BY HEATHER CHARLTON
There are all sorts of people who love food. There are those of us who want to consume the most radically outrageous combinations, there are those of us who just want as much of it as possible, and then there are those of us who dig more deeply into the world of food as a whole. We look beyond what sits in front of us on the plate into the origin of it; the who, what, where, and why of the culinary world.
For decades this was generally considered irrelevant. For the average person, food came from the store, and we all bought what was cheapest. This was rational consumerism, and it created a kind of alienation between the production of food and the reality of the delicious steak on our grill. "Let the manufacturers deal with it," we cried as a society. "That's not our problem!"
However, in the past 20 years or so, we have started to see a shift in food consciousness in this country. After entrusting those manufacturers for so many years, suddenly the foods we were given became more and more processed and less and less appealing or nutritious. Let's just admit it: as a society, a lot of us got really fat, and some of us started to develop serious health problems. Too many potato chips can do that. Do we now sit on our respective couches, breathing heavily, and ignore these things? No; we stand up as a society and begin to take responsibility for what we put in our mouths, educating others as we learn more and more about the production system we have taken for granted for so long.
This has developed into an entirely new system of thinking about food itself -- let's call it edible accountability. This means not only holding food producers accountable for the ways in which they produce, grow, slaughter, and distribute our food, but also holding ourselves responsible for our own food choices and where we put our money. In the year 2011, food trends reflect this dedication to food mindfulness as a nation and a world. We want wholesome, homemade, homegrown. We want to leave a positive example for future generations to follow, and we want to put real food in our mouths, and in our children's mouths. This awareness is becoming a full-scale revolution, and there are many ways to take part on a local level.
After pumping your fist in the air with gleeful healthy-eating determination, you could probably use a drink. We are tired, and after all, what bolsters a revolutionary more than a little libation? Syrupy sweet, commercially produced, soda-filled cocktails are out, and so are cheaply made, less-than-savory bottom-shelf liquors. Put down that plastic bottle of vodka and head over to the bar at Lento (inside Village Gate, 274 N. Goodman St., 271-3470, lentorestaurant.com) for some of the best culinary cocktails in town. What differentiates a "culinary" cocktail from a regular one are the ingredients, and the skill with which it is made. At Lento, all of the juices used are fresh squeezed, and piles of fresh herbs line the bar. Seneca Drums gin and a large variety of bitters made by Fee Brothers (a Rochester fixture since 1863) are always on the menu. The drink menu changes monthly, and the bartenders frequently come up with new ideas that never fail to impress.
After a few drinks at Lento, head around the corner to Good Luck (50 Anderson Avenue, 340-6161, restaurantgoodluck.com), and try to get a seat at the often-crammed bar. This restaurant's take on culinary cocktails is slightly different, a back-to-basics style that revamps some of the most classic drinks of all time. Try a whipped-egg-white cocktail, if you never have; Good Luck's pisco sour is my favorite by far. Follow it up with a gilded ricky. This ricky doesn't mess around with tedious old limes, but instead uses sweet Meyer lemons and a dash of exotic kava kava syrup.
Meat to beat
After those delicious drinks you're going to need some protein. We are a hungry band of revolutionaries, but scorn the average drive-through's processed-meat mess. We need something we can feel good about eating that is also delicious. Local hormone-free and organic meat has become widely available within the past few years, including in local restaurants and grocery stores. It's hard to ignore the issues of antibiotic and hormone use in animals, the quality of the feed they are given, how they are treated and slaughtered, and how far the meat travels to ultimately arrive on your plate. Supporting local meat is good for the community, good for the farmers, and better for the animals themselves. It's just science.
To find some quality meat head to Mise en Place (683 South Ave., 325-4160, miseenplacemarket.com) or Abundance Cooperative Market (62 Marshall St., 454-2667, abundance.coop) and pick up some amazing beef or pork from Seven Bridges Farm in Lima, or, if you love the busy market scene, head over to the Rochester Public Market (280 N. Union St., 428-6907, cityofrochester.gov/publicmarket/) and check out the selection from Joe's Market. The employees butcher all of their own beef, pork, goat, rabbit, and lamb on their farm and bring it straight to you. If you're looking for some sustainable seafood, download the Seafood Watch app or print the pocket guide (montereybayaquarium.org) and check your menu against their list of endangered or overfished species, learning the story behind your seafood.
Meat and seafood have become a large focus of the edible-accountability movement because of the ways they affect our bodies and our environment. The amount of resources used to produce meat for the normal American family is staggering, and this has led some people to take a new view of the American meal. Flexitarianism has become a buzzword lately, but it is part of an overarching trend of alternative diets.
Food allergies have become overwhelmingly common, and plant-based diets are lower in saturated fats and cholesterol and higher in vitamins and minerals. Unsustainable meat practices have been stripping the world of its resources, and the animal-rights scene is as active as it's ever been. Enter flexitarianism and veganism. The thought of eating less or no meat at all may conjure up images of PETA lines and paint-throwing extremists, but it's really about eating consciously and being accountable for your choices. Eating meat every day strains the environment and strains the body, according to followers of flexitarian and vegan diets, and even just eating less of it can create a massive amount of change.
Put your money where your mouth is, literally, and test out some vegan or mostly vegan dishes out before you tackle them at home. John's Tex-Mex Eatery (489 South Ave., 232-5830) is a cozy, friendly joint, and you can order anything on the menu with vegetarian or vegan replacements. If you're not in the mood for Mexican, but you're still feeling adventurous, head up the road to the Ethiopian buffet at Natural Oasis Café (288 Monroe Ave., 325-1831, naturaloasisny.com/café.htm). The menu is always changing, but the food is always vegan, and you will hardly even notice because you're too busy deciding what to try next.
If going vegan is too much for you, The Owl House (75 Marshall St., 360-2920, owlhouserochester.com) has your back. The menu is a fusion of sustainable meat dishes and vegan mainstays, so you can be adventurous (or not) and check out some of that vegan cuisine from a distance so you know what to try next time. Flex those flexitarian brain muscles and think about that meat you eat.