I’ve got a steady flow of tomatoes from the garden now, though I’ve lost a few to blossom-end rot this year, I think because it’s been so hot and relatively dry. So far I’ve made a spicy wine-and-tomato sauce with a few of the bird peppers from the garden, a tomato-and-mint soup, and several rounds of tomato-mozzarella-avocado salad (I’ve started dressing it with tomato water mixed with a touch of olive oil, lime juice and soy sauce, and this really works well). My favorite thing from the garden this year, though, was the fresh cranberry beans soaked and then fried lightly, added to some thin slices of zucchini from the garden that I dipped in chickpea flour and fried with chorizo and garlic.
Working with fresh vegetables from the garden helps me put general foodie preoccupations in perspective. This New York Times piece on expensive boutique ice cream raises the question of when it makes sense to prefer local or high-end foods and when it doesn’t. I like locavores and slow-food advocates because the consequences of their advocacy is often very good food. But the more religious versions of both turn me off. I don’t think it’s at all clear that eating local is always a net plus in environmental terms, for example. I know it’s not always a net plus in terms of taste or quality. There’s nothing better than heirloom tomatoes from your own garden, but plenty of things that I have grown over the last decade aren’t measurably better-tasting for having come from my own yard. When I find that’s the case, I stop growing them. (I also stop growing them when it turns out that the local varmints can’t keep their paws and beaks off of them.) The mainstays are tomatoes, beans and greens, all of which seem better to me grown right here.
In terms of local foods, cheese and dairy can often be superior, but that’s often because of the way the dairy is run or the skill with which the cheese is made, not because it’s local. Local meats can be better, but that’s generally the case only if there’s something different about the conditions under which it is kept or the breed quality (especially with heirloom breeds). Eggs are different: a freshly-laid egg is a thing of wonder. Local produce is better if it’s something where spoilage is a factor over longer distances or if it’s a fruit or vegetable where mass production has totally destroyed flavor in favor of standardization and shippability (tomatoes or apples). And all of this applies if you’ve got the money to pay for distinctiveness: none of these locavore preferences scales at all well to mass production. I was down at the Italian Market in Philadelphia earlier this week, and honestly, in some cases, I don’t see that the produce or meat there outdoes a good-quality supermarket, except that you can get more cuts and things like tripe from the butchers there.
All of this goes double or triple for prepared or manufactured foodstuffs. There are mainstream brands that I think are superior to up-market organics, and in some cases better than what you might make yourself. I can make corn tortillas from scratch and then cut them up and fry them, but honestly, there are a number of brands of tortilla chips that would outdo anything I can do at a cheaper price, without the labor. Good food is good food: it can come from a factory or from the little old lady next door, from a big farm or from a garden.