Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What will be the ultimate legacy of the "local" food movement?

You can't pick up a fork without tripping over the hottest buzz words in food today -- the "local" food movement or "eating local" or any of the myriad variations on the theme. The essential elements of eating local seem to include (1) eating as much food as possible (not only vegetables, also meats, cheese, bread, etc.) from "local sources;" (2) preparing food that is seasonal; (3) purchasing food that is sustainably and/or organically farmed; and (4) placing a premium on knowing the sources of what you consume.

Obviously, there are a number of threshold questions to overcome in order to begin this discussion. First and foremost, how do you define "local"? Is it a 10-mile radius? 25? 50? More? Until the Industrial Revolution, this was easier to answer. Modes of transportation were much more restrictive, forcing food to come from relatively nearby. Railroads and airplanes have changed all that. Now you can get organic asparagus year-round, either from a farm down the road, California, or Peru.

But there are larger questions at hand, too. Is food sourced from a local source necessarily good simply by being local? What if you live somewhere without the possibility of thriving local agriculture; are you left out of the local movement entirely? How will "local food" evolve and sustain itself? In essence, what will the lasting impact of this local emphasis be?

It is that last question that holds the most interest. Fundamentally, the "local" movement, in part, is chasing a myth. It isn't practical -- perhaps, isn't even possible -- to return the United States to an agrarian ideal. That Jeffersonian moment has passed. So what, ultimately, will this movement become? This question is worth exploring because the local food movement has genuine value and will leave a meaningful impact on the way this country eats.

At some point down the road, looking back on what started as a revitalization of boutique food sources, these times will mark the true beginning of when Americans started truly caring about what they eat. For most of the twentieth century, culinary history in the United States was marked by technological advances: frozen foods, the microwave oven, fast food, ways to engineer "natural" flavorings, and other things that were meant to make eating easier. The problem with emphasizing technology in this way was that it resulted in the consumption of unhealthy, poor quality food. Instead of enjoying meals, they became obstacles to be overcome, met and discarded in the fastest, cheapest way possible. That results in a lot of issues, including creating a culture that doesn't value the food it consumes -- an odd situation when food, when it comes down to it, is the fuel to make our bodies go.

This lack of appreciation for food -- taking the easy way out -- has offered the local movement its greatest opportunity and in which lies its greatest hope. Eating well is not something for "foodies." It is not something for the rich. It is not something for the person who saves just to experience one meal at the French Laundry. It is for anyone who's willing to embrace it. Good food takes care and attention, which are two things that precisely are hamstrung by the prevalence of technological food, with its dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets.

How does the local movement become the savior, pulling the country out of its grease-laden, deep fried, engineered obsession with packaged food? For starters, locavores care about what they eat. That is not a hallmark of technology foods, to put it mildly. With reflection, this desire to do well with good ingredients is the logical progression from Julia Child's grand (and deserved) legacy. Julia frequently preached doing better with what you have -- even if you had to use frozen spinach or come up with a substitute for French flour. Locavores, more so than foodies as a class, do not tolerate compromise. They are specific and passionate in their desire to acquire the best ingredients available.

At this point, you could run into road blocks. What if the best ingredient isn't available locally? Do you really have to stay within a 5-mile radius? Ten? More? To a certain extent, those issues are semantics. It's about what "local" means to you. But this emphasis on quality ingredients and caring about food are the the true heart of the local movement. It is about finding the best ingredients from people who are passionate and skilled. There's no need to go furtherthan that. The essential step is eating well and putting love and attention on your food. This is about rejecting the technology food culture that has given us blue raspberry flavoring, cheese in a can, and Kraft avocado-free guacamole.

Doing so pushes American food culture in a better direction, largely rejecting a look-what-we-can-do infatuation with technology (molecular gastronomy saved for another time) and toward an emphasis on quality and good food. Regardless of anything else, this is a genuine revolution and may determine the most significant legacy of the local food movement -- and a glorious one it would be. A country that embraces meals as an opportunity to be exploited, to bring people together on a daily basis and not just at Thanksgiving or Sunday supper? That is worth striving for.