For the month of June, I will be chronicling my participation in the Third Annual New Orleans Eat Local Challenge. Every day, I will post about all the meals I had the day before and the ups and downs of trying to eat only locally-sourced or grown food. Because this is my first foray into being a "locavore", I will be doing the second-strictest level of the challenge.
Total meals eaten today: 3
Non-local items eaten: 7
Vices: Beer, coffee, bread
One of the themes I can already see myself coming back to time and again this month is the idea of food as politics in the first world. Only in fully developed countries, where food is so abundant that obesity is a bigger problem than starvation, can food be used as a political statement. As of now, it's difficult to gauge where I fall (if anywhere) in the debate about the impact of mass-produced food and last night was no help.
This was going through my mind as I attended a weekly pot-luck dinner that a group of friends holds every Sunday, many times with an international theme. Most of the people in the group are service-industry workers in New Orleans at small, locally sourced restaurants (including my absolute favorite restaurant, Boucherie). Working in kitchens, many of our friends are exceptional cooks at home and there is usually more than enough food to go around. For the most part, these are well balanced meals we eat on Sundays; I don't remember a time they meal lacked a protein, a carb, a starch or a vegetable. And, as is probably typical of most New Orleans dinners, our time spent not eating is usually spent talking about what we've eaten the week before or are looking forward to eating next.
Most of the time, however, what we make for dinner is hardly local and last night's main course of hamburgers and macaroni and cheese were no exception.
Most of the people I talked to said it was cool that I was taking part in the Eat Local Challenge and wanted to know how my experience was going. Well, aside from being limited to just one and a half days, I said that the main thing I couldn't get over was just how much food I can't eat. I can't use olive oil or butter to cook; I've had a hard time finding juices so I can only drink water, milk and beer (one of my vices); I'm finding it hard to snack; I can't wrap my head around not being able to eat most local brands.
Meals are harder when you eat locally. For the first two days, my breakfast was the same: a smoothie of creole tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, blueberries and milk. Lunch yesterday was hot pastrami (from Cleaver & Co.) with sautéed mushrooms, zucchini and red onions on Rouses french bread. I was eating bigger portions knowing that I would have less opportunities to snack. I was also spending a lot of money on food (nearly $200 in just a few days).
The consensus in the room is that being a 100% locavore can be admirable, if a bit daffy. The strictest level of the Eat Local Challenge tells participants to imagine themselves as Native Americans who can only eat what they can find locally. Though definitely "doable" one immediately runs into problems. You can't eat bread, chocolate or tropical fruit. You can't drink coffee, beer, or store-bought juice. Your diet will be heavy on seafood proteins and light on carbs. You most definitely cannot eat out.
Many of us questioned the practicality of such an endeavor and, with such great local restaurants, the desirability of it. My friends asked if I would be able to eat any of the food aside from the locally-grown salad I was preparing. I told them there was no way I could do the strictest level of the challenge and that every Sunday dinner would just be one of my "off the wagon" meals. Some friends teased me that I was cheating and my girlfriend, already sick of my conversations about the pros and cons of eating locally, said "well you might as well give up now."
Of course, anyone participating in the challenge knows that it's less about making sure everything you eat is local and more about just changing your mindset as a consumer and making you aware about where your food comes from. There is definitely a value to not shopping like a zombie and just picking the most readily available or cheapest foods. But as my friends and I discussed, isn't there also an intrinsic value in the fact that we have the ability to eat food from all over the world? Different foods expose us to different cultures and cuisines, not to mention helps us diversify and balance our diets.
My contribution to the dinner was a salad made from all locally grown produce including beets, baby portabellas, green peppers and creole tomatoes. The diversity of the produce showed that being a locavore didn't mean sacrificing taste or creativity, but it was hard to think that I commit to eating only items grown or sourced within 200 miles as I was eating the hamburger and mac and cheese prepared by our hosts. It also sparked the conversation of what being a locavore really means. Why don't local products like Zapp's chips, Abita beer and Hubig's pies count? Doesn't the local impact on the economy outweigh the fact that they import some of their ingredients? Also, hasn't the idea of "local cuisine" changed dramatically over the past 150 years? Even gumbo, the most quintessential New Orleans dish, wouldn't be possible if we couldn't import flour and butter from other parts of the country to make roux.
At the end of the night, none of these questions really mattered, though. One of the great modern experiences with food is the ability for it to bring people together and to be the centerpiece of conversation beyond how to accrue it. It is now a luxury to be able to choose to eat local because it has become so easy to whip up a dinner party by just driving to the store and buying food from all over the world. I'm not sure if I'm ready to give up on the latter experience just to make a political statement with the former.
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