Outside the Food-Shed 

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee - I'm a great fan and promoter of eating food produced locally: something called eating in the "food-shed." A food-shed isn't one of the wooden buildings that I helped my father build while growing up on a farm, it's more akin to a watershed, which refers to a central valley water flows to on its way to the ocean. "Food-shed" is a bit more arbitrary in that it's usually defined as a set of geographical coordinates (say, everything within a 100- or 200-mile radius of a given home) as opposed to a natural topographic feature as a watershed is.

The concept of a food-shed was created to promote the idea of eating locally, and as I said, I think this is a good idea. First, local food is usually fresher and so tastes better. Growers don't have the incentive to pick under-ripe fruit or veggies to give them more leeway in shipping and so time-to-market is minimized. The ultimate in local eating at this time of year is going to a pick-your-own strawberry or asparagus farm, coming home, and eating the fruits (or stalks) of your harvest for supper that night. The difference in flavor between asparagus literally picked and cooked immediately and asparagus cooked a day later is an order of magnitude. Add a week's shipping time from California and asparagus is barely recognizable.

Then there's the industrialization issue. Producing animals and vegetables on an industrial scale requires some use of petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Probably not to the degree Big-Ag uses them, but some. Small, local production requires much less external input because it is more hands on in the harvesting (so the farmer inspects each fruit or vegetable to at least some degree) and because it is less demanding of soil nutrients because crop/animal rotation is feasible.

Lastly, I really have, for lack of a better word, a "belief" in the importance of agriculture as a personal instead of an industrial endeavor and I like the idea of rewarding people who's names I know by buying from them and by telling them what I did with those Cherokee Purple tomatoes or that Maine Musk canteloupe. We both, buyer and seller, benefit from that genuinely personal exchange of value for value. Commerce can and often should involve far more than handing over greenbacks for green beans.

However, in planning my Easter dinner this year I called MarxFoods in New Jersey and asked them to send me an evaluation package of their Wild Produce Sampler that is harvested in the rain forests of Oregon and Washington. Not exactly local.

Frankly, the idea occurred to me because I had a hankering for some fiddlehead ferns. I've had fiddleheads before when I lived in their native habitat and almost liked them, I wanted to try a new approach to flavoring them. The sampler includes stinging nettles, ramps (which weren't available, but I've eaten), and miner's lettuce so it offered an opportunity to try some new things as well as revisiting an old one. Also, I've had contacts with MarxFoods before and I think they are believers in offering something special to their customers - I went outside my food-shed to get something special. It's not unlike me buying shrimp.

The wild veggies were shipped overnight and arrived absolutely fresh this past Friday afternoon. On Sunday I fixed them as a feature of my Spring/Easter dinner. One of my guests had eaten fiddleheads and nettles before, the other four guests were eating something brand new. When I cleaned up on Monday morning there at most a few leaves of miner's lettuce on a couple of plates. If the people you're feeding say the food is good it's one thing, but the genuine complement is when the plates look like they were licked clean.

I suspect the veggies would have been even better if I'd cooked them Friday night instead of waiting until Sunday, but I wanted to share them with friends I thought would appreciate the experience - and I wanted their feedback, wanted to know what they thought of the meal. Obviously they thought well of it.

I'm fortunate in that sometimes I get to try things for free (a benefit of being a food writer), but I would quite happily have paid for the sampler if I'd had to. Cost does matter to me - a lot - and I've been eating a lot of beans, potatoes, pasta, and rice this year to keep my food costs down. I've also been enjoying the inexpensive meals I've made - the sort of food I grew up eating. But because of my penny-pinching I felt all the more comfortable splurging on my Spring/Easter feast by buying a leg of lamb and, if I'd had to, by buying the MarxFoods sampler. Try things and explore the food world. Splurge every now and then. Food isn't an enemy and if cost makes something more precious, then think of it as precious.

The Kenny Rogers song goes, "Know when to hold them, know when to fold them." When it comes to cooking, know when to stay close to home, and when to step outside of your food shed and munch on the wild side.

Copyright (c) 2007, SteelWill, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Spot On is a trademark of SteelWill, Inc.

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