Monday, March 29, 2010

Food of a Place

Think of what’s special about a place, and often it’s the food. Afterall, food is sensual and evocative.

Maybe that food is part of the historical culture of the place. From living in west central Kansas I have a fondness for bierocks (cabbage and ground beef in a bread pocket). It’s a favorite for Oktoberfest in Hays, Kansas and a favorite of our family even though we now live some distance from Hays. From our time in Colorado, we’re devotees of good Mexican food. Growing up in Kansas City left me with an appreciation of good BBQ.

Our present home in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan offers its own special, local foods that help make this special place even more special.

We haven’t really taken on the Yooper staple of pasties as a family favorite but it’s a special food for many up here. For my family, it’s more what nature provides. Collecting cranberries and blueberries is an annual family adventure. The cranberry sauce we make keeps for along time and the cranberry liquour even longer. We freeze blueberries and enjoy them year ‘round. Whitefish is another special favorite for us.

I even like the chokecherries. My fondness for them may be inexplicable when I’m in a woodland that simultaneously offers blackberries. I like the blackberries, but the chokecherries remind me of when I lived in the great plains and chokecherries were the fruit nature provided.

Special food of a place includes the foods people coax from nature. NW lower Michigan is rightfully famous for its fruit and we take a few trips down there in the fall to take advantage of the cherries, peaches, pears, apples. Stops at the local wineries add to the appeal of the trip. (On the same theme, while living in Colorado, we’d go out to the west slope for peaches, oh, yes, also the wineries).

We can't grow peaches, pears and cherries very well up here in the Eastern UP. Cold, wet, clay soils and short growing seasons doesn’t make for ideal growing conditions for very many fruits. But with timely rains in a warm summer, even here one can entice a garden to produce some great food. I've never had an easier time growing peas!

The French understand the food of a place. They understand that each place’s unique soils, climate, geography, and agricultural practices produce unique flavors of foods. Terroir is the French term for sense of place applied to food. It’s most expressed in the appellation controlee for wines. Single estate coffee and now single estate chocolate follow the same idea. The European Community protects the ‘brands’ of foods of place. The fact that only cheese made in Parma, Italy can be sold as Parmesan in the European Community is just one of hundreds of examples. That’s about as opposite of the homogenizing influence of national restaurant chains as one can get.

One doesn’t need government regulations to enjoy the special, unique foods of a region. So enjoy your local foods. Support your local farmer’s markets. Or grow some of your own. Our communities would all be better off if people spent more of their time baking and gardening.

A note about food miles. One of the arguments for local foods is to reduce the food miles – the distance food traveled from farm to your plate – and presumably the carbon footprint of your food. I’m all for fair international trade, and like to have access to bananas and coffee, but come on Dole and WalMart, do the canned peaches sold in WalMart here in Michigan really have to come from China? (I’ve made a hobby of reading labels for origin of foods.) The most extreme case I saw a few years ago was lake whitefish, labeled “wild caught in Canada, product of China.” That experiment apparently was not sustainable.

But there are limits to the food miles argument. It can be less energy-intense to truck fruits in from an area I which they can be grown under the sun than to grow them in heated greenhouses. The critics of the local food concept like to point that out.

By that argument, we shouldn’t cook our own food from scratch. It’s got to be more efficient to have the big plant make chicken nuggets for us to microwave than for each of us to heat up our own ovens to cook our own chicken and then discard the bones and other bits when we’re done. At the chicken nugget factory, every part of the chicken is used as a resource, not much is thrown away. And the nuggets are even made from parts of the chicken we maybe don’t always use (I admit I don’t make chicken stock every time I bake a chicken and even when I do, the bones eventually get discarded).

No thanks, chicken nuggets, I’ll invest some energy use and maybe generate some discarded bones by cooking my own. And I’ll look for locally produced foods.

Food connects you to your place. And the farther away your food is grown (literally or figuratively) the more detached you become from the food and from your place. That’s how kids end up not knowing where there food comes from, or, as shown on a recent TV show, can’t even identify vegetables. (On that show the kids knew French fries, but couldn’t identify a potato.) Whether you call it terroir or just call it support for local foods, the result is the same. Appreciate the specialness of foods from your place. And share your ideas of foods from your place. I'd love to hear them.

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