Beth Barham is finicky about what she puts on her plate. During the winter months, for instance, organic California spinach will suffice for a proper salad. But come spring, when the spinach is harvested locally, it simply must come from a farm near her home in Columbia.
Barham won't touch processed foods. She shops at farmers' markets, organic- and natural-food stores, and a gem of a grocery called The Root Cellar, which sells only Missouri-made products. Little, besides paper goods or an imported cheese a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano for pasta, say will get her to a supermarket.
"Kraft has a Parmesan cheese," Barham points out, her small mouth drawn. "It tastes like shredded rubber. They call it Parmesan cheese, and they have for a long time, and they think they should never be forced to give up the name, just because Americans don't know where [Parma and Reggio Emilia, Italy] is. But Parmesan comes from Italy."
It's where food originates that obsesses Barham.
"I like to buy local food," she says in her sing-song voice. "On the other hand, I recognize that a sheep's-milk cheese from Greece is a special treat, and I like to enjoy that in my life, too. I'm not looking for autarky. I'm looking for balance."
An unassuming woman with the earthy appearance you might expect of an avid Garrison Keillor fan, bird-watcher and scholar who specializes in rural sociology, the 52-year-old Barham has taught at the University of Missouri since 1999. Tablecloths are smoothed across the surfaces of her office, and a "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" monkey lamp oversees a corner of her desk.
Colleagues invariably equate such adjectives as "disarming," "soft-spoken" and "woefully modest" with Professor Barham. "She's like this mild-mannered bulldog," says Hank Johnson, a vintner in Ste. Genevieve County. "When she gets her teeth on something, she holds on, and she's going to hold on until she gets the job done. But she's very calm, very low-key about it."
Fastened to a wall-length bulletin board is Barham's most telling decoration: a blue and gold metal label marked Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée Poularde de Bresse. Left over from a French chicken that Barham feasted on earlier this year, the AOC insignia represents a controversial idea the professor is pushing in Missouri: a European-style system of food and wine labeling in which the place name not the brand name takes precedence.
Barham envisions the day when Missouri's Norton wine or perhaps some of the state's pecans and cured pork will bear ecologically based appellations just as prestigious as those of Champagne and Poularde de Bresse. Her three-year-old effort, called the Missouri Regional Cuisines Project, prompted the French Ministry of Agriculture last year to make her a knight. Barham's project is the first and only endeavor of its kind in the United States.
She believes that local human know-how and terroir a French term suggesting a particular combination of climate, terrain and soil conditions make certain foods and wines distinct. Long ago, Europeans began naming artisanal products for their origins in order to further set them apart from processed fare.
Beurre d'Isigny, for instance, is a sumptuous, salty butter made on the Isigny shores of Normandy, where cattle graze on grass loaded with iodine. Prosciutto di Parma, cured in Parma, Italy, comes from pigs who feed on whey left over from Parmigiano Reggiano production. In Spain the most famous sparkling white wine is called Cava; in Italy the honor goes to Prosecco. Only sparkling white wine made in the Champagne region of France can be called Champagne.
Obtaining an appellation is a highly controlled process, with the government regulating nearly everything in the production chain from growing to slaughtering to aging practices. In the case of wine, appellation boards stipulate which grapes can be used and when they can be pruned and harvested. The rules are strict, and it can take several years to put together an application. In the end, the appellation signified by the AOC stamp in France, or the DOC in Italy is a badge of honor for the producer.
"From one meter to the next, it's a different product because of the terroir," says Marc Felix, a French chef and culinary director of Whole Foods Market in Brentwood. "Where I'm from, the Savoie [in the Alps], we have the most wonderful cheeses: the Reblochon and a Tomme de Savoie. If they didn't have appellations, all these huge companies would destroy the little guys and farms that make them."
Barham says it's the mom-and-pop farms and vintners that profit most from appellations especially in the age of globalization. Unlike trademarks, which can be sold, inherited and affixed to products manufactured anywhere in the world, appellations are a form of intellectual property belonging to a specific region of producers. It's the European governments who typically pursue violators.
In the U.S., though, the cost of purchasing and renewing trademarks not to mention prosecuting those who pilfer them falls on individuals, Barham points out. "Our little producers, they can't even think of buying trademarks or going after thieves. They wouldn't even know where to go get that legal defense." This difference becomes crucial for smaller producers as their goods become more popular. As soon as they're exported, "somebody is going to copy the name," says Barham.
"Take Parma Ham," she explains, using the English trademark for Prosciutto di Parma. "The producers' consortium spends $1 million a year to protect their name in fights all over the world. There was a famous instance in Canada of a company that's done all kinds of things with its packaging, like putting the Italian flag on it, to make the consumer think its product is from Italy. They even put 'authentic' on the label, which is total B.S. It's not Parma Ham. The company just knows you will pay the premium if you think that's what you're getting."
Barham maintains that place-based labels would sustain Missouri's vintners and farmers for centuries, because it might allow food-makers to charge more for their products. "People can be part of the global world without being annihilated by it," she says.
"It's going to be a challenge," observes Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission. "We've spent $100 million over the last 70 years working on [our brand]. I went to Korea and Japan recently, and as soon as I said, 'I'm from Idaho,' the next word that came out of their mouths was 'potato.' But when I say 'Missouri,' what do you think of? Nothing jumps to mind."
If Barham has her way, Missouri will reclaim its fame in the wine-making world. She has designated an eco-region stretching alongside the Mississippi River, across six counties south of St. Louis, as the first area for a Missouri wine appellation. Dubbed Mississippi River Hills, the region is rife with vegetable growers and pork and beef producers not to mention purveyors of such culinary delights as liver dumplings.
A group of Missouri orchard owners and vintners in Lexington and Higginsville got wind of the project and has already asked Barham to help it establish appellations in an area east of Kansas City. Barham also sees putting origin labels on products coming from parts of the Missouri River Valley and the teardrop-shape Meramec River Watershed. United States Representative Jo Ann Emerson, meanwhile, wants the project to take root in the Saint Francois Mountains and other parts of the Ozarks.
Barham says she'd like to extend the project to other U.S. wines and foodstuffs Indian River grapefruits from Florida, perhaps, or Muscatine melons from Iowa. "We're starting with Missouri," she says as she leaves a Columbia farmers' market, her arms full of fresh fruits and vegetables. "But the real goal is to revolutionize the entire American food system."
When Beth Barham closes her eyes and describes the perfect glass of Porto, you can almost see her mind drifting to the Douro River Valley of Portugal. "It tastes nutty, and it's warm and smooth, like the sun there," she says. Barham set down her luggage in Porto one hot July day in 2002, beheld the rugged mountainsides of its backdrop and immediately understood how the nation's sweet wine acquired such renown. "It's written right on the land," she exclaims.
The Valley is hot and humid, and its coarse, rocky mineral soil is ripe for grape growing. Without the 620,000 acres of hand-terraced vineyards, says Barham, "this place would be totally marginalized." Instead, it's world-famous.
As the legend goes, two English shipping merchants traveling upriver in 1678 were so impressed with their first taste of Porto that they brought back a barrel of the wine to England. Soon other European traders began making regular trips through the valley, looking to haul aboard a wooden cask of the liquid treasure. "They bought it dirt cheap, sailed back to their country and sold it [for] many times over what they paid," Barham says. "It was literally the old expression: When your ship came in. All you needed was one cask."
That was, until a Portuguese minister named Marquês de Pombal learned of the scheme through royal contacts in England and, in 1753, made his way to the Douro River Valley to delineate the world's first wine district. Pombal established rigorous production standards for Porto and set up government-regulated warehouses at the river's edge. Every bottle sold carried a government-approved label and an individual number. Pombal even instituted annual sales quotas, realizing that certain vintages might acquire value with age.
"So you see, it benefited the crown of Portugal, of course, through taxes, but also retained much more of the profit in the hands of the people living in Portugal," Barham explains. "Port immediately became the number-one product of value in Portugal and remained that way until very recently when tourism linked to the wine surpassed it."
Porto is the paragon of a product made prestigious by its terroir. Amazingly, its appellation system still functions largely as it did 250 years ago, with the neck of every bottle still carrying its own unique number. Says Barham: "To give up the system would be like saying to St. Louisans: 'It's inconvenient now for you to have the St. Louis Cardinals.' Well, no! That's not going to happen."
In the 1920s France and Italy followed Portugal's lead and instituted their own labels-of-origin legislation. Various regional wines and cheeses, butters, poultry and pork even certain varieties of plums, honeys and chestnuts are protected today.
"You must note that it was the producers, not the politicians, who pushed for these laws," says Anne Richard, director of the Paris-based government office responsible for certifying France's 47 AOC cheeses. Without appellations, Richard contends, thousands of farmers would be unemployed, and numerous breeds of cows would have gone extinct.
"A lot of these products are made in areas which are very difficult to farm or do anything else with," she says. "These communities would have disappeared without their cheeses. Instead, they specialize and perfect them, and they can sell them for 30 percent more than the average cheese. The money goes right back into the regions, the farmers make a good living and continue to make their product better. All in all, we call it a virtuous circle."
Riccardo Ricci Curbastro, president of Federdoc, the Italian consortium that oversees Denominazioni di Origine wines, says vintners are constantly seeking new ways of marketing place-based labels in response to increasing competition from non-European wines.
Take the serial-number system that Federdoc is now piloting: It allows a consumer anywhere in the world to visit a Web site and find out exactly where and when the Chianti he just purchased was bottled. "We want to show there's a lot of work behind the name on the bottle," Curbastro notes, arguing that the same cannot be said of many American and Australian vintages especially those enhanced by a myriad of technological innovations.
"You cannot take a juice, and split it into twenty different components with a Spinning Cone Column and rebuild it," Curbastro maintains, referring to a technology marketed by Australia-based Flavourtech. "That's not wine. It's a juice. Call it juice with alcohol if you want. The same goes for this business of oak chips for giving barrel taste. It's easier and much cheaper to add chips to the wine, instead of aging it one year or two years in a wood barrel that costs $700! But it's not the same as barrel-aged."
On a recent Wednesday morning, Barham moseys around Trader Joe's in Brentwood inspecting labels on produce, wine and cheese. "There's nothing here at all that tells me where these were grown," she laments, setting down a bag of blue and red small potatoes. "It's too bad, but it's typical."
Barham is on the lookout for American foods that she thinks could benefit from an appellation similar to Porto's. "No offense to the Idaho potato, but it wouldn't be enough just to say 'Idaho' and show a map of the state," she notes, gripping a silver bag of spuds with the red, white and blue "Grown in Idaho" emblem. "The Europeans wouldn't like that. Idaho, what does that mean? It's such a big state, you know. I think there's an area around the Snake River which produces a lot of the really best potatoes, so maybe those are the ones that could get a label of origin."
The cheese aisle, chock-a-block with domestic and imported choices, calls to Barham's mind the recent musings of a friend who has grown to loathe grocery shopping. "She said she'd just rather have two big signs above the shelves: one saying, 'WHITE CHEESE,' and the other saying, 'YELLOW CHEESE,'" Barham recounts. "I was horrified. To be condemned to such a universe: That's Beth's version of hell!"
Barham and her husband, a carpenter, own 200 cookbooks and were married eight years ago in Ithaca, New York in their kitchen. Each evening the couple cooks from scratch in a kitchen filled with Fiesta pitchers and lime-green Le Creuset cast-iron pots. Duck confit is a favorite. For dessert the professor loves nothing more than an odiferous Rocquefort, and perhaps a glass of Porto.
While growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Barham had no particular appreciation for artisan foodstuffs. "My mother had plastic fruit as decoration, which she rubbed and dusted. My dad, he loved to cook, but he didn't garden. I'm a suburban girl, as average-American as they get."
Barham's foodie metamorphosis took place during her junior year at Vanderbilt University, when she studied abroad in Aix en Provence, France. "Going to the outdoor market every Saturday morning, seeing all the fresh fish, the olives, the cheeses, the spices that was the '70s; you saw nothing like it in the U.S.," she remembers. "It was transformative to see that there were people in the world living so differently in terms of food, and it was a way of life so obviously better and healthier than ours. It left me always feeling like I wanted to make America's food system better."
For her Ph.D. in rural sociology at Cornell University, Barham crisscrossed France in a flame-orange VW bus for an entire year, talking to farmers and vintners. Since taking up her Mizzou post, she has dissected the intricate AOC labeling system and mastered the histories of Porto, Châtaignes d'Ardèche (French chestnuts) and Ribera del Duero (Spanish wine) growing ever more convinced that labels of origin could be a boon for rural America.
"Under globalization, it's really hard for small farmers to compete against mass-marketing," Barham says. "They need something that's distinctively theirs, that no one can take from them."
Fifty years ago, Missouri farms grew or raised 40 different crops and livestock, and it was easy to buy food produced locally, she points out. But post-war industrialization sparked economies of scale and put the kibosh on agricultural diversity. Today there are fewer than twenty products raised on most of the state's farms. Gone are ducks and potatoes, peaches and strawberries. Less than 1 percent of Missouri farmers tend these foods.
The first signs of rebellion against mass-food production came in 1971, when a 27-year-old fledgling chef named Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Waters vowed to feature only seasonal ingredients on her menu and to get those ingredients locally whenever possible. Today Chez Panisse is highly regarded, and the "local foods" movement is finally gaining traction with home cooks as well. They can shop at growing numbers of farmers' markets or buy into a Community-Supported Agriculture network and get weekly deliveries of whatever local farmers are harvesting.
Despite a burgeoning demand for local foods, Missouri farmers will tell you it is tough being the little guy.
State health regulations, for one, favor large food purveyors, says Tricia Freund Wagner, a former Steelville farmer who was thwarted by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services when she built a canning kitchen to make jams and salsas. "The regulations were set up for restaurants, which are cooking everything under the sun, including meat," Wagner recalls. "So the health department wanted me to put in a grease trap, which was totally ridiculous."
Farmers and chefs keep opposite schedules, making it tricky to find and keep regular customers. It takes years to break even, adds Octavia Scharenborg, a six-year grower of hydroponic (greenhouse) lettuces in Jackson. "I do the marketing, the delivering, the planting, the harvesting, the bookkeeping and the bill-paying," she says. "There wouldn't be enough to go around otherwise."
But Barham envisions small local foods producers like Scharenborg selling their goods in St. Louis and as far away as Stockholm if they band together regionally. That's what she aims to do with the Missouri Regional Cuisines Project.
"The idea," Barham says, "is local foods on steroids."
The gentleman is at least six-foot-five, lanky and red-faced. He's got a booming Southern accent and gestures with every phrase. "Hello, I'm Jerry Smith, the world-famous winemaker," he bellows from behind a stainless-steel contraption with six spouts. "This is what all the big guys in the world have," he says. "And so do we, but we're small guys."
Smith, co-owner of River Ridge Winery in Commerce, and his general manager, Keller Ford, are just finishing hand-corking more than 1,000 bottles of wine. It's a Thursday in early June, nearly six o'clock almost time to uncork a bottle, in fact. "I've had roughly one bottle of wine every night for 35, 36 years," the vintner boasts.
Smith grew up on a cattle farm in a dry county in central Arkansas and flew fighter jets in the U.S. Navy. But growing grapes is what he aimed to do most of his adult life. In 1980 he planted his first vines on a plot of land next to a riverbed way down in tiny Commerce, Missouri. Fourteen years later he and his wife, Joannie, opened River Ridge Winery for business, offering sweet and dry wines, including a European-style Chardonnay and the state grape, Norton. They only make 5,000 bottles a year and aspire to no more exactly the size of producer the Missouri Regional Cuisines Project aims to make "world-famous."
Missouri once could boast of its wine-making prowess: From the mid-1800s to 1920, only New York bottled more. Today, however, the Show Me State ranks only in the top fifteen, and most Missouri wines are consumed within state borders.
When Beth Barham looked at those statistics four years ago, it occurred to her that agriculture officials could tap into GIS (Geographical Information System) data, determine the state's different terroirs and recruit winemakers, "rather than just sitting around waiting for somebody with land who might want to make grapes to call up."
The idea, Barham says, is to see what types of vines flourish in a terroir then perfect them, en masse. She explains further: "Let's map the state, let's find out where there are certain slopes, and enough sun, and certain trees nearby to let air circulate. Then find out who the landowners are in those areas. Get them together. See if you can get them interested in putting some grapes there. Tell them the economics of it, how long it'll take to make money. Then teach them the horticulture."
Barham imagines regional cuisines sprouting up in each terroir to pair with its wines. "Just like when you go to Burgundy, there's a whole cuisine, and certain cheeses, that over the years they've found match perfectly." Before long as in Porto, and Chianti, and all over Provence the tourism dollars would come flooding in.
The Mississippi River Hills present the best incubator for the project, maintains Barham. Already at least six wineries make Norton and Chardonel, the two wines vying for the state's first appellation. Some have opened on-site restaurants featuring local foods to complement the winery experience. (One vintner is building a day spa. Another boasts of a tiger sanctuary. A third features a 35-foot-high natural cave.) Still another vineyard plans to open in the eco-region later this year.
"We would welcome several more," enthuses vintner Hank Johnson, owner of Chaumette Vineyards & Winery in Coffman. "We want to be the Napa of the Midwest."
The Hills are also rife with struggling family farmers in search of a profitable niche. There's Mike Kertz Jr., a Bloomsdale hog farmer who's taken to growing Brandywine heirloom tomatoes and French fingerling and blue potatoes to help pay the bills. Kenny Wilson, a Jefferson County bachelor who's sold dairy cows and heads of beef cattle, now wants to process his own specialty meats. For decades they have diversified again and again, unable to keep pace with corporate farms, yet unwilling to part with their land.
"Farming today, you got to give a lot of you to do it," says Wilson. "We're in break-even, even in a good year."
The farmers and vintners have spent hours strategizing over the past three years with Barham and associates from the University of Missouri Extension. They produced an agri-tourism map last year and, several months ago, launched a Web site that lets St. Louis chefs purchase fresh foods straight from Mississippi River Hills producers.
The hardest work, to be sure, is coming.
Barham has to write a proposed statute for an appellation system, then persuade a state legislator to sponsor it and a government agency to oversee the labeling. "Down the road, when the products start to be something sought-after and exported, they'll be more expensive and valuable, and somebody is going to copy the names," she says. "We have to get somebody in the government to commit to going after the bad actors. Otherwise the project won't work."
The eclectic bunch of vintners, meanwhile, have to agree on production standards for their wine a matter that already has a few people questioning the project's premise.
"Let's take France," says Johnson, owner of Chaumette. "Do you realize that in order to have an appellation on your label, the appellation board dictates to you how you will plant your grapes? With Chablis, they say you may only plant the grapes one meter apart, and the trellis height must be one meter high. They prohibit you from irrigating. They prohibit you from fertilizing. They tell you the day of the harvest, and how you must prune the grapes in the wintertime. They tell you how many buds you may leave. Then, when you go through all that stupidity, they subject you to a panel of cronies that decide not whether or not your wine is good or bad, but whether it's characteristic of the area.
"I'm very much against that. I think that's a lot of B.S. It stifles the creativity and innovativeness of viticulturists and enologists."
River Ridge Winery's Smith agrees. "It took me 25 years to really zero in on how I wanted to make my Norton. I'm not changing it now."
"I've told them over and over, this is not about just slapping a label on a product so you can sell it for a higher price," responds Barham. "There have to be controls."
Otherwise, the Hills should just apply for status as an American Viticultural Area, a federally designated grape-growing region that can span anywhere from less than a square mile to across several states. Augusta, Missouri, was the first; Napa Valley is the most prestigious. Overall, qualities of wine within the AVAs vary greatly. "They're meaningless," says the professor.
Richard Mendelson, a winemaker and lawyer for the Napa Valley Vintners Association, doesn't argue with that. Still, he bets European-style labels would be a tough sell to California wine-makers. "There was an effort in Sonoma a long time ago to regulate vintners down to the level of growing practices, like what kind of trellis and root stock you could have, and it failed," Mendelson says. "We're a young country. I think there's some resistance to rigid controls."
"I think her idea sounds pretty damn cool," adds Marc Lazar, a St. Louis-based wine consultant with clients around the country. "But I don't think it will go anywhere. The American wine industry is predicated on the ability to do your own thing."
Barham is undeterred by naysayers. "On one hand, you could say this project is going to take forever. On the other hand, look at the Port situation they started long before 1753 and they're still going."
Barham has already gained world attention by taking the unpopular position of advocating for labels of origin, or Geographical Indications (GIs), in talks in Geneva at the World Trade Organization effectively siding with the European Union in its decades-long dispute against the U.S. over a global registry of GIs.
For years the EU has called for the registry to handle and resolve disputes over place-based labels. The U.S. has repeatedly rejected the demand. That's because American food manufacturers have spent billions of dollars appropriating European place-names Champagne, Feta, Madeira and Parmesan, for instance and trade-marking them here.
Three years ago, the EU drew the ire of the U.S. food lobby when it began asking foreign companies to "give back" these GIs. "It's not fair," contends Frank Muir of the Idaho Potato Commission, echoing the argument of U.S. commerce officials. "The Italians should have protected Parmesan from day one. Now that Kraft Foods has created value for it with 100 years of advertising, they say they want it back."
Fumes Barham: "The U.S. trade rep's office is basically saying to the EU: 'We should not have to respect your rules because Americans don't know their geography.' That's their argument. Well, American ignorance of geography should not be a global standard. It's a national disgrace."
The attitude hasn't exactly made the professor friends in Washington. "She's a bit controversial," notes Patrick Kole, the Idaho Potato Commission's vice president of legal and government affairs. "I think Anheuser-Busch would think she's a pest."
The St. Louis brewer has been tussling in European courts recently against the Czech brewer Budejovicky Budvar over the very issue of place-based labels. Budejovicky Budvar says it lays claim to the trademark Budweiser Budvar because its first beers were brewed in a town named Budweis. A-B opposes that moniker. Its Budweiser brand, after all, is the world's best-selling beer.
So what does A-B think of Barham's cuisines project? Dan Pierce, a company spokesman, acknowledges that some A-B officials follow her work, and at least one attended a conference on GIs that she organized in St. Louis last year. But Pierce declines to elaborate.
A-B might wield the political clout to cancel out Barham's efforts, but if the company does see her as a threat, it doesn't appear to have taken any steps to thwart her. No one representing the brewery, according to Representative Jo Ann Emerson, has lobbied her to squelch the project. "Even if they did come to me and they didn't like it, I don't care," says the congresswoman. "My first interest is my constituents and being able to keep the young ones in rural America, as opposed to having them move to St. Louis."
Fred Ferrell, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, agrees. "We won't let [Barham] get away. She's a Missouri treasure."
To her critics, Barham is quick to point out that Missouri wouldn't be the first North American community to pull off appellations. In 1994 farmers in Les Éboulements, Quebec, discovered that Montréal and Quebec City even Paris restaurants had listed their specialty lamb on menus without purchasing so little as an ounce.
The producers solicited help from the French government to establish GI legislation in Canada, which finally got passed in April. The label is now on its way and the farmers of Les Éboulements couldn't be happier. "We'd like to start exporting, but we don't even have enough to fill our orders here," says Lucie Cadieux, who spearheaded the effort. "I just made deliveries last weekend to restaurants in Montréal. Those were orders that we took last fall!"
Says Anne Richard, who oversees France's AOC cheeses: "[Barham] understands that GIs can work for Longjing tea from China, or Basmati rice from Pakistan, and tons of other products from across the world. She gets it. We view her as a militant, in a good sense."
The French view Barham as one of their own. She's no citizen, but last May claimed bragging rights along with Louis Pasteur, Paul Prudhomme and Julia Child as a Knight of the Order of Merit in Agriculture. Barham didn't believe the news. And when at last it sunk in, she felt a stab of regret. "Julia Child had just died," she recalls. "I couldn't call her up and say, 'Hey, I got this thing too, could we get together sometime?'"
At last year's knighting ceremony the Champagne producers' association honored Barham with four cases of its bubbly. "I made sure we saved it until the end, for the toast," she says. "Because that's when you're supposed to have it, at the end."