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?
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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.

Nora Pouillon wanted to “find a more natural way to do things” when she opened Restaurant Nora. She’s shown with executive chef Todd Woods. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

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?

Inherently Better?

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.

Photographs by Scott Suchman.

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.

Maybe.

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.

Elaine Boland won’t sell meat from her company, Fields of Athenry, to many chefs. “I don’t want to be used,” she says. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

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.”

Woodberry Kitchen’s Spike Gjerde (in T-shirt) obsesses over how to be more faithful to local: “I don’t see how you can do this and not be.” Photograph by Scott Suchman.

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.”

No?

He sighs. “No. But part of the tragedy of American culture is
that we cheapen everything.”

Ype Von Hengst (left) overhauled Silver Diner to emphasize local foods. “This is not a fad,” he says. “Everyone’s going to have to get with the program.” Photograph by Scott Suchman.

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.

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