Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Locavore's Dilemma

So, somethin's been on my mind for quite awhile and I can't hold off any longer.

I get "accused" of being so serious about local food that it is slightly intimidating.   I always make up excuses like: well, that's just my thing, everybody's got to have somethin', or I'm not serious at all, I just sound serious....

I'm not serious.  Except that I am.  My mother tells me Just tell them you can't help it, Ann, you're a farmer's daughter.  You don't know how else to eat.

That is partially true.  But I haven't always been a farmer's daughter.  In fact, out of the twenty-four years that I've been alive I have lived on a farm for less than half of them.  I have always been the guy who is now the farmer's daughter but that farmer hasn't always been a farmer.  I grew up (til I was 10) in cities and I clearly remember eating button mushrooms from the grocery store out of those little green boxes that aren't quite Styrofoam, but aren't plastic either.   I even remember, as a spurge, eating ground beef that had been packaged in that same toxic looking container.   I didn't know what a chicken (probably either dead or alive) looked like and I thought all cows were brown like the ones I'd seen in roadside pastures in north Georgia.  I definitely did not grow up in any huge cities or in the middle of concrete and high rise apartment buildings.  As long as I can remember my parents have had a garden, and I certainly knew the meaning of Raspberry Season.   But we were not farmers.  We didn't eat entirely in season all the time then, nor were we near as conscientious about the origin of our meat.  If we ate beans and rice a lot, it was more because it cost less than because it wasn't meat.   My brother Kelsey and I each cooked one meal a week, and I remember Kelsey's better than mine, because it turned into a kind of family joke.  Kelsey always made tacos.  I cooked the meat, heated up those hard corn shells in the toaster oven, washed and tore apart the lettuce, put the sour cream in a little bowl, dumped the jarred salsa into another.  Kelsey shredded the cheese.  He did a really good job.

But that lettuce was from the Red Food or Red Lion or whatever that was called across the street on Brainard Rd.  The meat probably was too.   The cheese was orange.

"Taco Night" does not, by the way, reflect my parents cooking.  They are both really good cooks, (in their separate ways) and we ate a lot better than that most nights.  I learned to love indian, Japanese, Chinese, and big-pot-of-everything stew from my father.  My mother made us breakfasts of pancakes, oatmeal, and toasted homemade bread.  My lunches were always packed with peanut butter (the kind that you have to stir up before you can use it), raisin, honey sandwiches, and carrots cut into sticks and put in washable containers.  (How I wished to be sent with a little bag of chips, a white-bread, American cheese, baloney sandwich, and damn baby carrots in a plastic baggie I could throw away.  Alas....  I was nigh fourteen before I even knew what most of that stuff tasted like- and I wasn't as impressed as I hoped to be)  We always ate dinner together and I can still say that black beans and brown rice is my favorite meal. 

Of course, by the time I was really cooking I was a farmer's daughter.    That is what made cooking fun and that is why I still love it.  I could play and play and play with food (sometimes resulting in disasters and ruining forever my mother's taste for mint...) until I had figured out exactly what went with what and why it tasted so good (or terrible).   So now, I guess, seasonal eating is ingrained in me.  It's part of the way I cook; it's why I love to eat.

I believe that our pallet can change.  As hard as my parents tried to keep us healthy and growing children, I would never go back to the way I ate when I was little.  I could never eat those dry, tasteless California carrot sticks again.  Why should I? I now know what a REAL carrot tastes like.   And it's not like I've been enlightened or anything. All the old, tired, out of season "grocery store stuff" just doesn't taste good anymore.  My pallet has just grown used to what I've been passing by it- the seasonal, local stuff.  I can tell by tasting it whether produce is local or not, or whether the eggs are truly free-range.

So I just said that, and I was getting ready to apologize for sounding like such a "snob".  I recently read Barbra Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  I really loved it.  She writes to the "common folk" about WHY she ate entirely locally for a year and why she will now continue to do so (to an extent).   I put off reading it for so long because I wrongly thought there wasn't anything new in it that I didn't already know.  Yeah, I already knew about the seasons of things, why to support local farms, ect.  But the book is way too entertaining to NOT read, and I learned a lot about other stuff....

Anyway, in her book I found her apologizing for wanting to make her own cheese.  She excused herself as being crazy, a fanatic, going too far.  And I thought "why?".  She grows her own garden, she cans her own tomatoes, she stock-piles grated zucchini in her freezer.  Why is she apologizing for making cheese?

And then I realized I do that all the time.   I am constantly going around telling people- it's ok, you don't have to be like me, I'm totally crazy.    Sorry, just because I don't eat bananas, you don't have to not, I'm not really that serious, I just sound like it, I'm a fanatic, I'm JUST CRAZY.

And then, last night I was cooking for a little potluck.  I had come home from the Main Street Farmer's Market the evening before laden down with good stuff- shiitakes, lamb sausage, kale, collards, lettuces, grits, eggs, cheese.... I was trying to figure out what to cook because one of the eaters was a vegetarian and didn't eat dairy.  I wanted to do cheese grits with kale and shittake, but just settled for herbed grits sin queso, con shiitake and kale.   But I thought, hey wait a minute.  That was super easy.  And it cost me about five dollars.  And twenty minutes.  And I didn't use one un-local thing except garlic.   And then I thought, hey wait a minute.  How come somebody can go around being pretty much a vegan and get respected and "catered" to, but if I want to eat food that's only grown by local farms I'm crazy (?!). 

I can't just say, when someone offers me, in March,  grilled cantalope wrapped in prosciutto, "O, I can't eat that, I'm a locavore."  I have to either be polite and say, no thank you, or lie and say I'm a vegetarian.  Both work just fine, but sometimes it's nice to tell the whole truth.

Mike and I were out at a new Mexican restaurant last night (I won't make any excuses. Yes, I go to "Mexican restaurants" sometimes and no, I don't know the farmer who grows that watery shredded lettuce.  Anyway, this one had been recently "reviewed" by a certain Chattanooga publication as good, and it just opened up really close to my house).  The point is, I was trying to figure out if there was anything on the menu that was vegetarian, or could be made to be, other than what was in the teeny option list, so I asked the waiter.  Unfortunately when he asked if we were vegetarians Mike took the liberty to explain that no, we aren't vegetarians, we just only eat meat that is from animals we know.  If they were interested in buying locally grown meat then we knew a few farmers we could put them in touch with and THEN we would eat the meat served in the restaurant.   "So," the waiter said, "you aren't vegetarian?"  Mike said no and I said YES- just tell me what you can make with just beans!   The waiter then went on the say that their fajitas were really good (I knew that, I'd read it in the review) and that we could chose beef, chicken, or pork, and ran back to the kitchen to give us more time.  The confusion was not due to a language barrier, unless it was our english-vs-the english where you have to say you're a vegetarian in order to not eat meat.

Needless to say we settled on the bean and cheese and potato or something or other combo and learned our lesson, yet again:  you can't go out to eat if you expect to eat as well as you do at home. 

There is nothing harder about being a "locavore" than there is a vegetarian or vegan.  For the most part, I am no different from those ways of eating.  I make my choices based on the food I like to eat, what tastes good, and health, ethical, and environmental reasons.   It takes no real effort and I couldn't tell you about the cost.  I am sure my cost of eating is much lower than some people's because my dining-out experiences are very very restricted by my food choices.  I also spend more money on food than I do on any other "luxury".  As I told someone the other day- I don't have cable tv, I just braise beef short ribs for fun.  I love to cook because I love to eat and I love to eat because I love the food I use.  I don't really think that's too crazy.....

Trust me, I have much more to say on this topic.  But I will keep it to that for now.  I won't apologize for how I eat. I will say that I understand that the way I eat is a conscious decision and it helps a whole, whole lot to be a farmer's daughter (and a farmer's sister).  It just tastes so good.


Becca said...

Ann, I love reading your blog! I hope to make efforts to eat more local, but alas, I am lazy. It can be a slow process though, right?

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on food. It's so important but it's often not something we actually try to think about.

Your Tate friend,

anne said...

Hey Ann, Love your blog. I am excited to try making the stuffed collards. They were my fav at the great dinner you put on the other night at the Legs.
I am having a Proprioceptive Writing workshop this weekend and there a few spots left. I can offer it to you at half price,$75, if you are still interested. It starts Friday 6-8:45. Let me know ASAP if you are interested. Thanks, Anne Bright

Carli said...

My favorite quote ever- "I don't have cable tv, I just braise short ribs for fun".

Wish I'd thought of this!