The L Word

This article is about rediscovering the meaning of the word “local” (with reference to food), with the good possibility of a few tangents. I look at the word, and ask myself what it means to me. I am sure this meaning will continue to transform. We may throw the L world around a lot, but it’s meaning is still alive and growing.

Cook It Raw. An annual event. Learning, exchanging, risk-taking, meaning, nature, consciousness…..this is what is it about. Not business, commerce, selling-out, making a quick buck. It appears to me that this event called  Cook It Raw, is about fostering art, humanity, understanding, professional and personal growth. Below is a video about the event held Japan, Ishikawa Prefecture, 2011.

What is it that makes this event so intriguing to me? I think it’s the ability to learn and to make mistakes. It’s the collaboration involved. It’s the gathering of minds and passion. It’s the POSSIBILITY that this represents, and the magic it can create. Innovation, creation…..

The last time I truly felt something like this was when I spent one week living on a farm outside of San Diego, with a group of NYU students. Don’t get me wrong, communal living was extremely challenging for me. I appreciate my alone time, and the ability to be with myself and figure out how I feel, and in living side by side with twenty other people for one week, I wasn’t quite sure how to balance the social and the introspective needs I had. I think I could do a much better job with it now, given that I feel more self-aware now than I was then. But we collaborated on every meal. We worked together and volunteered together and shared bunk beds. But the most amazing part was coming together at the end of the work week to create shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath and day of rest, and make a time of relaxation and spirituality. We formed committees: food, spiritual, cleaning and decorating, I believe they were, and each was important to making the Friday sundown to Saturday sundown a break from the rest of the week. A special time when the house was filled with flowers and foraged plants, cleaned up from the sand and mud our boots trudged in, and filled with song and opportunities for playing together or praying and meditating silently, as well as delicious traditional and creative foods gathered partially from what was growing and being cultivated on the farm. Working together, having a goal in mind, and lots of minds set on it, made that beautiful experience happen.

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The time before that, I felt this sense of togetherness, understanding and creativity at Terra Madre, an international Slow Food conference about six years ago in Torino. Thousands of people in one area for a week, dedicated to the common pursuit of appreciating diversity…in culture, tradition, ecology, food, music….this was not about all being the same. It was about having a common appreciation of difference. And that is where innovation, solution, and even art come from.

I was having a conversation with co-workers, co-cooks, about “local” and “artisanal” as terms that are thrown around lately pretty easily. Local seems to be easily understood, and desirable as an adjective that describes the food served in a restaurant. Everyone seems to want local food. I realized that I was not even aware of how much of the food we serve in the restaurant where I work is local. Local meaning from New England, and sometimes meaning from Martha’s Vineyard. A lot of our food could be considered local, and this will increase in the summertime when more produce is growing on Martha’s Vineyard and in New England. Even the tomatoes we have in right now, which we got in for our Easter brunch menu, are from a greenhouse in Maine…relatively local, at least compared to Mexico or California. But SO WHAT? What does it mean, to me, that we can call these foods local, if I still cannot visualize where they are coming from, or if I do not know who is growing them or raising the animals? Without the visceral, sensory knowledge of the “local” locales, what the heck does local even mean?

I brought in a chicken from the Good Farm last week, and we cooked it in the restaurant. That is Local. The farm is a mile from my house. I’ve been there plenty of times. I’ve asked questions about the chickens, how they live, the breed, what they are fed. I know and like the farmers. They are part of my community. They care about this community. Supporting them means strengthening this very community where I live, and ensuring that people who care about the wellbeing of this land and these people continue to grow and produce our food. Local, to me, is about relationships, it is about a sense of place, it is about taking care of one another and of the place and land itself. It is not just a cool word. And this feeling, this sense about the meaning of local, has never felt more real than it does to me now that I live on Martha’s Vineyard, where I have the opportunity to know the people who grow our food. And to forage for some of it myself, and hopefully grow some of it, as well.

The word “local” may go into oblivion. It may become so overused as a food adjective that it becomes worn out and unrecognizable, like my stuffed-animal bunny-rabbit named Amalthia, that I have had and loved for so many years. In episode one of Portlandia, the two main characters about to order at a restaurant are unsatisfied by the waiter’s simplistic description of the chicken as “local”. It’s a satire, sure, but they want to know who raised the bird, what it ate, if it was happy, what it’s name was! They then leave the restaurant to go to the farm and see it before deciding whether or not to order it. In a way, it’s making fun of the hipster urban crowd that is so moralistic about it’s food choices, but really has no real connection to the farms or to agriculture. It is this moral-high-ground mentality of people who can afford to live and eat according to an ethos, rather than eat according to their budget or their culture or traditions. An obsession with eating local food has become the topic of parody because–why? Why may be the essential question. WHY do we want to eat “local” food? What does it mean to each one of us? And no one need answer that out loud, and everyone may have a different reason.

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It seems important, for my own authenticity, that I ask myself why “local” matters to me. It feels important to me to look at this word that has become such a superstar hotshot word, and dissect it a little. Because I can imagine a world in which all the people who can afford to go eat in the cool restaurant turn to the waiter who says, “and it’s all from local farms”, and then these people, like the little green aliens in the claw- machine in toy-story, echo “ooohhhh, locallll” and smile in consent. Without knowing why the heck they might be happy that the food is local when they are visiting, say, Jamaica, from New York or Martha’s Vineyard. What do they know of that local culture, and by knowing that the food is local, what do they know of the relationships that get that farm’s food into that restaurant, or the personalities of the people who grow that food and how they treat the land and the animals and whether or not they work with integrity and treat their employees well?

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So I guess that, to me, the fact that our tomatoes come from Maine and not from Mexico doesn’t mean that much, although it does make me assume that in that greenhouse business in Maine, the employees are well-paid, and not taken advantage of. That the cost of that tomato was probably higher than one picked by migrant laborers down south, or Mexicans working for a corporation in Mexico. However, I have thought about the idea of boycotting supermarket tomatoes that may have been picked by migrant laborers like those in the film La Cosecha, who work for almost nothing, who live transient, unsettled lives, and whose children have to work instead of get an education in school just to help the family survive. Having anger toward those tomatoes, or toward restaurants who buy and serve those tomatoes, doesn’t do anything to better the lives of the people picking those tomatoes. Turning out noses up and saying, “I won’t eat that tomato, because it’s only April and so it must come from across the country, and how can this restaurant carry tomatoes in winter?! Uch!” well, saying that doesn’t really help anyone either, does it?

I can keep writing now, but will not necessarily come to the solution. It seems like being politically active and aware of situations is helpful. Knowing only that something is local and judging it “good”, or not local and judging it “bad”, does not do much of anything, nor does it necessarily describe the truth or goodness of the product accurately. The topic becomes HUGE. Well, I don’t like the non’local tomato because maybe it was picked by migrant laborers who don’t get paid enough, therefore I won’t buy it. But if I don’t buy it, somebody else will and those migrant laborers will still be working for nothing. And if no one buys it, then these migrant laborers won’t have any work at all, and will make even less money than they do being migrant laborers. So I guess the only way to make use of my disdain for this tomato in winter in New England is to get involved, and demand that migrant laborers get paid more….and then in that case, maybe I will buy their tomatoes. But only if they stop spraying so many pesticides on them….and so on and so on.

Getting involved politically is a good idea. But for me, as someone who works in a restaurant, and hopefully will some day have my own, and as someone who shops for food in my own house, local makes me happy when I can drive from the farm to my house or restaurant with the food. When I can see how it is grown and talk to the farmers, and actually be friends with them, ideally. Otherwise, local does not mean a whole lot to me, and I buy plenty of food, especially in winter, that is not local, that I don’t know where it’s coming from. And then, my filter becomes about whether it’s organic or not, or whether it’s raised without hormones or antibiotics. If I can’t go to the farm, I have to trust those words (organic, hormone-free, antibiotic-free), those labels, because that’s all I’ve got, that’s all the knowledge I’m equipped with.

So is there anything to end with? Well, there is this….Cook It Raw seems cool because it gives the chefs the chance to not only cook with local ingredients, but to be emerged in the setting of those ingredients, and to go gather, forage, hunt, fish those ingredients themselves or with the people who are locals of that place.

And there is the question that helps bring more authenticity into my life, and maybe you, if you are reading anyone, would like to ask it too. What does local food mean to me? What does it matter?

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