Monday, November 9, 2009

Tony Bourdain, Alice Waters and that whole Local Food Thing...

I had a great time Saturday night.

I got to hear one of my heroes, Anthony Bourdain. Now, those of you who know me personally, and even those who know me primarily through this blog, might be shocked to hear me call Bourdain a hero. As he said himself, partway through the evening, "I'm no role model".

Well, not in the traditional sense, no.

If you're offended by language, he's not your man. If the fact that he's made some really poor choices over his lifetime, um, yeah, not a good role model.

The thing I love about Anthony Bourdain, though, is that he always, always, always leaves me thinking. And he's honest. Even brutally so, even maybe over the top for effect sometimes, but the honesty is refreshing in today's world, and maybe especially in the kingdom of upper echelon foodies. He also admits when he's screwed up. I admire that.

Apparently, he's been having an ongoing conversation with Alice Waters in his head.

One of the reasons he's been seen as a bad boy in the food world is that he's picked on Alice and many others who are "doing good". Now, on the other hand, he's also clear that he doesn't have problems with everything about Waters or just about anyone else (except maybe Sandra Lee).

What seems to disturb Bourdain is the "all or nothing" attitude that can exist in the local food movement. He had a conversation with Alice in his head that I've actually had myself: "Easy for you to say everything can be local - you live in Berkeley!"

Bourdain took it one step further and asked her, in his head, "And what are the folks on the Upper Peninsula supposed to eat in the winter?" and answered it, humorously, with Alice responding that there are "lovely rutabagas, turnips, carrots," to which Bourdain responds, "So they should eat like Russian peasants?"

Well, I've lived in Soviet Russia in winter, and yes, that's pretty much what the grocery stores carried. And yes, everyone put up their own vegetables in the summer, and jams and all those things our grandparents did, and it worked, to a great extent, but then there's the person I talked to Saturday morning.

He works in Ann Arbor and commutes to his family farm in Manchester. He's not in the business of farming; he's in the business of feeding his family through this farm. He was very excited to grow many, many tomato plants this year. He had visions of eating his put-up tomatoes throughout the winter.

As anyone in our area can guess, however, that didn't happen.

This was the summer of the tomato blight.

He harvested a whopping 22 tomatoes, all of which his family devoured.

We got on this subject because we were talking about two meals we'd prepared that week with almost all local ingredients, but we'd both ended up using a can of San Marzano tomatoes when it came down to it, because no, we didn't have our own.

Bourdain also talks about the fact that when he was actually at Chez Panisse, one of the co-chefs was in rapture over some beautiful vegetables from a special farm and wanted Bourdain to return the enthusiasm. Bourdain sort of did a double-take, as these vegetables were from a farm in the San Diego area, six hours by truck. As he put it, "How sustainable is that?"

Another of my "local" experiences this week was taking part in a highly-enjoyable and oh-so-delicious cook-off and potluck by Slow Food Huron Valley. Yesterday afternoon about 50 people actually came inside on a gorgeous day to share pasta with toasted pumpkin seeds and butternut squash puree, Three Sisters stew, pumpkin-buttermilk ice cream, John Savanna's famous Lithuanian Rye (which you haven't tried, you REALLY should), fabulous borscht, etc., etc.

I had decided that I'd enter what are usually my (well, if I do say so myself) pretty darned good Apple Maple Corn Muffins, but I was going to go ALL local - no vanilla, no cinnamon, no salt (my exception was a little bit of baking soda, because they call for buttermilk and I needed that for the leavening). Well, those omissions, plus some not very good local maple syrup, which shall remain nameless, turned my usual delightful bites of Sunday morning goodness into dull, chewy "good-for-you" lumps of ... well, let's just say I didn't enter them.

So Bourdain's point? Food is to be enjoyed. The local movement is good, humane animal care is good, organics are good - why? Because things taste better. Because, yes, it's good for the earth. It's good for local economies. It's good for your body. But really? Things TASTE better.

So here's my question for you - are you all or nothing on this? Do you care about local foods/agriculture/sustainable practices? And if so, how do you incorporate these practices in your life?

I know for myself, I'm not as consistent as I'd like to be, and that will be the subject of another post, as this one is already way too long.

Part 2 will concern the art of being a guest and risk-taking: another subject near and dear to my heart.

Also, just cause it's Music Monday, here's a little music for your Monday (see Soccer Mom in Denial to see who else is playing): Arrested Development's "Children Play with Earth" (press on the Lala button at the top of the page).


thailandchani said...

Admittedly, it's not a priority for me. I buy most of my food at Trader Joe's. At least here in an urban area, it's often quite a substantial hassle to get to the "local food" places. It's not a roadside stand. It's often in the middle of the downtown area with no parking and horrendous crowds.


Brian Miller said...

we try to buy local as much as we can...though we do buy plenty otherwise. fresh food does taste so much better. ate a country breakfast at my friends farm this weekend...everything from their own was amazing. i think my boys want a farm now. smiles.

Spencer said...

I am not all-or-nothing. I try to source locally when I can. I recognize that there are some things (cinnamon, coffee) that will never be local. But those have been shipped long distances for centuries, because of their special nature. For me, the issue is *commodities* that are made locally, but are shipped from far away to suit the convenience of some corporate structure. For example, I will *never* buy apples from Washington State here in Michigan.

As to salt: a friend brought back some "Windsor salt" from Canada. I'm not sure, however, how "local" that actually is, because the parent company is headquartered in Quebec. :-(

Madam Crunchypants said...

I live far enough north that I can't be 'all or nothing', or I would also be eating like a Russian peasant from about mid-September through at least May (as mid-May is when you can put a garden in up here without risking frost death).

I do, however, utilize my local farmer's market as much as possible while it is running, and recently we've had a produce 'chain' open that carries primarily locally sourced vegetables. Fruit is another story completely. We get a variety of berries this far north, and that's it - so all our fruit is not within the 100 mile limit of supposed sustainability.

Jen said...

Chani, it's interesting you mention this, because this is exactly what one of my farmer friends and I were discussing yesterday at the potluck. He's appalled because he has food rotting in the fields and just can't get it out to people, and our local food banks don't have the resource to come out to pick it up. We're trying to figure out some distribution system. You're talking about something different, of course, but it's still true that it's often very difficult to find fresh, local produce and other food goods in urban settings.

Brian - do you think they'll get one? I agree that there's nothing like fresh, and I also feel that our country's roots were agricultural and we might do better to head back in that direction, in terms of small family farms.

Spencer, you sound like you're right where I am. I do all my weekly shopping via farmers market (what I don't get from my hodgepodge of CSAs) and then I supplement from there. It's funny, because someone later mentioned they thought there was some "Michigan salt" too - um... I'd want to know from WHERE, you know? ;-)

Thalia - it's interesting to get your perspective on this, too, given your unique situation. Again, doing some is better than doing nothing... and I sometimes succeed better when I'm not being fanatic at something. At the same time, I'm always wondering if I can be doing more.

Ben said...

I find very difficult to be part of the movement because local organic food is, unfortunately, very expensive. No wonder why this is the only country where the poor people are fat and the rich skinny, LOL.

And I'll never be "all-or-nothing" because I love my Mexican food and tropical fruits. The battle I'd love to fight would be of renewable energy so bringing all that delicious food here wouldn't pollute so much.

Jen said...

That's a good point, too, Ben. I tend to look at larger earth issues, but also nutrition and supporting what's around you. I think I have more awareness of that in Michigan now, than ever before.

It's part of the reason I put this out here - I was curious to hear what people would say.

soccer mom in denial said...

Completely off the point of your post (which was fascinating ) - yeah for Music Monday! Double yeah for Arrested Development!!

the twins said...

i love anthony bourdain and i'm so jealous you got to see him! i love the idea of eating locally, but i'm just a poor college student so i buy whatever's cheapest. i do most of my shopping at trader joe's, so i do end up with some organic stuff at least.

Leslie said...

I'm definitely not all or nothing. We try to buy local when we can. It's a priority, but not above our budget.

Jen said...

SMID - I so agree. And I've always loved this particular song, because I think it's right what we all need to hear.

Twins - I know - it's interesting to me that you and Chani had similar responses and you both live in urban areas. TJ's is often my go-to for non-local because I can get things cheaply there and then I can afford other things. OTOH, I'm going to posting some menus here that are $3/under per serving made with almost all local ingredients. You can get some great deals at the Union Square market and it's within walking distance of TJ's. ;-) I'm going to send you a link of a blog that's been started by some U of M students about this very topic - eating locally as college students.

Leslie - I hear ya! See my comments to the twins.

the twins said...

Jen-you're right. very interesting link, thanks! we do some of our shopping at the farmers market, it definitely is cheap if you're buying fruits and vegetables. we tend to buy the fruits and veggies at trader joe's just because we're already there to buy other stuff, but we will try to walk across to the farmer's market more often now =)

Karen Olson said...

We shop at the local farm market. We buy happy eggs from happy chickens. But this time of year, the farm market goes dark and we have to buy any produce at all from the local Stop n Shop. We do buy meat from a local butcher. It does taste better. We try to eat as healthy as possible, but sometimes we have to give a little.

peter said...

I make exceptions all the time, but not for meat, eggs, dairy, and as many fruits and vegetables as possible. I think you're absolutely right about local tasting better, and also about 100% local sometimes being the culinary equivalent of a hair shirt.

I think it's a question of degrees; we should all do what we're willing/able to, but most importantly to have the issue always present in our minds when we shop. A small shift by millions will make a big difference.

Joel said...

Thanks, Jen, for articulating a dilemma that's often played through my mind: it's easy to act like a saint when you're never confronted by temptation and never have to make a resource-constrained spending decision. Most of us live otherwise...

My turf is more wine than food -- and though I'm perpetually exploring the locally-produced models, I'd never make the suggestion that the only appropriate wines for a Michiganian come from the Wolverine state -- or California, France, and Australia, for that matter.

Elizabeth Palmer said...

Jen, fabulous post. I love Bourdain as well and really wanted to come out to the talk but couldn't make it. It's very timely that you write this, because I have been working on some writing that deals with similar issues - these things are all important to me, but I must say that the "all or nothing" approach, while it may work for some things (like all fresh meat and none spoiled) is, well, difficult some of the time and downright limiting at others. I try to use as much local and organic food as possible all the time when I cook, but that is a decision based on overall health; my own, whoever I'm cooking for, and the environment, not to mention local business - so I think the important part is the commitment to that philosophy and trying to walk the walk as much as possible without painting yourself completely into a corner.

anno said...

I try. We generally buy locally-raised beef, lamb, chicken, and eggs; the potatos we grow supply us from June until March; and during the summer we rarely buy produce from the grocery store.

Come winter, though, it's a different story... although I am pretty adamant about not buying the cardboard strawberries from California we see around here in late January, I sometimes succumb to the sweeter, juicier berries that arrive a few weeks later from Florida. And... give up Clementines (or parmesan reggiano) just because we can't produce them here? No way!

Sounds like a provocative talk -- looking forward to part two.

Momisodes said...

Like you, I'm not as consistent as I would like. Especially during the harsh, cold winter months here when it's difficult to go out and I feel the need to stock up on supplies at home. But I do feel buying and supporting local food is important. It does taste better.

Maggie said...

First I want to say how jealous I am of your opportunity to hear Bourdain! I don't always agree with everything he spouts but I find his books and other commentary tremendously entertaining. And I do agree that some people are getting too wrapped up in the extreme end of being a locavore.

Since I was a kid I've canned and gardened and loved to go down to Eastern Market. It was just interesting and fun to know where my food came from. So I've always been growing what I can, putting up what's in season, frequenting the farmer's markets and looking out for other local items of interest. I'm often surprised when people say they don't do at least a little of those things.

What I have changed recently is my family's meat consumption. Since our move up north I've switched to almost exclusively buying locally raised meat. But as much as it does matter to me how the animals are treated and what they fed, I also have much more Bourdainesque reason that pushed me into this change. That is the lack of some of my favorite stores for meat from the Detroit area. In my old neck of the woods I was surrounded by great (tasting at least) meat from Whole Foods, Vince and Joe's and Nino Salvaggio's markets. There just isn't the equivalent up here where I can get the cuts and quality I want.

I'm glad this change means less energy is used and I'm purchasing meat from animals that are cared for well but my choice had as much to do with finding meat I felt was worth buying as the first two. I'll just try not to be grumpy about the defrosting and poking around the freezer that I now have to do.

Jen said...

Interesting discussion! Thanks, all, for all of the comments.

Twins - it's worth a try.

I found it interesting that so many of our responders are folks who live in the northern areas - Upstate NY, Michigan (of course), CT, Boston... it's more of a dilemma for us, I think. OTOH, as many have pointed out, we can usually get good meat where we are, especially if we're willing to deal with defrosting, etc. I used to only want "fresh" meat, now I only want local meat and don't particularly care if I have to defrost it first. It tastes so much better to me than the poorly-raised fresh meat. And I AM concerned about the carbon footprint, the local economy, etc., etc.

And yes, for those who answered about Bourdain himself - could ANYONE agree with everything the man says? He's all over the map... but he is solidly entertaining and he does think about his opinions before just spouting them, from what I've seen.

Goofball said...

I should be thinking much more local....ingredients first determine what I buy (eg tomatoes) and usually only when I have a choice eg Belgian tomatoes or imported tomatoes I try to be local.

But I supposed if I really want to eat a dish with pineapple or a granny smith apple or avocado, I'll go for it though.

glamah16 said...

Excellent post. I admire both, but the whole movement can be a bit extreme. Don't even get me started on the finacial aspect of eating local. I say we all do the best we can do to healthy varied intersting diet. If I stuck to all local there is no way I could have sampled many of the itemes I have in life but couldnt afford to travel to.

Virtualsprite said...

We do a lot of local... our backyard, in fact. :-)

I just finished Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," and it was all about eating locally and how that can positively affect our world. It was an amazing read and she brought up a lot of the same points you do. I'm really glad to see more people thinking locally. We're still a global culture, but we need to stay at home more.

Liz Dwyer said...

I'm not all or nothing with it even though we have lots of farmer's markets around. I just can't stand the exorbitant prices at them so sometimes I high tail it to the grocery to get strawberries that are not $6/pint!

It drives me nuts that the prices are that high.

Jen said...

Goofball, I'm where you are, although I'll really think about that avocado these days, I may not just do the dish automatically.

Glamah - I see all those points. That's part of what I'm pondering at this point.

Virtual - I've been meaning to read that book - I really should.

Los A - here's the thing - that is the "real" cost of food. It's the cost of food elsewhere. The farmers can't do the same pricing as the supermarkets because they don't use factory methods and they can buy in mass quantities. It's like our false pricing for oil. What I'm not sure of is whether the false pricing is actually good for us, or our country, in the long run.

Luisa Perkins said...

I try to do the local thing as often as possible. This is made much easier by the fact that I live in the Hudson Valley. That said, I'm not giving up spices or other specialty ingredients anytime soon. Importing spices and other delicacies is a centuries-old tradition I'm not willing to give up completely.

Núria said...

Great post Jen! I admire him too, but I have only known him through one of his books. I wish I could see him on TV also.
I always try to buy local in the weekly market, but I guess I'm very lucky... we have such a bunch of different products all year round!
I haven't steped into the ecological food yet, only eggs.

Goofball said...

Hi Jen!

I hope you start blogging again and in order to help you a bit, I've tagged you with a meme :)

take care

Gwen said...

I think the ideal of eating local is great, for the taste, for the environment, for your own local economy, etc. But right now, it's just that, an "ideal", as most peoples' posts have shown, it's not a very realistic/practical thing to do, especially in northern latitudes. I think that for it to really work, we'd have to re-structure the way agriculture, food distribution, and the global economy really works. It might happen, I'm not saying it won't, but those are a lot of changes that I think will probably take a while.

We have to be careful about how such a re-structuring takes place. If all of America suddenly starts buying only locally produced products, there will probably be local economies elsewhere in the world collapsing, because their livelihoods currently depend on exporting to the US. We want to support local farmers, but do we want to cause economic collapse elsewhere, in order to do it?

Also, I agree with Spencer, there are certain items, salt, spices, coffee, sugar, etc, that have been shipped for a long time, because they do have limited local availability, and yet they are highly desirable, and do enhance cooking and eating enjoyment.

Being originally from Michigan, and living for a long time in Wisconsin (before my current residence in India), if I thought about what was missing from what is locally available there, I'd be missing a LOT.

Sugar for one, and if everyone in Michigan tried to switch to locally produced maple sugar, I'm not sure there'd be enough supply to meet the demand. Then oils: I prefer olive oil to almost any other cooking fat. Salt would be gone, every form of spice, coffee, avocados (my absolute favorite food), and rice, my other favorite food. And I almost forgot, CHOCOLATE!! :(

I try to buy local produce (fruits and vegetables) whenever possible, but it seems to me that in order to be real locavores, people will have to move to their food location of choice (For me a toss up between Mexico, Italy and India - oops, I'm in India already :D), or deal with a compromise on some things being local, and other things not.

I don't think we will ever un-globalize our economy, and I'm not sure I'd want to. I love the richness and diversity of foods and ingredients available to me.

I also wonder, when people talk about how they're going "all local" does that mean they've also cut out all packaged and processed foods? No chocolate? No potato chips? No granola bars? No breakfast cereal? No yogurt?

And if you live near the Kellogg's factory, does eating Kellogg's brand cereal make you a locavore? I think that, at least from the environmental perspective, if people would cut out, or cut back on all the packaged foods they eat, that would be a HUGE step. There'd be less garbage from all the packaging, and less shipping of things back and forth.

Mariposa said...

Oh well, I learn something new today! :)

Teresa Cordero Cordell said...

Jen, just wanted to take some time and wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving. Be well and be happy dear friend.

Anonymous said...

At the Slow Food Huron Valley Potluck and Contest, the winner of the dessert contest was a locally source "Banana Bread." Not what I would call an all or nothing crowd. So who are the all or nothing people Bourdain is talking about?

Another part of the rant against local food is to point to a region of the country with long winters and say that interesting year round local food is boring and impossible for them.

AB's Russian peasant food all winter in the UP is an example.

I say what is wrong with Local russian style peasant food in the UP?

Smoked fish, pork, borsht, dumplings, yogurt, game meat, dry sausages, pickles of all kinds, hearty rye bread, squash and cabbages dishes, kasha, pastries, root veggies, potato pancakes, blintz, beef stroganoff, vodka ... Sounds good to me.


Jen said...

Teresa - Thanks, and to you, too!

Mariposa - glad to hear it.

Last One - I was disappointed about the Banana bread choice, too. The main judging criterion was supposed to be taste, though. And I don't agree with all the things Bourdain said by a long shot. It was more food for thought. I do think it's much easier for Alice Waters to discuss local sourcing than someone in a Montana winter. Also, you're absolutely right, but to do the local thing, we also have to get back to root cellars, etc.

Gwen - I love hearing your thoughts! I agree with you on so many points - you crystallized, and so much more articulately than I, the various things I've been mulling over. Also, Michigan DOES have sugar - Pioneer brand is beet sugar, which is the same sugar you get in various parts of the world. It's a bit different than cane sugar, but it still works. ;-)

Brian Steinberg said...

I am still very new with eating locally. In fact this is really my first year attempting it after I read the 100 mile diet book.

I am slowly building skills to eat more locally like home canning, drying herbs and freezing fruits and berries. The plan is to keep building on these skills, do more research on sourcing local ingredients, and to stock up more for winter next year.

Most local eaters are not all or nothing. I am not which mean I have a must have non local list like chocolate, spices, olive oil, baking supplies, lemons, limes, orange juice, some cheeses, ginger, salt and coconut milk to name a few.

I could probably do without a few of these items, but for now they stay on the list.


Jeanie said...

Boy, is there a lot of "meat" to this post! I'm going to come back to this one with a link on The Gypsy soon -- I'd like other folks who haven't discovered you to read this one.

I have seldom been "all or nothing" for anything in my entire life. Because "life" gets in the way. But I couldn't agree more with the concept of taste versus the "Russian Peasant" mentality. I believe we should try to do our best. Buy (or grow) local/regional when we can; what we can't, use "good" things. And if you have to open the can, pick a tasty one and savor it. I try to use local grocers or market vendors vs. national chains, even if I'm buying the same old boxed or canned things that have no local value. Doing our best -- and loving the end. That's my M.O.

Having said that, one of my first spots to stop in Canada or when traveling abroad is a grocery store! I just love to see what's different!

Bren said...

Tony is totally foul mouthed but he's so honest you have to listen!