Thursday, October 9, 2008

Local Food: Eating of the Land

I'm speaking this weekend at the Central Colorado Foodshed Alliance's annual harvest celebration, a season-end party to honors local food and those who produce it in our region. There will be a dinner made from food grown or produced locally, my talk, and then music and dancing. It's a community affair of the sort that might have been common a century ago, but is now a relative novelty.

As I've thought about what I'll say, what words I can bring to this group of people who grow or raise or harvest or process or distribute or simply are dedicated to eating the fruits of our high-country sun and soil, I've pondered the community of lives, domestic and wild, that animate these landscapes, and what it means to belong here.

First what is eating locally? It means doing your best to get your food - whether apples or salmon or eggs or hamburger or corn or melons or squash or bread or this pumpkin from our kitchen garden - from your local area. How you define your local area is up to you, but I like the word that Gary Paul Nabhan coined in his book, Coming Home to Eat, a chronicle of a year in which he ate only foods from his desert region: foodshed. It's a variant on watershed, a geographic unit based on a particular river or stream and all of its drainages. A watershed describes a coherent geographic region in which all the parts are related to each other by drainage; a foodshed is a geographic region in which food is raised and produced without being shipped such long distances that its quality suffers and/or it requires huge expenditures of energy.

So, for example, those raspberries that look so tempting in produce departments in January? They're from Chile, and that is most definitely not "local food" for me in southern Colorado by any stretch of the imagination. They don't even come from the same continent. Food that must travel thousands of miles is clearly not local.

Why eat locally? First there's the health reason: Food that comes from nearby is fresher and thus healthier. Food that must be shipped long distances or heavily processed in order to prevent it from spoiling in transit loses lots of its nutrients, from vitamins to cancer-fighting antioxidants. Then there's the taste thing: Those raspberries shipped from Chile had to be picked way before they were ripe in order to make the journey from hemisphere to hemisphere without spoiling. So they may look pretty, but the raspberry flavor is, well, not so great. If you've ever picked a sun-warmed tomato off a vine, you know what I mean. Those plastic ones picked green and shipped from California are not really tomatoes! And then there's the "green" reason: in the United States, we waste a lot of energy we can ill afford shipping food an average of 1,500 miles before it ever reaches our plates. That is just plain stupid.

Those are all important points. But for me, eating locally goes deeper: it's about rooting in place, belonging. It seems to me that eating locally is coming home in a literal and metaphorical way. Here's part of what I'll say in my talk:

When we eat from our foodshed, our food comes from the landscape we share with our fellow human beings and also with the thousands of other species, large and small, whose interactions animate the places we live in and love. It means that we participate in that community of the land on an intimate basis, literally being nourished by the same soil and sunlight that also nourishes elk and aspen trees, sagebrush and American goldfinches. It means that we share the landscape in a more intimate way, the way we did when our species began, a sharing reaching as deep as the microscopic level.

We literally are what we eat. The molecules in our food are the materials we use to stoke our metabolisms and to replace the continual loss of cells, those building blocks of our bodies - of skin, hair, synapses, organs, muscles and bones. Food nourishes us at many levels: it fills our guts, quieting the physical and mental pangs of hunger; it provides the molecules that build healthy bodies and minds; it brings us flavor and texture and a feeling of well-being and pleasure. What we eat thus makes a substantive difference in who we become. Nurturing our bodies with fresh food helps us grow healthy selves, inside and out.

As much as I can, I cook with food I know intimately, where it comes from, how it lived, and what sunlight, water and nutrients nurtured its cells. That’s part of why I’m a gardener. I know the food I grow and it knows me. I’ve raised these vegetables and fruits with my own hands (and without pesticides and herbicides, relying on insects and birds, nature’s partners, instead). They grow in the same soil I walk on, nourished by the infrequent rain - much too infrequent this year! - and the high-desert sun that blesses my skin, too. Their flavor describes this very landscape, what the French call gout de terroir, literally “taste of the soil” or “taste of the earth.”
What it comes down to for me is this: I believe that food is an essential form of connection. It binds us to the places where it comes from, restoring our bonds to those places as we ingest the molecules of our food and make them part of who we are. To eat of our place is to join its community at the deepest level, to belong in every fiber of our being.

A shout-out to spinner, writer, and publisher Deb Robson, whose blog post on an effort to match backyards with small farmers looking for cultivatable space inspired some of my thinking on local foods. Thanks, Deb!


eduardo said...

Sorry to have missed your Steamplant session. Woulda like to have been there.
My hugest problem would be coffee. Can't Colorado grow coffee, so this won't be a problem? After all, Mrs. Olson, in all those Folger's coffee commercials, said mountain grown coffee was "the richest kind."

Deborah Robson said...

Hi, Susan:

Great post, and thanks for the note on mine. My thoughts have been in part shaped by having seen what you've done with your home territory, so it's nice to be able to return the favor.

Taos was good, but the electrical system there is not kind to computers, so I was only minimally online while there. Catching up a bit now.