Local Shmocal

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

What self-respecting restaurant critic isn’t weary of the whole locavore phenomenon? Imagine the horrors that would unfold if every chef in town began to forage, with grim political correctness, from within the city’s local “food shed”? There would be no truffles from Tuscany, no fat Nebraska prime rib, no sushi of any kind. In the winters, local gourmands would find themselves subsisting on frozen striped bass, pickled dandelion greens, and overpriced Long Island wine.

Then there’s the excruciating preciousness of it all. The food community has always been a voluble, fractious group, prone to fits of self-righteousness. As with environmentalists, a general rule about food people is the more we know about a certain topic, the more pedantic we tend to sound. (Mario Batali expounding on the glories of lardo sounds an awful lot like Al Gore expounding on fluorocarbons.) In the old days, however, nobody gave much of a damn about what food people thought or said. But now, the homegrown movement has entered the media mainstream, and the mullahs are out barking the message from every rooftop.

Not that I’m opposed to the new orthodoxy, mind you. Unlike some foodies I know, I’ve actually read past page 152 of Michael Pollan’s opus The Omnivore’s Dilemma. This summer, my wife and I thought it would be a good idea (okay, she thought it would be a good idea) to join a farm co-op, and so we were inundated, on a weekly basis, with more squeaky-clean “local” vegetables (wartish heirloom tomatoes, giant phallic zucchini, copious fronds of Swiss chard) than we could ever hope to eat. But as we packed for our annual pilgrimage to an island in Maine, I was looking forward to a few days of blessed relief. There would be no righteous Greenmarket visits on this vacation (the produce on the island is mostly shipped in), no worries about trans fats (lobstermen subsist largely on trans fats), no obsessive chatter about how a bunch of bananas at the local D’Agostino produces a larger carbon footprint than burning a bucket of coal in China.

So imagine my chagrin when, during my first day on the island, a well-meaning neighbor asked whether my little family and I ever cooked, in our small shack by the harbor, “from the land.” I didn’t mention the grocery items I’d just unpacked, among them several cords of Cape Cod potato chips, a pound or two of chemically colored bologna, a giant box of Cheese Nips (which go nicely with Bloody Marys), and numerous canisters of fructose-rich soft drinks. “From the land?” I asked. The woman looked up at me hopefully. “Last night at our house, we enjoyed the most marvelous fresh periwinkles,” she said.

From there, the situation went steadily downhill. One of the charms of this little island is that it’s irredeemably behind the times. There is one grocery store, the contents of which are subject to the whims of the ferry schedule. But it soon became apparent that even here, ten miles out to sea, the doctrines of culinary propriety had been spreading like some wild disease. Later, I visited the newest restaurant on the island, where summer folk were dining on little golden crab cakes made from local crabs, elegant lobster potpies made with local lobsters, even deliciously briny local oysters newly available, I was startled to learn, at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central.

The next day, in a lather of denial, I made another trip to the grocery store to stock up on more unorganic, chemically saturated, carbon non-neutral provisions. At lunchtime, I grazed, glumly, on my Cape Cod potato chips, devoured several bologna sandwiches, and ate more Oreo cookies than I care to count. But that evening, I was invited to a dinner, the theme of which, my hostess merrily declared, was food foraged from the local waters around the house. There was a time, not long ago, when the aged Wasp families in their gently decaying compounds subsisted on a steady diet of stale Triscuits, deviled eggs, and gin. But alas, those days have passed. We did have Triscuits that evening, but they were spread with a tasty dip flavored with fresh line-caught mackerel. After that, we dined, like a tribe of Indians, on salty mussels boiled with bits of onion. Then came very nice fish cakes made with the remnants of a striped bass that only hours before had been swimming merrily in the sea.

“Maybe we should give a dinner party,” mused my wife, a little tentatively, the next day. “I don’t think that would be a good idea,” I muttered, my cheeks full of Oreos. But later in the week, we returned, furtively, to the new restaurant for more oysters from our local “food shed.” I was even compelled to check out the book all the ladies at the library were talking about: Barbara Kingsolver’s best-selling paean to the joys of the homegrown diet, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I admired the photo of those weird psychedelic beans on the cover and made notations on the studiously cloying, garden-porn descriptions of asparagus and pole beans. Mercifully, I only reached page 58 (Kingsolver rapturously describes her first homegrown salads as “crisp and still sun-warmed from the garden”) before it was time to head back to the big city. On my way into town to return the book, I ran into an old island acquaintance. “How’s the vacation going?” he asked. “Vacation,” I replied, “what vacation?”

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