Today I made a locavore meal for a friend’s birthday. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, locavore is generally defined as eating within a 250 mile radius, as far as one can easily drive in a day. (You can plug your zip code into this online tool to find out your locavore area.) With the pre-decided exceptions of olive oil and coffee (and the last minute decision to include Sicilian passito with dessert), everything else in the meal was “local.” The veg and fruit were all from Mass. farms (including our CSA share from Farmer Dave’s in Dracut) and the salt from the Main Sea Salt Company.
The menu included:
- Burrata cheese from Fiore di Nonno in Somerville (milk from Mass. Farms) - served with tomatoes and arugula, basil from the garden, olive oil, and salt
- Grilled rack of lamb from Houde Family Farm in Vermont, seasoned with olive oil, salt, garlic scapes, and rosemary from the garden
- Tatsoi prepared with olive oil and garlic scapes, grilled beets and turnips, bread made with flour from Four Star Farms in Mass., and butter from Maine
- Ricotta cheese (made at home from regional milk), sweetened with Mass. honey, and topped with local strawberries
- Dinner was enjoyed with Turtle Creek Cab Sav (from Lincoln, Mass.) and dessert with espresso and the aforementioned passito wine from Sicily
The meal was delicious. Who can beat local strawberries in season, cheese made by hand and eaten truly fresh (the burrata was made two days ago and the ricotta hours before being eaten), vegetables that had seen the sun just days before hand, and bread fresh out of the oven.
It was very satisfying to be able to name each item’s origins. Wine from Lincoln – I’ve worked there. Lamb from St. Johnsbury’s Vermont – I’ve been there on vacation. Herbs from my own little back yard garden. Flour from the Pioneer Valley where I went to college.
As I made the meal there was another layer though. Sure, I can make bread from locally grown wheat flour, but where does yeast come from? And what did people do before it came in little jars and paper packets? I can use local milk to make ricotta, but where did the citric acid come from, and what did people do before you could sit down at a computer and order such things from the New England Cheesemaking Company?
There are many forces behind the locavore movement. For many people it’s a desire to eat healthier. Most packaged foods are off-limits, and e-coli outbreaks rarely happen in small farms. There’s a DYI aspect. Much of the locavore movement is based on buying individual fresh ingredients and cooking at home. Making your own cheese and bread, or beer as recently highlighted on NPR, marries the desire to eat well with the desire to get one’s hands dirty. Even buying from local manufacturers satisfies the desire to know how things are made as they are often more transparent about their processes than big companies. Micro-brew-restaurants have visible beer tanks, and small chocolate shops have open kitchens. It also comes from a desire to feel grounded. Americans have a history of movement. We often describe ourselves in terms of where our ancestors came from and think nothing of turning 18 and moving cross country to go to college and then moving again for that first job. Eating local connects us to the place we live, even if we can’t claim long-established roots there.
For me it also involves my desire to know how people lived their everyday lives in the past. What does it mean to eat only locally grown fruit and vegetables the way people did for centuries before refrigerated shipping? While in some ways it seems limiting, it also removes the sometimes painfully taxing decision-making process that is involved in going to the grocery store. At the grocery store every kind of fruit (and multiple varieties of each kind) are on display all year long. In the locavore approach, if I’m in the mood for fruit and it’s June, I eat strawberries. And I know that they are going to be amazing strawberries. I also want to know what role food has played in our culture. Why has bread been considered sacred in European cultures as far back as the Greeks? Adding yeast to flour is a faith-based act. Every time I do it, I believe that the seemingly inert yeast will once again come to life and breathe life into the flour. And every time it happens I am once again amazed. (But I still wonder how people did it before yeast came in packets.)
In the end I guess that’s where all the different layers, the different angles, the different attractions of the locavore movement come together. Eating local can making eating a sacred act, can give it spirit and depth, can make it more than just filling my belly. And it's also so delicious.