I've been thinking about a recent post by Barrett Buss of Too Many Chefs fame. For those of you you don't know, this is a classic and established blog that's always unique and interesting.
Mr. Buss casts a critical glance at the virtues of eating locally. The title "Eat local? No thanks." says it all. He argues that eating things that have been produced locally is over-rated. First, he observes that food is not merely epicurean but also economic. He points out that empires have historically depended upon the trade of food to maintain their hegemonies. Second, he argues that this trade has played a transformative role in ethnic cuisines. Most people forget that the tomato is a new world ingredient, and yet it is a cornerstone of Italian cuisine today. And third, he argues that it is unduly restrictive and perhaps outdated to restrict one's diet to those foods that can only be produced locally. In Chicago, that would mean eliminating bananas, mangoes, and some hot peppers from your diet.
To be fair and balanced, he does make a case for local produce having a "freshness advantage" and presumably other factors of culinary superiority. He does encourage his readers to support local farmers' markets and to buy shares in CSAs.
However, as to the author's thesis that eating globally isn't a bad thing, to this I must steal Mr. Buss's verbage and say "Phooey!"
I'm obviously not prepared to enter into a debate about the economic factors influencing world empires throughout history. So, yes, I'll agree that food is a commodity whose trade has economic dimensions.
But I will contest Mr. Buss on the point that the addition of global produce to our diet is a good thing. I will freely admit that I a can offer no punditry on the subject of Italian cuisine. But to say that Italian cuisine depends upon the tomato seems like a myopic "spaghetti and meatballs" perspective. As Anthony Bourdain notes in his Les Halles Cookbook, Italian chefs wait for tomatoes with much anticipation. They don't use the flavorless supermarket fruits that most of us got confused for real, delicious tomatoes. The Italians eat many, many tomato free dishes as anyone who has paged through one of Marcella Hazan's fine cookbooks will tell you.
Secondly, Mr. Buss's comparison of Italian food without the tomato to German food without the potato (another new world contribution!) is literally comparing tomatoes to potatoes. Tomatoes are extremely fragile fruits that are at the peak of their culinary usefulness for a brief moment in the year and then disappear as quickly as they came. To eat a good tomato, you must savor it at the peak of their season. The tomato is savored for its brilliant fruity flavor. The potato is a horse of a different color. It is a root vegetable that can be stored for months in a dark cellar without any significant harm. The potato is enjoyed for its earthy neutrality, whose starch makes it easy to combine in any number of dishes. So it's not obvious to me that you can compare the role of the tomato in Italy to that of the potato in Germany.
Although these matters might be dismissed as minor details that evade the main point, Mr. Buss's seems to not have noticed that the Italians and Germans produce their own tomatoes and potatoes locally. Even if it can safely be said that these produce items have become fundamental to their national cuisines, they have cultivated them in their own fields instead of having them shipped thousands of miles. Thus, they have defined their national cuisines using local produce regardless of the botanical origins of each species. It would therefore be a mistake to argue that we would be following an Italian or German precedent in developing a cuisine based upon global produce.
Mr. Buss's final argument in opposition to eating locally is that it would be sad to forego such items as "mangoes and bananas and avacados and coconuts and oranges and lemons." Maybe it's the hour, but I don't see how this kind of argument has any kind of traction. Saying "no" to something because you don't want it doesn't correlate to an ethic. I, too, enjoy these ingredients too much to ever give them up completely. Lemon meringue pie is one of the most glorious desserts I know. But just because I like the pie doesn't mean that there aren't negative consequences to shipping lemons from who-knows-where to Madison, Wisconsin.
But therein lies an ethical line that everyone has to draw as an individual.