An Open Letter to Veggies
A city like New York can provide a pretty hectic backdrop for running a business. We’ve got 11 (soon to be 17) Dig Inn restaurants, and it’s is all too easy to get swept up in the hustle—you soon realize it’s been a minute since you’ve gone for a hike or called your mom. But by living seasonally, an existence clearly defined by the coming and going of vegetables, farmers markets and the like, I’ve found a greater appreciation for the little things. For me, vegetables are a tangible connection to people, places, and life — or at least life as it should be.
So the real question we should be asking is not if vegetables, or even which vegetables? But rather, why vegetables, and why now?
I happily accept and acknowledge the mighty sweet potato as my Spirit Vegetable (find yours here) — god knows I have eaten my fair share over the past decade. Admittedly, this has not always been the case. My love affair with vegetables was epiphanic. Kind of like falling asleep — it was slow at first, and then happened all at once. Like a lot of chubby teens with a chip on the ol’ shoulder, I set out on what I thought was the path to better health. And what I mean by “better health” was more attention from the girls at recess, and not getting picked so late in the dodgeball draft. While my intentions were right, I visited all the wrong landmarks — muscle milk, protein bars and egg whites.
Looking back though, there were two defining and somewhat clichéd moments that finally broke the cycle. The first was a reading of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. If you haven’t already, consider this a required read, along with another of his — In Defense of Food — the manifesto that birthed the very basic premise upon which our company, and this movement, is built: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The second happened about five years ago when I first visited one of our farmers in New Jersey. It was June, pretty hot, right in the middle of asparagus season. I still remember these guys crawling around the fields on their hands and knees, picking each spear, one at a time. It looked truly backbreaking. That simple scene changed the way I’d think about food forever — in terms of waste, fair wage and working conditions, and the seasonality and availability of our food.
Of course health was still a factor, but my attention shifted away from counting calories and grams of protein, and towards the quality and diversity of real, whole foods. Seeing the fragility of a single spear of asparagus pop out of a small mound of soil, I also became far more concerned about our environment. While I don’t plan to soap-box about global warming, it is true that after cars, the current food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy. The chemical fertilizers, pesticides, farm machinery, packaging, and transportation associated with commercial agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from the food system by a significant order of magnitude. And sitting here in 2016, this week in New York notwithstanding, with temperatures rising and weather volatility going haywire, it seems that we have found ourselves in a bit of a pickle.
But by promoting rural and regional economies, both in New York and across the country — the men and women who are on their knees picking asparagus by hand — we can have a pretty meaningful impact on the food system, and the environment at large. Before I go on to explain why I think veggies are the next food revolution, we need to call on our culinary forefathers to better understand where we’ve come from.
Back in the Day
Traditional American agriculture — we’re talking over a hundred years ago — relied on crop diversity and photosynthesis to replenish our land, ward off pests and diseases, and feed local communities. Apart from the middle of winter, you’d see a checkerboard of colorful fields all belonging to the same family farm — pastures, hay, vegetables, and maybe even an orchard. Farms grew as much product as their local community needed, few if any struggled for food, little waste existed, and a fair price was paid.
But after the war, government priorities shifted to refueling a starved food system. Federal agricultural policies became less about supporting individual farmers and more about boosting yields for a handful of commodity crops, notably corn and soy. The need for more food and a stronger economy was first and foremost enabled by fertilizers and pesticides made from cheap fossil fuels. More specifically, chemicals like nitrate and phosphate that were used to build bombs during the war were repurposed and came to be what we know today as the Round Up, amongst other industrial pesticides.
But these tremendous increases in productivity actually ended up driving down the prices of crops, and forcing farmers to produce even more, just to break even. Essentially, the administration’s cheap food policies worked too well — to the point that today, each American farmer produces enough food to feed 155 people. In 1960, that number was 26 people — a 6-fold increase.
Naturally, this lead to a deep depression in the farm belt, and an increase in the kinds of dirt-cheap, industrially produced foods that we have today. You’ll notice a lot of these involve processed foods, sweetened drinks, and factory-farmed meats — not coincidentally, are all derivatives of corn and soy.
To give credit where it’s due though, these policies came from a good place, in a time where the need for fast, cheap food was the most important thing on the agenda. And the system achieved what it was designed to do — it fed millions of people for a very, very long time. Considering the turbulent political history of our domestic food system, worrying about our next meal as little as we do is kind of a dream.
We are incredibly lucky.
It’s easy to forget that having tons of affordable food at our literal fingertips is still considered a privilege in many countries today. The sad irony of course is that our pendulum of affordability has swung so far to the left that Americans are spending less than we ever have on food — as little as 10% of our wages, compared to the 30% in our grandparents day.
This history is well documented and it’s nothing new. But it was a recent holiday with my wife in Europe when I actually realized other food systems have not changed in tune with ours. Mass production is not the norm everywhere, and family farms can still make a buck. I saw that what we are trying to achieve at Dig Inn on a large scale, with vegetables at the helm, involves as much regression as it does progression.
At Dig Inn, vegetables make up 60–70% of what we serve our customers each day. Last year alone we served 360k LBs of sweet potatoes. We’ve arrived at a place where vegetables are transitioning from the soggy sides we ate as kids (or fed to the dogs under the table), to the main affair. Lead by a wave of change-makers like Pollan, Bittman, and Alice Waters, we’re seeing a bunch of content being published about our food system. Pockets of the country are probably more interested in it than others, but on average, American consumers are becoming more educated about what we’re eating.
Social media is disseminating and popularizing this information at a rate of knots — to the point that eating kale and going to yoga has actually become cool. This new breed of educated plant-lover is not only motivated by ethical, environmental, or even health concerns — though those reasons do of course come into play — but just as much by culinary ones. Simply put, the once-meat-obsessed populace is realizing that vegetables can actually taste good.
Fruits and vegetables are being held in a much higher regard, often dominating menus. Meat proteins are still included, but their role is changing to become more of a compliment, with items like cauliflower taking center stage as the new steak on the plate. Just the other day I had my first cheeseburger in a while — minus the burger and the cheese — from by Chloe, which has joined the ranks alongside Superiority Burger and Dirt Candy — leaders on the culinary scene looking to change the reputation of vegetables, and in-so-doing the food game at large.
Chefs at these places are seriously talented, using methods like searing, charring and smoking — the same techniques they’d apply to meats and other proteins — to achieve a variety of incredible flavors, enchanting even the most ardent carnivore.
And with this culinary excellence has come a movement where chefs are celebrities. Compared to the days where Julia Child was the media’s culinary golden girl, through shows, cookbooks, and social media, we’re now welcoming 100s of chefs into our homes every day.
But instead of butter-cream frosting in the spotlight, chefs like Dan Barber, Alice Waters and April Bloomfield are pioneering healthful cooking and creative root-to-stem dishes. Chef’s are quite literally modern-day tastemakers, deciding what lands on their menus and in turn, what we as a population consume.
So what does this all mean?
Vegetables are beneficial to our health, the environment, and the communities that grow them. They are a grounding, nourishing force in a fast-moving world. But more than that, they’re prevalence in the food scene is a sign of cultural realignment on so many levels.
Culinary influencers are thriving in an information age where educated consumers want more from their next meal. Now, more than ever, people are seeking food with a story, and eating vegetables is a truly, exploratory experience.
This movement gives a whole new meaning to the old adage, “eat your vegetables” — because soon, I suspect we won’t really have a choice. As the founder of Dig Inn, I get profound enjoyment out of seeing this movement magnify every day, and I just feel lucky to be a part of it.
Adam Eskin, Founder