What’s Normal?

If anything seems easy to define, it should be the word "normal." The more you think about it, though, the harder it becomes. Apply this word to food and beverages and it gets harder still.

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Nora Pouillon, chef/owner of Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC, an establishment described as "America’s first certified organic restaurant." Growing up in Austria, Nora consumed food and beverages produced organically (though there wasn’t a fancy term for it): they were just normal. When she moved to the U.S. 30 years ago, "normal" food was defined by technology: hormones for animal growth, processed corn as feed, keeping animals indoors year-round. Far from being viewed as an advance, these practices clashed with Nora’s idea of what was normal and the restaurant was eventually born.

Fast forward three decades to a lunch in Jacksonville, Florida. Nora and I are talking about the trend for consumers to question whether industrialized production of produce and proteins should be considered desirable, normal. They’re asking questions about where food is grown and how.

But why are consumers not questioning their dependence on bottled waters, especially water that has traveled from far-flung regions of the world? A necessity for many in countries with low investments in public infrastructure — yes, bottled water is "normal" for the affluent of third-world countries — but why in the U.S. where the tap water is often superior in taste and quality? Has there been a tap water supply scare? No. Proven superiority of Norwegian H2O? No. Convenience (or laziness?). Significant investment in advertising? Healthier option than soft drinks? Maybe. Yes. In part.

Perhaps, like ketchup on a burger, or a bag of chips with lunch, bottled water has just become normal. Mindless. Sans calories — so devoid of guilt, too. If one factored in the energy needed to mould the plastic, ship the filled products, truck them to warehouses and refrigerate them, who would consider bottled water from Fiji to be normal? I think I’ll have mine straight from the tap…with a twist of irony.

Helene S. York, Director, Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation