Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What Eating Local Really Means

One of these things is not like the other…

Anna Wintour - Vogue magazine’s editrix-in-chief - made headlines earlier this month in an interview where she said, “I’d just been on a trip to Minnesota, where I can only kindly describe most of the people I saw as little houses.” In an bit of irony that says God loves Vogue as much as I do, Minneapolis/St. Paul was just named the second healthiest city in the nation, after Washington D.C. All jokes about The Devil Wears Cornbread aside, Ms. Wintour brings up an interesting point: the variability of food cultures, even within the same country. There is a huge coastal food divide in the US that nobody ever talks about.

California exports health & fitness advice like China exports lead-covered baby toys. And, most of the time, said advice is generalizable to the public at large. However, I sometimes think that all the personal trainers and health gurus forget that many of us don’t live in the land of eternal sunshine (A.K.A. the place where food actually grows on trees).

It’s not just that the tanned & toned ignore our inability to run outside in a -35 windstorm or the fact that the local grocery store thinks purslane is a new line of designer handbags made just for Target. It’s that they overlook the differences in the entire food culture.

The family that blowdrys together, stays together.

Coastal Culture vs. Midwest McDonalds
I moved to the Midwest from Seattle - a place where you can get organic produce at the farmer’s market year round and salmon right off the boat. (Oh and that nonsense about it raining all the time? Lies to keep all the rest of you from moving there. New York gets more rain than Seattle.) I never knew how good I had it until I moved out here and discovered tiny shrivelled apples on “sale” for $1.49/lb.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it here. People on the street actually meet your eyes and say hi. And not even just tin-foil hatted homeless crazies! Normal people will talk to you in the check out lane. Teenagers hold doors open for grandmas. There’s a playground on every corner. And the local honeycrisp apples, when they are in season, are the closest thing to Apple Heaven I’ve ever come (even if they do still sell for $2.49/lb). But. If I were to follow the current food craze to “eat local”, it’d be snow cones and sausage six months out of the year.

In addition to the physical limitations, there is also a prevailing food culture here. I hesitate to bring it up lest I conjure perverse images of Fargo or America’s Next Top Model and thus blaspheme against my new and much-loved home but it is the simple truth. The PTA here opens the year with a beer-n-brat tent. Almost every birthday party my children are invited to is in a fast food establishment. All fish comes fried. HOTDISH (read: casserole based around Campbell’s Cream-o-whatever) is the regional delicacy and shows up at every function. The schools hand out Pizza Hut certificates for reading, McDonald’s Happy Meals for math, and Culver’s Custard (ice cream) for playing sports. And we have one of the highest rates of drunk driving in the country.

As much as we like to believe in a TV-homogenized America, there simply is a difference between the way people on the coasts and people in the middle think about food. Disclaimer: the one place I’ve never lived is in the South, so I can’t speak to their food culture but I have been told that it is very distinct and about as far from the Cali-sushi-veg aesthetic as you can get and still stay in our borders.

Why is it that we can accept that the French have their own way of eating and the Italians and the Swedes and yet fail to see and appreciate the differences in their own country? I expect that some of you will answer (or at least think) “Well, it’s because the Europeans are trim and healthy whereas somebody better put you Americans out to pasture before milking time.”

And yet, Minneapolis is the second healthiest city in the nation for the 4th year in a row! That’s right, somehow it all balances out - the vicious weather, the McDonald’s birthdays, the freaking hotdish. We exercise indoors. We take vitamin D tablets. We eat a lot of frozen fruits and veggies. (Bonus: you don’t even need an extra freezer here! Just throw it out your back door.) We make it work but it ain’t the California way.

Is Dad a clergyman? Or a postal worker?? And what does Junior have against Mom?

What To Do?
Now that my rant is over, what’s a produce-loving girl to do? Well for starters there is Local Harvest - a nation-wide community that puts consumers into direct contact with the local food providers. It may not get me strawberries in February but it definitely opened my eyes to what is available (homemade grass-fed goat cheese anyone?).

Try a CSA (community supported agriculture). I just signed up with one and I think I’m in love. The way it works is you buy a share of a local farmer’s crop before the season starts. The farmer then delivers a bushel basket full of picked-that-day seasonal produce to you every week. True you don’t get to pick what ends up in your basket but, hey, you needed a reason to branch out past broccoli and carrots, right? It can also be affordable. My experience with my CSA last year wasn’t great but I haven’t given up all hope yet!

Grow your own. Even in our 1000-sq ft condo in Seattle, we grew tomatoes and strawberries in large pots. Gardening is the new black! I know you think you have a black thumb - I do too - but you really can’t mess up radishes, spinach and squash. Plus, it’s good exercise. My husband and I just planted our garden for this year and while we planted lots of fun stuff (6 different varieties of tomatoes!), I’m keeping my expectations low. I consider our garden a raging success if we get a handful of cherry tomatoes and cucumber the size of a pickle.

Anyone else noticed this difference in food cultures? What makes your local food special? What challenges do you have to overcome?

For more painfully yet hilariously awkward family photos, check out