Tuesday, December 2, 2008

From the Wonders of the Exotic to the Locavore Revolution

From the Wonders of the Exotic to
the Locavore Revolution

In 2007 the Oxford English Dictionary declared Locavore as word of the year. It came as no surprise to anyone who chooses cooking and dining as one of life’s grand pursuits. Books such as the Omnivores Dilemma, by Michael Pollen, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and the 100 Mile Diet from Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon inspired many a foodie to babble the terms “carbon footprint” and “sustainability” any time the conversation turned culinary. The history of food trade and transport is as interesting as it is long. Throughout history foreign trade has helped, by way of shaping our diet, to define us both culturally and ethnically. A new moral thinking regarding the environment and animal welfare, combined with fears of a future Blade Runner-esque dystopia, and a societal shift towards a greener lifestyle, has people shying away from foodstuffs from afar. Call it hippy light. Call it what you want. It’s what all the cool kids are doing.

Back in the day, if you were a chef, to be cutting edge meant getting the goods from as absolutely far away as possible. I recently listened to some archival recordings from the Canadian Broadcasting Company and found this piece about a luncheon given in Montreal in 1947 by the aviation wing of the Canadian Board of Trade to promote the air transportation of food. It’s ironic to hear the gleeful pride in the broadcasters voice as she reports the air miles traveled and number of airlines employed for the transport of each and every item. The grand total for this one meal, 92,271 miles. As a chef in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I remember how thrilling it was to get exotic foodstuffs from around the globe. Carbon footprints? Global warming? We had yet to grapple with these issues. It wasn’t as though you were chucking an empty soda can out of the car window. I did buy pigs and cured hams from a local farmer, Catfish and turtle from a man who ran a boat on the Wabash River and local produce when I could get it. However, as a chef, I really wanted to work with the foods that I had, up till then, only read about. Along came Walter Martin and Andrew Udelson, 2 young entrepreneurs, with a revolutionary startup called Flying Foods International. They flew virtually everywhere for items that a lot of us chefs never had the opportunity to work with before. Real langoustines from the Mediterranean, roe scallops from the Isle of Man, haricot vert from Tahiti, passion fruit from New Zealand, Belon oysters from Brittany, fresh truffles from the Perigord, the list goes on. You have to remember at that time, produce such as haricot vert and passion fruit were not grown domestically. Can you imagine, in 1983 dollars, paying five dollars for one passion fruit or five dollars per pound for imported green beans? Today chefs generate the same emotion by having products produced in their own back yard as they did thirty years ago with something from halfway around the world.

The experiments that some are conducting by only eating items produced in close proximity are interesting if anything. But how far can one go? Forge one’s own cutlery? Tan your own leather from road kill? We should consume more locally when possible but realize that, Époisses only comes from Burgundy, real balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia and Jamon Iberico from Spain. Terroir and tradition cannot be duplicated nor should it. We can't pick peppercorns or harvest cinnamon bark in Massachusetts but if you can find a good pair of shoes or shirt made locally go for it. And if you can get hand made pasta from a little village in Tuscany, go for that too.


Nate-n-Annie said...

Any way you can lessen your carbon footprint is a good thing. Some people will be more extreme, some not so strict. But the less energy we use overall to produce and procure our food, the better.

Thanks for the friend invite on Foodbuzz. We welcome you to come visit our site!

Tangled Noodle said...

While I applaud the principles of local and seasonal cooking and dining, my question is how do we, in our multiethnic and multicultural society, reconcile eating locally or seasonally with eating 'culturally'? There are so many ingredients integral to cooking in immigrant homes that are simply not possible to produce in certain places, say for instance, plantains in Minnesota. Food plays such a tremendous role in ethnic identity and sometimes I feel that the discourse on local, seasonal, etc. focuses on environmental, social and political themes but overlooks cultural perspectives