What’s in that food on your plate? Where was it raised? What size carbon footprint was left by trucking it to your market or restaurant? What’s the difference between heritage breeds and more common varieties?
Those are some of the questions Autry Museum organizers hope guests will be discussing at the second of two pop-up dinners addressing California’s past and future through food. The first, titled “Historic California,” took place last month; the second, which is being presented at the museum Friday night in coordination with Livestock Conservancy and Wildwood Heritage Provisions, is titled “The Future of Food?”
That question mark is intentional. The production of food is a vital matter, and as Senior Manager of Programs and Public Events Ben Fitzsimmons explains, there are competing visions of its future.
“Definitely local and sustainable food is one future,” he says. “This is currently a very popular view of the future of food … as opposed to more industrial agriculture, more factory farming. We seem to be moving away from that, which is why these heritage breeds are so invaluable — their genetic diversity, and also just their inherent nature. They use fewer resources than many of the factory farm breeds.”
“Local,” in this case, means Southern and Central California. According to Fitzsimmons, Executive Chef Brad Robertson is reaching out to local LA farmers as much as possible for “grown ingredients” like vegetables; but the mulefoot pig on the menu was raised in Ojai, and the Navajo churro sheep in Paso Robles. Seafood will also be served: Lingcod and rockfish, both varieties of “bycatch” caught as a result of fishing for other species.
They got help sourcing the livestock from the nonprofit Livestock Conservancy, which advocates for protection and conservation of endangered livestock breeds. Organically raised, heritage breeds have a practical value that fits with the biodiversity and sustainability that Fitzsimmons says he hopes represent the future of food.
“But it really depends on what everybody wants,” he observes. “There are many choices that people can make. If they want to buy cheap food in large quantities, then this may not be the future. This is very much a choice.
“That’s what the future is all about: choices.”
It isn’t their place, he insists, to “tell people what to do with their food” or where to get it. Rather, they want to encourage them to ask questions, whether they’re perusing options at the market to cook at home or choosing items from a restaurant menu.
“They may not even have thought about the fact that different livestock breeds are endangered, or that there are different breeds,” he says. “It may just be ‘cheap,’ ‘cow,’ ‘pig,’ ‘generic.’ …
“We’re asking people to try these foods, to think about these meals and have conversations. We have tables and signs to get people to think about concepts. For example, we’re serving mulefoot pig, and the chef has created a mulefoot pig lettuce wrap, and also used pork shoulder to create sliders. We’re looking at food waste, and how to use types of food you might not necessarily think of because so much food is wasted — 40 percent of food production is wasted.”
Farmers and consumers alike have tensed as the Trump administration has suggested various changes that could affect pricing and sourcing of food, which renews the urgency around these discussions of sustainability and environmental consciousness. Those concepts will be underscored Friday by the Autry’s California Continued exhibit, which showcases the Golden State’s indigenous plants, their history and culinary and medicinal uses. The dinner, prepared by Robertson and the museum’s Crossroads West café staff, will be served at food stations where guests will be invited to question chefs, Livestock Conservancy representatives and an on-site food historian.
“We’re encouraging mingling,” Fitzsimmons says. “It’s not going to be a sit-down [dinner] where someone stands at podium and gives you a lecture with a PowerPoint. It will very much be a giant conversation. n
“The Future of Food” pop-up dinner takes place at the Autry Museum, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park, 7-9:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24; $45 Autry members/ $50 nonmembers. Space limited, reservations recommended: (323) 667-2000. theautry.org