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Food for Thought

April 14, 2013 Featured 1 Comment
Food for Thought

The Great Food Debate: Romance vs. Reality

By Jennifer Iannolo

There is a certain romance in strolling a farmer’s market on a Saturday morning. Stalls overflow with the colors and textures of the season, from summer’s luscious reds and velvety greens to the autumnal harbingers of orange and yellow. The senses come alive, eagerly anticipating a little taste of cheese, or perhaps a sample of honey.

For hard-core food lovers like me, this is a little piece of heaven. I’m noticing, however, that the farmer’s market seems more packed than usual these days — local is hip again.

Everywhere I turn, I find more people sourcing their foods from local farmers and purveyors, but here is where the romantic notions diverge. While some are opting for flavor and freshness instead of the usual fare on the supermarket shelf, others are doing it in an effort to go green, or to support their local communities. Whatever the reasons, however, it’s clear that there is a movement at hand.

So how did we get here? And, more importantly, where are we going?

Sunflower Crop

Sunflower Crop

Funny thing, movements. In this case, we seem to be giving a nod to the past, where sourcing food locally was less a matter or romance and more a matter of practicality: The farmer’s market was the only option in town. Supermarket chains changed the game, however, and suddenly it was easy to have tomatoes in the dead of winter. While this, in itself, was a marvel of technology and progress, it came with a cost, and in this case the biggest was flavor. As food became a commodity, and mass-production became the focus, flavor took second place to shelf-life. So while tomatoes might now last longer in your refrigerator, they are picked green and gassed to achieve that ruby-red color — and they have zero palate appeal.

In an effort to preserve the all-important pleasure source of flavor, many chefs (bless their hearts) turned to their local farmers as a viable resource. The Union Square Market in New York City became a chef’s shopping paradise, and some chefs went so far as to commission their own gardens planted with exactly the vegetables and herbs they desired. When their guests tasted the difference, they wanted those flavors at home. I don’t blame them: If you’ve ever tasted a real August tomato, you’ll never again eat the supermarket variety in December.

Fast-forward to 2009, and we now have a species known as the locavore: He who eats no food sourced outside of an x-mile radius, in most cases 100 miles. I recently discovered a cafe in England that sources within 30.

In large part, I find this to be a good practice. It creates locally sustainable food systems and makes us less dependent on the flavorless products of agribusiness behemoths. Whenever possible I, too, like to source locally. Having said that, I recognize that such practices are not feasible to the world at large. I happen to be in an area surrounded by farmland in most directions, so it would be very easy for me to push the “eat local” agenda.

But what of the world populations that don’t have such easy access? Or barely any food at all? In such cases romance is a luxury, and eating to live the primary focus.

The more I learn and research, the more questions that arise for me. I read books like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and find myself in agreement with a lot of it. I watch movies like Food, Inc. and find myself disgusted by governmental intervention and subsidization. I also know, however, that the alternative presented by sourcing and eating locally cannot sustain the global food supply.

So where are we headed? I’m not really sure. Are we willing to give up avocados on the East Coast, or mangoes? And are these even the questions to be asking?

What questions are you asking?

Jennifer Iannolo is the co-founder and CEO of the Culinary Media Network, as well as the creator of Food Philosophy, a blog and audio/video podcast celebrating the sensual pleasures of food. Her new cookbook, The Gilded Fork: Entertaining at Home encourages you to invite friends and family in while keeping the stress out. You can find Jennifer on Twitter ranting and raving about food and sensuality — with a heaping tablespoon of sass — as @foodphilosophy.

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