July 10, 2008

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The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, by Amy B. Trubek (2008, University of California Press, 296 pages)
By Rich Tango-Lowy news@hippopress.com

The author’s premise is noble and worthy: the role of terroir — place, soil, and culture — in the food we eat. The book begins appropriately with a deep and complete discussion of the evolution of terroir in France and the impact of terroir on that country from its earliest agriculture up through today. To a Frenchman, the origin of a food makes it unique; cheese made in Burgundy is not the same as cheese made in Provence. The American view of food is different. Post-war industrialization and the notion of a “chicken in every pot” have made us a land of plenty, but the resulting large-scale corporate approach to food has come at a cost. As the author writes, “our foodview is not informed primarily by taste, or by place, but by the ability to purchase a consistent product, or, even more generally, a commodity.” Cheese is cheese, meat is meat, bread is bread. Food is food. Terroir is about knowing and tasting where your food comes from; it is the antithesis of agribusiness. And with increasingly familiar incidents of food-related infection, including the current outbreaks of salmonella in tomatoes, jalapeños, and ground beef, knowing where your food comes from might even be about health and survival.

After introducing us to the meaning and importance of terroir, the author guides us to familiar territory: the history and of role of terroir in the production of wine. Every wine lover knows that wine from France is different than wine from California, that wine from Burgundy is different than that of Bordeaux. Trubeck traces the evolution of regional awareness in French wine-making and how it led to the AOC, or appellations d’origine controllées, a system designed to preserve and guarantee the authenticity of these regional differences. She continues by explaining how AOC denomination impacted not only wine, but eventually cheese and other foods as well.

Finally, the author leads us to America’s growing artisan and slow-food movements. She explains how the growth of California’s wine industry and its maturing awareness of terroir have spread to food, restaurants and produce. How artisan cheese-makers in Wisconsin and New England have recreated an industry long given over to the likes of Velveeta. How Americans are finally beginning to understand the importance of place in our diet, our health, our local economy, and in our enjoyment of the food we eat every day.

Though I wax poetic about the noble and worthy premise of this book, the book is deeply flawed. The author liberally sprinkles historical figures and modern experts into the text, often with no introduction and little context, leaving the reader flailing as if he’s just stepped into an eddy with no safe rock to stand on. The writing is disjointed and unapproachable; the author frequently repeats herself and there’s rarely a clear line of thought from topic to topic. The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir is a difficult book to read. The content is there, but you’ll have to struggle for it. CRichard Tango-Lowy