The contrarian in me grinned when I read the concept. Time columnist Joel Stein pulls an anti-Pollan: He will cook dinner using only ingredients that traveled at least 3,000 miles from his home in L.A.
And — deliciously — he will do his shopping at Whole Foods, which he declares “the local-food movement’s most treasured supermarket, the one that has huge locally grown signs next to the fruits and vegetables.”
Ha, ha. It is a pretty funny joke — especially on those in the local-food movement who treasure Whole Foods (a miniscule number, in my experience). But Stein’s article brims with commonsense idiocies. Even though his piece is sure to inspire all manner of outrage throughout the locavore blogosphere — precisely his goal, no doubt — I’ll add my voice as well.
The funniest line may have been unintentional: Sourcing his long-distance meal, it turned out, “was not an easy task. Farmers in Southern California, it seems, can grow anything.”
Here Stein is unwittingly acknowledging a triumph of the local-food movement. Even 10 years ago, in most places throughout the U.S. where “farmers can grow anything,” supermarkets including Whole Foods carried little in the way of local produce. Farmland tended to be dominated by monocrops; small and mid-sized diversified farms were under extreme pressure and lacked market access.
Today, in metro areas surrounded by ag-friendly land throughout the United States, things have gotten much better. Farmers markets and CSAs connected consumers with farmers, and farmers began to be rewarded for growing diverse crops with quality, not just yield, as the driving goal.
Eventually, supermarkets — including, but not only, Whole Foods — began trumpeting their devotion to local produce, and even buying from local farmers.
Of course, there are still significant problems. After 50 years of rapid consolidation and industrialization of the food system, huge infrastructural gaps limit the potential of local food systems. Canneries, slaughterhouses, milk-processing facilities, central storage and wholesaling spaces — all used to be common features across the land, and all have become scarce as fewer and fewer corporations grab hold of more and more of the food system.
Largely because of this infrasructural gap, local food tends to be more expensive than factory fare — making it in a sense a luxury for the well-off.
Yet tremendous progress has been made. How excellent that Stein had trouble finding nonlocal produce at his L.A. Whole Foods.
Stein’s ignorance of this history leads him to a whopper. Making fun of politician Chris Dodd for praising the eat-local movement in Iowa, Stein lets loose with this bit:
Dodd was basically telling the Iowans that every night they should decide whether to accompany their pork with creamed corn, corn on the cob, corn fritters or corn bread. For dessert, they could have any flavor they wanted of fake ice cream made from soy, provided that flavor was corn.
Right, because all you can grow in Iowa is corn, soy, and pork. Ha, ha. But Iowa as corn/soy/pork factory is a pretty new concept.
Turns out that for most of its agricultural history, Iowa’s rich topsoil produced all manner of delicious fruits and vegetables (PDF). And today, largely because of the same movement that transformed the produce section of Stein’s Whole Foods, Iowa’s agridiversity is coming back with a vengeance. You can get a terrific local meal in Iowa City — and even Sioux City.
After taking his silly poke at Dodd, Stein gets around to reporting on his meal. Comparing himself (appropriately) to “some sort of insane European king,” Stein recounts his shopping trip:
Marcona almonds from Spain that were so much softer, sweeter and nuttier than any I can get here; Greek olives; Brie from France; smoked salmon from Scotland. I thought about getting a rack of lamb from New Zealand, but I couldn’t resist asking the guy behind the seafood counter for the fish with the most frequent-flyer miles. I was going to get the opah from Fiji, but then I spotted the Chilean sea bass from South Georgia island, southeast of Argentina — more than 7,000 miles of travel just to get eaten for a magazine article … I added some asparagus from Peru to my shopping cart and, for dessert, threw in a pineapple from Hawaii (which was cheating, it turned out, at just 2,500 miles, but it looked so good and my sense of geography is so bad) and a young coconut from Thailand.
The tone pretty much summarizes the trouble with the modern Western way of eating: all of these wondrous products appear before Stein as if by magic; he has no idea of the social/ecological context in which that “young coconut” grew; what it does to South Georgia and its citizens to satisfy his sea-bass habit, etc.
Nor does he care: his point is that he has access to these wondrous products, and should thus be able to enjoy them at will. Stein’s likening himself to a king reminds me of a passage from Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud’s meditation on human happiness and lack thereof. Writing in 1929 — and still embittered by the insanity of World War I — Freud considers recent technological breakthroughs:
All these assets he [modern man] may lay claim to as his cultural acquisition. Long ago he formed a conception of omnipotence and omniscience, which he embodied in his gods. To these gods he attributed everything that seemed unattainable to his wishes, or that was forbidden to him. One may say, therefore, that these gods were cultural ideals. Today he has come very close to the attainment of this ideal; he has almost become a god himself.
An almost-god in his kitchen, Stein lords over his ingredients and congratulates himself on his power to consume from all corners of the globe. Back to Freud:
Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all of his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.
Likewise, our food system, for all of its power to deliver us the world’s bounty seemingly without effort, still gives us much trouble at times — and is likely not done troubling us.
Stein also claims the local-food movement revels in “self-denial.” An ironic charge, given that he willfully denied himself all of that wonderful Southern California produce.