The Hostess Twinkie looms like Freddy Krueger in “Food Fight,” a paean to local/organic/sustainable cuisine and the good-food movement’s godmother, chef Alice Waters. Despite an abundance of personality, doc’s timing couldn’t be worse, with the more ambitious “Food, Inc.” having just been picked by Magnolia. It’s doubtful that there’s room for more than one food docu at the table in the current market, but yummy sounds will be heard from fest and cable buffets.
Surveying much of the same terrain as “Food, Inc,” helmer Chris Taylor’s pic addresses the corporatization of American food, the strategy of Nixon-era Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz to abandon the small farm for mega-food, the national philosophy of creating the most food for the lowest price, with the subsequent decrease in flavor and increase in obesity.
Where Taylor is really heading — and where he stays put, when he gets there — is Berkeley, the birthplace of California cuisine, as well as the politics of good food. Pic makes the profound point that everything that happened in Berkeley followed a search for flavor — that Waters’ pursuit of the best-tasting produce led naturally to the organic grower. Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant, as we are told by “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan, “always put pleasure first.” The rest was consequence.
How far Americans have come regarding what they eat and why is emphasized by Taylor’s archival material and the ’50s-’60s take on what constituted nutrition. Beef in a can, gelatinous-looking TV dinners and various species of unspeakable slop are paraded before the viewer in a George Romero-esque display of seemingly deadly concoctions mammals once actually ingested outside laboratories. The postwar world — with its new ideas on packaging, its emphasis on how food is shipped rather than how it tastes, and the corn-based commodities guaranteed to deliver huge calories — all lead to Pollan’s conclusion that “the industrial food system is making us very sick.”
But like Waters, Taylor is more interested in good food itself, and he has a roster of celebrity chefs to make his points — including Wolfgang Puck and Los Angeles’ ubiquitous Suzanne Goin (Lucques, AOC, Hungry Cat), who rattle off the virtues of fresh food and their beliefs about it. Taylor is seemingly obsessed with Waters, though, as she pops in and out of the movie with the frequency of a busboy.
“Food Fight” is fond of the painful pun — it’s segmented into chapters with such headings as “Make Lunch, Not War,” “The Government Butz In,” “Let Them Eat Local” and “Guns vs. Butter Spray.” Justin Kirk’s sometimes supercilious narration notes that American cuisine in the ’70s went from “the frying pan into the deep fryer.” One needs a palate-cleanser after some of these lines.
Pic is certainly well-intentioned and informative, although it does at some point morph into a PSA for the Berkeley food scene and a rah-rah Chez Panisse commercial. In this, the movie has a bit of the Twinkie about it — too much air and sugar, a bit gooey in the center. But in coming around full circle to the government’s role in what we eat — and Waters’ campaign for getting junk food out of schools, and nutritious menus in — “Food Fight” ultimately justifies its own calories.
Production values are fine.