When I was an elementary-school kid, I never questioned the origins of the food on the family table.
Looking back, I had the good fortune to grow up across a rural stretch of blacktop from my family's farm, on a sprawl of fertile Piedmont soil that my great-grandfather had purchased and passed on to his only daughter, born just a mile away across some railroad tracks. My parents didn't farm, at least in my lifetime; with two kids at the start of the Reagan eighties, they'd feared (probably correctly) it was an unsustainable future and taken careers instead, as a homebuilder and a schoolteacher.
But each summer, in a little sliver of field tucked between rows of brush near the farm's entrance, we gardened as a family. Through the haze of recollected childhood wonder, I remember tall rows of ripe red tomatoes and squat little thickets of field pea plants. We'd spend our evenings there, weeding and watering and, on the best of days, picking what we'd eat for the rest of the week. My brother and I always seemed to take it as a badge of honor when, upon returning home, our mom needed to apply sickly pink calamine lotion to our palms and fingers to ease the irritation that came from pulling okra from its stubborn stems. The sting and subsequent ease meant we'd helped bring home dinner.
What we didn't grow often seemed to arrive as if by stork. Friends with farms or similar gardens would drop off produce for no real reason, meaning at least a good chunk of our diet came from the land around us. My mom froze what we couldn't eat before it spoiled, and we fed off it throughout the year.
As my brother and I aged, though, this idyllic arrangement slowly corroded. My parents were busy with their own jobs, of course, as well as carting us to history club or football practice, Science Olympiad meets or what then passed for dates. Gardening and eating what came from across the street didn't leave our lives, but its prominence certainly faded the more stuff we had to fit into our schedules.
That, surely, is one of the primary reasons that the modern food system has strayed so far from eating what can be grown in your backyard or what your neighbors can raise in your community: We're all too busy, too tasked with to-do lists to worry about cooking for ourselves, let alone harvesting.
In recent years, though, people have started to reinvest in the idea of local food—as a method of sustenance, employment, education, and community. These days, you barely hear about a new restaurant without soon hearing its pitch about where its produce comes from, how its mission is sustainable, how green its meals can be. Fast-food restaurants are in on the game to some extent, at least for the sake of marketing, and grocery stores like Lowes Foods now have entire billboard campaigns based on the excitement of eating local.
This current compulsion to know the backstory of what we ingest seems intrinsically linked to our lack of control in other zones of our sprawling, speeding lives. State surveillance, Twitter timelines, environmental entropy: it can all be a little overwhelming, can't it? But there's a great deal of comfort in knowing about our food, in knowing the way what is meant to nourish us was itself nourished. It's a system we can monitor, a thread we can follow among so many we cannot.
This is, I believe, a positive development, fundamentally capable of helping right so many environmental, health, social, and economic injustices of the last several decades. But local food does have its limits, both as a culinary endeavor and as a commercial catchphrase used to entice consumers. In this year's EATS, we explore many of those boundaries. We talk to area farmers about how they're expanding what grows in North Carolina. We dissect dishes, ingredient by ingredient, to analyze what comes from where. We tell the stories of some of our favorite food artisans and farmers, and discover just what folks mean when they talk about the paradox of local coffee. We go foraging. We go to farms. We eat a lot of good meals. And in the middle of it all, we award our first-ever "Food Triangles" to three deserving members of the region's wider food scene.
Still, after all this, we can't yet answer, "What makes local food?" But we do consider it a question worth asking and re-asking with every meal we make or take.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Local Food Question"