THIS MAGAZINE IS ABOUT FOOD. It says so in the column at the right. Problem is, it’s become more difficult to speak about food these days because it seems food isn’t just food anymore—it has to be defined. What kind of food are you eating tonight? Fast food? Slow food? Organic food? Sustainably grown food?
“Organic,” for example, used to refer to the stuff you picked from the garden or that came from a small farm. You worked the soil with compost and you went out there and did it because it was good for your soul and your body. If there was a farmers’ market or a small specialty grocery nearby, so much the better. Maybe the stuff there was organic, but it didn’t matter—it was a neighborhood market and you knew where their vegetables came from.
Now, look around. If you can’t spot an “organic” label within ten feet of where you’re sitting maybe you haven’t looked carefully. The fact that it takes a few years and a few thousand dollars before the government will allow you to call your crop or product organic (we’re not saying that’s a bad thing) hasn’t deterred too many from going down that road. (And it doesn’t stop others from capitalizing on the popularity, either—you can find organic shoe polish without much effort).
Some folks saw right through the loopholes in the federal organic regs and decided the feds catered to corporate farms and that “sustainable” was the way things should be—that is, crop production should be nondestructive, renewable and natural. There seems to be no limits on the application of “sustainable,” either—you can grow potatoes sustainably, and we’ve got cork floors in our house that were sustainably grown and harvested. Of course, now they’re writing more regs regarding the use of that term, too.
Sustainable isn’t the end of it, though. The latest buzzword—not such a distant synonym from the others, is “local.” The loosest requirement for that term ought to be that you know the source. There is a face, an address, a phone—somebody you might even know who you could say “thank you” to or complain to if necessary. It means you can go to wherever that “local” place is and be back for lunch. This doesn’t seem to be just a fringe interest or fad, either: A Zagat survey reports that 70 percent of those surveyed said it was important that the food they eat was grown locally.
Well, wouldn’t you know it—America’s marketing geniuses have found the button we all like to have pushed and they’re pounding away at it. Now you can buy “local” greens and other “local” foodstuffs at Walmart (the antithesis of local). Organic, too. Heck, you don’t even have to walk over to the farmers’ market for local vegetables anymore—just drive (or take the taxpayer-subsidized bus) to the mall (the one that destroyed all the businesses you could walk to downtown 30 years ago) and get some discounted redimixed salad greens grown by a local guy in California, which are much better than the ones grown on that huge, mechanized, automated factory farm in California. While you’re there, pick up some local corn chips, local soda or other local packaged product from your friendly (local) multinational Frito Lay Corporation. We haven’t seen Frito’s newest ad campaign yet, but the word’s out that it will emphasize how local their products are—how they use regional processing plants that hire local labor and, of course, all their drivers are your neighbors, so they really are local, etc. At this rate, the only requirement for food being local will be that it has to be touched by human hands somewhere along the line. We’re going to need some government regs on this word, for sure.
Let’s be real, if only for a moment. As Bruce Kazan points out, you simply can’t buy everything locally (well, maybe you can, but not everything, not all the time, not forever). Most of us don’t even pretend to try. But, as someone once reminded me, everyplace is local, someplace. It’s true—you could look it up on Google Earth. It just depends on your altitude.