I visited farms.
My conclusion? Just about everyone tells tales. Sometimes they are whoppers, sometimes they are fibs borne of negligence or ignorance, and sometimes they are nearly harmless omissions or “greenwashing.”…
The menu reads: This menu is free of hormones, antibiotics, chemical additives, genetic modification, and virtually from scratch. We fry in organic coconut oil and source local distributors, farmers, brewers and family wineries … Our fish is fresh from Florida or sustainable/wild fisheries.
During Tampa Bay Beer Week, I stopped in to eat.
“Do you make your cheese curds here?”
“Yes,” said the bartender, “everything is made in house from scratch.”
Only it’s not. Those cheese curds arrive in a box. The fish and chips, which the menu says uses wild Alaskan pollock, are made from frozen Chinese pollock treated with sodium tripolyphosphate, a common preservative.
And although the menu says its shrimp are Florida wild caught, they are actually farm-raised in India, Preference Brand from Gulf Coast Seafood.
Moran didn’t deny it.
“We try to do local and sustainable as much as possible, but it’s not 100 percent,” he said. “For the price point we’re trying to sell items, it’s just not possible.”
And that F**k Monsanto Salad? Moran said he buys his produce at wholesaler Sanwa on Hillsborough Avenue. According to Sanwa produce buyer Beatrice Reyes, while produce is labeled by country of origin, it would not be labeled as “local” or “non-GMO.” Unless you’re buying from Sanwa’s small organic section, there’s no way to assure you’re getting non-GMO. Even some certified organic foods have been found to contain GMOs.
Could some of the ingredients in the salad be grown from Monsanto seed?
“It’s really hard to find non-GMO produce,” Moran said…
For the record, I’m not claiming the high ground here — the restaurant where we eat most often is a Chili’s conveniently located next to a B&N. But good reporting is establishing the difference between “Sure, everybody embellishes their menus, we expect that” and “Here’s how & why you’re paying for the story, not the ingredients.”
Proof, if any were needed, Tampa ain’t Sacramento. Color me surprised.
Someone in comments pointed that article out to me recently, and I bookmarked it but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I remember a few years back someone did an investigation of grouper sandwiches in the Tampa area, bagging samples and testing the DNA. Turns out a staggeringly high number weren’t grouper at all.
@trollhattan: Has Sacramento been similarly investigated?
The farmer that I purchase eggs from, said that it’s not unusual for a restaurant to but eggs at least once, in order to tout the local farm. Once is enough, to name the local source.
Major Major Major Major
It’s hard to find non-GMO produce? Why, it’s almost like labeling it would be as useless as California’s Prop 65 was and serve only to enrich a handful of business interests at the expense of true sustainability!
There’s a restaurant in Portland ME (Vinland) that claims to only serve food grown locally. I’ve never been there, but in reading reviews, it might be true. They have to can and preserve a ton of stuff because of winter, and their menus are weird due to the available ingredients.
It’s very popular though.
Major Major Major Major
@trollhattan: Stop trying to make Sacramento happen.
At a bar I used to frequent, if the bartender got an order for ‘rosé’ wine, he’d just mix half red ahd half white. I noticed that once– he scowled at me and said, “There’s no such thing as a rosé grape.”
The restaurant business is tough, and lying to the customer is a long-standing tradition. In particular, e.g., if a paying customer wants Chilean sea bass… well, that’s what the label will say. And if it needs to be GMO-free, the label will say that too.
Mike Colameco is touting Russ & Daughter’s white sturgeon roe from the Sacramento River. Sacramento sounds happening to me.
@Major Major Major Major: When all ya got is Sac-Town…
Not to my knowledge. The connections are open to all, from the growers through the distribution chain (when not direct ) to the restaurants and stores. It’s kind of baked in from the many long-term farmer’s markets, which are relentlessly scrutinized that they’re selling what they raise. Portlandia did a great sendup.
One of the noted hog farmers supplied a pig for friends having a big party. He showed up in a Taurus, hauled it out of the back seat and lugged it to the ice-filled tub, where it was stored prior to being roasted. Farm-to-tub.
To be honest, much of the country doesn’t have the resources to do this locally.
Shit like this is why I stopped eating food *years* ago!
@benw: Preach it! All I need is Tang and a multivitamin.
@Major Major Major Major:
I prefer keeping the riff-raff out, but after spending last Saturday in Saratoga where the ranch houses were $2M and up, I can’t imagine how the invasion will be avoided.
Other than a grapefruit or two, I only eat produce that’s grown in my state. Of course that’s what most of the rest of you eat too.
Just read that McDonalds is going to start an all-you-can-eat french fry option.
If only liberals understood that Monsanto and Cargill invented the green movement to generate higher profit margins.
A sucker is born every minute.
@Shell: That’ll end well.
I vaguely recall reading something about McDonalds being in trouble. I have no idea why or how such a thing is even possible.
@redshirt: LOL… and some ibuprofin to make the headaches go away!
One of the points they make in the story is that it is possible to do true farm-to-table, but it’s hard and expensive. It sounds as if the biggest problem is logistics. It’s hard for farmers to make a profit by selling (and delivering) to individual restaurants rather than to wholesalers or for restaurants to deal with dozens of farmers rather than a single distributor.
Organic word salad: you has it. Understanding how things work: you lack it.
Live in California, do you? ;-)
Iowa Old Lady
Panera advertises “clean” food, a phrase that evidently means they took out artificial coloring etc. To me, calling that “clean” is an appeal to people’s irrational fear of dirt.
BD of MN
One of the many reasons that St. Paul > Minneapolis is that the St. Paul Farmers Market requires that vendors actually grow their own product. So simply due to logistics, its all actual local food (and crafts)…
@redshirtGood luck without the vital nutrients in Space Food Sticks.
Seriously, what do the people who can’t see anything but dent corn for 80 miles do? The monoculture isn’t helping what we think of as farm country.
@Roger Moore: True. I know for this Portland restaurant, their menu options are extremely limited in the winter. As such, it seems like a true niche kinda place.
@Iowa Old Lady: I know. That whole clean eating thing, from cook books, diets and ads, just kinda skeeve’s me out. Makes me think of those government regulations that allow so many insect body parts per hot dog.
Can’t be. If she lived in California, she wouldn’t have trouble finding grapefruit grown in state.
I got up early this morning and emptied the bucket hanging from the gravy tap on my sausage tree, and grabbed some fruit off the biscuit bush. Made a fine home grown breakfast after brushing off a few bugs. The eggs were from Kroger.
The one true farm-to-table restaurant I’ve eaten at- they own their own farm, so I know where their produce is coming from- solves this problem by closing down for the winter. Of course that’s also at least partly because they’re in a tourist location and winter is the off-season, so they wouldn’t have enough customers to be worth staying open.
Can’t restaurants shop at farmers markets?
We have no difficulty finding non-GMO produce. We just walk out into the garden.
it wasn’t me! you have no proof!
This is another cool place: Primo
The restaurant owns a farm and grows a good deal of their own produce and supplies much of their own meats. I don’t know many other places that have their own farm, though it seems like it would make sense for an existing farm to try it.
Is there any other country in the worlds with as many foods fads? Gluten-free, vegan, locally sourced, paleo, low fat, GMO free etc. Then, they have to proselytize how their dietary choice is the bestest that cures cancer and baldness.
When food is cheap and affordable people have to invent these fads in order to keep ahead of the Joneses and feel superior to everyone else.
@Roger Moore: Heh. You beat me to it! And yeah, Primo closes in the winter too.
@Betty Cracker: Misidentifying fish seems to be rampant just about everywhere. I wonder how much of it happens farther up the chain than at the restaurant-buyer level.
CloveGarden has a good fish page with lots of common and “correct” names given. E.g.:
Since the market seemingly can’t provide correct information about these things, I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually there were federal standards.
I shop at a small family owned market. Some of their produce is local, and comes out of their own truck patch, and some of the serious gardeners in the area will offer them their excess. If it says home or local grown, it really is, but many of the items are commercial. They buy and butcher the 4H project winners, and will label those when they have them (the other local markets do the same). They sell the grass fed beef from the producer the local farmers sell cattle to, but the prices are too high for me. It helps to live in a rural area.
The place I’m thinking of is Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, UT. It makes sense to do farm-to-table there for several reasons:
1) They’re in an agricultural area, so farms and ranches are nearby
2) They’re in the middle of nowhere, so deliveries from a regular distributor are going to be more expensive and less convenient than they would be in a city
3) They’re in a tourist location where people are spending a lot of money already, so the added expense of farm-to-table doesn’t stand out as much as it would elsewhere.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, I accept a lot of the time my “local” produce will come from California or Mexico. When summer approaches, buying produce from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia is a bonus. Driving to the Okanagan on summer vacation to visit the tree fruits outlet store in season (four varieties of peaches or five varieties of cherries ) is the cherry on top as it were.
Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant can tell you that the menu is often a gentle fiction. If I wanted to be sure that all my food was local and organic, I’d become a vegetarian and only eat what I could grow myself. And we do grow and can a lot of produce every year. But I like meat and I like fresh veggies out of season and I get the best I can afford at the local grocery, farmer’s market and the deli/produce market up the street. And I eat out mostly at locally owned restaurants. But if I go to Applebee’s, I’m not sweating how they source the food. I’m going to eat it anyway.
My quarter pounder better be locally sourced!
@BD of MN:
In California, that’s the state law. If you shop at a certified farmer’s market, you’re buying from the farmer who grew it. That doesn’t mean it’s all super-local- there are plenty of farmers who come down from the Central Valley to sell in the Los Angeles area- but it does cut down on stuff being sold from a really long way away.
@MattF: Well, Chilean sea bass is just a marketing term anyway.
They do where I iive, assume that’s true elsewhere unless there are weird ordinances against it, like old blue laws and such.
@StellaB: Not if you live someplace like Nevada or Arizona. Farm to table is a wonderful concept…if you’re fucking Alice Waters and live in the goddamn Garden Spot of the Universe with a hundred frmers vying for your attention.
Most of our produce is sourced out of state for the simple reason that if it wasn’t we’d all die of starvation.
the Conster, la Citoyenne
I’ve eaten there – late last summer when everything is coming in. What a great place! Gorgeous gardens.
I’ll allow as to the wonderfulness of a ripe Texas ruby red grapefruit. Even Rick Perry couldn’t change that.
Comes straight from a local freezer, guaranteed.
@Neldob: have you ever shopped for a restaurant? No they can’t. Most “farmers markets” are catering to people shopping for a dinner or two at home. We’n you’re serving 500-1000 plates a night. that’s a different level of supply chain entirely. All those cooking shows where the chef wanders through the market picking up a bunch of this and a few of those is a lie.
A restaurant back end is a meal factory, not a kitchen.
@the Conster, la Citoyenne: What were you doing in Rockland? It’s not traditionally a vacation destination, though I hear that is changing. I lived in Camden for a couple of years and wow that place is a freaking postcard.
And if you’re willing to change your menu according to what’s in season. If you want to eat fresh tomatoes in December, you’re probably going to have to buy from the Southern Hemisphere. You basically can’t keep a constant menu, serve fresh produce, and buy locally.
Give me a California pomelo any day- or at least any day they’re in season. If you really must have grapefruit, my local farmer’s market has grapefruit from Riverside.
@Roger Moore: Another cool company in Maine is Backyard Farms, who grow only tomatoes year round in a big greenhouse. They also have an interesting work structure in that each employee is dedicated to a number of tomato plants and that’s it. So it’s like personal gardening in an industrial farm setting.
@BruceJ: Oh yes they can. We’re not talking large chain restaurants. Most of our farm to fork type places probably don’t serve more than 100-150 plates per night. We have farmer’s markets several days per week around here. Lots of the local chefs are there early in the morning. I’ve seen them.
The primary goal of most restaurants that proclaim their farm to table ethos is to make their customers feel better about themselves (and to turn a profit.)
So its probably best not to look too closely at the facts here.
Pomolo –the weaponized grapefruit. I’ve tried them but confess I have yet to score a good one. Guess I need to keep trying.
Local college has an ugli tree and I never want to be standing beneath when the fruit drops.
The thing about pomelos is that you have to peel the individual segments because the membrane between them is so bitter. If you find a good one, they’re sweeter and more fragrant than grapefruit and not as bitter.
You’ve got that backwards. I can’t figure out how to strikethrough, so I’ll just paste and rearrange:
The primary goal of most restaurants that proclaim their farm to table ethos is to turn a profit (and to make their customers feel better about themselves).
Restauranteur as the new Enron. Big surprise.
Less than sign del greater than sign Comment less than sign /del greater than sign
@debbie: A fair point.
But do we care who picks it, how much they get paid, and what their employment benefit package is? I am concerned much more with that than I am with the scientific work that may have allowed the crops in question to be drought resistant.
And actually, I’m still waiting for the conclusive studies that say just how harmful, if at all, GMO produce or for that matter cows are.
Plus, what is the type and level of genetic modification that is deemed to be undesirable?
@redshirt: I believe at times Mcdonald’s brags about their main ingredients being in – country. Their canadian stores are in the middle of a “not without canadian ________” right now.
@geg6: You sound so reasonable. What’s wrong with you?
Thanks to you both. Love the instructions for Images.
The French can be annoying sometimes, but I honestly think frying them is going a little too far. I mean, I like some of their movies and actresses. Plus it would really put a damper on diplomatic relations with the French, and the Canadians would probably get pretty frosty about it too. And, anyway, it’s really hard to find locally-sourced French people- unless, y’know, you’re in France, where I imagine they frown on being sauteed. Let’s not throw out the baby with the cooking oil.
GMO fear is mostly hysteria and bad press. It actually means a whole bunch of different changes to plants. In other words it is a technique and many different things can be done. Most of them are no different than we have done slower with plant breeding for centuries. Some sound weird and people thought it sounded icky so that added to the freak out when it started being in the news. Other things are a really bad idea like making plants have roundup in them or other ‘cides. These get lose in other plants through pollinization or make resistant pests. It has to be judged on specifics. Lots of it is fine and good.
In addition Monsanto has earned their bad reputation. I want someone to fight their gene copyright bullying by pointing out they can’t own a gene that is wind pollinated. People who let their prize bull roam loose didn’t use to get stud fees so I don’t see why Monsanto can attack farmers near them when the plants show genes from Monsanto.
@Roger Moore: At Syracuse’s Farmer’s Market, it’s a crap shoot. You have to meet and visit to be sure.
J R in WV
THIS!! When Monsanto can accuse a farmer down the road from a farm that bought their gene-modified soy or corn of stealing their genes when there was never any opportunity to steal seed corn or beans, that’s WRONG! In every way!
Monsanto used to have chemical plants around here, I would say that they have the ethics of a Mexican drug cartel, but that would be an insult to the Mexican Drug Lords. Scum, but that’s embarrassing for the pond scum. I never worked for Monsanto, but I will carry literal scars on my body for the rest of my life from the emissions from Monsanto that somehow escaped through their chain link fence. Somehow.
@Major Major Major Major: too late, Sacramento is happening. The Sunday farmers under the freeway is the backbone of the week’s menus. Despite the current mayor and odious first lady, it’s a swell town.
Study after study has shown that GMO stuff is not harmful at all. The anti-GMO sentiment is based on the vague feeling that, well, it could be harmful, maybe, (and anti-GMO is also quite the Trojan horse for anti-Monsanto).
@redshirt: It is, they guarantee the beef is from planet Earth.
@Bubblegum Tate: I am with Gvg on this. I don’t see a problem eating GMO food, it’s Monsanto suing bystanders. And unforeseen issues.
The Other Chuck
@Bubblegum Tate: The fact that the company making the most GMOs has shown itself repeatedly to be wholly untrustworthy over decades might have something to do with it. GMO rice that has vitamin A (“golden rice”) I can get behind, drowning Roundup-Ready crops in glycophosphate not so much. So yeah, I demand labeling and accountability. And unbiased studies.