At least one-third of all the food I buy for home use can truly be termed local, and at this season with farmers’ markets in full bloom, that score might rise to 70 percent. Yet I do not buy those fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, and poultry because they are local; I buy them because they are the very best available at this time. I therefore consider myself a bestavore.
Among reasons that I am not a locavore is that I have never really heard a firm definition of “local.” Should I hold out for the corn and tomatoes grown on Long Island instead of those from farther away farms in New Jersey? And what of Pennsylvania? (Solution: I buy the Long Island corn and the Jersey tomatoes, both being the better choices.) And to be a true locavore, would I have to forego citrus fruits, pineapples, avocados, coffee, vanilla, chocolate, and the heady spices of far-off exotic lands? I certainly applaud the farm-to-table movement and the encouragement of small farmers growing organically and reviving many long-forgotten, excellent seed strains. But nature being what she is there are differences in terroir and in strains that do their best in one particular climate.
The example here is peaches. As good as they can be when properly ripe from my local tri-state area, I have never had even one as richly golden and honeyed as the Georgia freestones. And so once each year in early summer, I order those sweet Georgians from Hale Groves. Similarly, once each winter I order Florida’s Indian River white grapefruit from the same source that I consider the world’s best. (Both of which I tested anonymously for my book 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.) No citrus is local for New Yorkers and markets here tend to feature only pink-to-red- grapefruit that lack the icy-yet-sunny tartness of the whites. Those peaches and grapefruit are my way of renewing the benchmarks that enable me to make more satisfying choices among second-bests.
Buying only what is in season is another admirable precept of locavores. But I generally shun such fruits and vegetables because they are rarely good, cases in point being big hollow Driscoll strawberries from California and fibrous bitter asparagus from Latin America. I do however buy dark, winey frozen wild Maine blueberries when our locals are at an end.
The viewpoint of localism that I tend to agree with is that of Thomas Keller who has been castigated for offering supposedly non-local foods at both his magical French Laundry in the Napa Valley and at the stunning Per Se in New York. He prefers lobsters from Maine, butter from Vermont, lamb from Pennsylvania and he values the very local herbs and vegetables from his own and other neighboring farms around Yountville. His view is that anything that can be at his door within 24 hours of being harvested or produced is local enough for him. He feels, rightly, that it is his job to provide the very best in the world to his guests. (To be sure the volume of the upscale foods he buys is small, and even trucks traveling to farmers’ market often 3 to 5 hours each way leave imprints on the environment.) When I once toured his sparkling French Laundry kitchen, he offered a taste of his richly complex Manini olive oil from Italy. “I’ve never found a California olive oil that I really like,” he explained. So how could he serve something he considers inferior to his guests?
Another consideration to me is perhaps either philosophical or political (or both) especially on an international basis. I believe that trading with far-flung places helps form links between people. Making deals, meeting and breaking bread with counterparts, and becoming interdependent can result in friendships, understanding, and respect, or, less happily of course, their opposites.
Most of all in keeping with their goal to reduce air pollution, sincere locavores should stay home or not travel any farther than they can mostly under their own power. That means walking, skating, biking, riding horseback, swimming, rowing, sailing, or gliding. Then they would not be flying across the country in giant jets to lecture us, thereby leaving big carbon footprints in the sky.