Musings on the enigma of eating local

by Donna Schaper

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I like the word "local" just fine. But I also agree with Amanda Cohen, the chef at a magnificent vegetarian restaurant in lower Manhattan, when she says she can’t source everything locally -- and doesn’t want to source everything locally.

Cohen is the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, New York’s first vegetable-focused restaurant. Dirt Candy, which opened in 2008, touts that it was the first vegetarian restaurant in 17 years to receive two stars (equating to "very good") from The New York Times, and has received accolades from the Michelin Guide, Gourmet magazine and the Village Voice. A Canadian, she’s even written a graphic novel cookbook and competed as the first vegetarian chef on the TV show "Iron Chef America."

When it comes to local food, Cohen admires restaurants who put forth great time and effort to "be local." That’s just not her goal, she told New York Eater in an April 2015 interview.

"This restaurant's really just about serving vegetables. I still stand behind the fact that all our produce comes in boxes from somewhere, and it all tastes good," she said.

Last month, writing in an op-ed for The New York Times, Cohen said words like "local" and "seasonal" turn eating vegetables into a lifestyle statement, and "slam the door on people who don’t have access to local produce or who want to enjoy a lime in their gin and tonic in February." Eating local is great, she added, but she’d rather see more people embracing vegetables -- wherever they come from -- rather than worrying about the inferiority (be it taste or moral) of their shipped food.

"The fact is, we live in a post-seasonal world," she said. "The vast majority of our fruits and vegetables comes to us on trucks and planes from faraway farms, and everything is always in season somewhere. Make your peace with it."

With Cohen, I have learned to favor hybridity over purity. I have also learned to enjoy the global as much as the local. I even like the word "glocal" because I think it describes the city mouse and country mouse in all of us.

You know them, don’t you? The city mouse goes to visit his cousin in the country and is appalled at the food. The country mouse goes to visit his cousin in the city and is likewise appalled at the food. They are both serious parochialists, as the fabulist Aesop loves to show. They are both partial, longing for home while away and for away while home.

That’s often the way I travel, too: longing to get home once I’ve been gone a day or two, and after a day or two at home longing to get away. We humans are strange beasts, whether we stay pure like Aesop’s two mice or just remain unsatisfied wherever we are, like most glocalists.

I’d like to put in a good word here for glocalism, for an ability to live locally and globally at the same time. Why not? We can only tend our plot of land and hope that others will do the same. We can only pay attention to what Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, calls our circle of influence and not always get to our circle of concern. We can have concern for that which we can’t care for directly.

The Syrian refugee crisis is one example that shows us how. We ache for those displaced. We want them to be able to remain in place, in their homes. When they cannot stay wherever they are, for reasons beyond their control, we open our places to them. When refugee parents send their children to Turkey or Greece, some of us know we will be there to “catch” them. We are proud of the people who expand their place beyond their circle of influence into their circle of concern.

The same method can apply to the way we eat. In seeking the local in our food, we give greater thought to the ways and approaches our food is grown and brought to us. While we may live in a post-seasonal world, as Cohen says, we can find new appreciation for our foods and communities when we encounter diverse tastes at different moments throughout the seasons.

Cohen also said that the words "local" and "seasonal" make her die a little inside. And while that may be true for some of us, I’m betting it’s not for the Krumps.

You probably don’t know the Krumps. They were proud people who lived off dandelions in Adams County, Pa. I found them through my first job with the economic opportunity office in that county. My role was to wander the back roads of that beautiful county to find people who could qualify for food stamps. Now, we would call my work outreach and classify the Krumps as food insecure. At some farms where I would pull up, people actually got their gun out when I approached.

Not the Krumps, though. I gave them my pitch, and they laughed and laughed. 

"Why would we need food stamps?" they asked. "Would you care for a glass of our dandelion wine? Come see our freezer, filled with dandelion greens picked last spring." 

Next to the dandelions was the deer meat. They shot two deer a year -- Mrs. Krump did the shooting -- and lived off them and the dandelion greens and the dandelion wine. Now that is what I call locally sourced food.

If you ever visit Dirt Candy, be sure to order the brussel sprouts tacos. And if you happen to find the Krumps, have yourself some of their dandelion wine.  

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.]

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