Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Eat Local Challenge Day 4: Buying the farm and what defines "local"

Posted By on Wed, Jun 5, 2013 at 12:22 PM

Much of the produce from the Crescent City Farmers Market was not available in Louisiana 500 years ago
  • ALEJANDRO DE LOS RIOS
  • Much of the produce from the Crescent City Farmer's Market was not available in Louisiana 500 years ago

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.

STATS

Day: 4
Total meals eaten today: 3
Non-local items eaten: 4
Vices: Beer, coffee, bread

This was the day I was looking forward to since I started the challenge: My first trip to the Crescent City Farmer's Market. Known to many locals, the Market gathers three times a week, rotating through locations in Uptown, Mid-City and the Warehouse District and showcases a vast array of meat, produce and other locally harvested and pre-made foods. This I knew would be a mecca for local eating and I was hoping to properly stock my fridge with not only all the primary ingredients I needed to cook meals, but also a few secondary ingredients as well.

As far as choice, the Farmer's Market didn't disappoint and I was only limited by my own knowledge of how to cook the food that was available. Pictured above is my haul from the day. It includes nectarines, blueberries, strawberries, leeks, alligator sausage, greek yogurt, creole tomatoes, white onions, a baguette and a pot of oregano. I spent about a half hour looking over the selections and picking out my food and, content with my purchases but sweating from hot Louisiana sun, I decided to cool down with a homemade juice from Amanda's juices.

Anyone who frequents the Crescent City Farmer's Market should be familiar with Amanda's juices and popsicles. Made fresh, they're a delicious, if not a bit pricey, alternative to store-bought juices which more often than not contain as many preservatives and high fructose corn syrup as they do actual fruit. I bought an 8 oz. bottle of juice and went on my way.

Then it hit me: this is a bottle of orange-pineapple-strawberry juice. Two of those ingredients aren't local. Well, crap.

If you've been reading my entries, you know I've spent a lot of time talking about what it truly means to eat local and the complications that can result from striving to eat a 100% local diet. I'm not alone in grappling with the "challenge" portion of the Eat Local Challenge. Looking through the message boards on the ELC website, you'll find a slew of people seeking advice on where to find certain food items to replace non-local staples of their diet. Also, tellingly, many of the recipes posted on the boards contain at least some non-local ingredients (be it olive oil, flour or garlic).

That's when I started to question everything I had just bought. The juice obviously not a local product but I also thought about the baguette. Though locally made, it is made from ingredients that aren't local. I also couldn't be sure if the alligator sausage I bought was 100% alligator meat or if it was mixed with other ingredients (let alone where those ingredients came from). This extends to the boudin from Cleaver & Co. Did they use only Louisiana rice and spices?

If you want to really go through the looking glass, even the produce - which I know was grown locally - can be considered "non-local". Tomatoes originated in Mexico before Spanish conquistadors introduced them to Europe and the rest of the world. Leeks and strawberries originated in Europe before making the voyage across the Atlantic during the colonization of America. Nectarines were a primarily Asian fruit before being introduced to the Western world via trade. Greek yogurt is obviously Greek, but one also has to consider that the milk from which they are made come from an animal that didn't exist in North America until the 15th century.

Taking all this information as a whole, it's hard not to scoff at the guidelines ruling the strictest level of the Eat Local Challenge, which asks participants to "imagine yourself a Native American Indian limited to only the foods that were available from the region." Aside from the blueberries, there was nothing I bought that would technically fit under this definition of local foods. You have to wonder how Native Americans in Louisiana survived at all (also, they didn't have air conditioning, which is bananas).

Of course, at this point, I'm being overly nit-picky. After all, as I said in my first post, the point of this challenge isn't to adhere to some Byzantine regulations about what I can or cannot eat, it's to be more conscious of where the food I eat comes from. There's no changing the fact that Europeans conquered the Americas and created fundamental changes to agriculture and livestock of the continent. But in the new status quo, it is still worth realizing that we have the ability to make small decisions that can positively affect our daily lives.

Since starting this challenge, my diet has balanced out considerably to the point where I don't feel the urge to snack between meals. Yesterday, my breakfast of blueberries and strawberries mixed in creole cream cheese and raw sugar held me over well until lunch, which was leftover sauteed veggies, mashed potatoes and hot pastrami on a slice of baguette.

Even my dinner out, prompted by my girlfriend's desire to eat immediately as opposed to waiting for the short ribs I was slow roasting to finish, was decidedly local. I don't consider myself much of a zealot, but I will fight anyone who argues against the awesomeness of Louisiana and Gulf Seafood. Last night, we visited the new Magazine St. seafood restaurant Basin and binged on Louisiana oysters, seafood gumbo, yellowfin tuna tartare and crawfish beignets. We finished with Basin's version of cracklings: sliced pork bell served on puffed pork skin. No, not all the ingredients were local (for one, the tartare contained watermelon and avocado, which was delicious) and the restaurant isn't one of the Eat Local Challenges 30 participating locations, but you can't deny that our dinner was a decidedly local meal.

So in the end, a day that began with an existential crisis over a bottle of juice ended with the comforting notion that eating locally has many different meanings. While the ingredients to my juice weren't from within 200 miles of New Orleans, Amanda's Juices is a decidedly local business that contributes to the local economy. The same goes for Basin and its tuna tartare. Though the dish included several non local ingredients, the fish was from the Gulf of Mexico and the restaurant is locally owned and features mostly local ingredients.

As it happens, in the 21st century, eating local can also mean eating global.

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