What to Do with What We’ve Got?

For the most part, when we talk about local food in the U.S. we refer to food that’s locally grown, not food that’s indigenous to an area or has a long history in it. There are exceptions, of course, perhaps increasingly, and climate obviously dictates some variation in what’s available and when in different places. But a farm-to-table menu or market display in Kalamazoo doesn’t look all that much different from one in Maine or Colorado, Georgia or California. There is, in other words, a kind of homogenized diversity to the local food movement (as there is in music, sports, politics, pretty much every manifestation of culture, which is now often broadcast globally but still of necessity always practiced locally). There are lots of reasons for this, some good (a non-provincial openness to foods from other places; good seed producers that serve people all over the country; etc.), some not-so-good (a loss of regional cuisines due to the great blandification of the American diet in the 20th century), some hard to judge as all good or all bad (the constant movement of people to schools and jobs in places different from where they grew up).

But this means that part of what Michael Pollan called the “omnivore’s dilemma” – if you can eat anything, what should you eat? – is what to do with the ingredients one obtains locally. Even if what we buy at the market or get in our CSA is, in fact, a truly regional item, almost none of us have a tradition of local cooking to draw on to prepare it. If we do, it’s probably a tradition that is itself an import from whatever immigrants we happen to be descended from as they adapted to the foods they found when they got here plus whatever ones they successfully brought with them. But even if we have such a tradition to draw on, none of us are bound by it. We have, essentially, total freedom to do what we want with what we find. Imposing a local diet on ourselves (100 mile or whatever) limits our freedom only a little ( though you may not feel so free when the waves of kale are crashing in from your CSA, or you’re staring at the logjam of zucchini that has washed down from your garden to your kitchen counter). But often enough we get to feel the freedom to eat how we want, and, like any freedom, it’s both exhilarating and more-than-a-little daunting. (Lack of money, of course, can limit us, and sometimes locally grown produce is expensive, but even on a modest budget, one can eat a very locally oriented diet. More on economics and food in the future.)

So what do we do with this freedom? How do we eat what we eat once we’ve decided to eat as locally as we can? Part of what my wife and I have done is what lots of people no doubt do, which is just to read a lot of cookbooks, food blogs, magazines, and the like and make recipes that look good. You can eat well doing this, especially now that there are a good number of print sources that reflect the farm-to-table ethos. But like the markets around the country, the cookbooks tend to be pretty similar in the kinds of recipes they offer and their ideas of what seasonality looks like. They’re like the local newscasters you can find in any city: they talk about what’s local, but the accent is the same no matter where you go.

The other thing I do, and that I find more satisfying, is to use cooking as an excuse to explore and connect to the past by following those few threads that I can find tying me to my ancestors, none of whom settled in this area. For some of you this will be much easier. But, like many, I’m an American mutt with little living presence of my ethinc past in my life. My parents grew up at the northern edge of the South (northern Virginia and the upper Ohio valley in Kentucky), and their ancestors immigrated from Italy, the British isles,  and Germany, all at least three or four generations ago (though some many more than that). My mom’s cooking growing up had some influences from her Northern Italian and German grandparents and her Appalachian relatives (one of her grandmothers was a Hatfield of the famous feuding family), plus a little from Lebanon, as she’d picked up some recipes from one of my dad’s aunts, who married a Lebanese man (unusual in early 20th century small-town Virginia), but it was mostly what had by then become standard American food, not identifiable in terms of its historical origins.

Of all of these, it’s food from my mom’s family roots in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy — the name refers to the foothills of the Alps, though the region covers the edge of the Alps themselves, which is where her family was from — that I’m drawn to most. Partly that’s because I actually got to see where her grandparents were from a number of years ago, including the old church in a little town on the side of a mountain – a stunningly beautiful setting that you’d only leave if you had to. (See Angelo Pellegrini’s 1948 The Unprejudiced Palate for a good discussion of life as an Italian peasant and why people would choose to give it up. My grandfather was a stone mason, but I think the economic pressures were much the same.) But it’s also because the cuisine adapts well to what we have available here. Since it’s in the foothills of the Alps, it’s cooler than in lots of other places in Italy. There’s good land for grazing but not as much for large scale cropping, so beef and dairy products are a big part of the cooking, as is rice, which was brought up from nearby regions (once you’re out of the mountains you’re in risotto country). Game and freshwater fish are all central to the cooking, with salt-preserved anchovies from the nearby coastal region also showing up frequently. The recipes tend to be simple and ingredient focused, as in the rest of Italy, and so they make for good home cooking. The best book I’ve found is called A Passion for Piedmont by Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer. (The wines of the region, most famously Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera, also all happen to be wonderful, though until I make a lot more money, I won’t be cooking the famous beef in Barolo dish from the region.) So, while our cooking remains eclectic, this regional focus gives it a kind of anchor, and me at least a little sense of connection to a part of the world that had and continues to have not just locally produced food, but a real local cuisine.

What about you? How do you decide what to do with our local abundance?

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