culture, commerce and salad


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 wasn’t 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. “It’s going to be big. It’s going to be a mother.” But it’s 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, you’re 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 I’m doing to change the climate.” As the New Yorker puts out, Koon actually needs four-wheel drive. He’s 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.

6 thoughts on “culture, commerce and salad

  1. Tom

    The ambivalence of the artiste/innovator is, by now, a well-told tale (who’s the archetype?). Desire for creating things that (hip) people love, and that won’t be appropriated by the people who look for things that (other) people will love is to stand on a diminishing razor’s edge. We all might get a little taste of this when, to your chagrin, the wonderful ceramic piece you picked up in Deruta last year is this year’s hot Holiday item at Pottery Barn. We thought we’d created (or found) something unique and precious, devalued when too many others find it, too.

    We’re all snobs about something, just different things.

  2. Grant

    Tom, it’s a well told tale, but we always hear the marginal player treated as the injured party. I think this misunderstands what diffusion is and how it works. It’s worth remembering that someone was innovating before Waters and even she is to this extent a poacher. Thanks, Grant

  3. Tom

    Yes, Grant, continual appropriation/revision/appropriation makes poachers of us all. My work with leaders in the fashion industry is a testimonial to the adage, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” For me, the interesting point is the one you raise: the latest poacher always “forgets” his/her own poaching and bemoans the poaching of the one who follow.

  4. Steve Portigal

    I’d guess the history of blues and blues-derived music (aka “rock and roll”) includes many examples of just that – poaching the poachers (In fact, I saw Poachy and the Poachers at the Bottom Line in ’87 and the just SUCKED)…

  5. Grant

    Steve: well said. Best, Grant

    Zal, as long as we are talking about ethical matters, what do you think about someone presenting themselves as a rock star/restaurant owner who died some years ago? Homage or poaching? Thanks for the details. Best, Grant

  6. Aileen Bordman

    Alice Waters appears in my film Monet’s Palate and her passion and care for the world around her..expressed through cuisine becomes more and more important each day. – Aileen Bordman

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