Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Locavore's Dilemma

Back in grammar school, you probably learned the terms herbivore, carnivore, and omnivore, but I'm betting your teacher never said anything about "locavores."  Quite simply, a locavore eats food grown as close to home as possible.  Still, there's a bit of a dilemma for the gourmet cook, for though locally-grown food offers a lot of opportunities and flavors, sometimes that imported cheese or out-of-season produce is a necessity for the menu.  And the ingredients for locavore cuisine are typically more expensive, too.

Beth and I try to practice local food buying when possible.  More and more grocery stores are identifying locally-grown foods, with some, like the Whole Foods chain, often identifying the distance from the store to the farm or producer.  And, of course, there are farmers' markets and local co-ops--not to mention the ultimate in local food production: growing the food in your own back yard, using local materials and natural practices (no trucked-in $4-a-bag mulch or fertilizer: use free local compost, for example).

Locavore culture is what the "organic" food craze should have really been about, even before the corporate megafarms got into the "organic" gig and drove the term into meaningless vapidity.

Locally-produced foods have the obvious benefit of reduced carbon footprint: they don't require the carbon investment of extensive transportation, first of all, and additionally were and likely were produced with less mechanized processes and with less petrochemical-intensive pesticides & fertilizers.  Beyond the carbon advantages, though, locally grown/raised food has several other benefits:
  • Supports local farms and businesses, which often (but not always, depending on where you live) tend to be smaller, individually- and cooperatively-owned, vs. the mega-agribusinesses that produce so much of our food.
  • More flavor: because they don't have to be shipped long distances or stored for long periods, the varieties of produce grown locally tend to be much more flavorful. Consider a typical heirloom tomato from the farmer's market compared to a megamart beefsteak tomato: one is almost good enough to eat as a meal on its own, the other a bland pap bred to survive picking by machine, rough handling, and shipping across the country or continent.
  • More varieties: megamarts and big agribusinesses want to sell a lot of a very few sorts of produce and to offer the same products everywhere.  Local growers plant and harvest what works for the local conditions and often have a much broader selection which never darkens the shelves of the neighborhood megamart.
  • More natural: if buying foods which grow or occur naturally in the area (and in-season), that is--something which is more likely with locally-produced foods.
All those benefits aside, though, as I said earlier and as the title of this piece suggests, being a locavore isn't always the easiest or best option.  Locally-produced foods are typically available only in-season, and though formulating a seasonal diet (vs. simply taking advantage of seasonal foods) is laudable in and of itself, it's also quite a challenge--more of one than I have time to tackle despite my culinary creativity.

Some foods simply aren't available locally regardless of the season; Virginia isn't exactly brimming with citrus growers, for example.  And there are regional specialties not available (or not with the same defining characteristics) except from their native production areas; think of the French appellation d'origine controlee, or "AOC," and similar systems.  Even absent the regulatory strictures legally linking a particular food to one region, imitations from elsewhere often lack the distinctive something which one can't simply replicate locally (consider, for a moment, the French notion of terroir, which is at its heart the fact that the land from which a particular grape, tea, or coffee grows in imparts a specific, characteristic quality to that foodstuff).  So though one can likely find a local substitute for Parmesan cheese, Champagne, or proscuitto di parma, it simply won't be the same.

I do, however, have to say as a cook I do enjoy the challenge of recreating regional specialties with locally-available ingredients, and I love the inspiration of regional cuisine even if not working with the specific ingredients.  But then again, though a local chevre soft goat cheese is something I've used quite successfully in bruschetta in the past, it simply doesn't compare to an imported bufala Mozzarella from Italy at that culinary task, either.  So the occasional taste of non-local food shouldn't be considered in inexcusable sin for the environmentally conscious, should it?

Finally, there's the financial cost aspect.  Locally-grown food can be cheaper, but in my experience, rarely is, and in some cases, can be significantly more expensive for the consumer than the fruits of a carbon-dependent, far-flung transportation grid.  We bought a huge container of seedless red grapes at Costco last weekend, imported from Chile... for $7.  Domestic grapes at the grocery store ran more than that for less than half the quantity, and were of inferior in quality (and local grapes aren't available right now, either; even the domestic ones have been trucked from California).  And heresy of heresies: the Tuscan blood oranges we picked up for $9 at Costco are far superior in taste and convenience than the Florida oranges we bought at the grocery store.  But some local food is comparable in price; farmers' market produce typically beats megamart prices, at least around here; meat from a local farm or slaughterhouse--if bought in bulk--is much cheaper than at the supermarket; and that gallon of local milk we got at Whole Foods was within a quarter of what the stuff trucked in from out of state and sold at the grocery store cost.

I guess, then, it's good that we're at least aware of the financial costs (overt and hidden) as well as the environmental trade-offs involved in buying and eating non-local foods.  That we're even cognizant of the issues of locavore cuisine and the unsustainable life our civilization is pursuing full-speed-ahead and damn-the-torpedoes is a step up the green ladder from the vast majority of consumers.

But it's still a dilemma nonetheless, and not one I'm willing as yet to solve wholeheartedly and completely on the local side.

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