Local Cooking for the Long Haul


Home Cook Locavore

I’m always looking for more interesting ways to procrastinate. I mean sure HBO Go takes care of most of it, but I also love reading the Best Food Writing compilation published every year. If there’s laundry to be done, I can always do it after I finish reading about the beer scene in Illinois.  This year, I was especially interested in reading Katherine Wheelock’s piece Is Seasonal Eating Overrated? originally published in Food and Wine Magazine. I love discussing the many problems associated with the local food movement, most importantly, the fact that local foods are prohibitively expensive for many many people. (Yes, the fact that’s it’s often less expensive to buy a tomato from 4500 miles away than one grown down the block is a topic for another time).

But Wheelock’s main arguments do not concern any of the bigger systemic issues and instead focus on two main ideas: her palate tires from eating the same ingredients repeatedly while they are in season, and the lack of creativity exhibited by many chefs when they work with top quality local foods. Interesting, but not that compelling.

Both of these arguments seem weak and the ‘problems’ she cites, seem amazingly easy to fix. She talks first about her disaapointment in having been served kale salads at multiple restaurants during kale season. I can’t be sure, but I’m 99% certain that I know the Brooklyn Italian place she says served the kale salad that broke the camel’s back for her. If I’m correct, this is a upper-range but casual Italian and pizza place fiercely devoted to showcasing local ingredients simply. I’m not sure I would expect an incredibly complex kale dish from them and if I wanted one, I would seek it elsewhere or, well, order something besides the exact dish that I found so frustrating.

As for lack of creativity, she mentions in the very same article Dan Barber at Blue Hill and a couple other places doing creative things with local and seasonal foods. To her list, I would add Gramercy Tavern and the Momufuko restaurants in her home city of NYC. These are restaurants with complicated, beautiful dishes. They are not inexpensive by any account, but neither are the places where she keeps ordering her kale salads.

She also likes the fact that some restaurants change their menus seasonally but do not feel the need to brand themselves as ‘seasonal.’ This comes up a lot on food blogs and in some ways I also love the idea of simply assuming the great restaurants source locally but it’s just not the case. The vast majority of food served in the US comes from a small handful of companies and I’ve seen even very expensive restaurants receiving deliveries of both chicken and toilet paper from the same Sysco truck. A much smaller number of restaurants seek out, at great cost, higher quality products sourced responsibly and in no way do I fault them for touting their efforts on their menus even if some diners might be ‘over it.’ It’s true, there are restaurants across price ranges serving at least some local foods now. We’re a far cry from the days when Chez Panisse was making food headlines because of the novelty of sourcing local products.

Serious arguments against local and seasonal foods need to have real heft to be taken seriously. The local foods movement has consistently been about changing an industrial food system that is devastating to land, labor, animals and our health. The arguments against sustainable eating should probably include more than a diner’s boredom or her desire for more complicated restaurant dishes. There are valid arguments against solar energy as well but I would doubt that the foremost one is that solar panels aren’t that pretty to look at.

In any case, in much of the country, we’re about to enjoy the great bounty of foods that come with the arrival of spring. I’m excited to cook and eat with friends and to talk with our farmers who were working 16 hour days long before local eating was considered a fad or before it could be parodied on Porlandia.

So let’s get out to our farmers markets and  get cooking. Learning to cook seasonal food affordably is not  a fad. It’s a serious shift toward eating more sustainably and we seem to be on our way.

Ok, now it’s time for another Game of Thrones.

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