For their documentary “Food and Country,” director Laura Gabbert and renowned food writer Ruth Reichl gathered a thoughtful and strikingly personable cast of characters from across the U.S. to tell their stories in the shadow of the pandemic. Some are chefs, bakers, restaurateurs. Others are independent farmers, ranchers, even a kelp harvester. Some work in big cities, like Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York. Others make their increasingly fragile living working fields or rearing herds in Kansas, Nebraska, Georgia and Ohio. Their collective insights tell us a great deal about our food system and serve as a warning. Yet their devotion to the work — and often their employees — is heartening, even humbling.
Before joining forces, the director and her chief protagonist had each embarked on separate projects about the duress those in the independent food industry were experiencing because of the 2020 pandemic lockdown. Gabbert, whose 2015 film “City of Gold” painted a telling portrait of the late, great Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold and the food culture he championed, wanted to canvass restaurant folk. Reichl wanted to do the same but also investigate how the disaster befalling her beloved community was exposing consequential vulnerabilities to the nation’s food system.
In a film brimming with likable interviewees, Reichl, as subject and interlocutor, is arguably the documentary’s most agreeable. Face ringed with dark hair, she sits at her computer at home in New York’s Hudson Valley conducting interviews. “Food and Country” weaves Reich’s virtual conversations with food purveyors and produce providers — “virtual verité” Gabbert calls them — with the visits the director and her small crew made to restaurants, pastures and Long Island Sound, where Bren Smith has been perfecting sustainable ways to grow and harvest seaweed.
As she wanders the property, the nearby trees and distant hills signal the seasons. Seasons are something Reichl’s longtime friend, slow-food advocate and famed restaurateur Alice Waters knows something about. Hunkered down in homes on opposite sides of the country, the two commiserate via video about the potential decimation of the restaurant industry. “Food and Country” reminds viewers that many of the vulnerabilities were set in motion long before COVID-19’s arrival. Like other documentaries about food, this film offers a tutorial on the ongoing impact of the industrialization of food production and rise of “cheap food,” starting after World War II and getting a dramatic boost during the Nixon years.
Gabbert ladles Reichl’s biography. There are her forays with her parents to New York City restaurants and her founding of a commune in Berkeley, Calif., with her first husband in the 1960s. Reichl met Waters during that time. Reichl was chef. She also began writing restaurant reviews that were more than reviews. They spun stories. She was a food critic at the Los Angeles Times and then The New York Times. She further elevated food writing as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and has written four memoirs. Yet she says of that estimable career trajectory: “I feel like I spent my whole life leading up to this” — “this” being a persuasive, compassionate and tenacious defense of the significance of food to small towns, big cities and the nation. “I always thought food shows us our values,” Reichl says.
The peripatetic film underlines what is too often repressed in much of the cable pundit/political opportunist-fed conversations about divides: interdependence. People who elsewhere may be treated as mortal enemies are here existentially, creatively bound. The rural and the urban are connected by food.
There’s urgency here but “Food and Country” doesn’t scold. It feeds viewers ideas about what might be scalable in terms of independent farming: Nebraska farmer Angela Knuth prods her husband and sons to go organic. It captures what compassion looked like during the worst days of the pandemic: Bay Area bakery owner and chef Reem Assil, L.A. chef Minh Phan and Ohio vegetable growers Bob and Lee Jones all trying to devise ways to keep people working. What does the face of an unlikely activist look like? Kansas rancher Steve Stratford — all twang and broad cowboy hat — pointing out the debacle of the meat-processing monopoly and the ongoing dangers of big-ag consolidation. Then there’s the intentional activist Karen Washington and her organization Rise and Roots Farm offering lessons in sustainability, quality produce and community building in the South Bronx.
Fourth generation rancher Will Harris is particularly affecting as he walks around White Oaks Pastures in Bluffton, Ga., the farm he took from an industrial operation to a nearly 100% carbon negative spread: “I don’t think of this farm as a factory. I think of it as an organism,” he says.
Regarding the independent farmers and ranchers who people the doc, Reichl says, “I’ve never connected so personally with the people I interviewed.” It shows. One gets a sense that these online visits are really check-ins, with Reichl asking her fellow food champions, “How are things going?” and occasionally offering gentle advice, the way a friend might.
In her director’s statement, Gabbert uses the word “solace” to describe the virtual conversations. It’s an apt word given the pandemic. In introducing us to people who care deeply about the work they do, the animals they ranch, the people they employ and the food they bring to market or offer at their tables, the documentary stirs a sense of possibility. Not in some unearned pie-eyed way but by checking in on people who are plotting ways to wrest themselves (and us) from a disaster that continues to march on. “Food and Country” is a balm but also a map.