When you hear the word “local,” what comes to mind? For some, maybe it means a store you can walk to, or their neighborhood, or around the corner. Others might think of their city, or a short drive away. But for one group, “local” means specifically eating within 100 miles of where you’re located. These people are called “Locavores” (or alternatively “Localvores”). If you think the idea of it sounds silly, you should know they have their own movement – and their own website!
What does it mean, to eat locally? Most people believe that eating locally means giving up all the foods they love for a diet of, say, soybeans and corn, or eating tomatoes or other food out of their own garden. But in reality, it means paying attention to seasons, knowing your farmers’ markets, and being flexible. It is a bit extreme, but the reasons for eating within 100 miles are as varied as the surprising amount of food that can be found within that radius. Most do it for these reasons; environmentally, it greatly reduces the amount of fuel burned to transport food. For reasons of health and sanitation, it’s safer to know more about who’s producing your food than you might normally be able to with a mega-producer. And fresher food really is just better food. The closer you are to your source of a particular meal, the more the meal tastes the way nature intended.
For every community, there are certain restrictions on what is and is not “local.” I don’t think anyone in Arizona can drink coffee and believe they’re contributing to a local farmer. Cocoa is generally grown in rain forests, which, despite our amazingly diverse climate, seem to be lacking in Arizona. That said, the limitations are generally small. Our climate and soil has long been a great draw for agriculturalists from around the world. Particularly in the Gila River Valley (or “The Valley of the Sun,” as the Phoenix metro area is now known), people are surprised by the amount and variety of agriculture provided by the rich soil, lacking only in the water that our various rivers and lakes provide.
It’s common knowledge that corn can and does grow wonderfully in Arizona. Anyone who’s been to Yuma knows we can grow lettuce here. Grains are big business as well. Those who’ve been around long enough to remember the Babbitt family will probably also be able to tell you about the cattle industry in Arizona. But there are quite a few shockers, as well. A majority of folks are unaware that you can get local shrimp in Arizona, for instance. Or that besides our gorgeous river trout, we have a variety of other fish that can be had from in-state. Along with the cattle, there’s also a thriving dairy industry here, supported by some large producers and a few cooperatives. But these are just the major producers.
What about boutique products? There are small local farmers who do everything from growing vegetables to making cheese. Some are set up to sell to larger portions of the public, like a cooperative or crop/farm sharing program, and others simply do it for the joy of producing food they can be proud of, for friends and neighbors. Lovers of fresh cheeses, particularly chèvre and raw cheeses, would be well served to ask around as to who has a dairy license nearby.
Of course, to be local you don’t have to be a farmer or a rancher. You can be a baker, or a cook, someone who uses the freshest ingredients they can find to produce something that doesn’t have to ship and store for weeks or months on end, so its ingredients can be what you’re supposed to taste rather than the preservatives you’re not. Bread, in particular, has the best smell, taste, and texture when it’s freshest. If you go into a bakery, a good bakery, you’ll usually see a shelf called “day old bread.” It’s great stuff – for croutons. Or, if it’s sliced already, maybe it’s good for French toast. Even that most precious of breads, the powerfully flavored sourdough, doesn’t stand up well to shipping unless it’s pumped up with some preservatives, and that means it’s just not local.
As people begin to realize the benefits of eating locally, the movement to get food produced nearby has moved out of the realm of the fringe groups and in to the mainstream. Not only is it true that “local is the new organic,” The New Oxford American Dictionary chose “locavore” as the 2007 Word of the Year! Whether it’s the freshest produce picked within a day or two when ripe (which can’t be done when it has to be shipped thousands of miles), beef from the rancher around the corner (where you know how the cows and meat are treated), bread from the baker up the street (where you can tell it’s time to buy with your nose), or salsa from the neighbor selling it to the local store (where you really know what’s being put into it), it’s becoming easier and easier to eat fresh, eat healthy, and eat “locally.” And with the rising price of fuel to transport these foods around the world, it’s beginning to make a lot more economic sense as well!
With regards to wine, the question sometimes is, “why bother with wine produced locally?” Of course, by supporting the food producers in your community you are putting money back in to your local economy. And of course by eating locally you are reducing the use of fossil fuels needed to transport food over long distances. These are all excellent, valid, and substantial reasons to get not only your food but your wine locally. But there is something else with wine, something more.
Think of a musical family – the Carpenters, the Jacksons, the Andrews sisters, even the Hanson band – and your mind should bring forth the harmonies of voice, as diverse as the voices are, that can only be created by brothers and sisters, by those grown from the same tree. This is what is experienced when wine produced from locally grown grapes is paired with locally grown food. There is an almost spiritual harmonization, as if to say, “we were grown from the same earth, we belong together.” It extends to each part of the meal, with the wine wrapping all the flavors together into a package that only those who eat locally have been lucky enough to experience.
Article by Steve Gresser. Photo from Shutterstock.
Originally Published in Arizona Vines and Wines Summer 2008 Issue