Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Learning The Lay Of The Land

Before the North Terminal was added to San Francisco International Airport in 1978, passengers arriving on United Airlines would often step onto a moving sidewalk that took them from the two-level gate area to the main terminal. As they moved forward, they passed a huge mural depicting a surprisingly bucolic scene, which was emblazoned with a message stating that "FFA Welcomes You To San Francisco."

People arriving from the Midwest and other rural areas had no trouble understanding that the FFA stood for "Future Farmers of America." Gay men making a pilgrimage to Baghdad By The Bay quietly snickered as they fantasized about the hypermasculine welcome they would receive from the golden gates that happily  opened wide to let no stranger wait outside.

Today, San Francisco is listed as one of the top restaurant destinations in the world. Foodies eager to spread the news Yelp with delight about their newest dining experience. Meanwhile, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's, and Mollie Stones offer an increasing number of organic choices for shoppers.  Bi-Rite has announced plans to open a second store on Divisadero in the Nopa district.

While Americans struggle to obtain an affordable version of cradle-to-grave healthcare, two new films focus on the desire to create more wholesome foods that can lead to happier meals than than those served at McDonalds.

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Hot on the heels of King Corn and Farmageddon, a new documentary about organic farming will be shown at the Roxie during the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival. In truth, The Greenhorns is an upbeat marketing tool created by a grassroots nonprofit organization hoping to recruit young people to careers in independent farming.

Founded by Severine von Tscharner Fleming in 2007 in a basement in Berkeley, The Greenhorns has matured into a grassroots nonprofit whose mission is to recruit, promote and support a new generation of young farmers in 21st century America.

In an agricultural landscape that has been dominated by factory farms and Monsanto’s push to sell seeds for GMO crops, the idealism of The Greenhorns is quite refreshing. Unlike corporate agribusiness, which focuses on market share, their credo is simple: ”America wants more young farmers and more young farmers want a piece of America.”

The filmmaker and founder of The Greenhorns now operates Smithereen Farm (on leased land in New York State's Hudson Valley) where she is nurturing organic vegetables,  herbs, and flowers in addition to  Muscovy ducks, chickens, rabbits and Tamworth pigs. Other farmers profiled in The Greenhorns range include:

In her director’s statement, Severine von Tscharner Fleming writes:
“The produce of local agriculture is in hot demand with the most loyal of customers. CSAs all have waiting lists, and healthy mothers determined to have healthy babies are fiercely devoted to nutrition and the farmers who provide it. Popular literature and sensibility is gravitating to our message of health for ourselves, our soil, our social fabric. Farming in America is simultaneously a privilege and a service. And no, it is not easy. 
Young farmers in America face tremendous structural obstacles. They seek access to land, capital, education, and business training. They seek cultural support and open-minded consumers. They need reasonable paths to acquiring mechanical equipment and other infrastructures of medium-scale agriculture. These are missing components of our culture and our laws, and they are deeply missed by young farmers who are forced to improvise and invent new institutions to serve their new needs and new marketplace.
This Obama spring finds the young farmers as unlikely poster children of a new zeitgeist. They are shovel-ready, shovel-sharpened. Relishers of flavor, recipients of the generosity of photosynthesis. Hell-bent on recovering from the age of convenience. They are young farmers with young muscles wisely applying their lives to the problems at hand. It will take a radical shift in the structure of the Farm Bill, in the literacy of eaters, in the shape of commerce and land management. In foothills, warehouses, back valleys, and vacant lots they are popping up as we reclaim human spaces in the broad lazerland of Monoculture that has engulfed rural America.”

While The Greenhorns is only 50 minutes long, when seen against the background of the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement, it offers increasing evidence that young Americans want to have greater control of their food and their future. Here's the trailer:

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Based on  Nigel Slater's autobiographical novel, Toast has been adapted for the screen by Lee Hall, famous for his work on Billy Elliot. The story follows a similar narrative arc in which a lonely, misunderstood young English lad is put in touch with his creativity, survives a hugely dysfunctional family life, leaves home, and ends up building a career one of England's most beloved food writers.

Nigel spends his early years in Wolverhampton with an asthmatic mother (Victoria Hamilton) whose pathetic cooking skills mostly consist of heating cans of food in boiling water. Whenever things go wrong in the kitchen (as they do quite spectacularly on a frequent basis), her default dish is toast.

Young Nigel (Oscar Kennedy) and his mother (Victoria Hamilton)
make a futile attempt to bake a cake in Toast

Unlike most young boys who fantasize about sex, Nigel fantasizes about gourmet food. When his mother dies shortly before Christmas, he and his father struggle to become closer. Nigel's father (Ken Stott) eventually starts spending more evenings at the Masonic Lodge, where he meets the newly-divorced Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter).

Nigel (Freddie Highmore) confronts his father (Ken Stott)
and stepmother (Helena Bonham Carter) in Toast

The bourgeois wives at the Lodge may look down on Mrs. Potter's working class ways, but she has certain undeniable assets. Mrs. Potter is a good cleaner, a stupendous cook, and has a great ass. Nigel's father wastes no time in hiring her as a house cleaner and eventually takes her as his second wife.

Needless to say, Nigel doesn't like Mrs. Potter at all.

When the family moves to a home in the country, Nigel is forced to part with his best friend from childhood. But after enrolling in a new school, he seizes an opportunity to take a course in home economics. As Nigel and his stepmother become embroiled in an ongoing battle of competitive cooking, his father keeps gaining more and more weight.

Nigel Slater (Freddie Highmore) tries to learn the secret to
Mrs. Potter's famous recipe for lemon meringue pie in Toast

When Nigel gets a job as a cook at a local pub, he quickly develops a crush on the owner's son. Not only is his romance short lived, tragedy soon strikes at home.

Toast has been directed by S. J. Clarkson with great sensitivity. Not only does she perfectly capture the magic of food and its appeal to a hungry young boy, she does a beautiful job of framing Nigel's despair at having to cope with an evil stepmother. As the filmmaker explains:
“This is a story about a little boy who is coping with the loss of his mother. The one thing he loves and connects with is food. So for me, it was trying to make sure we understood that food had to become a feature of the film. For example, when he’s cooking with his mum in the kitchen, there is an element of hope that the cake might rise well (even though we know she’s a terrible cook). So the sun is shining, it’s a lot brighter; it’s a lot sunnier. However, when the cake comes out of the oven and it’s sunk and burnt, he has a look of huge disappointment and the sun goes in and the thunderclouds roll. 
We’ve tried to use the weather to work with Nigel and his emotions as a boy. We tried to ensure that all the sets avoided the use of any primary colors so that when the food appeared we could push the primary colors so that peas would look really green, the spaghetti would look very yellow, and the Bolognese would look red.  Everything to do with food was bright and colorful. That was the world he wanted to be in while his own world was muted, bland and beige.”
Three pivotal moments in Toast will resonate more deeply with gay men than with other members of the audience.
  • The first occurs when young Nigel Slater (Oscar Kennedy) begins to develop a friendship with Josh (Mathew McNulty) his family's hunky gardener who believes in eating raw vegetables, getting wet in the rain, and enjoying one's body. Josh is Nigel's first exposure to what it means to be attracted to and trust an older man. Nigel is crushed when Josh is fired as soon as Nigel's father suspects any possibility of a same sex attraction.
  • The second moment occurs is when the teenage Nigel (Freddie Highmore) has a date with the first gay-identified young man (Ben Aldridge) he has ever met.  Although Stuart is leaving town the next morning, he reassures Nigel that he will have no trouble meeting plenty of men just like him in the future.
  • The third moment occurs after the funeral for Nigel's father, when the miserably lonely teenager realizes that there is no reason for him to remain at home. Nigel politely thanks the stepmother who has made his life miserable for everything she has done for him and walks out the door, never to return.

Nigel Slater (Freddie Highmore) excels in
his home economics class in Toast

Looking back on his experience of writing Toast and seeing its film adaptation, Slater confesses that:
“I didn’t know it was going to be therapeutic. I was just telling the story of my life as a little boy. It was only when I read it back (when it was a full manuscript) that I started to realize that the reason I behave in a certain way now is because of what happened then. Things fell into place. Very dark patches in my life were a bit clearer – and also how and why people reacted in a certain way. It ended up being totally cathartic. The approach that was taken for the film –  this magical, almost fairy tale view of it -- came actually as a bit of a surprise. I hadn’t noticed that I had written it as almost as a child’s story. It was that magical aspect of the film that I found so delightful, because I hadn’t thought of it.”

Not only does Toast end with a crushing defeat for Mrs. Potter, it leaves audiences on a high note as Slater approaches London's historic Savoy Hotel in search of a job. This is a film filled with numerous succulent as well as slatternly delights. Here's the trailer:

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