There is a wonderful story in the current New Yorker about salad. It reveals some of the characteristics of culture and commerce in our time.
Step 1: cultural innovation
Salad in America was, as some of us will remember, an industrialized foodstuff. Iceberg lettuce, created with the help of the Whirlpool Corporation and their food technologists, was king. It wasnt very food-like, but it traveled well. By the late 70s, three quarters of the lettuce sold in the US was iceberg.
Enter Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, her Berkeley based restaurant. Alice proselytized on behalf of Mesclun as part of her “slow food revolution. According to Wolf, “That was the salad that changed America. We must be suspicious of “one person accounts of cultural innovation, but this one seems apt. As the New Yorker puts it, “In the years since Chez Panisse opened, American produce has been virtually reinvented. Here a small innovation from one part of the country managed to transform tastes, preferences and culture throughout the US.
Step 2: commercial response
Enter Todd Koons. Koons is persuaded that Mache, the successor to Mesclun, is the next new thing. “Its going to be big. Its going to be a mother. But its a struggle. Mache is hard to grow, especially in the quantities Koons has in mind. You need a machine. Koons hired an engineer and spent $600,000. The results were disastrous. “It was like a giant green smoothie machine. I was, like, Schnake, youre an engineer. My five-year-old daughter could have designed something better than this. I wanted to kick him. Koons has kept trying to commercialize Mache. He has suffered every misadventure that befalls the entrepreneur. But he keeps trying. Watch for Mache on a plate near you. (I expect you have seen it already.)
Step 3: the reaction
“When I think what that little Mesculn mix has turned into, it just makes me sad, says Alice Waters, presumably with her hand held to her forehead. Then she adds, “And I feel terribly responsible for that. Oh, spare me. Poor Koons. For his heroic effort to put Mache on our plates, he is now being vilified. Waters, once an employer and friend, does not like him anymore. When he drives into Berkeley in his SUV, someone puts a sticker on his bumper that reads, “ask me what Im doing to change the climate. As the New Yorker puts out, Koon actually needs four-wheel drive. Hes a farmer.
The thing about innovators like Waters is that they like being on the margin and they like to keep their innovations to themselves. But a commercial culture insists on drawing things from the margin to the centre, by the grace of efforts of people like Koons. Is Waters being “ripped off? No, my dear, this is what it is to “share. This is the price you pay for being part of a culture that creates innovation.
This latest stand off between the self righteous innovator and the hard-done-by diffusion agent must be unpleasant for Waters and Koons. But it serves the rest of us well. Culture and commerce do not always work “hand in glove, but together, they manage to change the world in which we live.
All quotes and details for the New Yorker article. (It really is worthwhile reading the article, if only because Koons turns out to be a quote machine.)
Burkhard Bilger. Salad Days: how a lowly leaf became a high-end delicacy. The New Yorker. September 6, 2004.