Monday, May 5, 2008

Eating Local When I'm Not

This past weekend I flew to Providence to see my friend Danger J's play. The last time my college friends convened was under rather unfortunate circumstances, so it was wonderful to spend time together on a more joyous occasion. Danger J directed the hell out of Moliere, we caught up on each other's lives, we gave and received great big hugs, and we ate food. Lots of it.

Now, I was a guest, and with a big group, so I wasn't about to get too picky about the food or restaurant choices. Still, I wanted to do my best to remain as faithful as I could to my local food challenge. Local food has infiltrated many of the good restaurants in California, so I was hoping we would end up at a restaurant that touted its farmers' market produce or some such.

Unfortunately, if any of the restaurants we patronized do use local produce, they keep it on the down low. I was a little too embarrassed to ask where my tomatoes came from, so instead I just ordered food that SEEMED like it would be local. Mussels in New England looked like a decent bet. So did pancakes with maple syrup. And instead of ordering a California wine, I opted for the local Narragansett beer that at $3 a pint, was a surprisingly tasty and frugal choice.

I admit that just a few weeks ago, I was that person who could not tell you when asparagus was in season. But since reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I was looking at menus with new eyes. The effect was rather jarring.

Bananas, kiwis, limes, avocados. Strawberries, tomatoes, pumpkin, kale. All flung together higgelty-piggelty, seasons be damned. My friend Annie once referred to Los Angeles weather as Stepford Weather- creepily perfect year-round. Most people I know claim to love the changing of the seasons, myself included, but we prefer Stepford Produce- eerily good looking and perpetually in season. Sure we may sacrifice a little flavor, but pshh, who cares about that, right?

I have mixed feelings about eating locally. On the one hand, I hardly feel we should be consigning New Englanders to avocado-free banana-less lives. I refuse to give up my Indian spices, and if you told me I could never have another mango, I'd cry. On the other hand....

For the past few years I've been trying to do my darnedest to eat more fruits and vegetables. It's odd, because I LIKE fruits and vegetables. I know I do. And yet, every time I buy produce, I'm disappointed by the bland, watery taste. Eventually, I decided that I just wasn't good at selecting produce. Or something. I stopped buying most fruit, and purchased my veggies frozen. And I live in CALIFORNIA. What the hell?

Then I visited the farmers' market. It turns out that I am remarkably good at selecting produce when the produce is all high quality. Strawberries, asparagus, snow peas. Everything was so good, I just ate it all raw.

I got home from Providence last night. Because I was gone all weekend I ended up missing the farmers' market, so today I wandered over to the Gelson's on my lunch break. I picked up some local bread, and then headed to the produce aisle. After all, California feeds the rest of the nation. Surely a grocery chain that caters to a wealthy Los Angeles clientele would have some tasty local produce.

What I found? A few local tomatoes, and a spattering of produce from the Central Valley. But mostly, the produce seemed to come from elsewhere. The most bizarre find? Asparagus, which is in season almost everywhere in the United States... from Chile. Where it's fall.

In the end, I decided to forgo the produce. Because the truth is, Stepford Produce may be nice to look at. But that's about all it's good for.

14 comments:

Spud said...

I certainly believe in local produce, I always ask where ever I eat, mind I am a very outspoken person. but even local produce bought on the doorstep, does not assure freshness. Scotland is now bringing forward a labeling scheme for food to prove locality,and for schools and restrurants to be penalising for using non-local produce.

Get local wherever you can most of the time you cannot beat it!!

organicneedle said...

I think there is room for balance. So much of food is about culture, nutrition, and enjoyment...not just location. Def. support the local guys but allow yourself a few indulgences. A day without avocado is not a day in my book...and I live in NYC. Mexico is local, no? It touches our country!

maryann said...

I grew up on veggies raised in the backyard and now that I'm older and have a house of my own I have my own garden. I have to admit, I'm ruined, I can not even bring myself to buy most store bought produce anymore, it just tastes like shit most time, bananas and avocados are an exception. The hardest part is that living in New England we don't have 'stepford' weather. This years goal is to try to can and freeze and extend the vegetables for year round consumption. You can't even compare fresh local food to the produce sections, it amazes me people don't make more of an effort to grow their own food and buy local.

Green Bean said...

Stepford fruit . . . pretty accurate description. They all look beautiful, don't they? But most are flavorless and mealy.

Here in Northern California - even at Whole Foods which has pleded to source 60% of its produce locally or something like that - most of it is from across the world and tastes weary from the journey.

This will be a fun month, Arduous. I predict you fall in love with some hunk (of fruit) at the farmers' market and eat happily ever after.

Going Crunchy said...

My husband has a regular meltdown about the produce here. He's from Greece where I think I had a mouth orgasm from a tomato and cucumber salad if that tells you anything.

Farmers markets ROCK. I think I want to bury my face in cantelope when I get it there!

Um, I hate to promote- - but I'm also doing a special promotion for a friend on my blog this week. Stop by if you have a chance.

CindyW said...

Right on. I've always remembered that one of the highlights in my childhood was summer tomatoes. Post-graduate from college, I started buying my own tomatoes. And damn they tasted like wax. So I always assumed that I just did not know how to pick the ripe ones. Then I came to learn about vine-ripe tomatoes, a tad better, but not enough. Then first time I bought tomatoes from farmers' market, I felt like I found a diamond mine. All the olfactory memories rushed back to me.

I did not pick the wrong tomatoes, I just went to the wrong place.

This year, we are planting a whole lot of tomatoes in our backyard. I am so looking forward to eating from the vine (if they survive inspite of my brown thumb).

Beany said...

Except for this past winter (when I purchased root veggies as I knew they were in season) I almost never purchase produce from grocery stores anymore...not even Whole Paycheck. I really upped my veggie intake after I began frequenting farmers markets a few years back. The flavor is unbeatable. I don't care about the cost...I want some good, tasty food dammit!

After reading Animal, Vegetable, Mineral I turned into this annoying nuisance at restaurants. I've stopped now...but for a while I would rant about how this was not local and that came from exploited South Americans and this was probably not in season either.

My friends are quite tolerant of me.

One of the more silly reasons that makes me want to move to S. CA is to grow my own spices and other tropical foods. I am planning on having a mango tree, growing my own coffee, turmeric, curry leaf tree.

I have had some truly tasteless mangos here so I haven't eaten them in years.

Kaitlin said...

I love reading about your challenge. I'm moving in a similar way, though not as officially. My roommate and I have purchase a share at a CSA for this summer and we're both very excited about the prospect of having our own box of veggies available to pick up on a weekly basis. Better yet will be the challenge of using what is thrown our way.

arduous said...

Spud, wow that's great that Scotland is now labeling food to prove locality. I wish that we did that here. It would certainly make my challenge easier!

Orgie, I agree with you about balance. In my opinion, you should eat local especially when it CAN be grown in your area. For example, I don't see why I should be eating a Mexican avocado when there are California avocados.

Maryann, I think I'm starting to become ruined for store-bought produce myself!

Green Bean, yes I think that Chilean asparagus was very weary. But who can blame it? I am always tired after a 10 hour flight!

Going Crunchy, promote away. I think what you're doing is awesome.

Cindy W, can't wait to hear about your tomatoes!

Beany, wow a mango tree! THAT would be awesome.

Kaitlin, a CSA delivery sounds awesome. I'm starting to look into those myself.

Dasha said...

While I whole heartedly support the local food movement, I certainly don't think that anyone should be deprived of bananas, kiwis or mangoes forever (if they like them). I think it's about balance- there is nothing wrong with eating out of season far away food, as long as its done mindfully. In the middle of summer here in NYC, there is absolutely no need for bananas because of the amount of wonderful local fruit. But in the winter, there is nothing wrong with enjoying kiwis. I grew up eating mostly local food because I grew up in Moscow and what it taught me is that tangerines are amazing in December and Astahan watermelon in September, not the other way around.

I'm really looking forward to our CSA this summer!

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

Our local supermarket makes a point of carrying local produce and making sure we know it with big labels, some identifying the farms by name-very cool. But we are moving to SD where the local produce consists of corn, soybeans and beef. So I have been a bit relieved to learn this:
"Weber and colleague Scott Matthews, also of Carnegie Mellon, conducted a life-cycle assessment of greenhouse gases emitted during all stages of growing and transporting food consumed in the U.S. They found that transportation creates only 11% of the 8.1 metric tons (t) of greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) that an average U.S. household generates annually as a result of food consumption. The agricultural and industrial practices that go into growing and harvesting food are responsible for most (83%) of its greenhouse gas emissions."
Now, 11% is a chunk, but look at the 83%!! And what can we do if local is limited?
"A relatively small dietary shift can accomplish about the same greenhouse gas reduction as eating locally, Weber adds. Replacing red meat and dairy with chicken, fish, or eggs for one day per week reduces emissions equal to 760 miles per year of driving. And switching to vegetables one day per week cuts the equivalent of driving 1160 miles per year."
http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_11662.cfm
As a veg head, I can still do my part. Maybe I'll find a SD truck farmer.

arduous said...

Dasha, I agree with you. It's all about balance.

Equa Yona, excellent point. This is why if local food is limited, we should try to buy more of our food lower on the food chain, and we should support organic farmers who generally need less fossil fuel oil to grow their crops.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Providence beautiful? We have lots of local foods here! Where did you eat? You should have tried Local 121 downtown. Many of our fine eateries are local on the down low. Funny isn't it?

arduous said...

Providence is beautiful. I didn't eat at Local 121. I don't really remember where I ate, though I think I ate at a place called Bravo? It was delicious.