The Local Food Movement

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“I know that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire, I’ll never go any further than my own back yard. For if it isn’t there, I never really lost it.”
- Dorothy Gale (Wizard of Oz)

dorothy galeEat and drink local seems to be the meme everywhere you turn these days. It’s not so much that I disagree with this movement, it is that it has its limits, but the advocates for all things local don’t seem to know it. Local is not always better. Really, it isn’t.

I want hatch peppers from New Mexico, lobsters from Maine, Florida oranges, crawfish from Louisiana or Texas, and wine from an actual wine region. Don’t tell me all of those can be found in my backyard, because they can’t. Lake Erie was literally at the end of my street growing up and there may be no better tasting fish on earth than the Perch and Walleye that can be pulled from that lake. There are also crawfish to be had at the end of the aforementioned street, but I have never heard of any sane person eating them. Local ain’t always better.

At the risk of seeming to pick on the area where I grew up, Lake Erie also has some islands that are home to some very old vineyards. A cold glass of Pink Catawba on a hot Summer afternoon while sitting on Put-in-Bay might be a lot of fun, but that does not make it good wine. In fact, wine is produced everywhere these days, but that does not make it good. That said, some of the most amazing produce I have ever eaten came from my mother’s backyard, a neighbor, or local fruit stands in NW Ohio and SW Michigan.

And there is where the local movement gets it right. When it is good and local by all means get all that you can.  Understand that the Godmother of the buy local movement, Alice Waters, really can get the best of everything in her backyard. Her backyard contains some of the best seafood, produce, and wine that the world produces. Unless you live in her neighborhood yours probably does not. The trick is to find what your backyard does contain.

Produce, cheese, and most likely whatever the ethnic make-up of your town loves to eat is probably a good place to start. Then find ways to use other local ingredients in creative ways, all the while pushing local producers to do better. Support the folks who are doing it right, and shun the ones who don’t. I live on the Gulf, so that means the local seafood should all be top-notch, right? It isn’t.  We have to shop around to get the good stuff. It is surprising how many vendors sell shrimp that tastes like the garden hose that their suppliers used to keep them alive on the boat.

I have had good oysters down here, but never spectacular ones like I have had on the Pacific coast. Perhaps the Gulf waters are too warm, I don’t know. But my local oysters do not taste as good as the ones I have had in California. On the other hand, when I hit the local fish mongers I know that not only is my Red Snapper fresh, it really is Red Snapper.

Oh, and the local beer! When I was a fledgeling beer drinker, I thought that Texas beer was all about Pearl and Lone Star. What a mistake! Texas beer is amazing stuff. We have Shiner Bock and  St. Arnolds, among others, one of which will almost always be available in even the lowest dive bar or ice house. Local really can be better.

A couple of weeks ago we visited a local farmer’s market. This is a great place to find the wonderful things your local producers have to offer.  While I am not all that impressed with some of the locally grown produce that I have tasted, the meats and cheeses offered by these artisans was spectacular.

I think that the buy local movement gets a lot right, and I hope that their voices are heard by the masses. We should support the small farmer and local producers as much as we can. We should try all of the local delicacies, both in places where we live, as well as the places that we visit. But, just like the buy organic movement (among others), the problem is when education and advocacy becomes dogmatism. Insisting that everything local is better, or that everything organic is healthier and better, is wrong.

Every movement attracts its share of crackpots and hucksters. Sometimes even those adherents with the very best of intentions let their zealotry get the best of them. The buy local movement is no different.  The dogmatic certainty of the movement often leads to a backlash and gives opponents of the movement the opening they need to launch a successful counter-attack.

I love wine, I live in Texas, and they make quite a bit of wine in Texas. While I have not yet had any that I think qualifies as really good wine when compared to what I have had from many other places, I do keep an open mind about it and remain hopeful that I will find some eventually. However, a statement like that was once met with a response claiming that my palate had been ruined by drinking California wines. Stupid shit like that can make any movement jump the shark before it ever gets a chance to take hold. Don’t be that guy.

What it really boils down, for me at least, is to always try and seek out the best that life has to offer, and make damn sure that you don’t overlook anything that might be right next door, underfoot, or in your very own backyard. It might be as good, better, or just wonderfully different than what you can get somewhere else. Then again, maybe not…but you will know for sure.