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Taking a Bite out of History

How far are you removed from the necessity — and pleasure — of eating local?

    Is Buy Local Week preaching to the choir?    
    If local foods are already a mainstay of your diet, you don’t need persuasion — though a chance for a basket of local goodies and free ice cream in Western Maryland might lure you to post your locavore photos at www.buy-local-challenge.com.
    If your corn comes out of a can, your potatoes out of a box, your year-round apples from who-knows-where and your burgers from anyplace, then what difference does this little-advertised promotion make to you?
    Fast foods taste good. A whole lot of science, consumer testing and marketing goes into the satisfaction quotient of burgers, sodas and fries.
    Convenience feels good. After shucking a dozen ears of corn — especially if I’m then going to cut off the kernels — I can understand why women welcomed first canned and then frozen corn. Me, I feel shucked out after one meal. They prepared three a day, often for big hungry families who’d been working their bodies for necessity rather than exercise. If they were country women, they had almost certainly planted, nourished, weeded and harvested the garden, with their children working alongside.
    The labor of providing plenty was a Genesis story in my maternal Italian family’s immigrant life. Braided onions and garlic hung in the barn rafters, bread baked for the table, wine and wine vinegar worked in wooden barrels. A few pennies worth of meat was a luxury.
    “We were never hungry after we got a cow,” mother told me. From the milk, her mother made cheese and butter. Born in 1921 weeks after her family’s arrival to Southern Illinois, my mother found life’s meaning in hard work. But standing in for her mother, Catherine Olivetti, during a few days hospitalization reduced the vigorous 20-year-old to tears. “I’ve never worked harder in my life,” she told me.
    How many generations are you removed from the necessity and pleasure of eating local? How far have you reverted?
    Does the taste of place make a difference to you? That’s what we’re hoping to recognize when we make a big deal of where our food comes from. Can you taste the locality of the tomatoes now ripening in our gardens? The eggs laid by chickens down the street? The corn, squash and beans grown in our own counties and brought to market by the farmers who planted and tended them to maturity? The beef and lamb raised on local grass or the pork and chicken fortified on table scraps?
    How do you calculate the balance of convenience versus fresh and local?
    Each one of us has our own scale.
    “Back then we had gardens; now we have Whole Foods,” Annapolitan septuagenarian Elizabeth Smith chided youngster Andrew Wildermuth in this week’s In Their Own Words.
    In July, I harvest tomatoes and cucumbers planted by my husband, often slicing them with onions he’s raised. This year’s crop of garlic will last a whole year, though my grandmother’s braiding skill is a lost art. For most else that rises from earth, I shop farmers markets.
    Mid-winter, I’ll certainly shop at Whole Foods, without so many scruples about what’s local. But I’ll want my oysters from Chesapeake Bay just as my crab was in summer.
    All year long I’ll gladly buy avocado, bananas and lemons, cheese and yogurt and spices, hoping I remember to be grateful for my diet’s world-round reach. We’ll order our coffee from Peets, olive oil from California and grapefruit and oranges from Florida.
    The food we eat tells our human story, the necessity and choices of generations, including our own. Eating local, I like to think, is taking a bite out of history. It’s a bigger lesson than you can manage in a week.