Uproot: Notes from the underground food scene

Pub date April 8, 2010
SectionFood & Drink

Recently Kitchen Table Talks, a monthly series of discussions on the US food system, invited a panel of SF entrepreneurs from the emerging underground food scene for a QA, hoping to answer big questions like what’s driving the trend and whether or not it has a future. As Iso Rabins from forageSF, Leif Hedendal, a veteran chef of secret suppers, Lucera Muñoz Arrellano, the owner of a bacon-wrapped hot dog cart in the Mission, shared their stories, I got a sense that no one had an overarching theory about the recent surge of popular interest. But it’s clear a lot of passionate people are firmly committed to redefining our food culture whether the man likes it or not.

Rabins originally began forageSF as a way to educate people about wild food with guided foraging tours that served to recontextualize nature as not an abstraction but an integrated environment to which we are inherently bound; it can even feed us. As he saw more and more people’s interest in preparing food grow and their resources dwindle, forageSF evolve to include the Underground Market, a venue for foragers and other uncertified producers to sell their goods. He’s had a few run-ins with the health department, but since he’s now operating under the quasi-legal status of a club he said he pretty much plans on running the market till forced to shut down.

In the long term, though, Rabins doesn’t have much interest in “legitimizing” the market considering enough certified farmers markets already exist, and to him, adjusting to the regulations would circumscribe the innovative spirit of the project. But he does see it developing into more of a launching pad for those wanting to make the switch over to the mainstream.

Hedendal, after working in brick-and-mortar food establishments, became disillusioned with what he described as kitchen culture — the demanding schedule and strict hierarchy that disconnected workers from the community, and thus, one of the main pleasures of cooking. He’s also critical of the “cheating” that many restaurants resort to in order to still be considered sustainable and not go broke. After getting out of the professional world almost a decade ago, he’s been involved with various food projects and secret dinners that sought to uphold the values of community, affordability, and creativity — it’s a pretty long and impressive resume. As of right now, he’s cooking for Dinner Discussions, which brings together food and socially-engaged artists. But for all his negative experiences working in restaurants, Hedendal’s ultimate goal is to open one that satisfies his values of true sustainability and community—maybe impossible now but who knows what will be eventually possible with the changing tides in our food and economic culture.

Lucero Muñoz Arrellano, though, kept the conversation grounded in the practical reality for a lot of those who informally vend on the streets. When asked why she began selling the popular Mexican hot dogs, she answered, assisted by a translator, that her biggest reason was to find a way to support her children, bringing it home that for many in this recession, underground food is a means to surviving in a shrinking job market that’s squeezing out the marginalized—especially those who might lack formal education or English language skills.

I don’t want to sell her short, though; her experiences and trials as an informal street vendor have given her a goal other than just subsisting. With her recent acceptance into the incubator program at La Cocina, a nonprofit geared towards nurturing low-income food entrepreneurs, Arrellano has been inspired to convince others to legalize their businesses. She’s intimately familiar with the hurdles that are almost impossible to navigate—like the bureaucratese of the necessary documentation that frustrates many non-English speakers or those who have limited education. And she also knows the risks that informal vendors suffer. At a minimum, the $250 citation fee can wipe out more than a day’s worth of work, not to mention the threat of having the cart confiscated and losing what may be their only livelihood. Some work in fear of arrest and deportation. A very big risk indeed.

In some ways the talk was illuminating and in other ways it confirmed ideas I deeply support. I suspect, given the wide-arching participation in decentralizing the mainstream food industry, the underground scene is not solely about hipster novelty-seeking. (Though, let’s not lie, that does play a significant part.) It also reflects the growing public re-evaluation of dysfunctional socioeconomic systems and support for those who are redefining how and what we eat.