Table of Contents
An Underground Restaurant: Local Food, Artisan Economics, and Creative Political Culture
1 Not a potluck: is it food? is it performance art? is it democracy? (Introduction)
2 Inviting 200 people to dinner (The Story of The Viand, our underground restaurant)
3 The feast that creates culture (How to change the economy)
4 From commodity to community (Artisan economics)
5 Dining with strangers (The Underground Restaurant Movement)
6 From the all-chefs to shop-cook-eat, with dinner for 30 in-between (The How-To)
In 2005 in Los Angeles I started running an underground restaurant. This was an expression of the perspectives developed over 10 years teaching the Political Economy of Food course, values that we have now seen blossoming in the Local Food Movement. It was also a way of making politics in a form that more people could relate to. Now 7 years later and 26 10-course dinners for 30 (in 3 countries!) later, I gave in to Andrea Godshalk’s urging that I write the story and teach people how to create politics in their living rooms.
As an underground restaurant, we invite strangers over for dinner. Underground restaurants are a phenomenon. It turns out people are clamoring for the chance to eat pork tartare cooked by untrained chefs in private homes with maybe not enough chairs for everyone to sit down at dinner. Every underground restaurant has its own flavor, ours is about enticing our guests to buy their food from local farmers and artisan producers.
Local food is a successful social movement that is transforming food from a commodity into a community. It turns out people would rather pay more for their food if they get to look the farmer in the eyes and they’d rather not have tomatoes all year long if they can have such amazing flavor when they are in season and picked ripe.
Local food and underground restaurants are ways that people are seeking to recover quality and meaning in their commercial exchanges. This book explains how this yearning can transform our unsustainable and terrifying economies, and how cultural activities like dinner parties are significant and powerful forms of social change. On 1 July The New York Times reported US Department of Agriculture data on the economic impact of the local food movement. “Getting closer to the customer” has meant $4.8 billion revenue for small-scale farming which is now, once-again, an economically viable industry with a new generation of farmers and investors. We can change the economy!
What’s it about?
We have seen the local food movement sidestep the cooptation of organic by developing an alternative to symbolic certification. Local Food is a social movement now, which understands food as community, rather than commodity. People want to know their farmer, and not just to reassure them about ecological practices, but to complete a circle of social relations around the production and consumption of food. And this movement has made small-scale farms and the livelihood of farming viable again. It has also made turnips and ham hocks chic, and elevated home cooking to an art happening. People are in fact clamoring to dine on pork tartare cooked by untrained chefs in private homes with maybe not enough chairs for everyone to sit down to eat. Underground restaurants epitomize the interest in a new economics marked by trust, integrity, and connection with strangers.
The book goes beyond this story to explore how we can grow the successful artisan economics of Local Food to support a Local Objects Movement.
And it’s full of beautiful photographs alongside the text. Here’s an economics book for people who only read cookbooks.
Making the book
One of the themes I’ve engaged over the last few years is how to get the word out about the work I do, when my academic publishers and journals don’t. This time I decided that if marketing is my job, there’s no reason to give the publishers 90% of the income from the book. So we are self-publishing. I’m into it because it’s consistent with everything I love about the new economics that is growing from the local food movement and beyond. More people want to control the creative dimensions of their work, to make things themselves, and to buy things direct from producers. As we seek products, consumption, and transactions that are more meaningful, we are learning that the economy is ours.
And we did it all ourselves (except the bit with the printing press), which means my skillset has now expanded to include:
sizing v scaling
frame v content
sRGB v. RGBa
…and several other things i didn’t know about writing.
If you want to read about our process of learning to promote, we wrote about our experiences here.