The Universal Notebook: The virtue of eating local

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When it comes to eating, I’m afraid I’m an indiscriminate omnivore. I’m the kind of guy who can’t tell the difference between Two Buck Chuck and Chateau Mouton Rothschild and doesn’t care. I scoff down hot dogs and burgers and fries. I’m an out and out haute cuisine philistine.

Back in the 1970s, I was at a dinner party with some folks of far more culinary sophistication, so when the table talk turned to favorite meals, I assumed I would embarrass myself by confessing that my idea of a feast was (and is) lobster, steamed clams, corn on the cob, and blueberry pie. When my host, a wine snob and gourmet cook, pronounced his approval of my palate, it was the first time I became aware of the virtue that attaches to eating simple and local.

Now, of course, eating local is all the rage. As a result, farmers markets, organic farms, backyard gardens, community gardens, and CSAs are sprouting up all over the landscape. Community-supported agriculture is a model of agricultural sustainability that provides financial support for small local farms and fresh produce for the families that support them. It’s one of the best ideas going: consumers investing in farms, sharing both the risks and the rewards.

This year, Carolyn purchased a three-quarter share in the summer harvest of Laughingstock Farm in Freeport. For $450, we get vegetables for 22 weeks. Usually she picks them up at the end of the week after work, but with Carolyn on vacation I took a trip out to Laughingstock Farm myself last week. I took our share in a big bag of Swiss chard, another of kale, an armful of cucumbers and a few summer squash. There were also local dairy products and organic meats I could have purchased separately.

With all three girls out of the house, Carolyn and I haven’t been able to eat all the CSA produce on a few occasions, but last week I took the bounty up to the lake, where we had a veritable veggie feast with her sister and brother-in-law.

The best restaurants in Maine, from Primo in Rockland to Fore Street in Portland, place a premium on using local foods, making a point of identifying where ingredients were grown or raised. At one of our favorite local eateries, Broad Arrow Tavern at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, the salad you don’t eat is used as compost to grow the salads of the future.

Maine’s food culture just seems to get better all the time. We buy great ales from microbreweries such as Geary’s and Gritty’s, artisanal breads from Rosemont Bakery, Standard Bakery, and When Pigs Fly, wonderful chesses from Pineland Farms and Sunset Acre Farm.

I confess that back in the 1960s I had a somewhat jaundiced view of the back-to-the-land movement as naive, romantic and Utopian. No more. As gas prices drive the price of food ever higher, such that you now need a home equity loan to buy a steak at Hannaford or Shaw’s, locally grown, organic foods, once priced out of the reach of some, are becoming increasingly attractive and affordable.

Fresh, natural and not transported to Maine from all over the globe, local foods are better tasting, better for you, and better for Mother Earth. Every time I despair of America’s economic collapse and what it may mean for my daughters, I realize that, ultimately, while they may not have more than their parents (the old American Dream paradigm), they may have a simpler and better life (the new American Dream paradigm). And being artists and environmentalists, they already sense this, valuing the local in ways our generation did not.

Small local farms, family gardens, locally owned, independent businesses. If the 21st century turns out to look more like the 19th than the 20th, it may well be a good thing. I have seen the future and it resides in the past.

Eat well, my friends. Eat local.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.