Tuesday, April 02, 2013

It's spring o'clock somewhere

There was a time - it was warmer out, and I lived in the city - when the idea of eating strictly local seemed, if not practical, exactly, then theoretically possible. It seemed like the sort of thing I could feel ever-so-slightly guilty about not doing.

Those days are over. In May, a seasonal farmers' market will reopen, but in the mean time, there's... not much. The year-round Trenton Farmers Market is definitively in sausages-and-Amish-baked-goods hibernation mode. Because my apartment is not in fact a hippie supermarket, there's no industrial freezer full of the local produce from the past summer season. It is what it is.

In the past month or so, I've become the culinary equivalent of mugged by reality, and completely reverted to a pre-food-movement mindset. I mean, I still eat fruits and vegetables - I just don't have any qualms when I see that the strawberries come from Mexico. The apples, after all, are hauled in from Washington State. Asparagus grown somewhere other than New Jersey? Fine by me! It's not as if there's a from-NJ option - for asparagus or anything in the produce section. From what I can tell, other than white onions, none of the produce - this even at Whole Foods - is grown nearby. Even the things that might have been (the aforementioned apples, also kale, carrots...) were not.

I had arrived at this conclusion and been happily stuffing my face with whichever combination of pasta, cheese, and trucked-and-flown-in produce, when lo and behold food writer David 'used to work for Alice Waters' Tanis suggested to NYT readers looking for a spring-veg fix that they "cheat." And he continues:

Yes, it’s important to eat local, but there’s no way to really cook spring meals now except by using vegetables grown in places where the season has already arrived. 
For spring, you see, is a relative term. In coastal California, it has been spring for weeks already, and the new artichoke crop is producing on schedule. I’m not suggesting that you buy produce that came all the way from South America, or that you abandon your neighborhood vendors. Consider this permission to pamper yourself with a bunch of asparagus.
Retroactive permission appreciated. Or something.


Moebius Stripper said...

I very, very strongly recommend The Locavore's Dilemma, which I'd mentioned here before I'd read it. I've now read it, and the authors make a very strong argument against locavorism - not just that it's impractical for most people, but that it's actually inferior to "globavorism" by many of the metrics that *locavores themselves employ*. Most damningly, the authors argue quite compellingly that eating locally is worse for the environment. While they're careful to note that not all local food is created equal, I actually put the book down feeling vaguely guilty about some of my farmer's market purchases.

Phoebe said...

Now that one *is* available at a nearby library and is on my list for the next haul. (Sheryl Sandberg, you must wait.) I remember hearing that guy interviewed and thinking he had a point, but that there was obviously a defense of local eating as well, and that the interviewer was perhaps too much of a food-movement believer to be the one making it in the face of harsh criticism. Even if the book is ultimately wrong (not that I'd think it is), I like that there's a counterargument to something many are just assuming on the basis of, it sounds like it should be true.

What I remember the author saying, though, and what seems unavoidable, is that local foods will, in some cases, taste better, and noticeably so, than the alternative. And I suppose that's what motivates my market-shopping. I'm not convinced local is better for the environment. (The whole trucks vs. planes, French wine vs. California wine thing.) But I'm not convinced it's worse.

My sense - and perhaps the book will tell me otherwise - was that a large-scale switch to local-food consumption, i.e. rearranging food production such that that's what everyone always eats, would be a problem. Not that individual farmers-market purchases are bad. Just that they aren't particularly good.

Moebius Stripper said...

Yeah, your sense is correct: the critique is more of large-scale local food consumption than individual farmer's market purchases. And the authors definitely allow that there's a time and a place for local eating (after all, all of the food that we purchase is local to *somewhere*), and that eating local food that is seasonal to one's locale is tastier, healthier, better for the environment, and cheaper (and this, the authors argue, is why there will always be a market for good local food, even in the absence of any movement to promote it).

As for not being convinced that local is better for the environment or worse - again, depends entirely on the type of food. The amount of fuel/energy used to transport food (via mass-transport) even between great distances is apparently negligible compared to the amount of fuel/energy used to grow certain crops in a environments that are ill-suited to them. (As an aside, as a math geek, I was very pleased to see the useless "food miles" metric flogged to death.) So, if you want to eat locally in an environmentally friendly way, you need to really limit your selection. Which is pretty much the reason that locavorism is more popular in theory than in practice, even among environmentalists.

Phoebe said...

The one counterargument I had, from just the interview, but your comment reminds me of it, was that it's not entirely fair to the locavore movement to discredit it by pointing out that greenhouses, etc., are more energy-intensive than shipping. Locavores aren't asking for year-round consumption of all produce. They already do want us to "limit [our] selection." They want us to feel bad eating tomatoes in winter, not to select the New England greenhouse ones.

The problem with that, though, is in part what I've said here - that you will not have almost no food for months if you stick with that. More farms, more freezers... there may be ways around it, but as it stands, it's tough. But the big problem, one I know I've pointed out before, is that many locavores are these food writers who travel all the time, and who get to eat "local" all over the world (with a nice carbon footprint) as part of their work. Is anyone really sticking with potatoes all winter long? That's where things get complicated.