War Against Specialty Foods

More so than with most of the food industry, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are attacks on the specialty food industry. Or, to be more precise, they are attacks on the kind of world that allows a specialty food industry to exist.

This is no accident. It is the specific and exact aim of the terrorists.

It is hard for Americans to realize, but we are, unwittingly though it may be, an enormous threat to groups like the Taliban, who would like to control their own people. The very existence of a vibrant western culture draws, like a magnet, the youth of the world. Our openness, our entrepreneurial spirit, our willingness to experiment, all these cornerstones of our way of life are anathema to those who would subjugate women and keep their society enslaved.

This is also why peace through negotiation is impossible. If the dispute is over a strip of land, one can arbitrate or split the difference. But as long as an option of freedom lives in the world, the ideologues behind the terrorists cannot stomach it; the draw of western culture is just too strong. It is bound to lead to changes in their own societies that will not be acceptable to the fundamentalists.

Whenever I have friends who I want to impress with the glory of Western Civilization, I do not take them to the memorials and monuments in Washington or to Mt. Rushmore or even to the Statue of Liberty. I take them to the International Fancy Food Show in New York City.

And there, amidst the abundance, as they see the capability of capitalism to scan the globe, find the most appealing of product and gather it at one place; when they see all that, they see the glory of what our civilization has wrought. And when they realize that most of this product is widely distributed from sea to shining sea and available to not merely the powerful or wealthy but to citizens of even modest means, they realize that they are standing in the midst of the greatest civilization humanity has ever produced.

This abundance and variety are built upon a world structure that is profoundly threatening to those who would choose to limit the freedom of their own people. First, the industry depends on trading and free markets, which means people with foreign ideas coming into contact with settled communities. This is a fundamentally subversive process for it inevitably exposes settled communities to new and upsetting ways. Think of what happens the first time a female executive from the West encounters a fundamentalist society. All of the sudden, questions about the role of women come to the surface.

Second, the industry depends on mass travel, where people transverse the globe and experience firsthand the deliciousness of a foreign cuisine and then take that taste home.

Third, the industry depends on a movement of people. Chefs and cooks from all over the world come to America to live and work. They open restaurants that expose Americans to foreign cuisines, and their very presence provides a ready-made market for ethnic food.

Put another way, the specialty food industry is both a product of and a facilitator of a democratic/capitalist ethos in a way that the meat industry or the produce industry is not.

What this all means is that the ongoing war against terrorism is likely to have moments in which it significantly affects the specialty food trade. In fighting a war against terror, borders will be more closely policed, and immigration, travel, and trade all viewed with more suspicion. And, indeed, the indulgent dimension of specialty food consumption may make it less popular. It is hard to feel we should focus on the finest marinade when our boys are dying in combat.

Yet, there is a reason why it is important to soldier on, to keep selling our wares through the years of anti-terrorist warfare that lie ahead.

The cornucopia this trade offers is representative of an inclusive, tolerant attitude. It is a belief that good can be found in all parts of the world and a belief that our own society is enriched by interaction with other cultures.

The forces of terrorism have made an error. Because we prefer to spend our evenings around the Bar-B-Que trying out a new sauce, they think we are soft. But there is steel beneath this velvet glove.

Even friends have made that mistake. Winston Churchill spoke before the Canadian parliament in December of 1941. He spoke of the surrender of France: “When I warned (the French) that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, their generals told their prime minister and his divided cabinet, ‘In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’ Some chicken; some neck.”

There is a tendency to think of a war in grand terms. But for America and Americans, we have no wish for territorial aggrandizement, no desire to change the way others live their lives. For us, the war against terrorism is about the right to go about one’s business in peace and Bar-B-Que a chicken with some pungent marinade. Few wars have been fought for a more ethical cause.