I’ve been listening to a lot of back episodes of The Splendid Table lately. My local NPR station doesn’t carry it, but I’ve been downloading episodes to my iPod and listening to them in the car or at the gym. Apparently, they had a year-long listener experiment in locavorism — they selected a dozen or so readers who tried to eat 80% local food for one year and blogged about it. So yesterday I had to do some errands and I was listening to the host check in with one of the locavore eaters, this is perhaps the second one of these segments I’ve heard, and I was somewhat surprised that the entire discussion was couched in terms of “what did you give up? how hard was it?”
It was interesting hearing this younger guy from North Carolina talking about how he’d been a big fan of cereal, and that was one thing he gave up. Sugary cereals with bannanas — Honey Nut Cheerios, Fruit Loops. He was wondering now that his year was coming to an end whether he’d fall back into that habit — he said he felt much better after eating whole, local foods for a year, and that walking down the cereal aisle felt like “visiting the halls of a high school you used to go to.”
This is where I feel like something of a freak. It’s been years really since I’ve shopped much in the interior aisles of the grocery store — you know, where all the processed foods and cereals and “snacks” lurk. In part, it’s because I didn’t grow up eating that stuff — my family were not snackers, and we didn’t eat much processed food. The occasional box of mac and cheese, but Cokes were a big treat, as was the occasional trip to McDonalds. Mostly we ate real food that we cooked for dinner every night.
I buy a few things in the interior aisles — stoned wheat thins are a staple, tea, salsa or rooster sauce from the “ethnic foods” aisle — but I don’t eat cereal (I don’t like sweets for breakfast) and I hate bannanas, so neither of those would be something I’d miss. I guess, looking at my diet from the outside it might seem to someone used to processed foods to be a diet of deprivation — I don’t eat very many fruits or veggies out of season, and frankly, I eat fewer and fewer fruits and veg that aren’t local mostly because they taste so bad. I’d really rather have good peaches for a few weeks when they’re delicious and in season than eat those weird crunchy things they sell in the store as “peaches.” I’d eat canned peaches before I’d eat those.
But it never feels like deprivation. I guess that’s the part that bewilders me — that the concept of eating food produced closer to home is parsed as some sort of deprivation. I’m lucky because between the garden and living in an agricultural state I can source my milk, eggs, wheat, lamb, pork, beef, and most of my vegetables from Montana producers. I do buy some stuff from non-local sources: wine, cheese, oranges, some vegetables (especially in winter), spices, olive oil, dry pasta.
I eat extraordinarily well, and while I might not cook with tomatoes out of season, it’s less out of some abstract rule-based thing than it is from having gotten used to my own tomatoes, and having learned enough to put them up. I wonder whether all this talk about “locavorism” might be, in the general discourse, masking a larger discussion about what Michael Pollan calls “food” versus “food-like substances”? That is, is the divide not between those of us who like to choose local products and those who don’t, but really between those of us who cook at all and those who don’t cook and rely on processed food?
I’m not trying to rag on The Splendid Table — it’s a terrific show and I’ve really been enjoying it. I do live in something of a bubble out here, all my friends cook and are interested in food, and well, we’re already slightly freaky artist types — so what I’m talking about is a meme I’m hearing from “out there” — the “normal” world if you will. And it’s the odd note that is catching my attention — if it’s such a radical idea to eat locally is that because it’s still a sort of radical idea to eat whole foods and to cook at all?