The Locavores Are All Right

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Joni and Paul in the garden Joni (Mia Wasikowska) helps Paul (Mark Ruffalo) in his organic garden

When we first meet Paul, Mark Ruffalo’s character in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, he’s lugging vegetables from his organic garden to the Los Angeles restaurant he runs. Among other things, Paul is what’s known these days as a “locavore.” (One of those other things, of course, is a sperm donor — Paul’s intrusion into the film’s family of two moms and the teenager son and daughter he has spawned is the act that kickstarts much of the film’s drama as well as comedy.)

As the Oxford University Press — whose Oxford English Dictionary selected “locavore” as its ‘word of the year’ in 2007 — defines it, “a ‘locavore’ is somebody who uses locally grown ingredients, taking advantage of seasonally available foodstuffs that can be bought and prepared without the need for extra preservatives. It encourages consumers to buy from farmers’ markets or even to grow or pick their own food, believing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better.”

Paul’s progressive attitude towards what Nic, the mom played by Annette Benning, calls “the food service industry” is just one small detail of his richly illustrated character. It provides an easy bonding moment with teenage daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska), who he meets early in the film. Describing his restaurant to her, he says, “I’ve been keeping it local and organic and simple American food.” “That’s so cool — I’m totally into local,” she replies. “I’ve been trying to get moms to buy local for ages.”

Paul’s locavorism is one of the many elements in The Kids Are All Right that situate the film firmly in this specific cultural moment. And while humor is drawn from the clash between Paul’s eco-consciousness and Nic’s more conventional approach to food, the film doesn’t satirize his beliefs. Screenwriters Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg say the roots of Paul’s locavorism hail from before the word’s certification by the Oxford English Dictionary. Paul’s organic garden had its roots with a guy they knew in New York who ran a community garden in Red Hook. During the script’s long development process, the film’s setting moved from New York to L.A., and what was perhaps a niche activity practiced by progressive foodies moved into the mainstream. So, when Haute Living magazine recently picked their “Haute Five Organic Restaurants for Los Angeles,” they prefaced the list by writing, “Thanks to the explosion of farmer’s markets here—the world-famous Santa Monica one, and dozens more around the city—it’s never been easier to eat locally grown produce and protein. In some ways, listing a Haute 5 for ‘locavore’ and Farm-To-Table dining is easy, because it’s virtually synonymous with the best dining in LA altogether.” (Their list? Melisse, The Dining Room, Hatfield’s, Il Grano, and Shutters on the Beach.)

Those wanting to find a real-life version of Paul’s character might start by joining the Chef’s Collaborative, which describes itself as “the leading non-profit network of chefs that fosters a sustainable food system through advocacy, education, and collaboration with the broader food community.” The nationwide organization publishes mission papers, organizes workshops and events, and provides resources for chefs to identify sustainable food producers in their local communities. They also list restaurants that use local foods, including, in Los Angeles, Wilshire, AMMO and Border Grill.

Paul with staff member Tanya (Yaya DaCosta) at his locavore restaurant

Paul with staff member Tanya (Yaya
DaCosta) at his locavore restaurant

A chef with a similar organic farm/restaurant set-up as the one in the film can be found up the coast in Sonoma, where Sondra Bernstein runs three restaurants as well as a local farm. As detailed in SmartBlog on Restaurants, a web publication aimed at restaurant professionals, Bernstein partnered with Imagery Winery on a two-year sharecropping project that sees her and her chefs “tending an acre of herbs, cucumber, tomatoes and other produce” destined for her diners’ tables. Bernstein blogs about her efforts at The Farm Project, and you can see through photos of the various farms (there are farms behind or near each of her restaurants, including Estate, where, she writes, “Each evening you can catch a Chef or Sous-chef walking out to the garden to cut some herbs.”

For non-restauranteurs who would simply like to introduce local cooking to their own kitchens, Los Angeles has plenty of resources. The Community Alliance with Family Farmers offers a downloadable guide to California’s local food industry. The website Locavores offers links to resources all over the country, with a special focus on California. Slow Food L.A. is a site dedicated to “supporting good, clean and fair food production and consumption in Los Angeles.”

Once you gather local produce, there are several cookbooks that will help you in the kitchen. The first is Earth to Table: Seasonal Recipes from an Organic Farm, by Jeff Crump and Betinna Schormann. Prestigiously blurbed by author Michael Pollan (“You will not find a clearer or more compelling expression of the values of slow food than Earth to Table’s four-season testament to the importance — not to mention delight — of food that has been grown with care and cooked with conviction”), it includes not only recipes but also sections on farmers’ market shopping, food seasonality, and profiles on top chefs in the movement. Edible: A Celebration of Local Foods collects recipes as well as stories of successful local food businesses from a network of 65 regional food magazines.

As all these resources suggest, the locavore and related slow food movements are as much about community, a shared view of modern life, as they are about good-tasting food. Go deeper into the locavore scene and you’ll find opportunities to meet up, attend events, and learn how to spread the gospel beyond your own kitchen. For those wanting to check out the Los Angeles locavore scene from a personal point of view, several members of the local foods community keep blogs. L.A. Farm Girl describes itself as “Urban farm, agriculture, and garden listings, events, pictures, stories, and musings from a city girl in love with farms and who wants to help preserve them.” She’s currently photo-blogging the progress of her own small vegetable garden as well as documenting visits to local sellers like the Tapia Brothers Farm Stand in Encino.

To bring things back to the movies, L.A. Farm Girl contains a list of films dealing with the local and slow food movements. One, The Garden, is Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Academy Award-nominated documentary about the 14-acre community garden at 41st and Alameda in South Central, Los Angeles, and the efforts of its local farmers to save it from being bulldozed in a land development scheme.