Silver Bullets and Mantras

Last Fall I attended an event here in Boston called the “Local Food Festival.”  Being the pretentious-grass-fed-organic-sustainable-free-range-local-all-natural-michael-pollan-hipster-snobbish-reusable-grocery-bag-liberal-foodie that I am, I was excited.  The event was held on a beautiful Autumn day by the water.  I had come with expectations of mantras and creeds and unifying messages of hope and practical steps toward more sustainable food systems.  Or maybe I was just looking to affirm what I already believed and feel better than everyone else for knowing it already (Enter the “pretentious” label).

However this festival was nothing like I had imagined.  Instead of an organized machine operating under one cause, it was a chaotic mess of vendors and booths and tents, all peddling their own agenda and trying to fit it under the guise of the event.  Leave it to America, right??  (Enter: hipster).  There were some non-profits, trying to do the right thing.  There were some co-op markets, some farms with CSA’s, some hope.  But the vast majority of it was corporate America trying to be trendy.  Okay maybe not “corporate,” but it was certainly the market trying to respond to the educated (and predominantly white, of course) audience.

After about 30 minutes of perusing the various restaurants and food producers selling their “local” food, I had had enough.  “Good day, sir.  I say good day!”  The experience that put me over the edge was a little old local tortilla shop that scavenged up enough cash to afford a booth, simply to share the product they love with anyone they could.  Or at least that’s the image they’d prefer.

I walked up to this booth because unlike the other vendors, they were giving out free food, and hey, who doesn’t like free food.  I talked with the gentleman who handed me the tortilla wrapped with some delicious goodies in the middle.  He looked at me and said “Hey.”  What a jerk!  No I am kidding, he said, “Hey – you look like someone who likes to eat at Anna’s Taqueria?”  For those of you not in the Boston area, Anna’s is a popular burrito joint with them young people today.  Well upon affirming that I am indeed a poor college-aged kid who looks like he eats a lot of burritos, he said “well you know, Anna’s uses our tortillas exclusively, and we make these in a factory just outside of Boston, as we always have.”  This gentleman then proceeded to hand me a packet of these wonderful tortillas for me to savor at home.  “Yes!”  I thought.  I had come home with a great, local product.

Or so I thought.  Local, yes.  Great?  The question mark means that I questioned it’s greatness.  And I will explain why.  Starting right now.  It is because I looked at the ingredients of these tortillas only to audibly recoil in horror.  A few bystanders stared at me with concerned glares, but I assured them that the gasp was entirely warranted.  “Guar Gum!” I said.  “Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate!”  “Monocalcium phosphate!”  “Water!”  Ok, I guess water is an acceptable ingredient.  But “Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate”?!?!  Let’s break down the word for a second.  Sodium, which we all know is toxic to your entire body.  Acid!  Do I need to explain?  And PYROphosphate?  Burning salty acid is what they should call it.  Yeesh.  I was disgusted, to say the least.  I looked back at the gentleman who handed me the free item, and I THREW IT ON THE GROUUUND.  I told him to go put that garbage in another man’s veins.  I also reminded him that I am not a part of his system.  (If you don’t know what I am referencing go watch this.)

All jokes aside, this led me to an important conclusion.  Mantras when it comes to food are dangerous.  It is ultra-trendy these days to say “I try to eat only local.”  But what that really means is important.  I am not bashing the local food movement at all, not at least its intent.  However, if you live down the road from the Coca-Cola bottling plant, it is conceivable to drink a “local Coke.”  These tortillas, while “local,” were just as processed as any other tortilla you’d find in the store.  Should I be happy that someone in Canton, Mass. made that tortilla?  Does that even make it local?  Where did the guar gum come from??  Unless that wheat was harvested here, the sunflower oil grown and pressed here, and the acid collected from the rain, that tortilla is by no means local.  You have to trace each of the component parts, and I bet when you do you will find that the wheat came from the midwest somewhere and the guar gum from the guar gum forests of candy land.  My point is, eating local makes sense in large part for whole ingredients.  Things like produce, meat, fish, dairy, etc.  But calling any highly processed “food-like substance” (enter Michael Pollan) a “local food” is just a conceit.  And a dangerous one at that.

Eating local is important.  The extent of its importance can be debated, but it is a step in the right direction to attempt to eat more locally.  But while it is important, one thing needs to be remembered – it is not a silver bullet.