Related topics

There’s Politics in That Bowl of Fruit

September 10, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ Talking politics may be gauche at the dinner table, but some artful, upscale descendants of lentil-loaf hangouts are mixing political consciousness with their organic greens and grass-fed beef.

At Nosmo King in trendy Tribeca, the chef weighs buying organic fruit from California - with the attendant use of gasoline to ship it - against buying fruit from a local farmer who sprays pesticides.

There is small game on the menu, but ″we’ll never have foie gras,″ chef Alan Harding says. When he chooses animals, he considers how they are raised.

″We stay away from beef. We never have lamb. Red meat, no,″ he says one morning over coffee with soy milk. ″We stay away from cow dairy. We use other dairy, because of the differences in production, the fact that they’re local, and they’re more easily digestible.″

There have long been health food restaurants, often counterculture caricatures, with Birkenstock-shod waiters serving bland tofu burgers to long- haired diners at rough-hewn tables.

It was 20 years ago that Frances Moore Lappe’s ″Diet for a Small Planet″ was published, promoting vegetarianism and arguing that food is a central issue of world politics. At the same time, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., emphasizing the taste of farm-fresh ingredients.

Today, plenty of diners still want to kick back without thinking about the effect their dinner might have on the future of the planet. But the environment, animal rights and health all are taking seats at even fancy restaurant tables.

″I want to enjoy my life. I want everybody else to enjoy theirs, too. You don’t want to destroy our ability to enjoy life on the planet. The path we’re on is not sustainable. Period,″ says Steven Frankel, one of the owners of Nosmo King (No Smoking. Get it?).

Many chefs buy at least some organic produce and shop directly from farmers, talk about ″clean″ food, and offer vegetarian dishes. It’s no trick these days to find a restaurant with a no-smoking section or no smoking altogether.

Greens, with a dramatic San Francisco Bay view, allows no smoking and gained an early national reputation for serving exciting vegetarian food. And Moosewood in Ithaca, N.Y., continues to operate as a collective, the way it started nearly two decades ago.

Marcus Ripperger, executive chef at Zachary’s at the Colonnade Hotel in Boston, worked with the American Heart Association when he recently renovated his menu. He also buys organic produce, grass-fed beef and natural veal.

″Nowadays, everyone wants to eat very healthy, but that doesn’t mean just low-fat and low-salt,″ he says. ″It also means the food is clean and healthy for you.″

At the 15-month-old Time Cafe, a hip downtown Manhattan restaurant, ″you can have steak, a burger, pizza, smoke in my restaurant, get a gin and tonic,″ says Josh Pickard, one of the owners.

But Time Cafe uses no tablecloths so no bleach is needed to clean them. The paper is recycled, the cocktail stirrers are wood, and the straws are paper. The restaurant buys organic whenever it can, Pickard says.

″We’re trying to appeal to the mass market, where the change can be made, he says.

Like Time Cafe, the Nowhere Cafe in West Hollywood, Calif., opened a shop that sells food and environmentally safe cleaning and health-care products.

″Will these ecologically correct or politically correct restaurants change the world? I don’t think so,″ says Warren Belasco, who has written a book about the counterculture’s influence on food in ″Appetite for Change.″

″A lot more drastic political action has to be done. A few government changes go a lot farther than something on a menu,″ he says. ″When McDonald’s substitutes something for the hamburger completely, then we’ll know something has really happened.″

Something certain seems to be happening, if only a small something.

″I think there is both a connection to be made to the hippie movement and a connection to what happened in the ’80s,″ said Jeff Prince, senior director at the National Restaurant Association, a Washington-based trade group. ″I think we’re seeing more and more restaurants who are bringing their beliefs about food, about food service and handling waste and the environment into their business.″

In the 1970s, Belasco says, ″hip″ restaurants were attentive to such issues as treating their workers well and honest pricing. Now it’s the environment and health.

″They probably don’t talk so much about the profit margin, but we’re disposing trash in the proper way, or we’re using cruelty-free chickens.″

Even McDonald’s gave up its foam clamshell containers and has a recycling program. And the Hard Rock Cafe has ″Save the Planet″ as its slogan.

Ecology is obviously good marketing, but the public doesn’t always respond the way restaurateurs had hoped.

Sometimes, people don’t come to Nosmo King because they think it’s vegetarian, or leave because it’s too vegetarian. Customers make all kinds of special requests: macrobiotic meals, no fat, no dairy, no fermented products, no nuts, even all raw food.

In Houston, Evan Daily opened Evan’s on Earth Day 1990 and still is fighting the misconception that it’s vegetarian, or a hippie restaurant.

Now he markets Evan’s as a restaurant that sells good food from around the world, he says. But he runs a business that is ″as environmentally and socially correct as possible,″ buying organic food grown by people from a local center for the retarded, donating part of his profits to peace and other causes, and recycling.

Such seriousness of purpose leads often to jokes, and saving the world through dining is no different.

Garrison Keillor recently broadcast an American Radio Co. sketch about the Cafe Boeuf, where the waiter tells a couple, ″Thank you for not smoking, or drinking, or thinking about meat. ... Our menu is completely violence-free: no mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, or battered shrimp.″ There’s no white bread, but there is ″dolphin-free melt.″

When Nosmo King opened, Frankel printed a statement on dessert menus about the effects of food choices on the environment. The restaurant was roasted for being preachy.

So, the menus now talk just about food and wine.

And Harding came, bringing his classic French training. The reviews have been good; Harding, The New York Times wrote, ″is reclaiming health food in an artful, contemporary style.″

That includes a tart of beets and potatoes and goat cheese; a popular napoleon of phyllo pastry with asparagus, mushrooms and sauteed greens; and blackfish with olive vinaigrette - hardly sacrifice or denial.

Nosmo King serves bread with fragrant rosemary-infused oil. No butter. No white rice, but plenty of grains and legumes.

″We set down a policy that we would remain true to, and that is that we would not serve any red meat, we would try to limit the amount of dairy in everything, we would always provide vegetarian options,″ Harding says.

That all takes work, and Harding has learned to intensify fish and chicken stocks by cooking them over and over, quadrupling the quantities of bones; to use soy or tofu where he might have used butter or cream; or to substitute vegetable stocks for some of the oil in vinaigrettes.

It is a careful balance to maintain a ″haute direction″ and a commitment to Nosmo King’s philosophy, he says.

″The bottom line is people are very careful nowadays about what they put in their body,″ Harding says. ″That’s what’s we’re betting the farm on, and it hasn’t reached fruition yet. We hope every day more and more people realize they can’t have a quarter-pound of butter with their six rolls before their three-course meal and be happy when it’s over.″