Buy localBy Larry Levine –

Locally-sourced …

Farm-to-fork …

Seasonal menu …

Sustainable …

Are they marketing devices, smart business practices aimed at bolstering the bottom line, political statements, or are they just the latest fads, fetishes or crazes to grip the foodcentric portion of the population that can afford to be foodcentric.

Though it might not be apparent from the current hysteria surrounding the locally-sourced food scene, the notion that a restaurant would want to serve farm-to-fork food is not new. What is new are the lengths to which many restaurants are going to boast of the practice. But all may not be as pure as we would hope.

There was a time when all food was locally sourced and all menus were seasonal. I doubt the cavemen imported food from around the globe. Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo had just that in mind when they set sail, but that was quite a bit later. And I imagine those cavemen of old ate mostly what was in season.

It wasn’t that long ago that the absence of refrigeration and the realities of transportation meant all but the very wealthy in big cities ate only what could be locally sourced seasonally. Preserving and canning opened the doors to eating out-of-season fare. But that was pretty much left to the individual households. Curing made it possible to safely transport meat over long distances. Widespread commercial availability of frozen, cured, or canned food is a fairly recent occurrence. It wasn’t until after WW II that these became accessible to working class families that weren’t doing it themselves.

But let’s not try to teach lessons about the history of salt curing and other methods of preserving, canning or drying as methods of making meats, fruits and vegetables available throughout the year and across great expanses. We’ll leave that to Bee Wilson in her fascinating book “Consider the Fork” (Basic Books – 2012).

Instead let’s just go back to 1971, when Alice Waters paved the way for what decades later would become the craze we now are experiencing. From its inception, Chez Panisse, which Ms. Waters co-founded in Berkeley CA, has served locally sourced, seasonal food that is organic to boot. It was the first restaurant to gain national and international fame for its adherence to these principals and it never has deviated.

The Herbfarm opened as an herbal farm in 1974 in the City of Woodinville near Seattle WA. In 1986 the husband and wife team of Ron Zimmerman and Carrie Van Dyck took over the business and converted the farm’s garage into a small restaurant and dubbed it The Herbfarm. Fire destroyed the restaurant in 1997. It didn’t reopen in 2001 and has adhered to the principal of local sourcing throughout.

L’Etoile began serving and publicizing locally-sourced food in Madison WI in 1976. They still are at it. The restaurant relies on some 200 local purveyors for its meat, produce, and dairy products.

The Sooke Harbour House in Sooke, British Columbia, Canada, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, has served locally sourced food since 1979. It now offers food strongly influenced by the indigenous peoples of the region. The restaurant attempts to source all its products from within 25 miles of its location and grows some of the produce on site.

If we go a bit further afield, we can find scores if not hundreds of restaurants throughout Italy and France where anything other than local sourcing would be a strange concept. To brag about it would be even stranger.

I’ve dined at two of these four pioneering North American restaurants – Chez Panisse and Sooke Harbour House – not because I make a habit of seeking out eateries that feature locally-sourced, sustainable, and seasonal dining. Rather, I attended those restaurants for the same reason you’ll find me at any other restaurant – the food is outstanding. I don’t really care how far the food had to travel to reach my plate.

Those four restaurants plugged along through the decades, winning awards and building reputations for offering original, well-prepared dishes made with the best quality ingredients available locally. But the rest of the restaurant world didn’t seem particularly concerned about following suit, nor was there a demand from restaurant goers that would indicate a desire for more of the same.

To be sure, the best chefs in the best restaurants in the U.S. paid careful attention to the quality of their purchases and the best ingredients usually were the freshest and most often that meant local. The kings and queens of Los Angeles kitchens have long been known to prowl the farmers’ markets throughout the community. But despite the success of the four pioneers, others didn’t make a big deal of it in their promotional programs or on their menus.

About five years ago things began to change. Some smart restaurant owner someplace figured out that advertising locally-sourced food would appeal to a certain type of clientele. The implication was that local means fresher and that anyone who cared that much about fresher must also be a talented chef. The environmental movement joined in, touting the benefits of avoiding long distance shipping of food products. The fire was lit and now it rages across the land.

Nowhere does that fire burn hotter than in Sacramento, CA, which has proclaimed itself the Farm-to-Fork Capital of the nation. Scores of restaurants in the city have raised the flag of local sourcing and sustainability. The Second Annual Farm-to-Fork Festival is coming up Sept. 13 – 28, 2014.

It’s a natural for Sacramento, which sits squarely in the middle of a vast agricultural area of the nation’s largest producing agricultural state. It is estimated there are more than 7,000 boutique farms operating within 70 miles of the downtown area of the State Capital. They support more than 50 regional farmers’ markets, many of which operate year-round.

With the Napa and Alexander Valleys nearby, Sacramento restaurants can offer some of the best wines in the world as being locally-sourced. Areas of Washington and Oregon are the only other places in the nation that can do that.

But 50 farmers’ markets and a few dozen local restaurants are not enough to provide the revenue for those 7,000 boutique farmers in the Sacramento area to thrive. What they can’t sell locally, most of those farmers will put in creates and load on trucks to be sold in the open market to anyone anywhere.

For many Sacramento area farmers it isn’t about sustainability or local sourcing. Farmers in the region provide products to restaurants and markets across the United States. Superior Farms in Dixon ships to Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Snake River Farms beef, which is raised at VanVleck Ranch in eastern Sacramento County, is distributed locally at the fabulous Corti Bros. Market and nationally in New York, Denver, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Silva Family Farms, located in Yuba City, ships walnuts to New Jersey, Tennessee, Washington, Philadelphia, Dubai, Turkey, China, Korea and Spain.

It isn’t a political, sociological, ethical, or environmental issue to these and other farmers. It’s about the bottom line and that’s a good thing because the bottom line is what will keep them in business and as long as they are in business farmers’ markets in the region will be able to provide quality, locally-sourced food to area shoppers.

So, what is it that locally-sourced actually means?

Same state? Same region? France and Italy are smaller than many states in the U.S. What does local mean in that context?

Are the great Pinot Noirs of Oregon local to northern California? Is Napa Valley wine local to San Diego or Los Angeles? If the best wine in America comes from Northern California, should the people of Miami not find it on local lists? Should the people in upstate New York be restricted to drinking only the inferior local wines from that area? Wine lists in England seem to be top-heavy with bottles from Chile and Australia? Some of the higher end restaurants offer wine from right across the channel in France. Is that local enough to qualify?

If the best lamb in the world is raised in Colorado should a Seattle restaurant not serve it because it isn’t locally-sourced? Should Seattle vendors not ship their happy assortment of great oysters to Atlanta? Should Maine lobsters not be allowed to leave the Northeast? Should Alaskan king salmon not be available in Omaha? If some of the best hogs in the nation are raised in upstate New York, why should those of us in Los Angeles have to subsist on the flavorless pork that is foisted off on us? How about Oregon, Washington, or Maine blueberries? Chesapeake Bay soft shell crabs or Dungeness crabs from San Francisco and Alaska?

There are purists who will apply the carbon footprint standard to all food. To most of us there are limits. I recognize the potential value of carrots or tomatoes grown in a patch behind the restaurant and the milk that comes from the cow grazing across the street. But if it isn’t quality product, then I don’t care where the chef gets it. Imagine the disappointment, when we were told the eggs being served at our B&B in England recently were from chickens right down the street and they turned out to be mediocre. Who knows what they might have been feeding those chickens?

Even the best of ingredients aren’t worth anything in the hands of a chef who doesn’t know what to do with them. I go to a restaurant and expect to sample what the chef does with quality ingredients. I want to taste the chef’s creativity as much as I want to taste the quality of the produce, meat or dairy. Take away the quality of either the chef or the ingredients, or give me a chef who thinks he or she has to get so creative that I no longer recognize the taste of the original product, and I’ll go someplace else no matter how big the sign is that proclaims “locally-sourced, organic, sustainable, farm-to-fork dining.”

Merriam-Webster defines fad as “a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal.” That would mean locally-sourced is a fad because it clearly is being followed with exaggerated zeal. But it’s been around too long to be an actual fad. So, let’s decide locally-sourced is not a fad, but the current hype for locally-sourced certainly is a craze.

There’s also a certain degree of elitism engrained in this craze. Restaurants presenting local sourcing and organic foods tend to be located with few exceptions in area where people can afford to spend a lot more on their dining experiences. Either that or they become destination restaurants for those same people who are willing to venture into some less desirable neighborhoods for the adventure of it. How many restaurants or markets touting local sourcing will you find in the blue collar or poorer neighborhoods of American? People who are living from pay check-to-pay check, or getting by on food stamps aren’t about to pay $12 for a wedge of iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing because it’s locally sourced, not when they can buy a whole head of iceberg lettuce in the market for $2.

As with all previous crazes of this kind, this one will calm down. Diners will realize not all things locally sourced are better. Warm water halibut can’t match Alaskan halibut. Temecula or Paso Robles wines can’t match wines from France, Italy, or the Napa Valley. Ninety percent of the world’s Pixie tangerines are grown in Ojai CA. If I want branzino it won’t be caught by fishing fleets in the Pacific.

Locally-sourced and sustainable are romantic notions that stamp themselves as special. The implication is they provide fresher, better food and are better for the environment. But are all those beat up old pickup trucks that pull up to your local farmers’ market each week really better for the environment than one 18-wheel semi-truck hauling produce to market?

A distributor or restaurant can raise the flag of local sourcing if only a few items actually are locally sourced. There’s no regulatory body and no requirement that a menu designate which items are local and which are not.

There’s a difference, too, between shopping at the farm and shopping at the farmers’ market in the neighborhood parking lot. Fruit from a tree and corn from the field start to degrade as soon as they are harvested. Most of what is sold at farmers’ markets is not tree ripened because that would mean a very short shelf life. It will degrade in the hours or days between being picked and showing up on the tables at the farmers’ market. And if it doesn’t sell at the Saturday farmers’ market there’s nothing to stop the farmer from putting it back on the table at the Sunday market, or the one next Tuesday. However, it still may be fresher than what you will find at the super market.

If you want to be sure you are getting real fresh produce you’ll have to visit the farm and pick it yourself or watch the farmer pick it. I have my coffee beans shipped to me from Hawaii and I know what I’m getting will be fresher than the beans I can buy at the super market or one of those omnipresent chain coffee shops. But I’m aware that it isn’t as fresh as it would be if I flew to Kona to buy it.

“Seasonal” food is a slightly different matter. I’m not impressed by a restaurant that boasts of seasonal food. These days everything is in season somewhere in the world and some things have been engineered to be in season at places and times when they shouldn’t be. Think of the tasteless California strawberries in January, or any of the strange tasting produce that comes out of Chile in February.

Too often “seasonal” serves as a substitute for good, or for talent with too many cooks who call themselves chefs. And how many of our summertime locovores are convinced that imported San Marzano tomatoes are the only thing that works in a homemade marinara sauce any time of the year? They’re correct, but it isn’t local anywhere in the U.S.

Fresh soft shell crabs are available most of the year. But the ones from the Gulf Coast waters are no match for those from Chesapeake Bay. So, how much does seasonal mean there? See them on a menu at a restaurant that touts itself as serving seasonal food? Ask from where they are sourced.

Jennifer and I eat blueberries in our oatmeal whenever we can get berries grown in the U.S. or Canada. The rest of the year we switch to oatmeal with banana. Neither fruit is local in December. It’s a question of which we prefer for the taste.

Going to a restaurant should be about enjoyment, not about making political or social statements.
We glamorize local, forgetting that the great chefs of history have received much of the meat and produce by train or truck from distant places. You can’t always get prime Angus beef locally any more than you can get locally-caught Columbia River white king salmon.

Enough already. What once was important stuff that meant something has become a lot of marketing hype. How about just serving me quality food, well prepared? I don’t really care to know the name of the farmer who harvested the crop. I would rather know that everything on the menu or shelf was the best available and that not just a handful of items were locally-sourced so you could use that banner for your entire establishment.  I want to know that the chef took time, thought and energy to transform quality ingredients into something transformative.

Here are a few thoughts: not everything is local everywhere; most things aren’t. And if we insist on eating only what is local we would be missing out on some wonderful food. There is much of value in the quest for local-sourced, seasonal food in restaurants and markets. But too many among us can get carried away with the craze and take things beyond reason. It would be a shame to see kids grow up with limited tastes and limited exposures to the great cultures of the world because their parents got carried away with some craze.

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