THE BLOG

Legalize It!

11/14/2013 11:54 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

What is edible? In the most practical sense, edible is what the government says we can eat. But there is a growing movement--of renegade chefs, fearless eaters, and imaginative provisioners--who are seeking to enlarge the strict American diet of chicken-beef-pork and corn-based everything. These people, call them the foodies, are confronting a vast regulatory system that began to be built in 1906, after Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle terrified people about the true nature of their tinned meats. (In one memorable--but uncorroborated--scene, he describes workers falling into the vats and being processed as cooking lard; the rest of the novel's claims were verified by government investigators.) The regulations, which laid the groundwork for the modern U.S.D.A. and F.D.A., were intended to protect consumers and give them confidence in the nation's food supply. A century on, with the industrial food system ever more entrenched, far from being reassured, foodies mistrust anything government-approved.

In the breach, an unofficial food economy has formed. Avid consumers clamor for foods that are off-limits, small-batch, sub rosa; experimental chefs are pushing the boundaries. Together they are attempting a radical revision of the American palate. The result? A full-blown food fight.

  • 1. Raw Milk
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Probably no food excites more passion among believers and more horror among regulators than raw milk. The government maintains that pasteurization solved a massive public-health crisis in the 19th century; raw milkers feel certain that the stuff is life-alteringly beneficial. Chefs tend to come to see the romance of raw, for reasons of flavor and terroir, and some use it on the down low. Retail sales are only legal in nine states; three more allow it only for use as pet food; there’s a federal law against selling it across state lines. In 2011, agents in tactical gear raided a Venice Beach raw food club and poured hundreds of gallons of raw milk down the drain. Bail for the owner, who was taken into custody, was posted at $123,000.
  • 2. Foie Gras
    Shutterstock
    Even as foodies seek to enlarge the range of edible animals, vegan activists seek to shrink it. Foie gras, the “fat liver” of a duck or goose, achieved by the force-feeding method known as gavage, has long been a bête noir of the animal-rights community. The summer of 2012 saw the implementation in California of a law passed in 2005, outlawing the sale of products from force-fed animals. It came at the end of a seven-year binge, during which time foie gras became a macho cause celeb, and wound up in unlikely pairings with Spam and jelly donuts, and splayed in tattoo ink across a set or two of hairy knuckles.
  • Horse
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Last year, Hugue Dufour, a Quebecois chef living in New York, featured a horse-meat bologna and foie gras grilled cheese sandwich in his booth at the Great Googa Mooga food festival in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It was a hit—5000 sandwiches served—prompting Dufour to announce that he was going to put horse tartare on the menu at his restaurant M. Wells, in a frank attempt to get diners to open their minds to an overlooked protein. Outrage ensued. Then the government announced that inspections of horse-slaughtering facilities would be restored to the federal budget. Now a new horse-processing plant is imminent, and calls for an outright federal ban have reached a screaming pitch.
  • Whale
    During World Wars I and II, our government urged us to eat whale, promoting it as tasty, nutritious meat not subject to rationing. After the war, we told the Japanese to convert their fishing boats to whalers, as a way of avoiding starvation. Nowadays, the idea of eating whales—especially those that are endangered—is reprehensible to most Americans, while the Japanese have made the right to partake a point of national pride. Following an investigation that lasted several years, in early 2013, The Hump, a Santa Monica restaurant, and two of its chefs were charged with violating the federal protections for marine mammals when they allegedly served whale to an undercover vegan activist as part of a sting operation. The restaurant faces fines of up to $1.2 million; the head chef is looking at a maximum of 67 years in jail, his sous chef, 10.
  • 5. Insects
    JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN via Getty Images
    Edible insects have become a hotly desirable ingredient. Exotic, challenging, forage-friendly, environmentally correct, they represent exciting, unexplored terrain for chefs. But they fall into a grey area. The U.S.D.A., which is in charge of inspecting the country’s meat, doesn’t have a category for insects, which, though eaten by 80% of the world’s people, have never been part of Western cuisine. F.D.A. is only slightly less vague, though it does advise against “wild-crafting” and using insects intended to be fed to pets. In the haze, people are doing whatever they wish. Pass the ant eggs, please.
  • 6. Marijuana
    SHUTTERSTOCK
    Cooks have been playing around with pot since the time of the Romans—they liked to eat the seeds, roasted, for dessert—but American appetites have tended toward treats like the hash brownies described in the Alice B. Toklas cookbook. (“Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected,” the recipe warned.) Now, with the country going green, marijauna’s culinary potential is beginning to be explored more seriously. Can we expect, as one chef believes, that “in ten years, marijuana will be the next oregano”?
  • 7. Game Birds
    The Washington Post via Getty Images
    Thanks to The Jungle, one of the founding concepts of the U.S.D.A. is that animals have to be inspected before they are killed. This has meant the elimination of American game birds from our menus. (For some reason, game birds from the U.K. are O.K.) Game meat has a deep complexity, perfect for challenging the palates of chicken-eaters, and chefs feel the loss particularly. Some take matters into their own hands, surreptitiously selling birds shot by their friends—not for the sake of rebellion, but because they feel it is their duty to break the monotony of our reliance on beef, pork, and chicken.
  • 8. Tonka Beans
    UniversalImagesGroup via Getty Images
    Widely used in Europe to flavor ice cream and desserts, tonka beans have been on the F.D.A.’s list of “Substances Generally Prohibited From Direct Addition or Use as Human Food” since 1954. That’s because, like sweet clover and mown hay, they contain coumarin, a compound that, when fermented, is an anti-coagulant. Several years ago, the FDA went on what Wylie Dufresne, the chef at Manhattan’s WD-50 described as “a door-to-door jihad,” busting users. They hit his kitchen. They also raided Alinea, Grant Achatz’s 3-Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago, and found tonkas in the spice cupboard. (Achatz said he didn’t know it was illegal, and readily complied with the request to throw out his supply.) “There was a moment when you were better off having a firearm than a tonka bean,” Dusfresne said.
  • 9. Homemade Bread
    Digni via Getty Images
    In 2012, California joined some thirty other states in passing a law allowing home bakers (and makers of other non-perishable items like granola and candy) to sell their goods. The law was inspired by the case of Mark Stambler, a micro-baker in Silver Lake, who was busted for selling miniscule batches of his heavenly backyard batard to local gourmet shops. As of January 2013, he is back in business, along with thousands of other home cooks, engaged in the culinary equivalent of Airbnb.