Elbert Hubbard wrote, “If I had but two loaves of bread, I would sell one of them and buy white hyacinths to feed my soul.” And so it is with the appetites and with essential human nourishment; we hunger not only for calories, but also for things impalpable and out of reach, things familiar and unknown, sentimental and self-destructive.
Until I was an adolescent, my eating habits were notoriously particular. “I don’t like that kind of tuna,” I’d whine to my aunts as they passed around a heaping platter of sandwiches made with tuna salad mashed onto pappy white bread. I disliked the
smell and texture of canned tuna: fishy, mealy and waterlogged. This wasn’t tuna as I knew it—not the shimmering whole bluefin we grilled on special occasions at home in the Middle East. There were no bones in this creamy, sloppy sandwich spread; no rich, greasy mouthfuls; no deliciously charred skin.
“Eat only those foods that spoil, or rot, or decay, but eat them before they do,” Dr. EV McCollum of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health says. Years after I had learned to tolerate tuna salad, I started college in the US, where I experienced combined apprehension and fascination with my first cafeteria-style meal, wherein I mistook a tray of 80 identically anemic, boneless, skinless chicken breasts for tofu, having never set eyes on either product before. When we consider a locavore lifestyle, our culture of plenty can wind up butting heads with practical and economic reality.
When I look at the bland, extremely local diet my father adhered to for 20 years whilst growing up in the deep brown throat of the Arabian Gulf, I can’t blame him for choosing a more varied meal plan now that he has the choices at his fingertips. A repetitive diet of fresh fish, dates and the occasional glass of camel milk taken in the blistering heat is nothing that he, I, nor anyone in either of our generations would care to adopt. But now that the pendulum has swung too far from the source, today’s Emirati nationals are suffering from the worlds highest rate of Type 2 diabetes. It is a somewhat predictable outcome to not only the country’s accelerated urban development but also to the people’s lack of enthusiasm for preserving food traditions and customs. Nobody wants to eat that way
anymore. And the loss of food contributes to the loss of customs and the death of culture.
Author Gary Paul Nabhan, PhD, (Coming Home to Eat) has written and commented extensively on the topic of eating locally for a year within a 250-mile radius of his home in Arizona. Like me, he credits his first visit to his ancestral homeland with his initial awakening: “At last, in Lebanon, it became poignantly, perhaps painfully, evident to me that the kinds of food I eat and who I’ve shared them with say more or less everything tangible about how I’ve lived. They mark how ethereally remote or how bodily close I’ve been to the land, the sea, and to the labors of the harvest at various points in my life.”
Last month, I found myself in a dark and snowy Eastern European city in the Balkans describing Slow Food’s raison d'être to some new acquaintances. In the shadow cast by the meal we had just eaten, most of which had seen the inside of a can due to thrift and necessity, I sat and imagined that I could read their minds: “Urban haute bourgeois” was what I feared they were thinking.
Days earlier, I sat mesmerized in previously communist Estonia as friends told of the experiences they’d had during childhood, waiting in line as children for a hand of bananas—also known as the world’s most popular (and well-traveled) fruit—and describing the heartbreak at being given green ones that would need to sit ripening for a few more days. I was reminded of the dreary, drunken forests of the Canadian Arctic, where I once wandered grocery store aisles lined with non-perishables like Crisco, Kraft peanut butter and sardines, only to find a produce section containing nothing but green bananas.
As I write this, I am eyeing a particularly lovely Cavendish banana on my countertop and recalling the worldwide ridicule elicited by European Commission Regulation 2257/94, which stated that all bananas must be at least 14 centimeters in length and “free of abnormal curvature.” Clearly, there is a sizeable gray area between making better choices and, well, going bananas.
“Making better food choices doesn’t require hours spent reading labels or rigid adherence to any particular diet,” Peter Singer and Jim Mason write in The Way We Eat. One thing that often gets neglected in the rush to celebrate local foods is the need to start thinking in terms of smaller larders and less supermarket shopping.
Do we question why so much local meat rides around for thousands of miles before it ends up in our markets anyway? Here in New Mexico, our ranchers are raising incredible grass-fed beef that doesn’t ever make it to places like the Santa Fe Farmers Market. If consumers question the perils of plenty, they will have to start recognizing the merits of delayed gratification; not everything is instant. Consider investing in a large freezer and perhaps buying a half or a quarter of a whole animal, then sharing the cost with neighbors and learning to cook with its different parts.
But today, items imported from a distance can be key contributors to nutritional and cultural value as well. Two non-local producers I am particularly fond of include Iowa’s La Quercia for artisan cured meats and the Bay Area’s Rancho Gordo for beans. Rancho Gordo farmer/founder Steve Sando began working with Mexico’s Xoxoc on the Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project, which “helps small farmers continue to grow their indigenous beans in Mexico, despite international trade policies that seem to discourage genetic diversity and local food traditions.” That’s terrific, but what I really love are Sando’s beans, which are the best I’ve had, anywhere, ever. There’s an $8 flat rate in shipping costs, so partner with a friend or two and order lots, immediately.
In other words, the local/seasonal/organic/sustainable mantra is not a viable option for everyone. But a more interesting question is whether, when given the option, food patriotism is invariably the better choice. The local food movement, though a collaborative effort to develop better local, self-sustaining food economies, is paved with good intentions, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the only road to heaven.