Sunday, September 9, 2007

Weekend Update

Tom Philpott and the Ethicurean are in a bit of a snit over a New Yorker article about extreme local eating in the Big Apple and I don't get it.

Ethicurean finds it condescending. Philpott calls it "an exercise in glibness over depth."

Are we creating a new sacred cow here around the idea of local food?

Personally, I found the piece by Adam Gopnik smart, witty, irreverent, well-paced, ironic--in short, everything you normally expect from the New Yorker. Was this the learned, weighty tome on local food in the manner of Rachel Carson some might be wishing the New Yorker would undertake? Most certainly not. Perhaps editor David Remnick and his crew are saving that one for later.

Having both arms and both feet invested in growing food here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House, I am ever alert to issues surrounding the idea of feeding one's self in the urban core. So I was eager to follow Gopnik as he traveled along on a brief history of agriculture in the concrete jungle (did you know Brooklyn was at one time considered NYC's bread basket?), then took off in pursuit of a meal consisting of local ingredients strictly from the five boroughs.

Just try finding a local chicken, for instance. Once you get past carrots and lettuce, raising protein in the city is a real issue, if not strictly illegal.

Gopnik spins his tale around the guy who collects honey from bee hives on Manhattan rooftops, and of course wild man Steve Brill, who forages in Central Park, and a secret tilapia farm in a basement at Brooklyn College. Gopnik finds room for a good description of the community farm at Red Hook, where I have a friend working as one of the garden coordinators.

For those perhaps not completely immersed in the concept of eating locally--and I would take that to mean a huge swath of the American public--this was a perfectly adequate yarn about some of the food production going on in places you would least expect it. So I would say to Philpott and Ethicurian, loosen up a little.


Local food is all over the news lately. Two years ago, I stopped writing for The Washington Post food section after the then-editor told me, "I think we've written enough about farmers." That was after I penned a piece about a certain farmer in Southern Maryland whose idea of fun is dressing up in Carhartt overalls and harvesting his ice-bred arugula in the middle of February. Thereafter, you'd have to dig into the Post's business section to find anything about local agriculture.

But lookee here! This week The Post devoted a huge spread to a "chef's challenge" centered on the idea of making meals on a budget from one of the local farmers markets. The play given this piece may actually have been excessive: I had a hard time following. And the budget each chef got to prepare a meal for a family of four was $50. Hardly your typical American family of four, I'd say. Meanwhile, I've written my own farmers market "chef's challenge" for the Edible Chesapeake magazine, due out in October, so don't think The Post was first out of the gate...


Over on the Ruhlman blog, Los Angeles Times food writer Russ Parsons makes some good points about farms, farm size and the importance of farming in a Mediterranean climate such as the one in California, as opposed to trying to make a living selling local produce where the soil is frozen six months out of the year. Seriously, California farmers are capable of producing five annual crops, where farmers in the Northeast are lucky to grow two. Most small-time farmers need regular day-jobs to make ends meet. It's hard to make a buck without being incredibly efficient and wringing every last dollar from the operation. Meaning consumers need to get used to the idea of paying more for locally raised food products.


I'm anxious to see how much play local eating gets after things frost-over here and the farmers markets close. And--since I hardly get tired of harping on demographics in the agriculture sector--while the land available to farm only gets more scarce and more expensive, farmers keep getting older. Only drawbridge operators are older, on average, as a profession, according to this blog post.

Don't get me wrong. I love the idea of local food. Heck, I spend half my time growing my own food, right outside my front door. But I don't think most Americans feel that way. Most Americans are still filling their larders at Wal-Mart, and how is that going to change any time soon? The rest of agriculture is going in another direction in this country.


Or maybe they're just moving out of the country. The latest trend, besides turning every available acre over to corn to make ethanol, apparently is to move the entire operation over the border south. According to the New York Times, some farmers are having such a hard time finding laborers to pick their crops, they're renting land in Mexico where labor is not only cheap but steady.

I can't think of anything less local.


Here's the self-told tale of one would-be Pennsylvania dairy farmer and how quickly he went bust when an absence of local infrastructure and an overly ambitious business plan conspired to thwart him.


I leave you with some images from our local farmers markets. Two new markets have been added to our area, bringing to five the numbers of markets where fresh, local produce is sold within a one-mile radius here in our corner of the District of Columbia. In addition to beautiful vegetables, we have a huge selection of breads, cheeses and pastured meats. No shortage of local produce here--at least in August.


WashingtonGardener said...

I too found that WaPO Food section challenge unrelaistic in budget - $50 is about what I spend for meals on myself for a two-week period total - and on the food shopping + prep time. I don't know many people, if any, who live that sort of life. Who can spend hours a day on meal prep anymore? Even the sacred Thanksgiving meal is being pre-ordered and outsourced these days. I'm looking forward to more realistic pieces in the future.

Ed Bruske said...

Kathy, anytime you get a chef involved the price goes up. I've been advocating for years that if editors want to run these kind of stories, they should bag the chefs and find a grandma or a housefrau who really knows how to cook on a budget. But the chefs are sexier, I guess.