The below feature, Shut Up, Locavores by Pavia Rosati, appears in the current issue of Gourmet Live. Download the free Gourmet Live app to get this story and more.
When your urge to eat close to home morphs from worthy pursuit to messianic mission, watch out: You’ve become a locabore.
For those of us who came of age in the latter half of the 20th century, ours was a food culture of Hungry Man gents and Lean Cuisine ladies. Dinner was served on TV trays, the opening strains of Love Boat whirling to a crescendo as we dug into tins of Chef Boyardee topped with a bold soupçon of Ragú. Our mothers were the supermarket swamis, who powered our mornings with Oreos dunked in chocolate milk and sent us off into the world armed with snack packs of saltines and cheese best described as “orange,” crafted lovingly by assembly line in God-Knows-Where, U.S.A.
Our sweet mommies. Their simple, stupid times.
They knew nothing of what evil lurked in that box of prefab food—the hidden corn starches and MSG and bethyenzidoime-chlorofixate-compound #9. They didn’t worry whether the blueberries in the fruit leather were harvested by hungry orphans sleeping on pallets along the equator. No. They were too enamored of the ease of a quickly nuked dinner and a good spot on the sofa for WKRP in Cincinnati. Can I have two Cokes after dinner? Sure, honey—get me one, too.
Hail our modern era! Mommies have been replaced by active parents, supermarkets have given way to greenmarkets, milk has gone from chocolate to almond, and surly sophomores bagging cans of tuna have morphed into tattooed twentysomethings explaining the difference between Mutsu and Empire apples at the farm stand in the park. Environmental pollutants are public enemies, and no suburban counter dare live without a Brita filter.
“You are what you eat” may be an ageless adage, but never before have we taken it more seriously. We now want to know who we eat and where it comes from. Restaurants oblige by name-checking the farmers responsible for our pork chop and the tender turnip shoots lying alongside.
We are the enlightened; we are the locavores.
We used to count calories. Now we count food miles. We may fiercely argue what counts as “local”—100 miles, 200 miles, within biking distance. In 2008, Congress even got in on the debate, generously conceding as local anything occurring within 400 miles, but they were no doubt lobbied heavily by some agribusiness PAC with constituents located 399 miles away from their end consumer. Farmers’ markets are growing quickly, according to a recent USDA report; from 1,755 in 1994 to 5,274 in 2009. Even more impressive, the number of CSAs (community-supported agriculture organizations) in the U.S. has mushroomed from 2 in 1986 to over 1,400 in 2010. The locavore movement is undeniably here to stay, buttressed by environmental awareness visible everywhere from the recycling bins in our garages to the vegetable garden at the White House.
How proud we are of our pesticide-free micro cress and purple carrots. Why, we picked them ourselves last weekend, 20 minutes from our living room, confident they’d pair beautifully with the rutabaga delivered that morning by the CSA. We follow evangelical bloggers detailing their efforts to subsist for a year on nothing from outside a 100-mile radius of their kitchen. They’re so virtuous, they make their toddlers toe the same line. Watch how smart and asthma-free those toddlers will grow up to be.
Can you imagine what a splendidly ideal and peaceful existence we’d enjoy if we all lived like this? We’d eliminate the need for long-haul trucks to transport artichokes from Chico to Bangor. Hell, we’d probably end the oil crisis along the way. Especially if every food producer would retrofit their gas tanks to run on restaurant grease.
Hey, locavores. Shut up already!
Your intentions may be noble, but your preachy self-righteousness is insufferable. It’s one thing to be aware of what you put in your mouth. That’s just smart, responsible, healthy eating. If you’re a parent, you have to do that for your child. It’s in the owner’s manual and everything. And no one wants to foot the insurance bill for anyone’s fast food-induced sugar coma.
But when your ideals cross the line from practice to pontification, you’ve gone too far. When does that happen? When you send an entrée back to the kitchen because the chef served it with a lemon wedge, and you’re in Chicago. When you spend less time at Sunday brunch hearing about your friends’ Saturday antics and more time raising a silent, judgmental eyebrow at their lack of dietary discipline. Mango juice? How very dare they.
No one can honestly argue that a can of agri-giant corn kernels bathed in goo tastes better than an ear of fresh local corn, but hearing locavores yammer on about it makes me want to wallow in a big vat of corn syrup.
I know that I’m speaking in gross stereotypes, with an emphasis on gross, for effect. And, yes, I know that while too many still turn to fast food Dollar Meals for their wimpy RDAs, and more and more Americans rely on food stamps (in 2011, people!), extremists and activists on the fringe will be more effective in promoting much-needed nutritional awareness and reform than will middle-of-the-roaders. (By the way, don’t bother Googling bethyenzidoime-chlorofixate-compound #9. I made it up.)
And I won’t pretend that I don’t have my own locavore tendencies. My favorite place on earth is a hotel and restaurant along the Amalfi Coast called Lo Scoglio (http://www.hotelloscoglio.com/index.html), a place where the fava beans I eat at lunch were picked from the field up the hill that morning and seasoned with basil growing in tufo rock outside my room upstairs. Owner Beppe de Simone shuns tomatoes if they’re imported from Sicily, at the end of the boot. “Why would I want tomatoes in June? They’re not ready yet.” I nod along, because I’ve tasted the tomatoes he eats in September. I’d wait for them, too.
I was speaking recently with another Italian, chef Paul Bartolotta of Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at the Wynn Las Vegas, about what it’s like to play defense against the locavores. His is a sin of extreme carbon mileage. The seafood he serves is flown directly from Italy daily, in such varieties and quantities that he famously penned a manual for U.S. Customs and the FDA to alleviate any confusion they may have about the provenance of the cicala imperiale and occhiona landing at McCarran International Airport. “Conceptually, eating local is a good idea,” he tells me. “But in Las Vegas, that would mean serving cactus and sand.” Expanding on the idea of responsible eating, he says, “It’s more important to choose the product that’s been grown or fished correctly, that you don’t choose to cook or eat things at risk. I have never served tuna or swordfish once in my six years as chef of an Italian restaurant.” But if a sacred tenet of the locavore credo holds that you have to know from whence your food is sourced, then ironically, Bartolotta is a high priest. In many cases, he knows the name of the guy who caught the fish he’ll be serving on the other side of the planet. As Bartolotta revs up into dinner service in Las Vegas, his fish mongers in Genoa are emailing him photos of the catch of the morning for approval. Bartolotta has given “locavore” a twist: He’s a globavore.
Here’s the thing. Evangelists are tiresome because they don’t know when to stop, because they take a good idea past the point when it becomes annoying. I won’t limit my argument to locavores, either. I would apply this same criticism to religious zealots and border patrollers and teetotalers and, much closer to home, the vegetarian I became in college. I didn’t just stop eating meat. No, I had to read aloud from Diet for a New America at the dinner table, sneering at my parents and brother—“That chicken was raised in its own feces!”—as I poked at my broccoli. When I backpacked around Eastern Europe as a vegan that summer, I was so afraid of accidentally eating a wurst in Prague that I subsisted on a diet of grape juice and cucumbers for a week. God, I was insufferable.
Locavores, be careful. You mean well, your goals are pure, and you’re on the right side of the argument, to say nothing of history. But do try to keep yourself in check. I called Dan Barber, chef and creator of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the excellent Hudson Valley restaurant, farm, and nutritional awareness center that is a mecca for East Coast locavores, for his opinion. He had only one, irresistible comment: “I’ve turned into just the kind of guy I hate to eat lunch with.”
Pavia Rosati, a writer and editor who lives in New York City and London, is the founder of the travel Web site Fathom.