Guest blog post by Joshua McNichols, co-author of The Urban Farm Handbook.
Here’s to Local Food in Lousy Restaurants
All the best high-end restaurants showcase local foods. But if the local food trend stays way up there in the clouds, it will never make a difference in the world. For this movement to create real change, “local food” must trickle down to roadside diners and hotel restaurants.
Fortunately, that has already begun to happen.
In Elma, Washington there’s a restaurant called “The Rusty Tractor.”
The Rusty Tractor is your basic diner, distinguished mostly by the decorations – various farm implements made obsolete by the radical changes that have transformed this town from a landscape of agriculture and logging to a landscape of retirement communities. The food is mostly uninspired – omelets for breakfast, steak and potatoes for dinner. But on one corner of the menu, there’s a whole section devoted to yak meat. The yak comes from an exotic animal farm just a mile or so down the road.
I doubt the restaurant owners were driven by liberal ideas about sourcing local food. Most likely, they knew the yak farmer, and wanted to help the farmer while providing their customers with a novelty -like the “rattlesnake eggs on the menu” – an envelope with a wound up rubber band device inside that surprises customers and sometimes makes them scream. Whether driven by ideals or the novelty of the thing, the result of including yak meat on the menu is the same: the money stays in Elma rather than going to Sysco in Houston, Texas, or Food Services of America in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Yak meat is lean, and just like all lean meats, when ground it should probably be either mixed with extra fat from another part of the animal or cooked no more than medium rare. Neither of these things happened at the Rusty Tractor, and my Yak sausage patty arrived overcooked and tough. But it could have tasted like shoe leather and I wouldn’t have cared. For better or worse, this restaurant had defied expectations, at least in that small corner of the menu. It gone out of its way to find food from a source besides the food service truck. It had distinguished itself from the sea of depressing diners that pepper the landscape along major rural highways. Now, I had become part of its emerging story. Would the cooks learn to prepare Yak properly? Would the selection of Yak products grow? Would this farmer succeed? I knew I would stop here again, to hear the end of this story.
In Bellingham, Washington, there’s a creperie in the bottom floor of the Village Inn. It’s a modestly priced restaurant, with apparently modest aspirations. The Magdalena Creperie advertises local ingredients on its menu, but at first glance, I suspect “greenwash” – the use of “green” marketing without any real commitment to the idea. Tomatoes in early March? It’s almost snowing outside! Avocados this far North? Delicious, but how quickly we seem to have compromised on our original idea. Then I learn the restaurant sources their flour from the Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill, just 21 miles away. It’s just enough to catch my interest.
All at once, their story becomes tied to the story of the Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill. The mill started in 1974, but seems to have recently picked up steam, opening a new facility last year and increasingly appearing on restaurant menus. The mill sources most of its grains locally. Using Fairhaven flour has become shorthand for “we invest in the local community.” That kind of branding starts with high end restaurants, but eventually trickles down to every restaurant with an independent streak. That focus on “local” induces just enough small-town loyalty to provide a financial edge over out-of-state competitors.
During my recent trip to Bellingham, I saw references to the local flour mill on other menus too, including The Woods Coffee, a local chain of coffee shops.
When I find myself in a mediocre restaurant, references on the menu to local food give me something to wrap my head around, involve me in a story. I want to like this food, because there’s something at stake for my own community. Is that self-deception? Probably. Is it all bad? I don’t think so. I can’t afford to eat regularly at the restaurants that fetishize local food. I love what they’re doing, but visiting these restaurants is like inviting a priest to dinner. They’re may be wise, but you wouldn’t want to have them over every day.
Don’t get me wrong, I want my food to be good. But I’m not perfect, and I can’t expect my restaurants to be perfect either. After all, it isn’t the perfection of our vision that counts, so much as the small attempts we make, every day, to discover that real and authentic voice that ties us to a place and a community. So raise a glass to the countless mediocre restaurants experimenting with this “local food thing.” Like you and me, they’re just looking for a way to feel at home.