A shopper's experiment: Can she really 'eat locally'?
The assignment seemed simple enough: My editor wanted me to "eat locally" for a week. And she didn't mean check out the neighborhood diner or hamburger joint. She was talking about a growing food trend in the United States - increasing numbers of people who are interested in buying and eating food that comes fresh from farmers' fields, as opposed to "fresh" off the grocery store shelf.
If it could be done anywhere, we agreed, southern California was the place. After all, we were talking about a temperate, sun-blessed land with a virtually year-round growing climate.
So it was with great optimism and curiosity that I spent a week trying to eat locally.
In Los Angeles, shopping is the easy part. There are farmers' markets almost every day of the week, scattered all over the city. I stuck with the Hollywood Farmers' Market, which is near my house and which I enjoy for its size and diversity.
I also knew I could count on grocery stores that specialize in natural and organic products, such as Whole Foods, which has locations around the country. I even checked out my neighborhood grocery store, with its more traditional offerings.
And I discovered, not surprisingly, that the Internet was a great resource, yielding information on specific food producers as well as general background on eating locally and how to find local products.
At the Hollywood Farmers' Market during one week in early April, I found organically and locally grown broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, avocados, sugar snap peas, carrots, potatoes, all kinds of greens, spring onions, and a spectacular variety of sprouts from one very funky man with dreadlocks who creates his own special mixes. (I chose a little carton of delicious onion and garlic sprouts, which became the perfect final touch on sandwiches I made for lunch that week.)
I also found eggs, fresh apple and pomegranate juices, a wide variety of freshly made breads, dried fruits and nuts, oranges, grapes, strawberries, and even mountain-grown Fuji apples, which, while out of season, were unbelievably crisp and sweet, thanks to cold storage and the farmer who knows how to keep them that way during the long nonapple-growing months.
Along with all of this I found the first joy of eating locally - the non- edible yet very real pleasure that comes from buying your food from the person who grows it. I got the opportunity to ask about production and flavor - even cooking tips - from the people who have had their hands on the food. I talked about sugar snap peas with one farmer who explained that his wife does the picking because she knows the very moment when the peas are ready, harvesting them just when the pods are plumpest, which means the peas are sweetest.
The woman who sells dried fruits and nuts sorted through bags of pistachios until she found the best bag for me: The nut meats, she told me, should be bright green, with deep red markings from the skin.
I even scored a minor triumph at a stand I'd never seen before. I had all the fixings for a great organic, locally produced salad, but what was I going to put on it? Somehow, using Kraft or another mass-produced dressing just didn't seem right. And then I spotted a booth that featured a selection of locally produced vinaigrettes, packaged in plastic pouches designed with a special pouring spout. I picked a tomato-based dressing and also bought a jar of organic tomato-basil mayonnaise (made by a small local business, I was assured), which turned out to be a favorite condiment in the week ahead.
At the same time, however, I discovered that eating locally wasn't as simple as I thought it was going to be.
For example, although I found eggs at the farmers' market, I didn't find butter, chicken, or beef. (Fresh local fish is sometimes available at the Hollywood market, but I'm not a big fish eater).
When I strolled down the line of food vendors who were serving up delicious-looking prepared food - everything from sausages and specialty tamales to kettle corn and crepes - I began to wonder: Did the ingredients in these dishes come from local sources?
And then it began to dawn on me: Eating locally requires a lot of thought - and a lot of questions.
I stopped at one of my favorite vendor's booths, where I have often bought homemade ravioli, and pesto, tomato, and garlic sauces. I wanted to buy four-cheese ravioli, but I also wanted to know where the ingredients came from.
The young man working in the booth that day promptly picked up his cellphone and called the owner, who assured him that all the ingredients in the pasta were bought at local farmers' markets, except for one - the flour.
It was a quandary. The pasta wasn't an entirely local product - and by its nature, it never would be. It's true that Southern California does have waving fields of wheat. But as far as I could find out, none of that wheat goes into a local California flour, and therefore there would be no truly local pasta.
I bought the ravioli anyway and realized I was in serious need of guidance in determining where to draw the local line.
So I called Devin Whately, co-owner of Seed Live Cuisine. I'd tried several Seed dishes at the farmers' market, and knew that the company was committed to local, organic ingredients. But many of the dishes feature coconut meat as an animal-meat substitute. And I knew that coconuts, like flour, weren't native to southern California.
"In a perfect world, eating locally means you're growing everything in your own backyard," explained Mr. Whately. "But that's not very realistic, so you take it step by step and go from there. I've learned you just do your best."
I felt I was on firmer philosophical ground after talking to Whately. For one thing, I learned that compromise is part of the process when it comes to eating locally. For another, I learned that "local" is a relative term. Whately and chef Evan Kleiman both said that in terms of southern California, a loose definition of "local" for someone living in Los Angeles means the area that stretches from San Diego, about 120 miles south of the city up to about 200 miles north of it.
Armed with this slightly more expansive view of eating locally, I went to a local Whole Foods store. I wanted to find chicken and beef. In the meat department, I found two chicken choices - both raised in northern California.
It was a good thing I had talked to Whately about how to define local, because I was told there is no California-produced beef. I had my choice of beef raised in New Zealand or Nebraska. I felt comfortable choosing two filets mignon from Nebraska, supporting an American producer over a foreign one.
I continued browsing through the store. I found organic milk, butter, and cream from northern California.
A stroll down the peanut butter and jelly aisle yielded lots of organic choices, but none of them local. I moved on in search of other lunch choices. I found lots of California cheeses, and even discovered that one of my favorite lunch meats - a smoked, sliced turkey breast - is organically produced by a small family operation in northern California.
I was beginning to feel like a food detective, peering at labels and jotting down website addresses for further research.
All of the "local" foods I bought and ate that week were wonderful. I didn't manage to eat locally for every meal - there was one fast-food lunch and another at a local deli with a friend.
There was also a long-planned barbecue, hosted by a friend. But even then, I found a way to include local ingredients - I volunteered to make the salad. Chock-full of things I'd bought at the farmers' market, including the tomato-based vinaigrette, the salad won rave reviews.
Breakfasts were easy - eggs with orange-yellow yolks, fresh oranges and strawberries, organic apple-pomegranate juice, and toast with California butter. But they were accompanied by another of my compromises, homemade sweet marmalade given to me by a friend from Sicily.
Lunches were a variety of sandwich combinations, but most frequently turkey grilled with a California cheese and topped with avocado, onion- garlic sprouts, and the organic tomato-basil mayonnaise.
For snacks, I had raisins, dried figs, walnuts, and pistachios from the farmers' market.
For the sake of full disclosure, however, I must confess to one completely nonlocal, nonorganic indulgence: I drank a diet Cherry Coke whenever I wanted to. It's my favorite soft drink.
All in all, though, I felt I'd done pretty well for the week. It wasn't as easy as I'd expected when I'd been given the assignment. My food choices had taken a good deal of extra time and thought, but they were worth it - in terms of taste and in terms of feeling that I had some control over where my money was going and who it was benefiting.
It's going to be hard to think of grocery shopping any other way.
My chef friend Evan summed it up perfectly when she said, "I think eating locally starts as an abstract set of values which you want to conform to in your own life.... But then you get completely seduced by the tastes of what you're consuming. And you get drawn in shopping at the farmers' market. You wind up feeling unconscionably lazy if you make a different choice. Because what you're consuming when you eat locally is so much more vivid in flavor and in meaning."