Saturday, August 25, 2012

Snapshot of the Good Life

Part 1 of an n-part series, where n >= 1.

You go to the farmer's market in Clark Park for eggs, those Mennonite eggs that are better than the eggs that cost twice as much. You got a late start and so they don't have any, but they say if you come back at 1:30 there should be a few more cartons.

You can spare 45 minutes and so you wander up the block until you see the Yumtown USA food truck selling sandwiches called "The Joy" and "The Bat out of Hell." It looks good but you decide you'd better not. You sit on a park bench and get out a book.

Two sentences in, you decide you'd better have that sandwich after all. Minutes later you're sitting on the same bench balancing the sandwich's paper carton on your stomach just hoping to drip the sauce and slaw and grease into it and not onto Cliff Lee's shirt.

The sandwich hits the spot but now you've got a problem. Your hands are a mess, you didn't take a napkin, and this is a park. But no sooner have you considered your options than Kristen Hsu walks over with a red wagon in tow. You explain your predicament.

"This is your lucky day," she says. She reaches into her bag and produces the perfect purple damp washcloth. This day could not improve.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Local pig on a local spit. He wouldn't fit so I had to saw off his local head.

I find that even in circles where many so-called progressive ideas are embraced there is widespread skepticism for what is perceived as the local food movement.

The thrust of such opposition seems to be that if everyone tried to eat exclusively that way, we would all starve. Now, that may well be true. But it does not follow that no one should prefer certain kinds of local food ever. Maybe some people really are advocating the former idea, but I have not met them, and I certainly do not advocate it myself. Nevertheless I do think there are good reasons to prefer local food.

First, freshness. Fresher food tastes better and is better for you. It's easier for fresh food to travel 60 miles and stay fresh than if it travels 6,000 miles. It can be picked later and thus ripen on the vine rather than in a barge.

Second, roots. Eating local gives you some idea of the region you live in, its history and climate and fauna. I now know that great strawberries come from Pennsylvania, while great mangoes do not. That makes me want to eat our strawberries more; when I do so it makes me feel like a Pennsylvanian fed by tradition and my homeland rather than an abstract citizen of the world fed by reductionism and nowhere. Moreover by doing so I continue the collective memory that has existed for generations rather than losing it to a sea of utilitarian pragmatism.

Third, variety. Food produced for global consumption must prioritize hardiness and usually cosmetic factors like color and volume. But smaller-scale production allows for finer-grained choices with different constraints. Tasty heirloom varieties that would never succeed on that stage can be delightfully embraced on the local scale.

Fourth, resilience. The extreme of comparative advantage may be the route to the highest theoretical yield, but there is a tradeoff between optimization and brittleness. A region that produces some of its own food is less subject to the vagaries of the global market. A drought in central Asia or an inexplicable decision by another country to turn its food calories into fuel calories does not change the local tomato yield.

Fifth, accountability. The feedback loop between me and a farmer I buy from, or even that farmer's middleman, is a lot tighter than with the global system. In the latter case I have no chance of affecting any change; in the former I actually have a decent shot.

What makes me sad about knee-jerk anti-local arguments is the grim resignation toward a life of bland drudgery at the dinner table they imply. Whatever the downsides of the global system, it is said, it is the only chance we have of feeding everybody. A world with seven billion and counting people does not have the luxury of participating in the pleasures of traditional food production and consumption. We have already exceeded the global carrying capacity by so much that we must optimize the system as much as possible, or everyone. will. starve.

If that were the case it would be tragic, as tragic as never hearing birdsong again because we took all of their habitats or needing to wear heavy clothes in the summer because we destroyed the ozone layer. It is positively dystopian, and such eventualities should not be blithely accepted. At the least, those who can afford to choose otherwise should be free to.

All of that said, I have yet to participate in the most-local, least-efficient method of food production of all: gardening. Boy would I like to.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Parable of the Mice in the Piano

Or, "The Fallacy of Nothing-Buttery." 

As related by Mark Potter:
There was once a family of mice. They lived in this grand piano. And they had lived there for many generations of mice. Nobody knew that they lived inside the grand piano, but these mice, this family of mice, for many generations had loved living on the inside of the grand piano.
The reason why they loved this so much was because they thrilled to the music of the Grand Musician. They never knew quite when he was going to play but when he would play the mice loved it.

And then one day this intrepid mouse climbed up into a part of the piano where no other mouse had ever dared to go before, and he came back with a report. And he said, "Oh, dear family of mice! My brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, mother and father. There is no Grand Musician!
"There are only hammers."