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Locavores the World Over

by John Semivan

John SemivanParis! Vermont! What does an urban mecca and a rural beacon have in common? Locavore food and community.

For all their dedication to locally produced foods, locavores are internationalists. A contradiction? Hardly. Locavores espouse the practice and ideal of community based on eating locally. In any organism, the well-being of individual cells contributes to holistic health. Healthy communities build global wellbeing.

For most of our history, we had little choice but to eat locally. We ate what we hunted, fished, foraged, or farmed. Tribe and family no doubt expressed community by eating together. The family meal and celebratory banquet were local-produce affairs. Distinct cuisines developed from family farms, dinner tables, and village communities. Thank goodness the ritual of breaking bread didn’t wait on bread-to-go.

However, the modern world of travel sent masses of people across the globe. With the near miracle of refrigeration, produce traveled too. One kind of globalization began with artificially fertilized crops grown in pesticide rich farmland, preserved to travel, shipped the world over, trucked across states, and finally chemically shined for sale. Years ago, when a friend of mine first visited New York city, she stared out the cab window and asked, “Where are all the farms?” When I puzzled, she explained that surrounding major Chinese cities are the farms that feed them, but not so for most US cities.

Vermont is a beacon of common sense and community when it comes to eating locally. It is not consumers merely purchasing foods from anonymous producers, but the self-conscious role consumers’ play in the farm-to-palate progression that produces locavore community. Responsible consumption means being an active part of the local community of food producers and vendors.

Like locavore restaurants in Vermont, many in Paris continue the culinary traditions of various regions. A favorite Parisian restaurant of my wife’s and mine, L’Ambassade d’Auvergne, does what its name suggests. The restaurant is an ambassador, in a manner of speaking, of the cuisine of Auvergne, a region in central France. Housed in a traditional two story in the Marais district, it invites dinners to be at home in a dining room with dark, overhead beams , a standing rake in one corner, hanging hams, a scythe leaning against a wall. Wide tables with strong legs invite many dinners; more intimate tables invite couples.

Early for lunch in this rustic milieu, we noticed a woman walk into the dining room with inquiring confidence. Unaccompanied by maitre d’ Francis Panek, with his signature handlebar mustache, she looked about. Clearly not a curious tourist or straying local. To my note that the maitre d’ had just stepped out, she showed a handy light meter and said. “For a movie,” smiled politely, took several more readings, and left.

Soon I delighted in the grilled tripe sausage with aligot, mash potatoes and Cantal cheese with garlic. Grand in his presentation of the cheese mashed potatoes, the waiter mixed and stretched the potatoes thinning them from the pot into the air. Stirred in the pot again, mashed potatoes were once again stretched thin into the air. It was something like a magician pulling white rabbits from a top hat. April and I shared a bounteous serving of lentils cooked in goose fat. She enjoyed the beef in red wine. Finally came the grand chocolate mousse from a large bowl that remained within reach with its friendly serving spoon inviting seconds.

In Paris, a mere month after Europe’s May, 2011 deadly E. coli wave sickened thousands and killed more than 40, Parisians were still enjoying lunch salads. Bravado? Ignorance? Insanity? Au contraire. So ingrained is the ideal of locally grown food that, well before the trumpeted warnings of deadly sprouts from Germany, locally produced products were simply assumed to be beyond the pall.

On the other hand, what makes the argument against the security of locavores but their Spartan limits. From beyond come sugar, salt, vinegar, peppercorns, chocolate, bananas, coffee, tea, olive oil. Master chef Jean Joho has found US, farm-raised game so lacking in flavor that he imports to his US restaurants “wild grouse from Scotland” (Wine Spectator, 9/30/11). Where does one draw the line?

Vermont and Paris are diverse communities, yet they include the locavore ideals of community. They are beacons of food sense and community sensibility in an age staggering under its overweight burden of unhealthy foods and self-destructive eating habits. Puzzling over what to eat and how to feed ourselves invites the grandest ideals of community commensurate with the finest and healthiest of foods. (Next, we follow Vermont’s Harpoon beer into a New York bar and then in January locavores (?) and St. Martin’s French-Caribbean culinary culture.)

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