Sunday, September 13, 2009

Redefining Locavore

In a panel discussion at the Kerrytown Book Festival earlier this afternoon, I heard a redefinition of the term locavore. First, here's the description of the event:
"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.
Funny thing: we met some acquaintances we had been introduced to in California in the spring. They are visiting here, and had come to the panel discussion. They said "We ate at Zingerman's. The matzoh ball soup was terrible." The two of us filled them in on our view that the enterprize is overrated. Yesterday, giving them yet another chance, Len had a decidedly inferior bagel at the deli. And once we had a terrible meal at the famous Roadhouse. Alas. We wish we did find it as wonderful as it's hyped to be -- deserving of all the people who come to Ann Arbor just to eat there.

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."


Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I really wish I'd made it to the bookfest. I had family obligations come up, so I wasn't able to attend. I was interested in the panel you discuss here, and in the food mystery panel, in particular.

~~louise~~ said...

Quite an interesting post Mae. I'm going to have to reserve my opinion, however.

I'm familiar with the works done by Jan Longone and the Sterns. I think of them all as "culinary historians."

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I don't know very much about Ari Weinzweig and I am on the fence about the status of the word, locavore.

Mae Travels said...

Jen -- really too bad you missed the event. It was great!

Louise -- I didn't try to give any general introduction, just plowed into some specifics. Of course the Jane & Michael Stern and Dan & Jan Longone are very famous culinary historians -- in fact, founders of the field. Weinzweig is also famous: he writes for the Atlantic food blog, and his Zingerman's enterprizes put Ann Arbor on the map. I'm as I said out of step with general opinion of Zingerman's.

Anonymous said...

Leave it to Zingerman's to try and spin chocolate, pepper and sea salt as Local. Local is the new hot food trend. Weinzweig knows that his customers might be local food minded, so he needs to appeal to them, but that does not mean 5000 mile chocolate is local, no matter how he spins it. Zing makes good money selling 5000 mile food and they don't want the local trend and stop that.

"Turnips, potatoes, and onions for eight months?" says Weinzweig.

I guess the guy never canned a jar of tomatoes before. We have shelves full of home canned tomatoes, roasted red pepper, peaches, jellies, and a freezer of frozen berries. Not to mention local corn meal, flour, beet sugar, eggs, butter and cheese and year round supplies of meat.

And what about apples? They store all winter. I can make local pizza, apple pie, quiche, pasta, cakes and desserts, and have chicken soup winter with local ingredients.