ONE OF THE MARVELOUS ASPECTS about being here on the East Coast—more specifically the Hudson Valley—is the sheer number of options we have regarding how, when, and where we get our food. For most of us, the mundane, “What do you want for dinner” presents as much of a dilemma as “Where do you want to have dinner tonight?” if only because there’s such a multitude of possible answers. Maybe we belong to a CSA and just picked up our weekly share. Maybe we need to eat some of that quarter of a cow or that half of a pig or sheep before we freeze it. Maybe we just need to choose which new restaurant to visit and how much of a workout to give the servers.
There is, however, another question seeping into mainstream conversations about food that many folks would not have thought to ask not that long ago. “Where did this food come from?” is becoming almost as ubiquitous as “How about those Yankees, huh?” except that the questioner usually presumes that the person being asked actually knows the answer.
Since when did we decide we needed to know with precision the source of our food? (And by that we don’t mean “Which ShopRite—the one in Newburgh or the one in Vails Gate?”) It wasn’t that long ago in our agrarian history that everyone knew exactly where their food came from because they grew it themselves, or if they didn’t, they knew the name of the farmer down the road who did. In historical perspective, the move away from our personalized, localized food supply happened breathtakingly fast. One day we were picking peaches from the trees in the backyard for pies, the next we were trying to decide whether we wanted cinnamon on our frozen mocha latte.
But let’s get back to dinner. Right here in the Hudson Valley we’ve got hundreds—make that thousands—of choices of where to eat tonight. We’ve got hundreds of farmers wheeling out crates of yesterday’s pickings, freshly washed and bunched. If we’re feeling a little exotic, there’s a bodega right around the corner, and a good Far East market not far. (Hey, we’ll cook it at home—that makes it almost local.) What is “local” anyway? What are the limits—50 miles? 100 miles? 200 miles? Who says? In the Tastemaker interview in this issue, Chef Eric Gabrynowicz tells of being confronted by a customer in his restaurant about exactly that issue. His intelligent and reasoned response was this: “Know thy farmer.” This is in many ways a more legitimate and intelligent criterium for determining food value than some blind and arbitrary mileage limit. Would you serve lousy food just because it’s from a farmstand around the corner when an hour away in a different state you know a guy who grows the same stuff that’s out of his world? (I’d suggest that the honest, realistic answer to that question is different from the politically correct one.)
Of course, the simplest solution to this problem is to avoid it completely and grow your own, which is exactly what more and more people (and restaurateurs) are doing. It’s much easier said and done if you live in rural Ulster County and not Yonkers, White Plains, Poughkeepsie or Middletown, naturally, but cityfolk aren’t being overlooked by the new back-to-the-farm movement. Urban (and semi-urban) agriculture is one of the most exciting things happening, and it’s drawing attention from some surprising corners. It’s more than just converting vacant city lots into farmscapes—it’s become one very hot architectural subspecialty—” green” cityscapes may soon connote much more than just good insulation and super-efficient energy consumption. It means designing buildings, and clusters of buildings, that include food production as part of their function. That means food on their roofs, patios, balconies, and even indoors, using high efficiency lighting and heat. Maybe the big domestic discussions in the future will be not what color to paint the bedroom but where to plant the corn.