Go into any fancy restaurant or supermarket these days, and you'll notice that food now has a geographic dimension: Labels and signs tell you where your cow lived, your tomatoes were grown, and your fish was caught. Writing at the always-excellent Edible Geography, Nicola Twilley investigates what she calls the "atlas of aspirational origins." Just where are these places? Are they even real?
Where is Hillshire Farm, anyway?
Most of the time, she writes, they are: Restaurants and gourmet groceries are justly proud of the fact that their food came from a farm or fishing boat, not a factory. In other cases, though, geographical specificity can be misleading. In Europe, there are trade protections based on geography; American law thinks of a place name as a marketing trademark, rather than an actual statement about where a product is from. So, while there really is a San Marzano, Italy, and many "San Marzano" tomatoes are grown there, the tomatoes in cans here in the U.S. are often grown in California (although, Twilley notes, "they are the same varietal").
For marketers at bigger companies, it's hard to resist the allure of fictional geographical specificity, which can take an otherwise commodified product and give it personality and authenticity. When big companies invoke geography, they often do it in an especially fast-and-loose way: Philadelphia Cream Cheese is really made in Wisconsin, and Boston Market is actually based in Colorado. (Apparently Philly just seamed right for cream cheese, and Boston for roast chicken -- make of that what you will.) In Britain, Twilley writes, the chain Marks and Spencer has taken geographic labeling to its "logical, imaginary conclusion": Their smoked salmon appears to be from "Lochmuir," a non-existent region of Scotland, and their chicken comes from "Oakham," a real English town whose butchers expressed befuddlement and surprise; Marks and Spencer's chickens are, in fact, are raised all over the U.K., but not in Oakham.
It's easy, Twilley concludes, to imagine that the trend will continue in the future. "More and more producers of 'luxury' foods will seek to make their product even more desirable with reference to a hyper-specific, utterly imaginary" place. "Chinese fois gras," she speculates, might "come from the French-sounding Beauchâteau, Vietnamese mozzarella will be marketed under the faux-Italian name of San Legaro." Our food will come from an imaginary world -- the kind of place where we'd like to think it's raised, grown, and caught.
More at Edible Geography, with images: "The Atlas of Aspirational Origins."
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.