Sunday, September 14, 2014

Boston's Food Festival Is Better Than Your City's

Earlier this month, Slate's Andrew Simmons published a "food festival takedown" claiming that "These modern-day bacchanals showcase the worst features of American life." Slate went so far as to give the article the provacative click-bait header "Why You Should Never, Ever Go to a Food Festival."

Andrew, I would like to cordially invite you to come to next year's Boston Local Food Festival. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

The Slate piece mentions festivals in Los Angeles full of rude people blatantly cutting in line, eating and drinking to excess, and generally looking out for number one at the expense of their fellow attendees. Now, while I'd love to make this about how people on the East coast are inherently better than people on the West coast, I doubt that this is what's really going on.

What is going on at the festivals Simmons experienced is a desperate attempt to get your money's worth. He makes multiple references to how overpriced food festivals are; one example he gives is of an event for which the tickets cost $75. His experience was that many attendees, intoxicated by some sort of frantic extreme coupon-er mindset and possessed by a need to game the system, pushed and shoved their way to as much food as possible, whether they actually enjoyed it or not.

Boston Local Food Festival, by contrast, is a free event whose individual vendors charge for their wares. Like any large event it is, of course, prone to some crowding and short tempers of people in line, which, as my friend Kathryn put it, encourages you to, if anything, eat too little. Unlike the orgy that Simmons describes, the price tag on each individual sampling coupled with the unwieldy lines to get your hands on it, serve as a deterrent to overindulgence, and an encouragement to seriously consider which foods you want to try.

A second feature that sets our experiences of food festivals apart is the alcohol. Simmons sites drunkenness as fueling people's gluttonous, rude, and overall inappropriate, unattractive behavior. Here in Puritan New England, that's not an issue. This year's Boston Local Food Festival took place outside, on public property, and on a Sunday no less! I'm sure there were a college student or two wandering around with flasks in their pockets, but other than that, it was a dry event, with most people too busy keeping their hands on strollers and dog leashes to hold an extra bottle anyway. (Although at Boston Local Food Festival's sister event, Local Craft Brewfest, you do pay in advance for as much beer as you can get your hands on in a limited amount of time, and I've never seen that effect people's politeness, but...maybe I just haven't been looking hard enough.)

Practical considerations aside, Simmons raises some interesting, if less easy to pinpoint, problems with the food festivals he has seen. He says that,

"Some food festivals trumpet sustainability as a pillar of their mission, but...while biodegradable forks made from potato starch are popular, at the end of the day, napkins, plates, and discarded food billow out of garbage cans. Piles of trash sprout wherever attendees feel like starting them. Just because the heritage-breed pigs everyone's tucking into were raised on chestnuts, doesn't mean that the event is somehow expanding the crowd's understanding of food systems."

First of all, let me address the fact that a herd of overly cheerful volunteers were standing by the garbage cans making sure that recyclables and compostables got thrown away in their proper place. I didn't stay until the very end of the festival, but I highly doubt it devolved into the piles-of-trash dystopia Simmons describes. With that out of the way, I guess we really need to talk about how much "good" events like this actually do.

It feels nice to spend an afternoon supporting local farms and keeping your leftovers out of landfills, but as the local, sustainable, organic, other greeen buzzwords movement gets trendier and trendier, its risk of defeating its own purpose grows. Slapping a "no GMOs" bumper sticker on your Prius will not solve all the problems in the world. If you're obnoxious enough about it, it might even send people away from your cause. But I feel pretty confident that this afternoon's festival didn't do anything to make the world a worse place. Not everyone who attended is going to immediately swear off the industrial food system and start growing everything their family eats. But all those plates really did end up in the compost pile, and I have to believe that if the festival hadn't taken place, plenty of those same people would have eaten a fast food lunch whose packaging ended up in a dumpster, so isn't that a small but tangible help right there?

Going further still, at BLFF, I found out about restaurants, publications, and organizations I didn't previously know about. There's no way I'm the only one. Of course one afternoon isn't going to shift Boston's eating habits in a significant way, but everyone who was there came away with a very slightly augmented list of options about where and how to eat. They don't have to take advantage of them every day in order for it to be a step in the right direction.
Was the afternoon a little too crowded? A little too self-righteous? Yes. Of course. But I still found it easy to enjoy myself, and to learn something. So Andrew Simmons, and anyone else who's had a bad experience at a food festival, come out to Boston next September and I'll show you how to do it right.
James picking out some oysters from Chatham, MA
Local chefs compete to make the better fish dish at the Seafood Throwdown

Kathryn and I enjoy some ice from Bart's in Greenfiled, MA
The day was a little nippy for running through the fountain, but it was still fun to watch.
Melissa and Kathryn eating jerk chicken from a local vendor on the grass.

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