The Opposite of Universal

Local is not the goal.

Those of us engaged in the quest for reviving real food let the words fall like rustic breadcrumbs from our mouths: local, independent, sustainable, seasonal. But local, seasonal, and independent are footpaths, not temples.

The purpose of our journey, instead, is to experience richness of existence through food. To nourish our bodies and at the same time to fully live in this time and place, communicating — more specifically, sharing communion — with the people who created the meal, all the way back to the soil.

Sure, if you want excellent food, it’s going to require at least some produce that’s grown close enough to be picked at its most potent and eaten very fresh. And typically the best meats are going to be raised by farmers operating at a scale small enough to pay individual attention to the quality (and quality of life) of every animal on the farm. And experiencing food at its most excellent is essential to fully experiencing food. But, still, “local” and “independent” are just means to an end.

Beyond mere excellence lies meaning. By consistently engaging a single foodshed or small group of foodsheds — presumably one(s) near where we live — over time, we can start to understand the land we live on and the people we live with, and develop meaningful connections with both. It’s the idea of understanding, sharing and belonging…the idea of home.

The misconception that folks like us are focused on “local” as an end to itself is part of what’s amiss with this screed by Wooly Pigs farmer Heath Putnam. His argument has a couple other troubling aspects, too, particularly a confusion between “efficiency” of large operations and the ability of large operations to externalize their costs (and thus bring their prices down at the expense of the commons). But, principally, Mr. Putnam is attacking the idea that “local” is always better. In one sense of the word “local”, he is in fact correct.

That’s because, obviously, everything is “local” to somewhere. Even the worst food in the world is local for somebody. Smithfield pork could be served at a restaurant next door to the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina and I still wouldn’t want to eat a bite.

This truism, that everything is local to somewhere, lies at the heart of Mr. Putnam’s misunderstanding. He rails against the mistaken idea that “food produced near me tastes better than food produced far away.” But this is a mischaracterization of “local” as used when advocating a return to real food.

When we talk about real food in the present America, the opposite of “local” is not “from far away”. The opposite of “local” is “universal”.

That is, “local food” stands in opposition not to “food from someone else’s hometown”, but in opposition to mass-produced, homogenized food. Food that is bred or cultivated for its ability to withstand long-distance travel with little cosmetic damage. Food that is scientifically produced from the cheapest possible commodities and packaged to stay salable for months or years. Food that exists only as a delivery mechanism for calories, or sweetness.

By my lights, Wooly Pigs is local food. It may not be local to me, but it’s from somewhere specific, raised by specific people who make specific choices. This is why I don’t find it heretical when people who are interested in local eating also seek out food from other foodsheds. And when it comes to certain items which are strongly tied to (and influenced by) specific climates and regions, items like coffee and wine, experiencing the differences from source to source, from farmer to farmer and craftsman to craftsman, lies at the heart of the experience.

It must be terribly frustrating for Mr. Putnam, raising fantastic heritage breed pigs that literally embody his talent and effort in providing the West Coast with world-class pork, to then have Bay Area chefs spurn his products because “they’re not local”. Undoubtedly some of these chefs are really trying to engage and understand a certain foodshed and so aren’t as interested in Washington State pork. It’s also easy to believe that many of the chefs are simply following fads, or in fact labor under the unfortunate misconception that animals carelessly raised nearby could somehow be of higher quality than the best animals raised a couple states away. And, of course, chefs are influenced by their guests, so the core of his whole problem could in fact be hordes of Sonomans and Berkeleyans led astray by Food Network fashion and other media misinformation.

So I’ll come down largely on his side and agree: the best-tasting pork in the world is worth eating, at least occasionally, even if it comes from quite a ways away. Particularly this is true when the farmer is personally engaged with the specifics of raising his or her animals.

I wanna eat me some Wooly Pigs pork! Mr. Putnam is obviously an interesting and very passionate farmer, and his pigs are not going to taste like anybody else’s.

Which brings me, at last, to the part of his post with which I could not more vehemently disagree. He says:

* Food quality is a function of the physical properties of the food. Food with the same physical properties (e.g. chemical composition) tastes the same, whether produced by Buddhists practicing biodynamic agriculture or gigantic, faceless agribusiness.

I am confident that this is completely untrue. The history of man’s understanding of our world is a history in which, at any given time, we thought we knew all the universal properties of matter, and then later discovered there was a whole lot more than we could have imagined. Remember when matter was composed of fire, water, earth, and air, and the whole human essence comprised the “four humors”? Newtonian physics seems to explain almost everything, until you sprain your frontal lobe trying to understand that actually gravity isn’t a force but is instead a specific curvature in the fabric of space-time.

In In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan details the history of nutritionists woefully underestimating, often to tragic consequence, the complexity of food. The complex interactions between people and what we eat have not, and probably never will, reveal themselves to any microscope or spectrometer. Nourishment > Nutrition.

To put it simply: it is unavoidable that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than can be quantified by meat scientists in Ames.

Given that it’s a virtual certainty that there are properties of food that we will not in our lifetimes isolate, what kinds of properties could they be? What kinds of human choices could affect the levels of those properties?

When humans first began to domesticate plants and animals, those cultures that adopted agriculture looked upon on hunter-gatherers as barbarians. To the first civilizations, the act of raising one’s own food, of growing grain and taming yeast to make bread and beer, was the essential fact of being a person, and placed us somehow apart from all of nature’s other beasts. Agriculture was consciousness. Now, 10,000 years later, once again we have a divide between food raised at the hands of people and food raised without conscious human input.

Is it possible that some of the qualities of food undetected in government labs are the result of the interaction between the living food and living human beings? It might sound farfetched, but 1) neuroscientists and psychologists find that people are physiologically affected by the moods of those around them (PDF link) and 2) it’s well established that the emotional state of an animal at slaughter has a huge effect on the quality of its meat. It’s only a short step from these processes which we’ve measured, to supposing that many human-animal (or human-plant) interactions we can’t quantify affect the resulting food in ways we don’t know how to measure.

Well, what I really mean is “ways we don’t know how to measure with scientific equipment.” Because we do know how to measure our food, and we have for thousands of years. We measure it by how it tastes, how we feel when we eat it, whether it brings us closer to each other, how it makes feel a part of something larger than ourselves.

Local food, grown by real people, crafted by passionate hands, can do all that and more. This is our “local”: food that comes from somewhere, that introduces you to someone. Food that is local to here, local to the Central Coast or local to Spokane or local to Snow Creek, North Carolina. Real food is local, because real people are local.

But local is not the goal.