Forget about the carrots grown in the chef’s garden or the wine grown in the sommelier’s personal vineyard, or the herbs grown next to the composting mound behind the restaurant itself. If this is where your garden-to-table dining experiences have peaked, you obviously haven’t tasted the crème de la crème of the locavore scene: eating dirt. “Edible dirt,” they’re calling it, is cropping up in high-end restaurants worldwide, and it’s taking farm-to-table to a whole new level—but is this trend helping or hurting the sustainable food movement?
You’ll see it at Meadowood in Napa, made from rye breadcrumbs and salt, or at Marlowe in San Francisco, made from ground olives, or at Gilt in New York, made from charred onions and mushrooms—it’s dirt at its finest, and most edible. Because really, it’s not dirt at all, but a representation of dirt, made from anything from coffee grounds to blackened vegetables to nuts to sea vegetables. The edible dirt acts as an anchor for the mélange of garden vegetables planted within the soil, such as baby radishes or cabbages.
Edible dirt seems to be a fusion of two hot (and perhaps tired?) culinary trends of the last few years: gastronomy and local foods. The current foodie generation needs to feel connected to the foods we eat, but they also want to play with their foods in such a way that their original state becomes something it isn’t at all, some hybrid creation of form and function. A strange paradox indeed.
Yet, as intriguing as the edible dirt trend can be, I can’t help but feel torn about its underlying message, that perhaps it’s an extension of the sincere garden-to-table movement gone ironically awry. Is it poking fun at the movement, or taking it to a level of arrogant absurdity?
When so much of our modern populace doesn’t have the space, money, know-how or even the care to grow their own foods at home—when we’re so disconnected from the very land that grows our sustaining food—is our last reasonable option to turn to high-end cuisine to supply us with that missing link? Somehow, the act of transforming actual, edible food and typically high-cost foods at that (like hazelnuts, mushrooms and fancy gastronomiques) into edible dirt, which requires not only money but also energy and labor to do, and using it to substitute something so wholesome, so natural and so naturally unappealing as “dirt,” seems an overcompensation of upper-crust money as a means of replacing something lost to us, something at the (for lack of a better phrase) bottom of the food chain.