I could never be a locavore.
In case you didn’t know, a locavore is a person who only eats food grown within a 100 radius of her home. The benefits are numerous. Locally grown food tastes better and is probably more nutritious. It’s better for the environment as your food doesn’t travel thousands of miles to get to you, and when you eat local, you support local family farmers. I try to eat local as much as possible, I really do. But I’m also what I call a global eater; I eat foods from all over the world.
Last year, I spent a difficult summer in Geneva eating almost entirely locally grown produce by default. Walking into the Migros and confronting the same five boring Swiss vegetables every day made me lose my appetite, something that almost never happens when food shopping. Where was the bok choy? The Indian long beans? The collard greens? The broccoli rabe? Why couldn’t I find mache, when ten kilometers away, in France, it was ubiquitous? After a week of locally grown produce, I was bored out of my mind.
Now I imagine if you live in San Francisco or Seattle, you have an entirely different experience eating local. Immigrant populations from all over the world living in those places make finding a variety of locally grown vegetables a breeze. Come to think of it, Minnesota is the same way. The Hmong refugees who came here in the sixties and seventies were farmers, and they grew what they liked to eat: kang kung, Chinese broccoli, golf ball sized Thai eggplants, edamame, Thai basil, and chilies of all sizes, shapes and colors. All of that is available locally grown at the Twin Cities Farmer’s Markets. So it’s no problem eating globally, locally.
But it was a different story in my North Carolina childhood. My mom managed to pass down culinary traditions to my sister and me during a time when cilantro was considered an exotic spice and ginger was only available in its powdered form. And she didn’t do it by eating locally. We had spices imported from India via Toronto, Maldive fish from Sri Lanka, rice from Thailand and coconuts from God-knows-where that my parents would scrape at the kitchen table with a special instrument from Sri Lanka designed especially for that purpose. When I was in high school, a Vietnamese market opened, and we bought bitter gourd, long Japanese eggplants, and other mysterious vegetables my sister and I had never seen before. The only thing that we had that was local was the seafood, caught fresh from the ocean, not even ten minutes away. Thanks to all those evenings my parents spent scraping coconut, my sister and I both have an enormous sense of culinary adventure. No food is too spicy, or too unfamiliar, or too different to try once. And in a way that defies the logic of language, we also learned about our own past and culture.
So my mom didn’t raise me to eat local, and I’m glad of it. Eating locally for me would mean giving up ginger to sauté with my Thai eggplant, coconut milk to thicken that curry. And there is no way I’m going without ginger and coconut milk. Both are a part of my own ethnic and culinary heritage, and I am not going to forgo that, no matter how worthy the principle.
Globalization has brought us many things. Some of them are awful and dehumanizing, like the depersonalization of labor, and severe wage inequality. But to tell you the truth, I like the vast diversity of peoples and cultures that we have in this country, and that is a consequence of globalization too. Eating mindfully has an environmental component, but that’s not all there is to it. We eat to connect with other people, and ourselves.
Quasi Local Salade Niçoise
I include this recipe because I ate a lot of it during that Genevoise summer. Even then, I couldn’t manage to make something completely local–I used Italian tuna, Moroccan anchovies, and olives from Nice. The version I made for a potluck picnic this weekend was also quasi-local, using vegetables from Minnesota, fish from the North Africa, and olives from Greece (but you should really use Niçoise—they’re better, though annoying to pit).
2 lbs. new potatoes
2 medium sized tomatoes, chopped or 1 basket grape or cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 lb. green beans
a small bunch parsley, finely chopped
a few leaves of basil, torn
one handful of Niçoise olives, pitted
1 tbsp capers, soaked and rinsed
1 can oil packed tuna
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 lemon, juiced
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 hard boiled eggs
1. Boil new potatoes in heavily salted water until done (25-3- min, depending on size of the potato). A good way to gauge doneness is to stick them with a sharp knife, then pull them out of the water. The perfectly done potato will cling to the knife for one second, then drop into the water. Boil green beans 7 minutes, or until done.
2. Soak shallot slices in lemon juice. Beat in mustard, anchovies and olive oil.
3. Combine remaining ingredients in large bowl. Pour dressing over, toss to mix. taste and adjust seasonings. Decorate with slices of hard boiled egg.