On Eating Local

I recently read Brett Martin’s “The FedEx Meal Plan” in Best Food Writing 2010, a commentary on eating local. Martin injects a remark made by Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto in his book Near a Thousand Tables : A History of Food, “one mark of a great empire has been the diversity of its ingredients and the distances they traveled to get to the elite” (4).

Curt and I discussed this idea of eating locally and how it’s traditionally been the mark of “peasant eating.” We appreciate being able to go to the Union Square Greenmarket, appreciate the idea of seasonality. I know it’s a huge buzzword in the food community these days, to say things are being grown locally, and surely we should only serve, eat, and breathe what’s grown locally. But some of the ideas that have been stirred in Martin’s essay, and in the arguments in this section of Best Food Writing 2010, entitled “Food Fights,” do resonate with me as well. For instance, since I live in New York, should I never eat an orange? I’m not saying that the oranges will be as good as the ones I can get from the groves in Florida that I remember from high school, or the ones that my mom shipped to me in college (the huge Honeybells that she can’t find anymore). Should I never use sea salt, cinnamon, or bok choy, because they aren’t cultivated or grown within a hundred miles of New York City?

When I brought this topic up to my mom, she scoffed at the extremism of my examples. But isn’t that what the locavore movement is all about? Eating what’s right here, right now? Martin says, perhaps controversially, “Locavore may have been the 2007 New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year, but there’s already been a word for those whose diets are restricted to seasonal items grown in their immediate area. That word is peasant” (4).

I’m not saying the great empires of the world had it right, or that local food is necessarily peasant food. But Martin’s project (of FedExing meals to his house from around America) is a funny, interesting pursuit that critiques the very goodness of the word “local.” And the critical dialogue is one that always needs pursuing.

During Curt’s and my conversation about this topic, especially since we’ve been making weekly trips to the Union Square Greenmarket for the past six months or so, Curt said that maybe it’s not necessary to restrict ourselves to eating local (not that we really were anyway), but to have an understanding of the growing seasons. This I can, and have, valued. Butternut squash is just better in the winter. Apples in the fall. I’ve been missing the smell and taste of basil lately, perhaps because here in NYC, we’ve had a few infrequent tastes of spring/summer weather. Despite many foodies’ admonitions, I have bought tomatoes in January at the grocery store – but they’re not the kind of tomatoes that we can get at the market in late summer, the vivid, juicy red ones with a soft skin that you can smell as you walk by, and can bite into as you leave the stall.

There’s a virtue I’ve sensed in understanding the seasons. One of my favorite things to do in the kitchen is to make a stew or soup, one that takes hours, is forgiving, and fills the whole house with heat, and as Curt says, love. But this is a winter/fall/rainy day thing. I don’t want to sit in an already hot kitchen (the one room in our apartment that we don’t have an air conditioner) in the baking July heat of this city. In that weather, I want a caprese salad, pesto, things that don’t require adding heat. I want to fry things, because that doesn’t take too long. Guacamole. Salsa. There’s still love in these foods when we make them from scratch, but the love is more naked, seeing, raw. The love in winter foods is mature, patient, something that builds over time. Both have their virtues. All in good season.

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