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.

Russian Kale

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An older woman at the farmer’s market today stopped at an organic farmer’s stand:

Woman: I’ll bet with the recent news that your Russian Kale isn’t selling that well.

Farmer: Actually, we’ve sold quite a bit. It’s really good this time of year.

Woman: Well, the stories about Russia lately have not been good.

Farmer: But when you think about it, the vegetables themselves haven’t done anything wrong.

Thoughts on the Foodie Backlash

ImageThoughts on the Foodie Backlash

Happy New Year everyone. I read a lot of food blogs and articles. Lately, I’ve come across more and more people who seem annoyed with the growing foodie culture. Even I have become confused with the sheer number of food-based reality shows and I understand there are more to come this year. Others are tired of waiting for tables at popular restaurants that have been well-reviewed online and in the press, and they’ve vowed to never wait for a meal again. Others still are tired of food that they believe has become too complicated, and they want only “simple” dishes. I understand and I’ve certainly found lots of menus pretentious. I also don’t go to restaurants only because they are trendy or popular, and there are many nights when I can’t imagine eating anything more complicated than a simple bowl of pasta. These critics seem to be saying that they are tired of food talk, food entertainment, and are asking quite simply, ‘Why can’t we just be happy with regular food?’

Fixing our food system is one of the most important things we can do for our country. The current system of mainstream food production is devastating to the environment, the lives and safety of its workers, animals, and to the health of consumers. I’m hearing from people who are ‘over’ organic and local foods and are even becoming annoyed when restaurants talk about their sourcing with diners. Don’t get me wrong; I love making fun of foodie culture. A lot of it is silly. When I first heard that an upscale restaurant here in NYC served two different olive oils, one for men and one for women, I was certain it was a joke or an SNL sketch. I’m not sure I could listen to a waiter explain ‘feminine oil’ to me without saying something wildly inappropriate. I also can’t get enough of the Portlandia scene where the waitress gives the diners the name and photo of the local chicken they are about to eat. If you haven’t seen it, it’s hilarious and really worth watching.

But I don’t think the pretension and occasional silliness of the language of the sustainable food movement should be used as a reason to minimize the movement all together – because we’re making progress. The fact is, many restaurants and home cooks are far more concerned with sourcing and sustainability than they were even a few years ago. There is more pressure on big companies to improve farming practices and people are, at the very least, discussing the role that soda plays in our national health crisis. Mark Bittman did a great piece last year that outlines the recent progress we’ve made in the food movement http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/19/progress-is-our-most-important-product/.  Bittman, and nearly everyone else involved in improving our food system, is fully aware that fixing our food problems will be neither quick nor easy.

Establishments that make efforts to source responsibly need to inform their customers that they’ve done so. It can indeed be a lot to process on a menu. I might not want to read a lengthy description of the farm where a restaurant gets its eggs, but I can skim it and then at least acknowledge that the establishment went out of its way and probably spent a substantial amount of money to buy a product that wasn’t produced on a factory farm. I read a post recently by a diner who is tired of burger places making a big deal about serving grass-fed beef and just wants a ‘regular burger.’

The problem is that ‘regular’ food is in many ways more complicated than more sustainable food. While a ‘regular’ restaurant certainly could describe in detail how its chickens were raised, it would take lots of space (probably more space than the chicken was afforded most of its life) and it would not make for nice pre-dinner reading. Mass-produced food is still the norm and if a restaurant wants to let us know that it went out of its way to source animals from a specific farm or eggs from a specific breed of chicken, it needs to say so or add a label like ‘heritage,’ ‘pastured,’ or ‘local.’ The labels may be annoying to some people but to immediately peg them as pretentious misses the point. Restaurants are not required to tell diners when meat has been raised on a feedlot or processed with a new ammonia-based cleaning product. We assume that’s the case. They only need to say ‘beef.’ No label and no pretension. It’s just beef and it’s what’s for dinner. And unlike in the UK, eggs don’t need to be marked with a specific label letting the consumer know if the chicken spent its entire life in a battery cage. So we look for ‘cage-free’ eggs because without the label, the eggs are almost certainly not cage-free. The labels are simply giving us information about where the food came from.

Agribusiness has the best marketing I’ve ever seen. They’ve been able to convince people that a Wendy’s burger is ‘Old Fashioned,’ that pork is a white meat and that tomatoes are juicy and delicious 365 days a year regardless of where in America you live. From that perspective, a hamburger from a cow that wasn’t fed corn-based feed or antibiotics is a trendy new dish. Pork from a pig raised outdoors, is a food snob item. And tomatoes grown nearby in the summer rather than picked green and shipped 5000 miles are a luxury.

One recent online critique claimed that the food movement is “only relevant to rich white people” — everyone invested in the food movement needs to do more to make sure that’s not true – and that people from every background benefit from a move toward less processed and more affordable healthy options. Encouraging restaurants to source more responsibly is only one part of the larger effort to improve our food system. There are plenty of neighborhoods with no fresh food available at all. There are also people who simply can’t afford to buy responsibly produced products because they are too expensive. And there are thousands of children who can’t recognize fresh garlic or potatoes let alone worry about how they were grown or harvested. There is far more work to be done.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose more sustainable products, there is no shame in patronizing restaurants that focus on better ingredients or in thanking a farmer who is raising a new type of heirloom plant or animal. Recently, I visited a cheese shop here in NYC that’s pretty high up on the hipster food scale. A very cool employee described in great detail the farm that a new goat cheese had come from. He even talked about how fun it was to visit the farm and share dinner with the farmer after milking the goats. To be honest, I was in a rush and not that interested in the whole story. But I thanked the employee. And I felt thankful again that night when I enjoyed the cheese knowing it had come from a real farm with good people who treat their animals and their surrounding environment well.

I hope this year we can continue to give our food more – not less – thought. Thinking about where our food comes from is not pretentious or out of touch. It’s real. And perhaps it’s the most honest thing we can do as we choose what to eat three times a day.