Sundance 2023 Review: “Food and Country” Redefines Conscientious Eating Habits in America

Towards the end of “Food and Country,” Ruth Reichl says the film was something she’s spent her life working up to, yet considers the life she led before it in her career as a food critic to be something of a failure. “We got sidetracked by deliciousness,” she confesses over Zoom, which she used throughout the pandemic to connect with members of various sectors within the food industry from chefs at top end restaurants to the purveyors that provided their fruits, vegetables and meat, and while she may be referring in part to celebrating the meals she had in the pages of the New York Times and Gourmet Magazine without bringing as much attention as she had hoped to the supply chain that led directly to her plate, there was the equally delectable appeal to most American consumers that goes unmentioned when the cost of goods has remained low relative to other countries in the world, coming at the expense of all involved in the process of bringing it to market.

Just as it might’ve been inevitable for Reichl personally to reckon with the culture of American food, given her role in helping to shape it over the last half-century, it also seems like Laura Gabbert might’ve been destined to be a partner in the project, having long been interested in issues of environmental sustainability (“No Impact Man”) and fine dining (“Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles”). In some ways, “Food and Country” seems like the flip side of “City of Gold,” her exuberant portrait of the late L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold where his choice of writing beat opened up avenues to writing about all the subcultures that exist there through their cuisine and in teaming with Reichl, she offers up a reflection on America as a whole that is considerably darker when COVID lays bare long-simmering problems within the food industry that are nearly all tied to prevailing cultural attitudes that are in need of change.

“The hardest thing about the pandemic is each restaurant having to handle this puzzle on their own,” Brandon Jew, the chef behind the San Francisco hotspot Mr. Jiu’s, tells Reichl during the early days of the pandemic, setting up a sprawling effort on the filmmakers’ part to help fill in the information gaps between one another. It’s a messier film than Gabbert has made before when the pandemic eliminated travel for Reichl and the subject itself is so unwieldy, reaching into so many different aspects of American life. But those qualities give the film an urgency even though the issues it raises have been kicking around since 1940s when an emphasis on faster and cheaper production was spurred on during World War II and only accelerated in the decades to follow, with quality control and human considerations falling by the wayside.

Although some archival material is required, “Food and Country” is able to operate at far less of a remove when historical changes in the industry can be charted firsthand by the likes of brothers Lee and Bob Jones of Chef’s Garden Farms in Ohio and Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Georgia who speak to how their families have weathered changes for generations and are adapting to current conditions. Still, they couldn’t possibly be prepared for a pandemic when the closure of restaurants upends demand for their perishable goods and anxieties run high as Reichl talks with chefs Reem Asil in Oakland and Minh Phan in Los Angeles as they busily rework their business plans to keep money flowing to their employees and the farmers they source from. While there’s some whiplash in moving between so many points of view in a moment of crisis, “Food and Country” builds a recognition that every part of the ecosystem could benefit from the same improvements, mostly getting back to basics that would circumvent the mass consolidation and overproduction that requires far more of farmers than is necessary, leading to costs that may not show up immediately for consumers but are paid in full later.

It’s no accident that calls to Alice Waters, the Berkeley-based farm-to-table pioneer, become a through line for the film, though even she is shaken by what she’s seen and “Food and Country” is careful to balance out putting forth solutions — taking the form of Bren Smith, a kelp purveyor who finds myriad uses for his produce, and Karen Washington, the founder of Rise & Root who sees a future in small urban farms — and questioning everything, striking the right note of celebrating resourcefulness where it can be found, but capturing a time of uncertainty that is far from over.

“Food and Country” will be available online via the Sundance Film Festival app through January 29th at 11:55 pm MT.