Thinking about Local Eating

Thinking about Local Eating

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?

7 thoughts on “Thinking about Local Eating

  1. “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?”

    I think you’ve hit it spot on. I do various online surveys (because I get free shit, but also because I think it’s important to have my “radical” opinions included), and wow, the “food” they survey about is frightening, and always reminds me that the way I eat is a long way from the mainstream US diet. I grew up eating some processed “food” but have almost entirely stopped, so I too don’t do much shopping in the interior aisles, and very rarely do I set foot in a big grocery like Safeway, and when I do, wow, it’s like a whole other world. Bizzaro world where food isn’t really food…

    & yes, I agree on not liking this focus on what’s being given up. I appreciate that at least they have someone saying, “This was hard to give up but I feel better not eating it, and may not go back,” but still, it seems like local eating could have better marketing!

  2. No, I don’t think that’s right. Plenty of people cook. We just cook from recipes, most of which call for “16 oz. canned pumpkin” — that is, minimally processed whole foods, which we do not know how to process ourselves — or lemons or raisins or walnuts or yogurt — that is, foods not available locally.

    To eat locally you have to learn to cook without a recipe.

    And you have to learn to stew your own tomatoes, can your own jam.

    And, it’s true, you have to learn to do without. Think of all the Christmas cookies you can’t make if you don’t have cinnamon, nutmeg or ginger!

  3. I thought you might be interested in this thread at about stopping NAIS (USDA’s National Animal Identification System). There is an opportunity to vote and to make comments on the suggestion. With 275 votes for the top vote getter, putting a victory garden in at the white house, it would seem reasonable that stopping NAIS could get to the top of the list easily if the word gets out on it.


  4. Hi Jennifer — I’m a firm believer in what Joan Dye Grussow calls “the Marco Polo exemption” (anything that was traded in the 15th century, like spices), and by nature I tend away from extremism — so for me there’s no problem with a can of pumpkin (I have 2 from Trader Joe’s in the pantry right now). It’s what I liked about the Splendid Table’s 85% goal, that seemed eminently reasonable — allows enough wiggle room for say, my morning orange which is definitely not local to Montana.
    What concerns me more is the huge percentage of people who don’t cook at all. Just yesterday, the nice rancher in line behind me at the grocery store was filling up the conveyor belt with chocolate milk, boxes of Hamburger Helper and those freeze-dried potato side dishes, Kraft singles, cereal, and then I stopped snooping because he’d been nice enough to let me and my small load cut in front of him. There are so many people who don’t know how to cook anything that doesn’t come from a box, who live primarily in the interior aisles.
    So I guess I worry that strict locavorism, the sort that would ban spices, does more harm than it does good by implying that just cooking on your own isn’t good enough, you have to be so pure you only use stuff from within a small geographic zone around your home. I worry that it makes us seem smug, and that that smugness will alienate the very people who we need to reach out to, like my nice rancher who was eating crap food.

  5. I was a a party last night where there were lots of food-interested people: A sheep-farmer, his cheese-maker wife, a wineyard owner, a high-school teacher trying to get kids interested in the food chain. They all agreed, to my happy surprise, that if you catch kids and expose them young enough, they actually will love minimally processed food, and will be interested in prepping and cooking it. (Out of geekery – and for teen boys, sheer hunger for the extraordinary amount of food they need – if not out fledging cheffery.) It made me hopeful. Of course, on the way home we stopped off at a friend’s house to find she had made Hamburger Helper for herself…

  6. I hadn’t heard of the Marco Polo exemption. I love that. I also need an “over-the-mountains” exemption so that produce from the fertile Willamette Valley can be considered local enough for me.

    I still don’t think people eat boxed stuff because they can’t cook. I say that perhaps to excuse myself, because my family eats plenty of boxed mac & cheese and boxed cereal. We even eat those pre-flavored packets of oatmeal… I think it’s a matter of time. Boxed foods create very little mess and, best of all, you don’t have to think about cooking. You put your hand in the pantry and 20 minutes later viola, dinner.

    I got veggies from a CSA this summer. People looked appalled when they watched me rinse and scrub it all before even turning on the stove. I laughingly called it Labor-Intesive Lettuce. I thought it was totally worth the effort, but not everyone agrees.

  7. Jennifer,

    The thing with the labor-intensive CSA lettuce… I was part of a CSA a few years ago and the lettuce was cleaned on site. I think the water conservation was much better and I also think the farmer did a much better job of cleaning than I typically do.

    We are living in an area with an abundance of local food and we love it. There are some very non-local foods that some family members crave, like bananas and pineapple. Those family members are consoled with stewed local fruit on French toast. We can’t seem to get maple syrup in Africa.

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