"Local Foods in the World and Global Foods in Michigan" -- Moderator Jan Longone leads a discussion with Ari Weinzweig, co-owner of Zingerman's, and Jane and Michael Stern, authors of the "Roadfood" column, as featured in Gourmet Magazine and on NPR.After a long introduction by Longone, Weinzweig began his talk. He explained that in his view, eating only local food in Michigan would mean 8 months of turnips, onions, potatoes... which is how I also view it. Food snobs, he says, think everyone should eat out of their own backyard. Or to put it another way, should be a locavore, which means to eat only food produced within some arbitrary number of miles from home. (I've never noticed food snobs saying that in particular, and I thought Weinzweig was a leader of food snobbery with his store's $5 chocolate bars and hand-made bacon, but that's another issue.)
What struck me was his alternative way to look at local foods: a new definition of locavore eating. Having a relationship with the producers of food products, wherever they are and wherever you are, is his redefinition of locavore. For example, his Zingerman's enterprize purchases artisanal long pepper and sea salt from a cooperative endeavor in Bali. They have email conversations with the artisans. And his phone operators have a relationship with the people who order food from his mail-order site. Therefore, these are examples of locavore food and purchasing. Of course, he explains, he also has local farmers who produce cheese and cream for his enterprize. So he's pure: almost.
The only thing that counts is taste, says Weinzweig. People like chocolate, pepper, coffee, and many other things that don't grow in Michigan, and they should be able to eat them without being criticized by anyone. I agree 100% with that. And local food isn't necessarily good food. Even canned goods, he suggests, are local somewhere -- I agree on that as well. (In fact, Del Monte, I think it is, has been claiming that the fact that the tomato canneries are close to the tomato fields makes their product local, but that's still another definition.)
Two disagreements that I do have:
- First, I don't see why he needs to co-opt the word locavore, even if some of the proponents of local eating go overboard and get silly. There are lots of other admiring words for eating well and knowing about the producers of the foods you eat, and where appropriate avoiding mass produced and mass market foods. So let the locavores be local. (I thought I was making a joke when I said I was drinking local coffee because I order it from a coffee farm I visited in Kona, Hawaii. He thinks I'm really doing it.)
- Second, contrary to his generally sucessful claims of Zingerman's greatness, I actually am not very fond of Zingerman's food products other than the bread. And that's produced by another entrepreneur, actually. I think Weinzweig's principal talent is as a promoter. He's made the whole world think he has great products. I'm out of step, but not convinced.
As for the panel discussion, Weinzweig is really an amusing speaker -- I guess that's how he's so persuasive of his greatness. And I really enjoyed the presentation by the Sterns. One anecdote told by Michael Stern put things into perspective. In their early travels in search of Real American Food they were in rural Louisiana. They asked the waitress at a small restaurant with a promising menu, "Do you have regional food?" She replied, "No, we just have regular food."