The Best Food Isn't Local or Organic -- It's Personal
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Local food. Organic food. Natural food. Fair-trade food. To me, these loosely competing paradigms are useful guideposts when I'm shopping to fill the holes in a meal I'm preparing, but they don't describe my preferred diet. If I had to describe my food in a single word, I would say "personal."
Some people say love is the most important ingredient in cooking. With personal food, the love goes without saying. Personal food is a love story that begins long before the meal is prepared, and the consummation, while hopefully climactic, is the final chapter.
What distinguishes a meal as personal is the role I play in the creation or acquisition of its ingredients. It's food with which I have a measure of involvement, beyond just having bought it. A meal won't be disqualified for containing store-bought ingredients, but it's the hard-won ingredients that determine how personal it really is. If a home-cooked meal doesn't have at least one ingredient that I grew, swapped for, preserved, hunted, gathered, bought directly from a farmer, brought home from a faraway land, or otherwise made some special effort to acquire, then it isn't personal. The biggest sex organ in your body, according to sex therapist Dr. Ruth, is the mind. And for similar reasons I believe the mind is one of the body's biggest taste buds as well. The more a meal's story is known, the more meaning it has, and being able to mentally picture where something came from adds to the experience of eating it. But personal food isn't all head games. I'm positive that even in a blind taste test, personal food will win.
Many a dinner guest has suggested to me, "You should open a restaurant." While I appreciate the compliment, it's rather like a satisfied lover suggesting, "You should be a hooker." My food is good because I obsess about my ingredients. Good broccoli, lightly blanched and quickly frozen at the peak of freshness last summer, will be more alive and flavorful than fresh broccoli shipped in from somewhere and purchased at the store. I treasure such ingredients for their quality and the work I put into them, and I make sure they are prepared to look and taste their best.
This isn't to say that purchased food can't be personal, but it must have a story you are privy to, one you can play a role in. There's nothing compelling about purchasing grass-fed organic beef at the store. But if you buy the same thing at the farmers' market, directly from the producer, that's beginning to get personal. You have a relationship, however fleeting, with the rancher who had a relationship with the animal. If you and the farmer become friendly, things can become much more personal. Maybe you buy a quarter of beef for the freezer.
Having a stash of food put up, like some cut and wrapped chunks of personal beef in the freezer, changes things. Your meal planning begins to shift from "what do we need to pick up at the store" to "what do we need to thaw out." If your steak is cooked with homegrown garlic, that further personalizes the meal. If that package of ground beef is used for burgers you serve with homemade catsup made from homegrown tomatoes and mustard ground from the mustard seeds at the bottom of a jar of pickled peppers you made, the story gets even better. If you want a cheeseburger, but don't have your own cheese-making operation, buy some cheese from the lady at the farmers' market, and don't forget to ask how her goats are doing.