The Meaning of Local
In the food world, “local” has become shorthand for doing the right thing. But what does it really say about the way we eat?
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.
Consider the Peach
We ought to be talking about “perishability,” says Eric Ziebold, the chef at CityZen, a gastronome’s paradise in DC’s Mandarin Oriental hotel.
For every piece of produce, Ziebold says, there’s a “window” of freshness. The window for a ripened peach, for instance, is within the first six hours after being picked. Here he waxes poetic, describing that first bite after pulling one straight from a tree—the texture exquisitely poised between soft and firm, a sweetness that’s almost floral, the juice exploding in your mouth and running down your arm. Over the next six hours, the peach begins to degrade. For his purposes, Ziebold says, a peach delivered to the restaurant within 18 hours of being picked is still usable—it might work in a purée or a sauce—though it will have already lost its purity. After 24 hours, it’s “pretty much a different piece of fruit entirely.”
Ziebold is perhaps pickier than most farmers-market shoppers, and initially I’m tempted to dismiss his words as the obsessive talk of a man who’s fanatical about purity and quality. But it occurs to me that that mania to experience a piece of fruit at its ripe and beautiful peak is the reason so many food-loving urbanites flock to farmers markets in season—indeed, that promise is woven deep within the “local” pitch. Better, fresher. If you drop big money on a peach, isn’t it fair to expect that the peach—which presumably hasn’t had to be trucked great distances and has been harvested not by a mass-production outfit but by the more attentive and loving hands of the small farmer—would be exceptional?
And yet how many farmers-market peaches have you tasted in this area that were worthy of that adjective? I’ve had many good ones, but I can’t remember the last time I had the ecstatic encounter Ziebold describes.
There’s a good explanation for that, he says: “If you’re a farmer selling in DC, you don’t necessarily want to sell a peach that’s going to get used that instant. They know that you’re going to go back to the office, and they want to give you a little better window. So it’s not a tree-ripened peach you’re getting.”
Closer to the source, he says, it’s likely to be a different story: “If you visit that farm and pick up a peach and you don’t use it in six hours, it’s crap. But if you do use it in six hours, it’s the best peach you’ve eaten in your life.”
It never occurred to me that the quality of produce at the urban farmers market isn’t the same as the quality of produce at a rural farmers market.
That’s one lesson. The other, deeper lesson involves stretching Ziebold’s point to its logical conclusion. If perishability is paramount, if tasting things at their freshest is what matters most, then visiting a farmers market isn’t the only way to ensure that outcome. In some instances, it might not even be the best way.
“I could get something FedExed that’s potentially fresher than a farmers market,” Ziebold says.
So can we all. The Internet has opened up sourcing possibilities previously available only to insiders—oysters from Brittany, salmon from Alaska, caviar from Russia.
Of course, the carbon footprint is likely to be considerably higher. More to the point: The romance is clearly missing.
The Literal Fruit of Our Privilege
And romance is not nothing. It’s very definitely a something. Local couldn’t exist without it.
The wish to connect local food to something larger, to fetishize it as an object of desire, underpins the farmers-market experience and enables its supporters to justify dropping 80 bucks on a single bag of groceries.
Listen to Robb Duncan, who owns Dolcezza—the excellent gelato shops in Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Fairfax, and Bethesda—explain the appeal of going to the farmers market: “You eat this food and it’s delicious, and it makes you feel happy to meet this farmer named Zachariah, and he doesn’t put any pesticides in his produce, and you walk around as part of this beautiful, beautiful community of people.”
This is the farmers market as embodiment of a surviving hippie aesthetic, and for many it’s a powerful inducement to spend, whether they came of age in the ’60s or, like Duncan, merely wish they did.
There’s also the market experience as ratifier of status, in which the notion of simplifying our lives is held out to the busy, scattered urbanite as a glimpse of a new good life and a $4 tomato becomes the literal fruit of our privilege.
I ask Ann Yonkers—who, with Bernadine Prince, has run the area’s FreshFarm Markets since 1997—what, beyond the makings of a meal, she thinks her customers come to the markets to buy.
Yonkers is as committed to the cause as anyone in Washington. When FreshFarm began in 1997, there were only about four farmers markets in the area; today there are ten FreshFarms alone. The nonprofit is among the finest purveyors of its kind in the country, with goods coming from 118 farmers and producers.
Yonkers is justifiably proud of this growth and speaks with the tones of an evangelist who believes she has found a path to, if not enlightenment, then happiness. Again and again I’m struck, as we speak, by the way she invests a material good—a cheese, a leg of lamb, a squash—with the aura of the spiritual.
Her customers, she says, aren’t just dropping their disposable income on what some might see as luxury items; they’re “participating in change.” In other words, shopping at a farmers market isn’t an upper-middle-class indulgence—or not just. It’s also a political act.
I ask if she might share with me some of the ways people can participate in change.
“You can participate in change just by what you eat and buy and who you give your money to,” she says. “People come to our markets and they feel empowered.”
There’s also the matter, she says, of “change for yourself.”
Change for yourself?
“Discovering flavor. Just by virtue of how fresh [the products] are.” Not new flavors, Yonkers is quick to emphasize—the flavor of familiar things, like melons and potatoes. That these things actually have flavor and aren’t the bland, colorless specimens that generations of agribusiness have taught us to accept. “Eating all these different varieties”—like the many different kinds of tomatoes.
Sampling tomato varieties equates with participating in change?
“That’s a huge level of change,” she says. “The markets have brought back biodiversity, a lot of which was lost in the ’50s. We’ve seen the whole return to grass-fed—and all these reforms as a result of that. Farmers are raising heritage breeds and heirlooms.”
I tell her that this particular change, while important agriculturally, seems to me something less than the spiritual change she spoke of when we began talking. I tell her that mostly what I’m hearing from her and others is the opportunity for personal discovery in tasting new foods and cooking differently, and how that personal discovery—valid and worthy in itself—is being framed as a profound social and political act, and thus marketed as something more than it is.
Yonkers acknowledges that a strong sense of the spiritual “runs through the whole movement,” then makes an analogy to Catholicism, with its ritualistic consumption of the body of Christ via the Communion wafer. She stops short of saying that taking Communion is akin to shopping at a farmers market, but I gather that for her, and perhaps for her many customers, the experiences are aligned.
“Food,” she says, “is holy.”
There’s Truth, and Then There’s Truth
You sit down at a restaurant and open the menu. There’s a note at the top: “Proud to support our farmers.” Near the bar, you find a chalkboard with the names of all the farms whose products presumably contributed to your meal. The waiter announces the day’s specials, noting not only every ingredient for every dish but also the source for that ingredient, as if you just spent the weekend at Path Valley or Toigo Orchards or any of the other farms that are standbys of the restaurant scene. As if you’re on intimate terms with the workers who till the soil and plow the fields.
You’re not simply supporting the restaurant, you’re made to feel; you’re supporting a community, an economy, a way of life. You’re feeling good: about dinner, about the restaurant, about yourself—hell, maybe even about the world and your place in it.
And why wouldn’t you?
Hearing and reading these paeans to local farmers, you’d assume that most of the raw materials that come through those kitchen doors are local, wouldn’t you? Perhaps not everything—salt and pepper, for instance, aren’t local. But a lot. Three-quarters of all the products, say. Or more than half.
You’re assuming too much.
For most restaurants, the answer is around 30 percent. That figure tends to be higher in the warmer months and lower in the colder ones. “In the summertime, 40 to 50 percent maybe,” Tom Meyer of Clyde’s Restaurant Group says.
Touting a connection to the land and saluting “our” farmers seems a dubious practice when only a third of all the products are from local purveyors. I don’t doubt that, from the restaurant’s perspective, the 30 percent is more meaningful than the other 70 percent because it took time and effort to procure. All products aren’t equal. But if local is something to support, something that matters, shouldn’t it matter for the other 70 percent?
One restaurateur says that neither he nor any of his peers is buying items like onions and carrots and celery from local sources. They’re making their investment, he says, in “corn and tomatoes—things that make a difference.”
A cynic might say: things that get noticed.
Another restaurateur, a man deeply committed to local, confesses that while he sources regularly from more than a dozen purveyors, the milk and cream in his area restaurants aren’t local.
Milk and cream? Shouldn’t those be the least we can assume comes from nearby farms?
He’d much rather serve locally produced milk and cream in his restaurants, he says, but can’t find a consistent source to meet the volume he needs—a problem many restaurateurs also allude to. One local dairy delivery company adheres to such a strict radius that it won’t permit its trucks to go a few extra miles to make a drop-off at one of his restaurants.
The channels of distribution for local farmers aren’t well developed, in marked contrast to the enormously efficient networks that bring food to supermarkets and chain restaurants. Products that might meet a particular need, at a volume that makes them attractive to chefs, aren’t always getting to the restaurants that want them.
These are real concerns and ought not to be minimized. Local requires more work, more thought, and more investment.
At the same time, when you’ve embraced an ideology that revolves around notions of purity and piety, no one wants to hear about the obstacles that prevent you from being more holy. Excuses will be construed as weakness. You open yourself to charges of hypocrisy if you’re anything less than completely faithful in your adherence.
Or, at the very least, to charges of hype.
The fact that distribution is lacking is real. So is the fact that it’s possible to source minimally from local farmers and still fly the flag of local.
Lying with Local
Elaine Boland possesses the flinty skepticism of many small farmers accustomed to selling their hard-earned products to urbanites. To talk to her for any length of time is to hear a woman who has grown weary of interactions with people who don’t grasp the rhythms of the seasons and the exigencies of life lived close to the land.
She says she “rededicated” her company, Fields of Athenry, in Purcellville, to these older, elemental values after her daughter was diagnosed with Cushing’s syndrome, which results from exposure to high levels of the hormone cortisol. Two holistic doctors suggested she try a nutrient-rich diet. The diet helped, and Boland was moved to rethink her operation. If eating high-quality, humanely kept animals could save her daughter, it might save many other lives by preventing those ailments from occurring in the first place. Boland asks if I’ve ever eaten her meats. I say I have, twice—a lamb shoulder at Vermilion, in Old Town, and a lamb sausage at Haute Dogs & Fries, in Purcellville.
“ ’Cause I won’t sell to most chefs,” she says.
Why is that?
Boland goes silent and tells me she fears she’d get in trouble if she spoke her mind. Then, having resolved her inner contradiction, she sighs and says, “A lot of ’em, they buy just enough to use your name on their menu. I don’t want somebody ordering two or three chickens off of me and a couple of chuck roasts and putting my name on their menu. When they’re probably running 300, 400 dinners a week? You have to be supplementing it with someone else.”
I ask how she decides whom she’ll sell to and whom she won’t.
She laughs ruefully. “I had to learn. I had to learn who was honest and dedicated to this. I learned the hard way.”
Today, if a chef expresses interest in featuring her meats, she invites him or her out to the farm along with the kitchen staff. What would appear to be an innocuous meet-and-greet is, in fact, a rigorous screening process, a way for Boland to assess a chef’s “level of engagement in talking about whole animal, head to hoof, their love of organ meats, their interest in buying whole animals. There are very few chefs who do that, buy the whole animal. Very few can make the off-product sell, because they really can cook. They’ll say to me, ‘We don’t have to stick to a set menu. We’ll figure out how to use the product—don’t worry.’ ”
The screening helps her figure out who is interested in a legitimate relationship, with its give-and-take and dependency, and who is merely interested in taking on a new supplier—or worse, acquiring a bit of fashionable window dressing.
“I don’t want to be used,” she says, sounding like a twice-jilted lover.
Deep Throat Speaks
A trusted source within the industry, a man I’ve come to refer to as Deep Throat for the reliable gossip he feeds me, said the practice that Elaine Boland describes is “more common than you think,” adding: “Truth in advertising is one of the biggest issues with this.”
Every one of the insiders I spoke with talked about local as doing the right thing, citing its importance for our bodies, our land, our communities, our economies, our farmers. But over the months, I came to distinguish among them as I listened.
Here, for instance, are my notes from a conversation with a young, locally minded restaurateur with a small chain of restaurants:
“It’s always been a big part of our mission and strategy, and it’s really exciting to see it start to become a standard in the food space.
“Putting the farmers’ names on that board like we do. It’s all about transparency.
“We shouldn’t get so obsessed with the stricter definitions. That’s not the über thing.
“That’s what it’s all about for us—emotional connection. When our customers see a picture of a farmer and they learn that story. It’s about making people feel good about their decision at every touch point.”
Now listen to Spike Gjerde, chef and owner of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore.
Asked to define “local,” he says the word is the basis “for asking some very important questions.” Namely: “What are the farmer’s practices and what are the impacts on the environment of those practices?”
Gjerde often laments the years he missed in the cause. “I’m 20 years late to this,” he says. I hear something of Alice Waters’s ethos in his words, particularly when he says that it’s not enough to “serve something good.”
The “aim of all this,” he says, “should be to connect the diner to something larger”—in his case, an appreciation of the Chesapeake, “our Yellowstone, our national treasure.” But more broadly, an understanding of where our food is grown and by whom, and a curiosity about how our choices—our dollars—affect the system. “At Woodberry,” he says, “we use the restaurant to sell the local products. Conversely, a lot of restaurants are using local to sell the restaurant.”
It’s not Gjerde’s fidelity to a high-church standard of purity that impresses me. It’s his understanding of the idea that dinner at a restaurant is a complex interplay of many people, only one of whom is the chef. And that a restaurant has a responsibility to the larger culture.
Perhaps this is why Gjerde doesn’t exult over what he has accomplished but continues to torture himself with how he should be doing so much more.
I tell him this sounds like a definition for neuroticism.
Gjerde laughs. “I don’t see how you can be engaged in this thing and not be like that.”
The Purist’s Dilemma
Local has achieved a status unthinkable to many of its earliest adherents, a fact that causes some of them, such as civil-rights warriors or women’s-rights advocates, to wax nostalgic over their progress even as they lament that local doesn’t mean as much as it once did.
When she opened Cashion’s Eat Place in 1995, Ann Cashion says, she took her cues in the kitchen from what her purveyors had on hand, buying whole animals and butchering them herself. The off-cuts were troubling to diners; they wanted the chops. They were dismayed at paying top dollar for something they considered scraps, and they couldn’t understand her capriciousness—why she kept yanking the chops from the menu.
Cashion is a supporter of Bev Eggleston, who has so often been described as patron saint of the local-food movement that he himself invokes the term, albeit mockingly, in conversation. Eggleston was featured in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and there are seemingly as many mentions of his name on menus in Washington as there are beet-and-goat-cheese salads. As recently as five years ago, EcoFriendly Foods, Eggleston’s company, sold only whole animals to chefs, but because of growing demand, he recently made parts available to his 50 or so clients from Virginia to New York, having decided “we can’t live by our ideals as this point.”
He explains: “I’m not as eco-friendly as I would like to be. I wouldn’t even call us sustainable—I’d call us resourceful.” He uses the analogy of a relationship, citing the compromises necessary to keep a connection going, and says compromise is a reality for many of his clients, too.
Many chefs want to “do the right thing,” Eggleston says, but they’re under pressure from their bosses who “want to fly the flag of local,” yet they bristle at the increase in food costs. Under those conditions, it’s easier to “just buy the parts and never even consider the whole animal and what it can do for you.”
Cashion suggests this is simply the new reality. The new local. And though it represents progress on the one hand—more high-quality products are on menus than ever before, and that, she says, “improves life for everyone”—on the other hand she thinks something is definitely missing.
What is that?
She pauses for a long moment, then launches into an elegant and impassioned statement of the local ideal, of the give-and-take between chef and farmer, the sense of mutual dependence, the idea that a chef might allow herself to be inspired by the products that arrive at the back door each day, that what hits the table later that night is inconceivable without the input and inspiration of the farmer. Patrick O’Connell, chef at the Inn at Little Washington, a sumptuous respite in the Virginia hinterlands, is even more pointed in lamenting what has been lost.
He attributes the popularity of local to our almost insatiable hunger, in this plastic, commodified culture, for something real and authentic, uncorrupted by corporations. It is, he says, a sad sign of what the past few decades have wrought. The job of the restaurant is to recognize this spiritual hunger. To feed souls as well as stomachs.
“First it was give me something good to eat,” he says. “Then it was give me something good to eat and entertain me. Then it was give me something good to eat and take me somewhere I’ve never been. Now it’s prove to me that there is some hope left in the world. Give me a respite from the misery of this world. Let this meal be a sanctuary.”
I tell him that sounds like an awful lot to ask of anything, let alone a restaurant.
It is a lot to ask, he says, but isn’t this very notion of going beyond embedded in the promise of local, the idea of connecting diners to something larger than themselves? Situating them in time and place? Delivering them to the spiritual?
It seems to pain him, I say, that more chefs and restaurateurs don’t regard local with his level of existential seriousness.
“The kind of buzzy stuff that’s going on now, I find it kind of tedious and kind of depressing, to be quite honest,” he says. “It’s contributing to the loss of a sense of place rather than accentuating a sense of place if every restaurant in Washington, DC, has lamb from the Shenandoah.”
There follows a lengthy disquisition about chefs who mistake putting out high-quality ingredients on a plate for cooking—“the elevation of those ingredients, through learned technique, into something superlative.”
He interrupts himself to say he isn’t arguing that the current iteration of local isn’t “a good idea for the entire culture and deserving of support.”
He sighs. “No. But part of the tragedy of American culture is that we cheapen everything.”
A Glimpse of the Future, Part One
The man who, perhaps more than any other, makes me want to believe in the potential of local is Michael Babin. As founder of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, Babin presides over ten restaurants including Evening Star Cafe, Vermilion, Birch & Barley, ChurchKey, and the new Bluejacket.
The most prominent name in Babin’s growing stable is Tony Chittum, the former chef at Vermilion (he’s now at the soon-to-reopen Iron Gate Inn, in Dupont Circle) whom many regard as the most passionate, committed supporter of local in our area.
Prior to Chittum’s arrival in 2007, Vermilion was a middling restaurant with no discernible focus. Chittum gave it an identity, establishing it as a showcase of the best products from the Chesapeake and the Shenandoah. And while local and artisanal might have become trendy, Chittum’s simple, soulful dishes were most assuredly not.
Whether Chittum’s arrival spurred Babin to embrace local to the extent he eventually did or Babin would have drifted in that direction anyway is hard to know. But few restaurateurs are more involved in local than he is, and Babin often cites Chittum as inspiration.
One morning last summer, I drove out with Babin to tour a pet project of his, the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, a nonprofit operation that manages a small farm near Mount Vernon. It hadn’t rained in two weeks, and the crops looked desiccated in the triple-digit heat. Something called “farm camp” was in session; grade-schoolers were learning about crop rotation and—in what sounded like a parody of an urbanite’s idea of camp—making pesto.
Arcadia isn’t a new idea. Clyde’s Restaurant Group runs a farm in Loudoun County. EatWell operates one in La Plata, Maryland. But Arcadia is different, if only because Babin envisions it as something more than a steady source of fresh, local ingredients for his restaurants.
“The farm isn’t here to feed the restaurants,” he told me. “The restaurants exist to support the farm.” Babin is boyish and intense and has the manner of a perpetual grad student, curious and alert to new ideas. A big-city restaurant owner with his own farm on a historic piece of property is a ready-made storyline for a TV show or magazine spread, but it was clear to me that Farm as Symbol held little interest for him.
Thinking he might aid the cause of local by making it more accessible, Babin bought a school bus last year, refitted it with coolers, and had it painted green. The Mobile Market rolled out in May. The bus is loaded up every morning with vegetables and fruits from Arcadia and makes stops five days a week in nine neighborhoods in DC, Maryland, and Virginia that are considered food deserts, lacking the grocery stores and markets of more affluent neighborhoods. Babin called it a “crying need.”
What was preoccupying him when I met him was the idea of a large “food hub,” a distribution center that would enable more farmers to get their products to more restaurants, and to do so more efficiently. There are more than a dozen of these hubs in Virginia and a few in Maryland. Babin has begun thinking of creating a vast network out of them.
The more forward-thinking members of the movement regard this next-step networking as essential to making good on the enormous promise of local.
Bev Eggleston hopes they’ll work toward what he calls “a parallel food system.”
“We don’t think we can take down Big Agriculture,” Eggleston says. “We used to be that naive; we used to think that was possible. But an alternative transportation system—you can use the analogy of the Beltway. We want to take the pressure off the Beltway, all that traffic. So you have mass transit, you have rail, you have bikes. When farmers are really organized and collaborate, that’s what you want. It’s not about local; it’s about regional and logistical ability. Local isn’t moving fast enough for where we need to go. We’re moving toward the idea of systems that work versus where things came from.”
A food hub, Babin told me, would go some way toward fulfilling that hope. It might even, he said, help bring local out of the realm of the privileged few.
We were standing on a sloping patch of grass that overlooked one end of the property; he gazed beyond a ridge of trees toward a 130-acre stretch of land that he hoped at some point to buy and convert to farmland. I said he didn’t sound like a restaurateur or a businessman; he sounded like a social worker who, having achieved a breakthrough with one client, takes on an entire neighborhood.
“People think local is the answer,” he said. “It’s really the beginning of the answer.”
A Glimpse of the Future, Part Two
Mention the word “local” and the image that most often leaps to mind is a farmers market stocked with ripe produce. Or a chef stomping through a farm to pick his own vegetables and herbs for that night’s dinner. It most assuredly isn’t a diner, especially not a diner with 15 locations—a chain, the seeming antithesis of the movement toward artisanal, fresh, and organic.
A decade ago, I never imagined I’d one day tout the virtues of Silver Diner, let alone hold it up as a symbol of Doing the Right Thing. But times have changed. More to the point: Silver Diner has changed.
From June to July last year, I visited the Greenbelt location of Silver Diner four times for dinner. Among the ten-plus meals I eat out every week, these didn’t stand out as particularly memorable—they weren’t Culinary Experiences—but I was struck by how much better they were than they needed to be. They were certainly better than what I remembered of the chain some years back, before cofounder Ype Von Hengst overhauled the operation in 2010.
He began sourcing eggs and milk from Amish country—Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He switched to grass-fed, hormone-free beef and nitrate-free sausage and even added local, dry-aged bison from Monkton, Maryland. Local wines aren’t fixtures on menus at many three- and four-star restaurants, yet Silver Diner carries four. There are local beers, too. The last of my four meals included two soft-shell crabs from Crisfield, Maryland, that had been battered and fried and served with a chunky tomato-and-basil salad.
Why make such sweeping changes when no one expects a diner to be anything but a diner? Why attempt such an about-face when there’s no necessity?
Von Hengst disagrees. He’s vehement. There is a necessity. An urgent necessity.
“I want us to be in business for another 25 years,” Von Hengst says. “This is not a fad, this local. Everyone’s going to have to get with the program. This is how we’re all eating now.”
In the first year of his revamp, when he eliminated 35 percent of his old menu, Silver Diner spent an extra million dollars on food, and Von Hengst worried that it might take a few years to attract the customers he needed to sustain the new model. He has since raised prices slightly to cover the higher costs, and his customer base has grown. Local accounted for 10 percent of the menu two years ago but today makes up 30 percent. That might not sound like much, but it’s right around average for restaurants that advertise their commitment to local. Von Hengst believes he can bring that up to 40 or 50 percent in five years.
He hopes to work directly with more small farms, to get their products trucked to a central location—an idea not so different from Babin’s notion of a food hub. The farmers spend so much of their time farming that they often don’t have enough time to spend selling, Von Hengst says. Better that than the other way around, but if there’s a centralized source for them and if more restaurants and communities could be exposed to their products … .
Here he stops and shares what he hopes is a not-so-crazy dream.
“Bear with me a moment, okay?” All we need to do is connect and organize, he says, and we can turn the local dream into a broader reality. The greatest lesson his work with regional purveyors has taught him is that he wields a power he didn’t realize he possessed—a single purchasing decision from Silver Diner, with its volume, can have an enormous effect on the market. Now, suppose other chains—Applebee’s, Chili’s, T.G.I. Friday’s—were to take his example and replicate it on a national scale.
“The Inn at Little Washington and other restaurants that get their good stuff brought to them at the back door every day—that’s great,” Von Hengst says. “But fine dining is only a small segment of our world—a special class of restaurant that can only be reached by a few. Now, imagine the chains getting in on this with all the people they reach every day and all the volume they do in their buying. Can you imagine the impact?”
The triumph of an idea in this country, Patrick O’Connell says, is the mass adoption of that idea—and its inevitable dilution as it’s reinterpreted and bastardized. The corporatization that Von Hengst invites me to ponder is the extension of this principle to the extreme. In a sense, the idea of Silver Diner multiplied by tens and even hundreds stands for the nullification of local as many in the movement like to see it, as a celebration of the authentic, the artisanal, the uncorrupted.
I’m not surprised to discover that Silver Diner itself counts few fans among the movement, though I thought some might be more supportive. Tom Meyer of Clyde’s Restaurant Group, who is far from a purist, likens Silver Diner’s version of local to “putting Tiffany lamps on the salad bar.” It makes the salad bar look nicer, but it forever ruins your image of Tiffany lamps.
That crack is more revealing of the movement’s advocates than it is of Silver Diner.
You can say the local movement is about distinctions. You can also say it’s about us versus them. You can say it’s about spiritual connection. You can also say it’s about signifiers of status. You can say it’s about doing the right thing. You can say it’s about business as usual. You can say there have been great gains in four decades. You can say there remain deep divisions in the food world—divisions the local movement and its advocates were supposed to have paved over. Have and have-not. Foodie and food philistine. Vibrant neighborhoods full of resources and food deserts with precious few outlets for even fresh food.
There’s no romance about what Von Hengst is doing. There is realism, however imperfect or impure. A sense—perhaps nascent at this point, but real—of the truly transformative. A glimpse of a future in which local makes good, at last, on its immense latent promise.
If I am to believe—and I want to believe, I do—it will be in this imperfect realism, grounded in the problems of our world and not in a romantic quest for perfection and purity.
This article appears in the May 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.