Several years ago, I was at dinner with a friend, a fellow food lover, a man for whom dining out is preferable to virtually every other form of human interaction. The meal was no joy for either of us. It was mediocre and expensive, and I said so with a sigh when the check came.
“It was honest,” my friend said, leaping to defend what had seemed to me indefensible.
The chef was known for sourcing locally and from small farmers. He had cultivated these purveyors, had worked with them to come up with products he wanted, and he aimed to present them as cleanly as possible, without engaging in kitchen tricks that might mask the purity of his raw materials. He was honest—in other words, he didn’t go in for cheap, processed products and try to pass them off on the dining public. He valued the small farmers who worked so hard to put out high-quality goods. He did things “the right way.”
My friend was therefore willing to extend to the chef the benefit of the doubt.
Me, I was peeved that he had squandered ingredients that a chef at a family-run Ethiopian or Vietnamese restaurant, tasked with turning frozen poultry and veggies into tasty dishes, would have regarded as a special treat. Peeved that, not for the first time, a chef seemed to have labored under the notion that credit was given for good intentions.
I’ve since had countless meals like this and countless conversations with true believers who worry that I’m not grasping the urgency of their message.
In the last 30 years, “local” has evolved from an ideology to a movement to something that looks suspiciously like an ism: more important than any single chef or restaurant—more important, too, than any other philosophy or ideology. It’s so ingrained in the world of food today that it’s all but impossible to talk meaningfully about food without talking about “local.”
And yet what do we talk about when we talk about “local”?
Not nearly enough, it turns out.
A Brief History of Local
In 1971, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, the restaurant that would forever alter the direction of food in America. From her kitchen in Berkeley, California, she sought the freshest possible ingredients, often from within a few miles of the restaurant.
Her focus on sourcing locally was, quite literally, a radical statement at a time when factory farming, agribusiness, and chain restaurants had recently cemented their dominance of the food supply. In the world of fine dining, Waters’s shunning of luxury ingredients flown in from Europe, white tablecloths, bowing waiters, and snooty maître d’s had the same bracing effect that punk rock, bubbling up in the culture at that time, had on popular music.
What Waters was to the West Coast, Nora Pouillon was to the East. In 1979, Pouillon opened Restaurant Nora, on a quiet, leafy block north of DC’s Dupont Circle. Twenty years later, it would become the first certified organic restaurant in the country.
The designation requires strict adherence: Ninety-five percent of all products in the kitchen must be organic. Restaurant Nora has been eclipsed in the last decade or so by a slew of places spreading her message with greater urgency and excitement, but it’s impossible to deny Pouillon’s influence. Ann Cashion, who went on to create the model for the small locally minded bistro at Cashion’s Eat Place and later at the original Johnny’s Half Shell, got her start under Pouillon, and Ann Yonkers, now codirector of the FreshFarm Markets, worked for her as a recipe tester and cookbook editor.
Pouillon says her motivation was simply to “find a more natural way to do things.” As a young and idealistic chef, she was troubled to learn that farmers could be allowed to “contaminate the soil and jeopardize families,” so she began driving to farms in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, quizzing farmers about their practices.
Jean-Louis Palladin was on a similar quest at the Watergate, determined to unearth the products unique not only to America but also to his chosen patch of the world. Palladin was concerned mainly with distinctiveness, not purity, but he and Pouillon frequently found themselves in the same company.
Pouillon eventually settled on a group of purveyors who were as committed and passionate as she was. She also began organizing bus tours, taking chefs to Pennsylvania to introduce them to the farmers important to her. From these trips emerged Tuscarora Organic Growers, a collective of Pennsylvania farmers that many area restaurants today turn to for their meats and produce.
It wasn’t enough, Waters and Pouillon and others argued, for food to taste good. It had to be good. A chef might be armed with a battery of techniques to transform his or her raw materials, but if those materials weren’t superlative to begin with, Waters wasn’t interested. Shopping counted as much as cooking.
It Depends What Your Definition Of “Contiguous” Is
Of the three dozen food-world personalities I interviewed for this article, none could point to an agreed-upon definition of local.
From as far north as Pennsylvania to as far south as Virginia was as close to a consensus as I could find. One chef defined local as his ability to “reasonably” drive to and from a farm in a day, a definition that seemed to provide wiggle room for four or even five hours. Another offered the drive-in-a-day yardstick, without the modifier “reasonably,” and I imagined him gunning it deep into the woods of North Carolina for some fresh-killed quail, then turning around and speeding up I-95 in hopes of making it back to his kitchen before his midnight deadline.
Whole Foods defines local differently for each region of the country. DC belongs to the Mid-Atlantic, which includes New Jersey, Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Until recently, if you shopped at a Whole Foods in this area, where your meat and produce came from was a matter of “contiguity”—anywhere in a neighboring state was considered local.
That meant, for example, that tomatoes from North Carolina were considered local in Arlington stores—because North Carolina and Virginia share a border—while those that traveled a shorter distance from New Jersey were not.
This summer, Whole Foods is changing to a new definition, under which foods grown within about 100 miles or in the same state as the store will be considered local.
But if there’s no agreed-upon definition of what local is, that means it can be anything at all, and it’s simply how a chef or restaurant or farmer or business chooses to define it. It means the term is essentially meaningless, a point Emily Sprissler drove home rather decisively when I rang her up at Mayfair & Pine, a British gastropub in DC’s Glover Park that has since closed.
“America,” Sprissler declared, “is my local.”
Was she saying local is a limitation?
“I don’t find it limiting. I just don’t pay attention to it.”
A comparison between France and America followed, along with a discussion of economies of scale. “Look, France is the size of Texas,” she said. “It’s easy to get anything you want there, and quickly, and it’s all great. If I’m only going to get products within a hundred miles or whatever, [the definition] is limiting.”
Here Sprissler stopped herself, perhaps realizing she’d come dangerously close to branding herself a heretic in the church of local. She began again, choosing her words more carefully: “I’m trying as hard as I can, from toilet paper to tenderloin, to put American products in my restaurant. I’m giving my money to another American so that they can keep their job and put food on their table. I do a miso chicken—there’s a company in Massachusetts that makes its own miso, and it’s amazing. There’s a lot of amazing products out there, and I don’t care if they’re from Michigan or Wyoming.”
She was proud. Proud and defiant and convinced of the rightness of her approach. And she ought to be, both because it was hers and because it seemed a chance to expose her diners to the best artisanally made products from around the country.
But what did it say that she seemed so determined to align herself with the local movement, even as she rejected its core tenets?
Let’s look at the foundations of the local movement—the arguments that are most often advanced to make the case not merely for its worth but for its necessity:
Local reduces our “carbon footprint.”
The phrase is eco-shorthand for the fuel expenditures an ingredient generates before it lands on the table. It’s less simple than it sounds, a romantic notion only sometimes supported by the data.
Eggs that have been trucked in from 50 miles away or less are no great environmental stressor, but when the definition of local is as loose as it is, 50 miles is seldom to be counted on.
And not all methods of delivery are equal. One restaurateur told me he’s constantly wrestling with questions such as “Is a large 18-wheeler coming from 80 miles away better than 50 pickup trucks bringing the same ingredients from 50 miles away?”
I told him that sounded like an SAT question.
Right, he said. And with no correct answer.
Local is good for the local economy.
This would appear to be true. As it would be true for giving your money to any small, independently owned business in your neighborhood.
The problem is the notion that this money is a driver of the local economy. You’re supporting a person who presumably spends that money locally. But of course, how many of us do? We live in a global, interconnected world where Amazon and others have displaced the neighborhood store, making shopping cheaper, faster, and more efficient.
One thing we can be sure of is that supporting a local producer helps keep that producer in business, and that is indeed a very good thing.
Local equals changing the system.
Local and organic foods currently make up 3 percent of food consumption in America, so it’s highly unlikely that those of us who contribute to this small percentage with our purchases are, as political pundits like to say, moving the needle.
You may feel good about your personal actions in a large and indifferent universe. You may salve your conscience in avoiding companies that you consider to be adding to the growing social ills that beset us as a nation. But this isn’t the same as altering the status quo.
Local is fresher and better.
Local is not inherently fresher, nor is it inherently better. And it isn’t even always the case that when it’s fresher, it’s better.
I love Rappahannock oysters, and if a restaurant can truck them up from Virginia’s Northern Neck just hours after dredging them from the water, I consider that a treat. But I prefer British Columbia oysters, which, though presumably not as fresh—the air time alone is double that of a trip from the Northern Neck—are richer, sweeter, firmer, and more delicate.
Now, local potatoes? Fantastic. They taste like an altogether different species from the trucked-in variety most of us grew up with. Local corn? Ditto. Local tomatoes? Sometimes. I haven’t had many local tomatoes that compare to the juicy sweetness of a Jersey beefsteak. Local chickens? From a free-range, hormone-free source like Polyface, absolutely (and if it’s a special occasion and I’m not inclined to linger over the pinch of forking over $20 for a roaster, all the more so). From a giant factory farm on the equally local Delmarva Peninsula? Not if I can help it. Local cheese? Rarely.