I’ve noticed that many restaurants these days are emblazoning the word “sustainable” on their menus. It’s trendy, like “locally-sourced,” or “gluten-free,” or “chocolate-covered bacon,” so I decided to start saying it frequently. I hate to have a trendy word come and go before I even figure out how to use it in a sentence.
When I stopped in at a hip Minneapolis restaurant the other day, I was determined to be seen discussing the topic of sustainability, whether I knew what it meant or not. Isn’t that the very definition of “trendy”? Here’s how my little experiment played out.
Waitress: Can I get you something to drink?
Me: Could I have a sustainable diet Coke, please?
Waitress: Excuse me?
Me: Um, I mean, what sorts of sustainable beverages do you offer?
Waitress: We have some local craft beers. I guess they’re probably sustainably brewed or whatever.
Me: I’ll just have a glass of sustainable water, please. I eat nothing but sustainable foods. That’s just the kind of person I am. Now, can I ask you about this spinach salad? Is the spinach sustainable? And the cheese? And the walnuts? And the vinaigrette?
Waitress: Why don’t I just have the chef come out and talk to you?
Me: The chef? Uh, sure, that would be great. (I quickly tried to google “sustainable” on my iPhone. But it was too late.)
Chef: I understand you have some questions about the sustainable foods on our menu.
Me: Why, yes, thank you. I used to be into organic, locally-sourced foods, but that’s so last week, am I right? Now I’m all about the sustainability thing.
Chef: Well, It’s not just a catchphrase. We try to use ingredients that are local, organic, AND sustainable. We like to know where our food comes from and how it was raised.
Me: Of course. So tell me about this cassoulet with smoked lamb and pork sausage. Thank goodness vegetarianism isn’t trendy anymore! What a bore that was. Which local, organic farm did your sustainable lamb and pork come from?
Chef: All our meats come from farms that don’t harm the environment, are humane to animals, respect the rights of workers, and provide fair wages.
Me: Workers’ rights? What’s that got to do with it? I thought sustainability was all about…um…that is…okay, I admit it. I have no idea what it means.
Chef: Yeah, I thought you were saying it kind of weirdly. Let’s back up. Basically, it’s about using farming methods that are healthy and don’t harm the environment. For example, on a sustainable hog farm, they wouldn’t use antibiotics or growth hormones, and the hogs would be raised outside and fed a vegetarian diet.
Me: Oh, so vegetarianism is still trendy, for hogs.
Chef: I wouldn’t say that vegetarianism isn’t trendy, but again, this isn’t about trends. This is about making sure that the world’s food supply can keep sustaining all of us on earth. If that doesn’t happen, we’re in trouble. Millions of people depend on fish, for example, and the world’s supply of fish is getting perilously low.
Me: What? But I thought it was trendy to eat fish. I mean, not trendy, did I say trendy? I meant, uh, advisable. Omega-3 and all that.
Chef: Many fishing methods are damaging to the ocean, there’s a lot of overfishing, and let’s just say that you should never eat another bluefin tuna.
Me: Geez! How am I supposed to keep track of what’s sustainable? I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into here. I’m ready to go back to some more manageable trend, like cupcakes.
Chef: I’m not saying it’s easy. You need to educate yourself. Spend some time googling. Get to know your local co-ops, grocers, and chefs. Ask them where their food comes from, even if they think you’re annoying. No offense.
Me: None taken. So, what should I order?
Chef: I’d recommend the roast chicken. If you like, I can show you the chicken’s birth certificate and the names of all its friends.
Me: You’re making fun of me now, right?
Chef: That’s correct. Well, I’ve got to get back to the kitchen.
Me: Have a sustainable day!
This article originally appeared in the May-June 2012 issue of Edible Twin Cities, which is available at various locations, including food coops and farmers’ markets, around the Twin Cities. Find out more at www.edibletwincities.com. A shout-out to Daniel Klein of perennialplate.com for answering loaded questions about sustainability.
Water glass image courtesy of Creative Commons