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From Both Sides Now

January 26, 2012

My mom is going to love the soundtrack to today’s post.

Screw local food. You know what I just ate? A tangerine. In upstate New York. At the end of January.
And I loved it.

You know what else I love? Coffee. That doesn’t grow here. Neither does chocolate. Nor the olives for my olive oil. For the past month we’ve eaten more rice than I ever thought imaginable, and I don’t know if it’s even possible to cultivate the grain in New York. If Little Miss Fussy had to give up her mango lassi habit, I fear she wouldn’t have the will to get out of bed for a month.

Sure, if one were enterprising, I imagine there is a way of producing a local salt. But pepper is out of the question. We have great local cheeses, but none of them is Parmigiano-Reggiano. If necessary, I could be content with local wine, beer and spirits. However I’m not giving up on the amazing variety of foodstuffs that, while they may come from far away, help to create a global village.

Now that you know I’m no ideologue, I have to tell you something about local food.

Some of it is amazing. There are some who will have you believe that local food is better just because it is grown by your friends and neighbors. That’s a really loose interpretation of better if you ask me. Perhaps you could make an argument that it’s better for the environment without all the added transportation costs, or better for the community since the money supports local business.

These are fine reasons to buy local foods. But they are not why I do it. I buy local foods because they taste better. Now that is a tenuous argument too, because not all locally grown foods taste better than those raised elsewhere. Think about milk. We have large industrialized milk facilities locally, which are just like those used all over the country to produce a consistent product state to state. Pretty much all milk that isn’t ultra-pasteurized is local as a matter of logistical necessity.

Let me say that again. Milk does not taste better because it’s local.

The local milk that does taste better does so not because it’s local. No, the good local milk is delicious because of the production practices used by a small operator who cares deeply about the product.

Some local fruits and vegetables taste better because they can be bred for flavor and not shelf life or transportation durability. Also, because they have less distance to travel, they can be picked later, closer to their peak ripeness, without as much risk of damage in transit. This short time from field-to-market is also critical for things like corn, where every day after it’s been picked sugar converts into starch.

Personally, I find that eating local gives me a much better sense and appreciation for the region and the natural cycles of the season. I know it’s spring, when the fiddleheads and ramps arrive. Summer officially starts before the first tomatoes come in, but it wouldn’t be summer for me without a no-cook panzanella of farm fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and red peppers.

I mention all of this now, because local farms are gearing up to prepare for the planting season. And that means those who operate under a Community Supported Agriculture model are starting to line up subscribers.

For the last two years, I have been a member of the Roxbury CSA. Last year was brutal. The year before was magnificent. So it goes. But even in the bad year, when hail ruined crops before the first harvest and the farm was decimated by two major floods, I still loved it.

Don’t be like me. I blew my chance at a Roxbury membership my first two years in the region. There aren’t many openings and they fill up quickly. That’s why I’m writing you now.

Open registration begins on Wednesday, February 1. That’s six days away. On that date, the forms and lists of open slots will be available on Roxbury’s website. Mark your calendars now. Plan to get online, and write a big check. You’ll need an envelope and a stamp too.

Then you’ll just have to cross your fingers and hope for great growing conditions.

And don’t worry. If you cannot get into the Roxbury CSA there are plenty of other local farms that run CSAs too. We are very lucky here in the Capital Region to have so many local farms that do good work. But I can tell you this now, when my local tomatoes come in, I’m dressing them with extra virgin olive oil and aged sherry vinegar from Spain.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2012 10:42 am

    I truly hope that the inspiration for this post came from this gem of a tablehopping comment: http://blog.timesunion.com/tablehopping/28440/dear-gordson-ramsay-hurry/#comment-545594

    • January 26, 2012 2:27 pm

      I just saw that comment and my blood is boiling. I loathe that form of ignorance.

  2. January 26, 2012 10:42 am

    Who cares about the incremental differences in taste between various milks? You buy local milk because it supports local farm families. If you don’t, they go away. This is your home, you have loyalty to it beyond your taste buds.

    • January 26, 2012 11:03 am

      I think sir, you may have skimmed my post. Pretty much all milk is local (or regional at worst). We’re not shipping in milk from China or even California. Even the Great Value brand generic milk from the big mega Albany/Guilderland Walmart actually comes from Plant No. 36-3661. Where’s that?

      Well it’s just an ugly way of saying that it comes from Byrne Dairy Inc of Syracuse.

      • January 26, 2012 11:48 am

        Haha, I did skim. Brushed over that paragraph. Milk is a bad example then, but you get my drift.

  3. mythineats permalink
    January 26, 2012 10:51 am

    I agree with you, when I lived in the states I had to conform to alot of the produce and condiments from there. Trying to find a delicious creamy espresso, extra-virgin olive oil, Parmiggiano Reggiano, is just never going to taste as it does in Italy. I started enjoying life when I stopped comparing.

  4. January 26, 2012 12:12 pm

    Ugh, I don’t even know where to start with this. Sometimes I have to remind myself you are a superbly nice guy IRL and that I really do like you.

  5. January 26, 2012 12:22 pm

    Agree with you 100%. Local does not always mean it’s better. I personally make the decision to buy local, but if the product or service doesn’t meet my expectation I go elsewhere. I have great pride and respect for many of our local producers and retailers, but sometimes logistics and regionality take over. For example, I love red wine. These grapes do not grow well in our area, so I generally default to California or Oregon for my particular favorite varietals.

    The milk example is spot on. Well done Sir.

  6. January 26, 2012 12:27 pm

    I…..agree. I like buying local produce because it (1) supports our peeps, (2) might taste better, (3) doesn’t travel as far, which is better for a lot of reasons. But at this time I don’t (and don’t want to) commit to only eating in-season local everything 24/7. But when the time comes, I’ll be buying our local tomatoes, peaches, cherries, greens instead of ones brought here from great distances. Two best bites of the summer were my Samascott cherries and Farmer Jon peaches.

  7. January 26, 2012 12:44 pm

    We really are fortunate to live in a region that has such an abundance of local vegetables during the growing season. Our CSA, Jus-Lin Farms, is out of Canajoharie, however there are so many to choose from that it is overwhelming. Not that I’m complaining. :)

  8. January 26, 2012 12:50 pm

    I just joined a CSA for the first time a few weeks ago – Dennison’s, one of my favorite vendors at the Troy Market. This has been the first year it’s been practical for me to join a CSA and I’m pretty stoked.

  9. January 26, 2012 2:40 pm

    I don’t want to join a CSA because I am a control freak and I want to be in charge of how much and what I buy and eat. I like the ritual of attending various farmer’s markets at least twice a week. And I like visiting farms and farm stands as often as possible to pick my own fruits and vegetables for eating and canning.

    But support local? That I can get behind. As long as it’s a local product worth supporting. I have heard people rave about certain local foods/specialties that have left me absolutely befuddled.

  10. mirdreams permalink
    January 26, 2012 7:49 pm

    We do actually make salt: http://www.ilovethefingerlakes.com/basics/geology-saltmines.htm.

  11. January 26, 2012 11:18 pm

    While it seems intuitive that local food has less a cost on the environment, many studies show this is not true. This is mainly because local food is transported by personal vehicles in small amounts to several distinct locations. Large global producers use sophisticated distribution systems, and move their product by the ton. This makes sense since lowering usage of fossil fuels also lowers the cost of doing business, thereby adding to their bottom line. What you’re left with is a business that uses less fuel not to be nice to the environment, but to be nicer to their pocket.

    Here’s an article from The Economist that really opened up my mind about organic, free trade, and local food http://www.economist.com/node/8380592. The results they report on are quite surprising and counterintuitive. Since then I have unsubscribed from all pro local, organic, and free trade movements, opting to buy what I like and let my dollar “vote” for the products I deem worthy.

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