Issue 29

Local Food

Local Food

Over the past three decades (since about the Carter-era energy crisis) there has been a swirling whisper in this country about the safety, sustainability and quality of our conventional food supply. Myriad experts have pontificated differing views. Scientists blame the death of Gulf marine life on Midwest farmers, Midwest farmers blame the drought on Colorado ski-resorts, Fast food joints blame “consumer demand” or “downward pressure on price” for decreases in quality, etc, etc.

I am a chef. As such, I have limited experience or expertise to discuss issues related to safety and sustainability — although I will try to convince you otherwise if you linger in to the Dell past eleven on a school night. Given this knowledge of my own limitations; I, Brian O’Malley (insert script initials here), do hereby forfeit my right to make arguments in the public press related to the destruction of our planet by Big Corn, or the looming terrorist plot to poison the over-centralized dairy industry, or any other statement generally casting doubt over America’s under-performing and overly-trusted food administrations. Concerning those subjects: I am a loose cannon, ill-informed by years of conspiracy-theory development while under duress (read: bullshitting while working the restaurant line).

I do, however, fiercely defend my hard earned right as a chef, culinary arts instructor, and long-time lover of all things food to make blatantly subjective exaltations regarding quality. Food quality, which is to say both the quality of ingredients and the meals prepared from those ingredients, has taken a serious turn for the worse.

The blame for the latter is easy to lay – your mother; for not teaching you more about cooking, your job; for chewing up your time so you have to place convenience at the top of your decision making matrix, and me; for not doing a better job teaching quality to the guy working the line. (I would like to keep them in that order to maintain my impression of myself as the last-line-of-defense for quality, but you may rearrange as you see fit to protect your impression of your mother.)

The blame for the former is much more widespread. I would like to say the reason we have crappy ingredients is due to some shady organization that is run by a cruel, Darth Vader-like Harmony Destroyer bent on chaos for the sake of it. Then we could band together and fight. (I call I get to be Han, as Luke has to do that awkward kiss’n his sister thing that gives me the willies.) (I also promise to halt the excessive use of parenthesis as they seem to be very distracting.) (Even to me.) Unfortunately, the truth is much worse.

Everyone of us is to blame for the decrease in quality. Each time we make a buying decision based on price, or convenience, or consistency, over quality, we WILLINGLY tell the world’s farmers and restaurateurs that we want tomatoes on our cheeseburgers. Even in January. Even in Nebraska. Why do we do such a thing? Are tomatoes not the best when the TIME for tomatoes has come? Does not that time have everything to do with PLACE? Are the capital LETTERS just as annoying as the parenthesis once were?

I am not trying to advocate for a new decision making structure where price is irrelevant. Such a structure would swim directly against the firmly established and powerful current of capitalism and the free-market system as we now know it.

I am advocating for a system where quality is the primary factor in decisions related to food. Where a tomato that is juicy, ripe and flavorful trumps all others. These tomatoes must be local. Otherwise, they must be picked early from some faraway land – like California – and shipped to my local grocery where they are “ripened” and priced to beat the heirloom tomatoes from my girls Beth and Celeste up in Blair.

The conventional system is built to underprice and oversupply, therefore killing the artisan producers whose costs are high and margins razor thin. I digress. This is not a small versus big argument either. Or a here vs. somewhere else argument. Or a “form a relationship with your grower and your life will be complete” argument. This is a quality argument.

Beth and Celeste deserve my money because their tomatoes are outta sight delicious. I like them both, and wish them well in their business endeavors, but they get my loot instead of HyVee cause the product is better. HyVee gets plenty of my loot by the way, just not so much for tomatoes.

It is hard – Eating local requires patience. You must wait for the tomatoes to ripen and get to the market. Eating local requires commitment. You must seek out purveyors of these ingredients, or grow your own. Eating local requires money. You must pay for what you get. Food costs money. Eating local requires embracing seasonality. You must be willing to forgo fresh garden peas in the wintertime.

It is rewarding – Close your eyes. Imagine for a moment the first bite of summertime sweet corn, where the kernels snap against your teeth and the sweet juice spills over your lower lip onto your chin. Or feel the gentle warmth of the toasted bread, the crisp lettuce, the sweet, tart, and juicy tomato, and the savory bacon of a BLT. Or remember that lingering satiation from a scratch pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, when the aroma pulls at you all day like a secret lover, and then, after many glances, and stolen tastes, you finally get to indulge. These are the moments we should seek in our lives. When three sentences can propel us into a land of unbridled glee; stimulated by the memory of an event, not even the actual joy of the event itself.

It is your choice. You can continue to order cardboard tomatoes for your burger from the drive through in January. Dave Thomas has an obligation as a business man to give you what you ask for. Although I am pretty sure that he’d be happier serving you better tasting food. Take a stand. All by yourself. It does not have to be dramatic, or difficult. Do two things and you will move the world of food closer to its’ historically tastee roots:

  1. “hold the tomato” when it is out of season
  2. shop at the Farmer’s Market when possible

 

Fortunately, we have a new ally in the quest for great ingredients: The Nebraska Food Cooperative. Beyond the summertime, idyllic crush of the green markets, “the Coop” offers a year-round, web-based alternative to the conventional food system. Check out www.nebraskafood.org for a full listing of products — from grass-fed beef to artisan goat’s cheese, to a plethora of produce.

Brian O'Malley

Brian O'Malley

Brian O'Malley is a chef instructor at Metropolitan Community College's Institute for the Culinary Arts. A graduate from New England Culinary Institute and a member of the American Culinary Federation, O'Malley worked as the chef/owner of Spread. He was a manager/instructor at the New England Culinary Institute, head chef at Vanilia in Santorini, Greece, and BackNine Grille, assistant food and beverage manager at the Champion's Club and opening chef at BOJO. Brian O'Malley can usually be found in MCC's kitchens, teaching, creating works of culinary genius or debating the perils of out of season tomatoes.


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