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Still trying to get back to the garden

And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang in 1969 -- Joni Mitchell's lyrics for the song Woodstock. It was a time when many young people not only went on down to Yasgur's farm, but actually tried farming or at least raising organic produce (the edible, not just the smokable, kind).

In many ways, we still live under the sign of Aquarius, not least in the area of food. Where else did the groove begin that would lead to "natural" Cheetos and the somewhat more respectable but still questionable label "organic" on all manner of packaged food?

All countercultural roads lead to Berkeley, Calif., and in gastronomy to the restaurant Chez Panisse and the empress of organic-regional-seasonal-natural, Alice Waters.

There are Waters-influenced restaurants all over America. In a note on the menu of one I dined at in Cleveland, the chef-owner not only expounded his organic-regional, etc. philosophy, but lamented the demise of the family farm and the deplorable working conditions on corporate farms. I didn't know whether to finish my martini and order dinner or take to the barricades.

Political correctness -- yes, mea culpa, an unfortunate legacy of the '60s generation -- might be harder to take in gastronomy if the Waters movement had not also yielded really delicious food. We've come a long way from brown rice and bean sprouts, baby. While Americans have not lost their love of grilled steak (though seldom served with baked potato anymore), sensual, imaginative, chef-driven food is now everywhere.

I came of age in the Tampa area (all my changes were there, to quote CSN&Y again). In the late '50s and early '60s, you would have been hard-pressed to find a white-tablecloth restaurant there that served fresh seafood. Fast-forward to 2006, when retiring St. Petersburg Times restaurant critic Chris Sherman praised the chefs' "innate knowledge of local waters" in crowning Marlin Darlin' the Tampa Bay region's best restaurant.

Have things changed for the better? Yes and no. I've driven around Tampa looking for the fish shacks of my youth. They're gone, and a big chain hotel stands where my favorite smoked-fish-and-beer joint used to be.

The road is also a mixed bag. The promised fresh orange juice at a Florida Turnpike rest area ends up coming from a carton. In a retro mode, though, the Cracker Barrel's Southern standards -- the turnip greens, chicken and biscuits and fried catfish of my Gulf Coast days -- are considerably more authentic than its faux-country storefronts.

It's been almost four decades, and I keep thinking that we've got to get ourselves back to the garden. My supermarket produce section reveals a global garden. Farmers' markets give us the regional-seasonal bounty. Current gastronomy is rich with both approaches.

Maybe it's the time of year/Maybe it's the time of man.

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