Impact of Dinner at NOMA
During these Coronavirus times so many people have turned to cooking as a way to cope. I have not. I’m the very opposite of a foodie.
Maybe that’s to be expected given my upbringing. My mother graduated from high school in 1955 and is from the post-depression era of “a bag of this and a can of that” and, voila, there’s your dinner. Despite years of therapy, my college roommate still vividly remembers the time I took her home to the Houston suburbs, and my mother proudly presented her with a homemade prune cobbler.
When you grow up on prune cobbler it’s hard to care about food. I might be the only chunky lady you’ve ever met with an alarm on her phone reminding her to eat lunch. Our culture really cares about food, eating and restaurants, but I’d rather I’d rather pick up trash on a highway than cook you a complicated dinner.
Yet in the summer of 2018 I unexpectedly made a life-changing pilgrimage to the Vatican of food which changed the whole way I think about eating.
Following a turbulent shakeup in my personal life, a redheaded foodie from Los Angeles revealed that he had two places a seating at Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark. Much to my shock, I was on it faster than a squirrel on an abandoned pecan pie.
For years I had been reading articles about that crazy restaurant in Copenhagen, where they foraged the food from around the restaurant. Noma has made many lists of “the best restaurant in the world.” Not knowing anyone in Denmark—and it being pretty much impossible to book a table there—I put it down to “crazy things that sound like fun that I’ll never do.” In the same category as running for president or to ever again trying bake a cake from scratch.
Yet at the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival in 2017, I had hornswaggled my way into a reception for the His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway at the “House of Scandinavia.” I was too short to catch an eyeful of the Prince at the packed reception, but I managed to scarf down the best party food I’d ever had—party food that hard some reception guests waiting to pounce on the servers as they came out of the kitchen with their trays of vittles. Turns out that magical party food had been cooked by Mads Refslund, one of the co-founding chefs from Noma.
When I tried to go to Refslund’s SXSW pop up restaurant for more divine dining during the conference, the security guard told me it wasn’t possible for even one more person to fit into the seating. I went home and ate a disappointing can of tuna for dinner. It wasn’t the same as the fantastic salmon tacos the night before.
Maybe it was pent up desire from my SXSW food experience that resulted on me jumping on these Noma tickets? Even I was surprised to find myself gearing up for a trip to the Vatican of food.
In August, in the middle of a heat wave in Copenhagen, our whole group arrived at our 5 p.m. dinner seating for “Vegetable Season.” Giddy with joy and half-an-hour early, we stood on the sidewalk waiting for the rope to be pulled away from the entrance. Several of our party had taken trips to scout the new location of the restaurant, because none of us lived in Copenhagen and none of us wanted to be late!
As we walked in what seemed to be the entire staff enthusiastically greeted us, including Noma’s star chef René Redzepi, whom even I know on sight from reading all those articles about Noma. I’ve only experienced something like it in Tokyo, when I walked into a Japanese department store the moment they opened for the day!
Our group’s birthday boy Allen–whose 40th birthday the next day was the excuse for the planning of the dinner —said he was a little starstruck by the experience, even minutes after we sat down at our big table. That’s because Noma’s chef is a food world star. (The redhead brought a copy of Redzepi’s book to get it signed, which the smooth waiter took care of as elegantly as folding a napkin.)
Soon our group had different pot plants placed in front of us. The waiter gave us the mission of finding the hidden straw, then sucking out the potato soup at the bottom of the pot plant. What had I gotten myself into? Much laughing happened, as well as lots of selfies and pictures of each other slurping soup out of the “Potato Magma” course.
A gazillion courses later–including one that was peas three different ways in one dish (roasted, pickled and raw) –and we were presented with a second flowerpot, echoing the first. This second flowerpot was a wee cake, designed to be split. I shared with the birthday boy.
Two elements made the dinner at Noma really special. The redhead described our dinner at Noma as “monoculture theater” –noting the performative aspects of the dinner.
And the other was the local-ness. Everything we ate at Noma came from from fairly close to where we sat.
“A lot of our produce comes from Copenhagen or nearby. However, we use produce from all over Denmark in Scandinavia….For the seafood season, we also sourced things from the Faroe Islands, Northern Norway etc. We are not entirely strict – we frequently use kombu (seaweed) from Japan. “ I was told in an email from Arve Krognes, PR and Administration Coordinator at Noma.
Look in your pantry. No matter where you shop—from the food bank to the dollar store to a boutique cheesemongers, you are likely to have ingredients from around the world. Your icebox and deep freeze are likely filled with out-of-season asparagus, lamb from New Zealand, wine from Portugal, mustard from Germany and olive oil from Tuscany, not from Texas. Did you preserve your own tomatoes from your garden or are your canned tomatoes in a store brand tin?
How much of the food that you’ve consumed today has been moved across the world? How many “food miles” does each plate have?
Especially in this era of internet-ordered groceries and free instant shipping, we’re dependent on fossil fuels to move our almonds from California and our olive oil from Tuscany to Texas. It’s a whole global food supply chain, which is why I always seem to be stuck behind the FISH truck on the highway.
What you’ve personally eaten today is just the tip of the global food supply chain. It’s a giant system that includes everything from the commodities market with the future options for lean hogs in December, to the sunflowers grown in Texas to make sunflower oil that is shipped elsewhere. This applies to your Thanksgiving turkey and your Christmas ham as well. Unless you’ve taken steps to find a local supplier of your holiday bird, there is a good chance that it comes from one of the six states who grow most of the turkeys.
This dependence on the global food supply chain isn’t because of hunger, It’s not because of food shortages, but because of… food boredom? No matter what, we seem to be supporting a system that’s putting money in the pockets of giant agribusinesses who can afford to buy ads on Sunday morning television shows, rather than in the pockets of local farm workers.
The problem with this isn’t just that it burns up a lot of fossil fuel, but that it makes American farmers vulnerable to trade wars, like the one we are currently experiencing with China. The current farm bailout is giving farmers billions, so that producers of seven commodities can weather a trade war.
The current trade war means that unsold soybeans are currently piling up on the ground in the midwest instead of being sold to China.
While not everyone can be flying off to Noma for suppertime—and there clearly aren’t enough gingers to organize all those dinners–but we can all take some lessons from Noma.
It’s time to prioritize eating local, really local. Not just eating the occasional ruby red grapefruit from the valley, but it’s time to start cooking our dinners in Texas made olive oil. It’s time to look at how we can put Texas beef on locally made corn tortillas, served with a nice glass of some Texas claret. When was the last time you had a really fully Texas-grown meal? Have you ever?
Heck, there are enough wineries in Texas that you could serve nothing but Texas wines at your table every year, and maybe never even repeat a bottle.
Farming should produce more things that we eat in Texas, not just things to we export for sale. While I don’t pretend to understand global agribusiness, I do understand that people have got to eat.
I’m not the first person to suggest eating in a more Texas-oriented way. The Texas Department of agriculture has a whole “Go Texan” program to support Texas Agriculture.
After going to the HOPE farmers market in East Austin on a rainy Sunday, I call the “big name” in Austin vegetables, Johnson’s Backyard Garden. Later, over the phone, Ada Broussard, 29, the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Manager at the 186 acre farm located just outside of Austin told me that their farm supplies not only Austin residents—and the Austin hippie co-op where I shop—but that have 15 different pickup locations for their CSA customers in the Dallas area.
“Austin isn’t so far away, not compared to where your produce is usually coming from,” Broussard said about the farm’s CSA customers in Dallas.
Given both my experiences in Denmark and a gander through my own pantry, I’m suggesting we try something I’m calling the “Noma challenge.” Let’s try making dinners with only ingredients that you can find from Texas. Given that Texas is about 16 times the size of Denmark, it should totally be possible. If what’s often considered to be the best restaurant in the world manages to source most of their foods locally, we all should be able to manage for a few weeknight suppers.
You can do this by figuring out where the closest retail farmstand to your house is, and supporting them. You can also subscribe to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) plan, where you prepay for in-season items from a local farm. Think this is all too expensive? Know that using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program doesn’t prevent you from shopping at a Farmers Market.
While having a 20 course supper at what is often considered to be the best restaurant in the world was fabulous, marvelous, frivolous and memorable, it came with consequences, Not just the shock of seeing the video of Justin Timberlake eating the very same menu at the same restaurant later that same evening.
The day after our gazillion-course dinner, I went for a swim at a hipster bar just across from Noma. There was a sign imploring patrons not to scream when they jumped in the water. However, there was no sign warning patrons that THERE WAS NO LADDER to get out. While the Copenhagen folks push themselves out of the water and onto floating docks with no problem, that wasn’t the case for this chunky Texas lady the day following a multi-course dinner.
Instead, I had to ask the redhead to pull me out of the Copenhagen waters, with the same two handed manhandling that one might use to heft a tuna onto a boat.
Being pulled out of the Copenhagen harbor after a 20 course dinner might have been humiliating, but at least in the Copenhagen waters I was swimming with the kind of local fishes that might end up on the Noma’s “Seafood Season ” menu this spring.
Maybe if I eat enough Crystal City grown spinach, from the ““Spinach Capital of the World” down in South Texas, I’ll develop Popeye-like strength, and be able to haul my own self out of the harbor next time I go for a swim off a random floating dock.