Ruth Reichl and Laura Gabbert on FOOD AND COUNTRY

A portrait of farmers, ranchers, and chefs across America during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Laura Gabbert’s documentary FOOD AND COUNTRY made its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Through interviews led by food writer Ruth Reichl, viewers get an inside view of the perilous state of the American food system, laid bare by the pandemic. During Sundance, we spoke with director and producer Laura Gabbert and film participant and producer Ruth Reichl about what they see as the major issues and how that shaped the documentary.

Science & Film: This is a very timely film; can you tell me a bit about production and when you decided to start shooting?

Ruth Reichl: I was in Los Angeles and on March 12 it suddenly hit me that if I didn’t get home, I might never get home—they were going to close the airports. I went home to the Hudson Valley and thought I should do one huge shopping before going into quarantine, and at the supermarket there was nothing there. I came home and said to my husband, this is going to be a change moment for American food. Farmers might fail, or it might be that for the first time in my lifetime, Americans might suddenly understand how important food is and start supporting their farmers, and people will stay home and start cooking. At the end of this it’s either going to be the triumph of farming or the triumph of industrial food, and I want to keep a record so 50 years from now people will know why American food changed. So, I started getting on Zoom and calling farmers I knew, chefs I knew, and one person would send me to another. About a week later, a mutual friend told me Laura had been working on a piece about what was happening to LA restaurants. I knew Laura a little because I was in part of CITY OF GOLD, so I called her and I said, I think you’re missing the bigger story; restaurants are interesting, but I think it’s the whole food system that’s on the line here. Laura said, I think you’re right. We pretty much started right then.

Laura Gabbert: We dove into recording the Zoom calls for research and development, thinking, who knows how long the pandemic will last, maybe we can fly places and interview people in a few weeks. Then it went on and we just kept recording.

RR: I really did not make it easy for Laura because I just kept going down rabbit holes. All of that will be available to scholars in the future. It’s a fascinating record of these two and a half years.

LG: It’s also fascinating because it’s present tense; if you’re talking to someone every week, you’re getting every twist and turn of what’s happening to a particular business or farm. You also get the visceral texture of it. That was one of the advantages we found of using Zoom calls in the film—you’re liberated from one camera with a light in a room. The construction of that makes people uneasy or nervous. [The Zooms] were just Ruth and these people. They knew they were being recorded but it became very intimate and spontaneous.

RR: And because it was COVID we were all locked up. Five separate people said, at one point or another, you’re like my shrink, I so need someone to talk to who I’m not with every day. It became very confessional on both ends with these perfect strangers who became friends.

Laura Gabbert and Ruth Reichl, 2023 Sundance Institute. Photo by Anjelica Jardiel.

S&F: How did you decide on the kinds of representation you wanted in the film?

LG: I think Ruth was prescient that this could be a disaster moment, and that made us reach wide and far and try and find as many people and different points of view [as we could]. In a 90-minute film you can’t have 30 characters, and that was our struggle: we had so many characters we couldn’t include.

RR: One of the policy people [I interviewed] said to me, it’s the women farmers in America who are going to change things—it’s the wives. I said, now we have to find a woman farmer who is not one of the young, hip people. I went back to my policy people and asked them [who we should talk to]. We found the wonderful Angela who I called cold. I find her so moving because she is a perfect representation of this woman farmer who works with her husband and sons who has this vision of going organic, and not doing to make the soil better or because it’s better for people, but because it’s going to bring in more money. She comes to realize that there is this other benefit, and in the end she says, we are building our soil and have something better to leave our kids. They get certified organic; she’s making $3 more for every bushel of corn they grow. The film moved a lot like that. I spoke with 11 chefs, and we have great stuff with these chefs, the day-to-day. Every twist and turn. In the end, my very strong feeling was, what Americans don’t know is about farming and how difficult the government has made it for people who farm in America, and I think that’s the story. Chefs get their voices heard, farmers don’t.

LG: We balanced the film with some chefs, but it felt like we were discovering the people behind our food that people who live in cities don’t think about.

RR: We don’t think about the fact that we don’t grow food in this country, we grow commodities. We can’t feed ourselves and that seems like something every American should know. In a real crisis, we cannot feed ourselves.

LG: There will be future pandemics, there could be war, there is climate change, if we don’t fix this it could be a real problem.

RR: It’s a national security issue nobody is paying attention to. These farmers all know it and understand it. They’re incredibly smart and they look to the future. They understand change.

S&F: Do you have an ideal audience in mind or people you hope will see this film?

LG: One of my complaints about a lot of social issue documentaries is that they preach to the choir. That’s not bad, it activates their base, but with this film we had this chance to transcend the blue state/red state thing a little bit. That makes me excited.

RR: It was a very deliberate decision that we did not want to do a crunchy granola film talking about the hip young farmers who are changing the world. We really wanted to talk about America and to make it accessible to people across political boundaries.

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