Next time you go out for dinner at your favorite restaurant, you may see some name-dropping on the menu. But the names you'll see won't necessarily be those of the chef who prepared your meal or the celebrities who've been spotted there. You're more likely to see the names of the farmer up the road who grew your greens, the rancher who raised your beef, and the neighborhood artisan who churned your butter.
In the past decade, local farmers and small-scale food producers have morphed from anonymous links in the food chain to superstars in the culinary world. Why? Because some of the most accomplished chefs and food lovers are discovering that locally produced ingredients create healthier, better-tasting meals, and that farmers' markets and community- supported agriculture programs provide support to small or family farms that use traditional and sustainable practices.
Before you dig into your next meal, take a look at your plate and ask yourself: How many miles did those shiitakes schlep before they reached my cutting board? How many people handled that halibut before it landed on my grill? According to the USDA, the average piece of produce in the United States travels about 1,500 miles from farm to fork, a process that burns precious fossil fuels and generates greenhouse gases. To remedy the aesthetic and environmental issues posed by food that travels halfway across the continent, groups of committed "locavores" have led "100-mile diet" campaigns, challenging people to live solely on foods grown or harvested within a 100-mile radius of their homes.
The idea of eating what's within walking distance is, of course, as old as our species. For millennia-before industrialization, refrigeration, and the combustion engine-humans had no choice but to eat what was at hand. But the rise of the modern-day local-food movement is often traced to Alice Waters, who opened her influential Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, Chez Panisse, in 1971. Disgusted with the quality of the produce she was buying, Waters tore up her backyard and grew her own greens. She and her staff sought out farmers' markets (there were fewer than 350 at the time) and forged relationships with local producers, helping them to develop into thriving businesses. In the years since Waters set up shop, the number of farmers' markets across the country has increased more than tenfold.
"The food at the farmers' market is much more alive, nutritious, and flavorful," says Monica Pope, the critically acclaimed chef of the Houston restaurant T'afia, which serves almost all local and organic fare. Pope has also discovered that purchasing food directly from neighborhood purveyors creates a satisfying emotional relationship. "When I started, I thought buying local would just look better, taste better. But it ends up actually changing your community." That's what happened to Alexandra Guarnaschelli, executive chef at New York City's Butter restaurant. "I found myself loading a cab with 50 pounds of beets and 80 pounds of escarole," she says, recalling her first visit to the farmers' market in Union Square. "I went back every week because I loved it. And I love contributing to the livelihood of people who are dedicated to great things."
Like farmers' markets, community-based agriculture programs (CSAs) have brought cooks and producers together both economically and emotionally. Participants write a check each spring to a local farm or group of farms, buying a share of the harvest. Members then receive a weekly or biweekly allotment of seasonal produce, and farmers are able to stabilize their income and achieve a measure of security. The CSA movement, which began in 1985, now comprises more than 1,700 farms. "I've been driving by Dine's farm since I was a kid," says CSA participant Kara Zuaro of the poultry farm she helps to support in Long Island, N.Y. "I was shocked when I found out how animals are treated at factory farms. Now that I have a tangible connection to Dine's, I love walking the grounds and watching the chickens meandering around and pecking away at things."
Community support for local producers extends to those who get food from the sea: At the acclaimed Portland, Maine, restaurant Five Fifty-Five, chef Steve Corry's menu includes Atlantic halibut from local fisherman who employ the traditional (and sustainable) line-catching technique rather than using environmentally destructive trawlers. In New Orleans, chef Donald Link consistently features Gulf shrimp at his restaurants, Herbsaint and Cochon. The power of being connected to a place through food came into sharp focus for Link in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "Two weeks after the storm, I was trying to figure out where I was going to get food to sell," Link recalls. "I called Dino, my shrimp guy. His boats had made it through the storm and he was ready to shrimp, but he had no one to sell to. I told him I would write my menu to sell as much shrimp as I could. It was obvious that he needed me to make a living and I needed him."
In a world of increasingly "global" cuisine, where cooks rely on food purveyors from the far corners of the planet, the localfood movement is deepening the relationship between chefs and their neighborhood producers-and helping to ensure that regional culinary traditions and the freshest, most flavorful foods continue to thrive.
Eat Local, Then Write A Memoir
Considering committing to the "eat local" ethos? These recent books will entertain and inspire:
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins, 2007)
In her trademark crystalline prose, Kingsolver recounts her family's move from suburban Tucson to a small homestead in rural Virginia, where they committed to buying, growing, and eating only food grown or raised within 100 miles for one year. "If many of us would view this style of eating as deprivation," Kingsolver writes, "that's only because we've grown accustomed to the botanically outrageous condition of having everything, always."
Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon (Harmony, 2007) The creators of 100milediet.org begin their memoir in a tiny cabin in the Canadian Rockies, where one night they found themselves with nothing to eat but a moldy cabbage. After catching fresh fish in a nearby creek and foraging for wild mushrooms and apples from an abandoned orchard, they enjoyed a glorious feast and asked themselves, "Is there some way to carry this meal into the rest of our lives?" Their book is a breezy account of how they managed to do just that.
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2006) Already a classic in the field, Pollan's often humorous book depicts the various, sometimes hair-raising processes that bring food from the field to the table. Documenting the journey of a McDonald's dinner, for instance, from its beginnings in an industrial cornfield to its consumption in a moving car, Pollan delivers a stinging critique of what's wrong with American food culture and agribusiness. His forays into eating locally include a meal purchased from a self-sustaining organic farm and the ultimate back-to the- land meal, in which Pollan either killed or foraged everything on his plate.