Thursday, March 17, 2011

Let Me Tell You (again) Why I EAT LOCAL

I often get frustrated by local restaurants claiming they "buy local" and that they proudly supported local farms when that's actually a bit of an exaggeration.  Or by hearing people complain that the Whole Foods isn't stocking organic red bell peppers (in March?! Of course not!  It's March.  Why eat peppers, we have tons of kale?)  Or hearing people complain about Whole Foods in general.  We live in Tennessee.  Buy your food from your farmers.  I don't care what's in the produce section of the grocery store.  I eat what's in season and only what's in season.    I prefer to support the positive things happening in my community more than I like trying to find something wrong with a chain grocery store.  And there are a lot of positive things in our community.

And then I REALLY started thinking about it.  Buying locally and seasonally is HARD work.  It is as hard as farming, but on the other side.  It means buying from not only the several companies for dried goods, produce, and meat, but also juggling that between numbers and linen service and wait and kitchen staff.  It means having to change the menu very regularly to accommodate the seasonality of foods, of dealing with busy and sometimes quirky farmers.  It means several more invoices and checks.  It means having to use the WHOLE animal or plant instead of just the loins, breasts, or roots.  It means dirt and sweat.  It takes a buyer who is very emotionally invested in “making numbers work” to afford the more expensive cost of local food, even if those numbers are in your own home.  And most importantly, it requires a consumer base who is comfortable with eating a "house salad" in March that isn't served with the ever-present insipid tomato wedge.

...YOU (are the consumer base)

Again, of course, we aren't consumers, as Carlo Petrini pointed out.  We are co-producers and WE are creating this market that allows food retailers to make claims that, although may be the truth, are a very stretched truth.

One of my first kitchen experiences was when I was sixteen and spent a long weekend in the kitchen at Blackberry Farms.  “Ann,” the commisarian said, “one of the most important things to remember in this business is that if you start with shit, you’re going to end up with shit.”  Pardon his language, but it’s true.  And I can truly taste  it with my entire being, and not just the tastebuds.  That is the fruit of being a farmer's daughter-   years and years of eating fresh, seasonal, and carefully grown and produced food.  This is only a taste that is “acquired”, and it is acquired through very conscious financial and lifestyle decisions.  

And before you stop in your tracks and tag me as a “food snob,” would like to explain myself……

When I spend, and earn, my money I consider many things.  I think about WHO I support when I buy something.  I think about what impact it is having on all the environments around me- both my own personal one, and also the whole entire world’s.    I am particularly focused on food because that is what I am most passionate about.  But it can’t possibly stop at food.

When I go out to eat in a restaurant, for example, I am conscious of where my money is going.  Primarily I want it to go back into the community.  I want it to go to the local people who’s wages I help pay that cook and serve the food, clean the tables, dishes and linens.  I want it to go to the local business owner.  But if the buck stops there and starts being dispersed across the world to large corporations and “farms” that are out of my control and that I know nothing about, then I don’t want the buck to start.  I don’t want to support large industrial “farming” because I have heard enough about its horrors.  We all have.  We’ve all seen Food Inc., read Fast Food Nation, or have been exposed to something that illustrates the poor treatment of workers, animals, land, and the whole environment.  Just the fact that the food has been shipped hither and thither, and thus, in it’s small way, is contributing to the recent-enough oil spill in the Gulf, should be enough to turn around and plant some kale in our gardens.  “Cheap” food is only cheap for a very short window of time- mainly the moment you hand the money over.  The rest of the time it does some very expensive damage on community, culture, eco-systems, and all things small and wonderful.

When I eat I consider all the things listed here above and below, but of course, I also think of myself.  We all do.  We, as humans, and more specifically, Americans, can’t help but think of ourselves quite often.  We think about how pretty we look, how smart we seem, how funny we are, how successful.  And in order to do all those things at their up-most, we think about how healthy we are.  We run, we bike, we swim, we eat kale and garlic.  We make sure we are feeding ourselves correctly at all times.  Is there enough protein, EFAs, enough vitamin C, D, A or B?  A very nice added bonus to eating locally is that not only does it support the local economy, cut down on fuel usage, not support agro-monsters, etc, etc, etc, but it also makes us, our bodies, and our EGO feel good….

We need to be less greedy and more patient.  Our society has raised us to think that we can have everything we “want” at anytime.  And “want” has turned into just that- a word enclosed in parenthesis.   We don’t even WANT that grain-fed filet mignon from that unknown farmer.  We don’t want that vanilla infused sauce made with apricot nectar and chilies.  We just think we do, but we have gone so far from even understanding the meaning of WANT, much less the meaning of NEED.   WANT comes from expectation and desire, both very exciting features that come with being human.  Want comes from waiting.   A cucumber will never really taste good if you can walk in to the store any day and buy it.  It will taste good only when it is fresh off the local vine, still warm from the July sun.    

So what do we do?  How do we become conscious consumers that have the potential to change our local restaurant fare and prevent future oil spills? 

I was watching this DVD that Netflix recommended to me a few weeks ago about China. There was a little section on a village somewhere in Northern China, or maybe somewhere near or in Tibet.  Anyway, it was a very desolate place where small villages lived and grew their small little crops and went to little markets and all that quaint  and hard-knock stuff.  Then all of a sudden there was a screeching and squeaking and a huge flock of cranes moved in outside the village.  They ate some of the farmer’s grains, pooped all over the place, and made a huge ruckus.    And the farmers felt BLESSED.  The cranes were a symbol of good luck and the farmers welcomed them and allowed the cranes to incorporate themselves into the village.  This was shocking because in America, the land of plenty, the farmers would have SHOT the cranes, the consumers would have complained that they didn’t have as much grain as they wanted, that the birds were stinking up the place, and the whole community would have been in turmoil. 

Well, that’s nice to hear but what was important to me was that those people were still living, and happily at that.  What do we need so badly that we have to consume without thinking?  We have gotten ourselves into such a mess that it is almost too hard to live simply and wholesomely because we have obliterated the market.  Because the market won't exist until we, the co-producers, step up and ask for it.  We have to demand and participate in supporting seasonal, local food from our food retailers.  We have to be conscious of how much oil we use with every step and every bite.  The doesn’t mean that we have to stop stepping or biting, but that we should step more lightly and chew more thoughtfully- and maybe buy a diesel car so we can support the local bio-diesel producer.  And we can still subscribe to Netflix.

It is hard to buy local, but it shouldn’t be.  It is easy once we tell ourselves there are no other options, and even easier when the market grows to accommodate our demand.  The only change we will see will be made by us; by our own personal consumption and  the awareness that I, or you is not the most important.  Our healthy bodies are important, but they're only truly healthy if we are helping other healthy bodies thrive.  Always ask,  "Who grew that superfood?"

I think that food is the center point to everything- but that’s just because I think that.  I respect everyone’s beliefs, passions, interests, and goals that help towards making this world the place it should be.  Every step counts- and there are many many steps.  I take the wrong paths all the time, but try to stay steady on at least one.  If we make the choice to change one thing about our lifestyles, specifically one thing that we do EVERYDAY (like eat), it is surprising at how quickly the awareness of everything else follows.  We have collectively done a whole lot of damage.  The very important thing is to realize that and to collectively start to do a whole lot of good.  It may not make the flock of cranes come by, but if they do we should know enough to appreciate them.    We need to slooow down and really think about where we want to spend our time, what we want to choose to call our food,  what we should plant in our gardens, and where we buy our clothes.  Because every bit counts- from the first spring spinach leaf to the last beet green.  And fortunately for us Chattanoogans, there's a year round farmer's market for that.  (The Main Street Farmer's Market!)


Devouring the Seasons said...

I very much hear what you say, and it does resonate with me. My friend and I are likewise grapling with trying to eat locally whenever possible, while knowing that--at least in my case--it cannot be absolute.

I have two children with Celiac disease, which means no wheat...which means that we have to use rice many other nuts and grains, etc., for her flours.

We do have a garden, and we do frequent the farmers' markets, but I have had to acknowledge that, at least in my case, there are limitations.

I applaud your resolve, and your determination, and your enthusiasm. This is exactly what we need to be reminded of and, rest assured, to the degree possible, I am trying to follow your fine example.

~ Terri

Devouring the Seasons said...

Ms. Ann Tindell Keener, I just cheered, right out loud in my dining room. This is beautiful, inspired, and hit me right down to my core. I am posting a link to this on our facebook page. Bravo! You are doing great things with this blog. I have happy little chills.

(And how, oh how, do you convince your local farmers' markets to open up all year? We've got nothing like that here in the Tulsa area.)

Ann Tindell Keener said...

Thanks yall. I love hearing that kind of feedback. I totally understand the limitations. We are lucky enough here to have a farmer at the market who does heirloom corn for grits and meal, and he also does milo (sorghum flour so that would be really nice if I had Celiac's (which I very fortunately don't). He doesn't do any wheat so there is no danger of cross-contamination.

I'm not sure how we got a year long market. Just lucky I guess. And we've got a lot of good folks here who are willing to stand in the cold rain to get their kale and beef.
Eat well!

Ann Tindell Keener said...

P.S. By no means do I eat all locally grown and produced food. Just meat and produce and eggs. And grits and cheese. I still buy nuts and rice and noodles and all KINDS of things.

Devouring the Seasons said...

By the way, in case the "double comment" was confusing, apparently Terri and I both saw your post last night (in our own separate homes) and were both moved to comment... something we figured out when we met up today and started talking. :) So, in case you're wondering if Devouring the Seasons is possibly schizophrenic, rest assured that, no, there are in fact two of us. And we both just happen to love your blog. ;)

Also, thanks for noting that you don't eat exclusively local... I think people sometimes panic when they start trying to figure out how to do the local thing. And I think the important thing is just to start wherever you can and expand as you go, as you're able to. I think I'll always buy olive oil and coffee, for example. And they just don't grow rice (which will remain a staple in my home) everywhere.



Devouring the Seasons said...

Whew, that's a relief. Thankful that I can now stopped feeling so woefully inadequate! ;)

Thankful that you are taking the time to share your inspiring message and letting us all come along for the ride!


tut-tut said...

we are so lucky to have the Main Street Farmers Market here. I've been coming the past few weeks, and am amazed at the array and beauty of what is for sale and how many farmers roll up for the event. I have planned my errands downtown to coincide with 4 on Wednesday, so it all works!

(re: chain groceries: I liked GLife much better when it was independent . . .)

Laura said...

Hey Ann, just read your post. I love reading what you have to say - it's inspiring and passionate, and it reaffirms so many wonderful things. Thanks for writing. You could tell us again and again why you eat local, and I don't think it would never get old.