Until a few years ago, Houston may have possessed the finest supermarket in the entire United States of America, the Jamail's on Kirby Drive. The public it sought to serve was a minority of the city's population -- the minority that associates the word "coupon" with the little pieces of paper attached to tax-free municipal bonds. So awesome a reputation did this emporium of edibles possess that a rather upscale restaurant in its own right, the Houston branch of Ruth's Chris Steak House [6213 Richmond, (713)789-2333], had printed on its menus a statement along the lines of "All of our vegetables come from Jamail's."
The steak house's declaration was charmingly corny. Restaurateurs don't normally cruise the aisles of a supermarket every morning with a really big shopping cart. (In fact, getting supplies from a retail food market is normally a sign that commercial purveyors have cut off a restaurant's credit.) Most eateries get their raw materials from firms specializing in restaurant supply. The best restaurants buy their produce, in part, from local boutique growers, ranchers and, in the case of certain wild foods, foragers.
Now, gentle reader, how many Houston restaurateurs print the name of a supermarket on their menus? How many restaurateurs, except for self-acknowledged health-food operators, state that they use organic produce? The restaurants that are aimed at a budget-conscious clientele cannot spend the extra money on certifiably organic produce. And the restaurants where cooking is an art form, where the chefs know and care passionately about food, and price is not the final consideration, are looking for qualities of taste, appearance and freshness beyond the limited range of commonly available organic produce, which tends to run to dull standards such as onions, beets, bananas and apples.
Maybe the great chefs of Houston are on to something.
The price difference between produce certified organic and that which is conventionally grown can be breathtaking. Whole Foods Market [2955 Kirby Drive, (713)520-1937], which serves a clientele similar to the old Jamail's, recently was selling "organic Gala apples" for $3.99 a pound. There were also "organic yellow onions" for 99 cents a pound and "organic bananas" for 78 cents a pound. A few miles south on Kirby, at the Fiesta Mart [8130 Kirby Drive, (713)666-9260], conventionally grown "extra fancy Gala apples" were seven for $1. (A quick check with the scales revealed seven apples to weigh just a bit more than 2.5 pounds, giving us a price of 40 cents per pound.) The conventional onions were "three pounds for $1.19," or nearly 40 cents a pound. The bananas were likewise selling for "$1.19 for three pounds." Thus, the "organic Gala apples" cost a cool 1,000 percent more than Fiesta's conventional ones, while the "organic" onions and bananas were, on average, nearly twice the price of the conventional produce at Fiesta.
You pay more, and you get more, right? Well, as far as taste goes, that is somewhat subjective. Most people in a blind taste test would have a hard time distinguishing the two. The more expensive produce is much better for you? Maybe. Maybe not.
It is a matter of record that the United States Department of Agriculture has spent good amounts of money developing definitions of organic produce and meats. There are lobby groups in Washington, D.C., that represent the organic farming community. Organic produce is a multibillion-dollar branch of U.S. agriculture sales. While it is possible to define what makes a particular food organic, it is not clear what the actual benefit is for the consumer.
This August, the Food Standards Agency of Great Britain issued a position paper called the "Food Standards Agency View on Organic Foods." The agency is a branch of the British government's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, roughly the equivalent of the USDA. The agency ensures that British foods comply with the minimum standards set down in a European Community Regulation.
The Food Standards Agency took a vigorously agnostic stand on all key points of the organic issue. The report states: "There have been relatively few studies of the nutrient content of organically and conventionally produced foods. This study found some small differences in levels of some nutrients, but confounding variables made it difficult to make comparisons."
On three more key points, the agency was equally equivocal. Concerning the issue of microbiological safety, which is occasionally used to attack the use of feces as a fertilizer (which is mainly what makes organic produce organic), the paper states: "There is no firm evidence at present to support the assertion that organic produce is more or less microbiologically safe than conventionally farmed produce." On the issue of pesticides and veterinary medicines, the British government declares: "The Agency believes that consumers should be able to purchase and consume with confidence foods produced with the use of pesticides and veterinary medicines. They should also be able to choose organic produce if they wish."
The section then concludes, after a number of common-sense caveats, that "we are not aware of any other reliable data on residue levels of pesticides or veterinary medicines in organic produce." On the final issue of mycotoxins, a category that includes such relatively rare things as ergot infestation of grain (which produced effects similar to LSD ingestion in tiny populations of bread consumers during the Middle Ages), the agency again equivocally observed that "there is no evidence to indicate that organic food is more prone to mycotoxin contamination than conventionally grown food."
Great Britain is not a country hostile to organic farming. Charles, the prince of Wales, maintains an organic regimen and supports theories stranger than ones about using only manure on your kitchen garden. He was once quoted as telling a group of journalists something along the lines of, "You would be surprised at how a rhubarb reacts to a good talking-to."
How did this complex of unprovable organic notions become a multibillion-dollar business? Americans have been susceptible to pseudoscientific theories of diet for most of their history. The graham cracker, a staple of schoolchildren's milk breaks during the Cold War years, was invented by a man who preached against the evils of white bread in the years before the American Civil War. T. Coraghessan Boyle's novel The Road to Wellville recently explored American obsessions with food reform and the hucksters who promoted it.
Perhaps it comes from a notion that food is a way to ingest moral superiority. "By paying more for my onions," the thinking may go, "I'm showing I care more about my family, I care more about the human race."
Well, in Ford Madox Ford's remarkable pre-World War I novel The Good Soldier, two childless, minorly upper-class couples, one English and one American, spend most of their time together drifting about Europe. In one chapter, the American narrator reminisces about the dinners the group ate at a kurort in Wilhelmine Germany. The continentals at the tables around them enjoyed flavorful dishes and rich sauces, while the four WASPs chewed thin, rubbery slices of roast beef. None of them would admit that they would have enjoyed indulging in the more enticing dishes, because they were all trying to prove to each other that they were morally superior to the people around them. And of course, the irony of the novel is that they were not morally superior. Not at all. And those rubbery slices of beef didn't save them.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.