Thursday, June 17, 2010

Local Food And The Sweetest Strawberries

A chef friend of mine just emailed me the following note (I've redacted the names of the farms):
i have been thinking lately that the world is on this local kick (from which i benefit of course). however, within the farming community there are great variations in quality. for instance, XXXXXXX and XXXXXXXX produce by far the best stuff. they never water and fertilize and the result is smaller vegetables with way more flavor. i try and use these guys all the time. the strawberries are small and nutty with twice as much sugar. the larger local farms produce stuff that is similar to stuff from texas. isn't it time we start to think about quality and not just "local". XXXXXXX farms already has heirloom cherry tomatoes. that's just wrong.
It got me thinking...

The qualities of our food can be measured in various ways, many of which apply differently to different food types.

We have heard all about "local" vs. "distant", although we don't agree on what they mean. For greens, "local" might be a 50-mile radius, while for meat and dairy and seafood it might be wider. When you are talking about processed foods, like bread, charcuterie, and canned goods, you may want to consider not only the points of origin of the ingredients, but also the point of processing. Local vs. distant has economic implications, as well as implications with respect to the energy used for transportation. And it also affects the next measure:

"Young" vs. "old" matters greatly for some things, and not at all for others. For some things, "young" is crucial; for others, "old" is better (some cheeses, wines, meats, etc.).

Consider the chef's comments above. What he's talking about is, roughly, the spectrum from "wild" to "farmed". The small tasty strawberries, receiving no additional fertilizer or water, are much closer to being wild strawberries. So "wild" might be better for strawberries. On the other hand, for some kinds of fish and shellfish (tilapia, catfish, oysters, mussels), "farmed" can be great. (Click here for more about seafood.)

For things that are farmed, we have the spectrum from "natural inputs" to "unnatural inputs". I'm not going to try to define "natural" right now. "Organic" and "conventional" lie on this continuum.

We have the spectrum from "primeval" to "domesticated". Wild and heritage animals, heirloom vegetables, and so on, move towards one end of the spectrum; hybrid, genetically-modified, and cloned species move towards the other.  Note that careful breeding is sometimes necessary to maintain lines of heritage animals, so it's not fair to say that they aren't selectively bred. And cloned is not necessarily bad; almost all apples and many oranges are cloned.

There are other attributes to consider, like "plentiful" vs. "endangered". And harder-to-measure measures, like "nutrient-dense" vs. "nutrient-deficient".

Sometimes we're hungry, we simply want something to eat, and all of this can be overwhelming.

But for those times when we are thinking about food, for professional reasons, philosophical reasons, or whatever, it can be useful to have frames of reference like these.

And if you want to grow the sweetest strawberries, you now know how.


Adrienne said...

In defense of the cherry tomatoes: it has been insanely warm this spring, everything is up and out ahead of schedule. My favorite farmer at the market has strawberries, raspberries and cherries all at once now, but the raspberries didn't show up until almost July last year.

Unknown said...

I was delighted to learn from a customer (at the garden center where I work) that letting the hot peppers "go dry" made them so much hotter and flavorful. Watering varied crops in that setting is an interesting endeavor and through the years the plants more or less tell you what they like, but hearing advice from those that love a particular vegetable is a delight and welcome information. Peg

Katie said...

I think you've pointed to an interesting happenstance, talking about how (on the consumer end, at least) "local" encapsulates a kind of foodie impulse toward quality food which overlaps nicely with the sustainability impulse (local food is quality-controlled i.e. not factory farmed i.e. tastes better, in addition to ethically *being* better, in addition to letting you to feel better about the world, so everyone wins) -- which is maybe not always the case?

There's something weird going on in that gap -- something about the affective qualities to food, where "taste" becomes a way to measure both, well, taste, and the ethical payoff of doing something good for the world (which has its own affective utility). I'm always amazed when I talk to farmers and they'd kind of taken aback by how the local foods movement perceives itself. It's a really humbling thing -- that this isn't actually new, and that people have been thinking about how to grow things for awhile, and that it's only *new" if you hadn't previously been paying attention.

Anyway, interesting! I like this blog!

Alex Lewin said...

Peg, your comment reminds me of an excerpt I read from _Eat Here_:

... the marginalization of farmers who have developed or inherited complex farming systems over generations means more than just the loss of specific crop varieties and the knowledge of how they best grow. “We forever lose the best available knowledge and experience of place, including what to do with marginal lands not suited for industrial production’, says Steve Gleissman, an agroecologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Alex Lewin said...

Adrienne, it's true, this year has been far ahead of schedule...especially compared to the miserable time we had last year.

Alex Lewin said...

Katie, thanks for your comment, and for your thoughts.

It's true, there is something sort of amusing about the local food movement discovering, or rediscovering, things that have been known for centuries.

If I may go Old Testament for a moment:

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, 'Look! This is something new'? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time."

Maybe computer technology is an exception... :-)