If you are really into healthy eating, a trip to the grocery store can be kind of depressing. It often seems like most of the food they sell isn't even really food. A couple of weeks, in a lazy mood, I combed the grocery stores shelves for a mayonnaise that didn't have high omega-6 vegetable oil. I even would have accepted an oil with high-oleic vegetable oil, but none of the mayos fit the bill. My time already wasted in that futile search, I cracked open Ferran Adria's Family Meal cookbook and made my oil aioli with an immersion blender, finally managing to hit the emulsification without splattering the walls and my hair with olive oil and egg.
I find these days I get some raw ingredients from the grocery store, but increasingly I find myself purchasing from the food underground, tiny businesses that could never find their way through the monolith of regulations. They are foods, god forbid, cooked in people's kitchens. You know, kind of like the food mom made, but for some reason it's OK if mom does it, but not OK to sell it to other people. It seems kind of strange to me that the bagged raw chickens that a farmer slaughtered in his backyard are legal for me to buy (small farm poultry exemption), but not the craft beer or the kombucha made in someone's kitchen. Raw chicken is way more dangerous than beer could possibly be and what if I don't cook it right? With the craft beer, even if it's made in a licensed kitchen, there are all kinds of weird licensing loopholes to jump through. I thought it was hilarious when in NYC some native Wisconsinites were busted for selling New Glarus beer because it's not licensed for sale in NYC. What is the purpose of busting people for that? Is New Glarus beer more dangerous than Six Point beer? I don't think the government even pretends it's protecting people from anything anymore. Once something is a law and a bureaucrat is on the payroll, it tends to stick around.
Some people have tried to come up with creative solutions for complying with government regulations, like shared licensed kitchen spaces, but not surprisingly, the government often isn't terribly supportive. That's what happened with Logan Square Kitchen in Chicago. Some people have focused on the food safety regulations that LSK struggled with and there are legitimate arguments about that, but the fact that they had to deal with business licensing, which often doesn't have anything to do with even pretending to protect people, surely compounded these struggles. Maybe you should need a license to operate some kind of dangerous machinery, but why does anyone need a license to have a business?
Over and over we heard, “you did everything right.” See the Alderman before building purchase. All City Depts approve us through Green Building Permit Program. Go to BACP in advance of applying for license, completely disclosing the business model. Spend 3 months talking about what licenses we needed. Apply as directed. Told we ‘misrepresented’ our business. Told we can’t have license caused we’ve failed our “furniture inspection.” Correct that, and get licenses contingent on conditions we can’t meet. Then the Zoning folks try to shut us down. 20 health inspections. 18 months wrapped in red tape. Enduring intimidation and harassment, the resources we set aside to ramp up the business were instead used to pay lawyers and our mortgage while we were denied the right to operate.
It's not about safety, it's about control. Another depressing case has been in the news lately, that of noted tea expert David Lee Hoffman, who is possibly going to lose his farm and home because the buildings he has on his properly are "unapproved."
Life is always so full of strange twists and turns and usually happen with unpredictable spontaneity. Forty years of labor on my property have left me with a tired back, two bad shoulders, and thirty or so unpermitted structures. The finish of my laboring career was so close I was even pondering the location for a hammock that I’ve been keeping for just that occasion. But rather than living out days of leisure retirement in the garden, I find myself in another realm, something akin to a tragic Greek Fable when I’m told after four decades of hard labor, rather than receiving an award for accomplishment, I am ordered by the Great Power to now tear it all down!
I remember a farm I worked on that had "unapproved" buildings. They were gorgeous and innovative experimental structures. They couldn't get permits for them because codes didn't exist for strawbale buildings or composting toilets. In a rental building perhaps I am happy to have some building codes, but experimenting on your own property in buildings you live in should not be illegal.
Some localities are trying to put into place "cottage food" ordinances that would allow for some exceptions. I actually don't think this is a good idea because it draws the attention of bureaucrats who will want to extract their "rents" somehow. Or as in Illinois the local cronies can decide they just don't like the law and tie you up in paperwork forever.
Thank god for the internet, where people are just not bothering trying to get legit in the first place. These days you can find cottage businesses through social networking sites, send an email, and have your homemade kombucha/raw milk yogurt/home-brewed beer delivered to your apartment. I have to admit here that at this point I buy much of my food this way. It's immensely freeing in so many ways. I get to know each producer personally and can interact with them in a way that allows me to get the best products possible. I can even custom order things to my liking. It requires I be somewhat engaged with my food buying and probably takes more time than going to Trader Joes, but sometimes it's cheaper and the food is always better in every way possible.
The best meal I've ever had? It was at an underground supper club here in Chicago. And let's be honest here, I felt more comfortable eating that food, out of a kitchen I could clearly see, than I do eating food from most restaurants. Restaurants get inspected maybe once a year? How is that supposed to even pretend to enforce safety? And what is safety anyway? Why is it OK for a restaurant to re-use frying oil containing trans fats, which slowly kill people? But not OK to use beef slaughtered by the chef on a local farm in full-view of customers?
How do I find these things? Twitter, Facebook, going to food events and networking with people. Crossfit gyms have also becoming powerful networks for this.
Wild boar tacos at Nite Market
Last week I went to a rather large underground market organized by a grad student that featured unlicensed food vendors. It was wonderful to see the variety of microbusinesses featured there. You could get all kinds of delicious things from kiwi kombucha to liver pate to kale chips.
But I suffer from this fear that the small underground businesses I enjoy so much will go the way of the Greenpoint Food Market, a vibrant little fair full of delicious and innovative foods. I've seen increasingly sneaky entrapment-like methods being used against buying clubs, specifically raw dairy sellers. Will there come a day when I have to wrap myself behind three proxies to send an email about picking up homemade yogurt?
I also think sometimes about the situation Americans are in health-wise. I probably wouldn't eat some of the things I eat (the raw meat and dairy in particular) if I were still sick because I was on immune-system suppressing medications like proton pump inhibitors and corticosteroids. Millions of Americans are on these kind of medications.
Whenever there is a food poisoning outbreak we hear so much about people getting sick, but what about the people who eat that same food and don't get sick? Shouldn't we be thinking a little more about them? What does it mean that they didn't get sick? Seth Roberts posted a few days ago about how we are approaching the antibiotic resistance problem the wrong way. Instead of fretting about antibiotics being overused for sicknesses, why aren't we thinking about why Americans are so sick all the time? Why aren't we focusing on boosting immune systems?
The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements
Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front
The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights