Thinking Local

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Increased awareness for sustainability, nutrition and taste is changing the way we eat.

By Bret Love

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While buzzwords such as farm-to-table, sustainability and locavore are relatively new, the concepts surrounding them are centuries old. Using the food products that were closest to home used to be the only option for most people, who may have never even considered the plethora of perks for their own health, and the health of their communities.

The debate over food—where we get it, how it’s grown, what chemicals are used during the process and how it’s labeled on our grocery store shelves—has become an increasingly hot topic in recent years. Documentary films such as “Super Size Me” (2004), “Food, Inc.” (2008), “Forks Over Knives” (2011) and “GMO OMG” (2013) have helped heighten consumer awareness of serious issues with the fast food business and the industrialization of agriculture.

In reaction to an increasingly globalized agricultural industry, chefs and consumers are turning toward the simplicity of the slow food approach and fresh meals that are representative of the surrounding land and culture. As a result, those who embrace all things local are reaping the benefits, which include foods that are better in their quality, environmental friendliness and, of course, taste.

 

Conscious Consumption

Slow Food advocate Carlo Petrini speaking on the importance of farm-to-table cuisine | Courtesy of State of the Net
Slow Food advocate Carlo Petrini speaking on the importance of farm-to-table cuisine | Courtesy of State of the Net

Built around products that are good for you, cleanly produced and fairly bought, Slow Food International is just one organization that represents the global movement toward a more thoughtful way of eating. The nearly 30-year-old grassroots campaign began when Carlo Petrini led a protest against a location of a fast food restaurant opening near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Wanting to reverse society’s increasing reliance on fast food, the Italian activist’s emphasis on farm-to-table fare was rooted in his desire to preserve the historic connection between agriculture and gastronomy. The crusade has since attracted a legion of devotees, with more than 100,000 members in 160 countries all around the world.

The movement that encourages sourcing foods produced by local farmers has gone beyond just the members of Slow Food, however. “Locavores” have identified themselves as a new category of foodies across the nation. Despite differences in the number of miles that quantify local, experts agree that it’s important to take into account a product’s origins. Seattle’s Café Flora, open since 1991, was an early herald of the local and organic food message. The eatery continues to source sustainable produce from Washington state and has been named the area’s best vegetarian restaurant by multiple publications. Showing that omnivores can eat local, too, Cochon in New Orleans is dedicated to locally sourcing pork for dishes that highlight the city’s famous Cajun flavors.

Steven Satterfield—a 2014 James Beard finalist for Best Chef in the Southeast—is an outspoken proponent of the slow food movement. He asserts that buying locally grown ingredients has demonstrated benefits for both consumers and their community. As the executive chef and co-owner of Miller Union, an acclaimed Atlanta restaurant, he practices what he preaches.

Steven Satterfield of Miller Union in Atlanta | Photo by Heidi Geldhauser/Our Labor of Love
Steven Satterfield of Miller Union in Atlanta | Photo by Heidi Geldhauser/Our Labor of Love

“First off,” he lists, “the food did not have to travel miles and miles to get to us. This means it’s fresher, tastes better and has more living nutrients. You can taste the difference. Secondly, when we support growers in our region, we boost the local economy. We also raise awareness of our region’s bounty and celebrate ingredients with our food heritage. The consumer and the producer both benefit from this connection.”

Caleb Smith, chef de cuisine at Broadfield, A Sea Island Sporting Club and Lodge, concurs, noting that the quality of locally grown produce is a result of being harvested and on your table in a mere matter of days. The working garden at Broadfield supplies the fresh produce on many Sea Island diners’ plates, an initiative that ensures members and guests are getting the best seasonal ingredients, as well as the most authentic flavors of the region.

Smith’s definition of local is within an hour’s drive, and most farms he uses to source ingredients for the Broadfield menu are less than 30 miles away. Evan James, who oversees the Broadfield gardens, defines local as within 100 miles, citing a small family farm in Jacksonville, Fla., as the closest source for high-quality lettuce and kale. Both Smith and James agree that it is the consumer who ultimately determines what local means to them, whether it’s ingredients that are produced within a city, state or geographic radius.

Regardless, choosing foods from smaller, organically farmed sources is often better for us. “Slow Food is healthy food,”

Evan James harvests turnips from the gardens at Broadfield, A Sea Island Sporting Club and Lodge.
Evan James harvests turnips from the gardens at Broadfield, A Sea Island Sporting Club and Lodge.

James says. “I think the reason that the slow food movement has really taken off in the last few years is because people are finally interested in what they are eating and where their food is coming from. With agriculture becoming more commercialized, we’re seeing less and less care for the grown product. Slow food represents a focus on the mom-and-pop-style farms. A small farmer takes pride in his product and puts a lot of care into what he grows or raises, because that is his livelihood.”

 

Georgia-Grown Goodness

Aside from the added freshness and health benefits that come with sourcing foods within the region, going local aims to benefit the agricultural community as well. Treating the soil properly, growing crops sustainably and preparing food in a way that highlights the natural flavors of the ingredients are all at the core of slow food. And as more foodies and chefs have adopted the farm-to-table ethos, more farmers around Georgia have stepped up to provide fresh, seasonal ingredients.

“With our environment in south Georgia, I can only grow plants that are heat-tolerant, or tropical plants that are dormant when its cold,” James says of Broadfield’s gardens. “Bananas taste good, but have traveled at least 1,000 miles to reach us. You are what you eat, so I eat with the seasons.”

At Broadfield, early spring planting begins with potatoes and onions, which do well in the sandy soils of coastal Georgia.

Caleb Smith makes his grandmother’s squash casserole, his favorite summer dish.
Caleb Smith makes his grandmother’s squash casserole, his favorite summer dish.

By summertime, James progresses with a variety of traditional Southern food crops such as corn, squash, okra, eggplant, beans, cucumbers, melons, peppers and tomatoes. He also grows small plots of herbs, strawberries, blueberries, asparagus, flowers and peas.

Asked about favorite dishes during the summer, James immediately sings the praises of pickled okra: “I like it because the

okra pod is tender and salty. Chef Caleb cans the okra and makes hot sauce with the peppers that he serves year-round with his meals.”

Smith, who favors a simple, old-fashioned approach to food preparation, waxes nostalgic about squash: “One of my all-time favorites is my grandmother Gillis’ squash casserole, a classic that really takes me back home. I try to cook all of my vegetables in the traditional Southern manner, just like my grandmother used to.”

 

The Future of Food

Locally sourced pork is a star of Cochon’s menus. | Photo by Chris Granger
Locally sourced pork is a star of Cochon’s menus. | Photo by Chris Granger

Although it’s easy to imagine that foods that benefit diners’ health and farming economies will become a permanent fixture on American menus, anyone who follows the culinary world knows that it’s prone to fads; it wasn’t all that long ago that fine dining was being supplanted by the experimental approach of molecular gastronomy. So the question becomes: Is the slow food mentality merely the latest in a long line of fashionable culinary crazes, or does it truly represent a shift in the way we think about what we eat?

“I think the trend of eating local will continue to grow in popularity and scope,” James says. “I envision communities across America that source their foods from farms 30 to 50 miles away.”

Smith acknowledges that farm-to-table is indeed trendy at the moment but conveys his hopes that it’s a trend that will continue to grow in the future for the sake of the farmers.

“The small American farmer today is a dying breed,” he laments. “Sustainable agriculture is what built a large portion of our nation in its beginnings. I believe it is very important to support our local farmers to ensure that the fruits of their labor are passed on to the next generation. I believe that the more consumers educate themselves about food, the more they will support locally sourced growers. Since eating is a necessity to life, we should enjoy it; it should taste good and fresh, and we should know where it’s coming from.”

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