Locavore's Dilemma: Can We Eat Local and Still Enjoy Global Food Traditions?

The benefits of eating local cannot be understated: fresher and more flavorful products, economic support for local small-scale farmers and producers, less harmful environmental impacts and better appreciation for the delicious bounty to be found closer to home. But for many food lovers, embracing this philosophy comes with a trade-off.

Call it the Locavore’s Dilemma – how can one reconcile an earnest desire to eat local with the enjoyment of certain foods whose best examples are imported from great distances? Must we resign ourselves to giving up authentic Italian prosciutto or France’s renowned fromages, in effect abstaining from some of Europe’s finest culinary traditions, in the name of conscientious consumption?

Not quite, says Vicki Potts of Grass Roots Gourmet in Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market. “The way to eat European is to eat local – that’s what they do over there,” she observed. It’s not so much about a specific delicacy, but rather about the affinity between environment and the food produced. “No matter where, whether it’s here or in France, where foods that grow together and have the same exposure to sunshine, same nutrients from the soil, the same minerals – they just complement each other. And you almost can’t go wrong.”

Close to Home

Potts’ store is an emporium of locally-produced small-batch and specialty comestibles, ranging from smoked fish and cured meats, to sweet jams and tart vinegars. But her pride and joy is a treasure trove of regional cheeses, which she carefully selects from recommendations given by customers and fellow “cheese people.” While she prefers products from single-family farms, Potts has stock from larger producers such as Carr Valley, and all products are from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, with about 85 percent originating from within 100 miles of her store. “Dairy from the upper heartland has an absolutely unique flavor. It’s sweet and grassy that even with a European-style cheese, like a gruyère, it’s going to have a distinctive flavor,” she explained.

Potts notes that tremendous growth in the past 15 years has moved regional cheese making beyond the familiar cheddars, Goudas and blues, and into long-practiced European methods. Certainly, there are stellar examples of what she calls “heartland classics,” such as the Dutch-style flavored Goudas made by Marieke Penterman of Thorpe, Wisconsin, and Prairie Breeze Cheddar from Milton Creamery in Iowa. But now there are also Carr Valley’s Mobay, in the style of France’s Morbier (a semi-soft cheese made with a layers of “evening” and “morning” milk separated by a fine tier of dark ash) and Camembert-like Bent River, from Alemar Cheese Company in Mankato, Minnesota.

But the taste of Old-World-in-the-New isn’t limited only to cheese: Potts suggests regionally-flavored charcuterie such as the acclaimed salumi produced by Herb and Kathy Eckhouse of La Quercia in Norwalk, Iowa, and the smoked trout fished from the cold waters of Star Prairie, Wisconsin, but evocative of British food traditions. Composing a platter of these local artisanal products, declared Potts, “is going to knock you out, just like when you go to Tuscany and have some local olives and local cheese with local wine.”

Far and Away But Unique

In South Minneapolis, France 44 cheesemongers Benjamin Roberts and Song Lee are just as enthusiastic about local foods. “We source local meat products for the house-made pâté and terrine, things that make sense,” Roberts explained. “I wouldn’t need to import a duck from France or even New York.” Among their favorite fromages are the aforementioned Prairie Breeze cheddar and Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a flavorful raw milk Alpine-style cheese made by Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. And while they tout La Quercia’s prosciutto di Parma which, according to Lee, is considered one of the best domestic versions of the Italian classic, they also do not hesitate to recommend cured meats from New York City’s Salumeria Biellese. Domestic as well, but further afield than local.

Yet Roberts is upfront and unapologetic about France 44 cheese shops’ decision not to carry an exclusively, or even primarily, local inventory. Instead, the focus is as much on the uniqueness of a product as it is on provenance. So, while fresh chèvre is sourced from Stickney Hill Dairy in Kimball, Minnesota (“There’d be no need for us to bring in something from any further away when we have something that delicious in our backyard”), Roberts believes that uncommon and exceptional imported cheeses also have their place, despite the distance traveled. “To say that I shouldn’t import Selles-sur-Cher from France – well, there’s nothing like that here,” he said. “There’s more than transportation to consider when you’re talking about the ecological and environmental impact of the food.”

To Roberts and Lee, choosing a product based on “food miles” – the distance that food travels between production and purchase, and a popular measure of its environmental impact – takes a backseat to other considerations that they feel have greater effect in terms of sustainable and healthy processes. “We are finding pasture-based dairies because we know that they use far less energy than a grain-based dairy,” explained Roberts, referring to a 2006 New Zealand study, later bolstered by Carnegie Mellon University researchers, who found that transport accounts for just 11 percent of food system greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.   

Given that so much energy is consumed well before the food leaves the farm, France 44’s resident cheesemongers carefully evaluate their sources. “We look for small producers when we can, and we won’t sell any cheese that comes from animals that have been given growth hormones,” Roberts assured. Finding dairy products free of rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) is actually easier with European cheeses: since 2000, the European Union has banned the use of rBGH (also known as rBST), an action taken as well by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Roberts also noted that European farmstead cheesemakers – who raise the animals from which they get the milk used in their products, keeping the process totally in-farm – traditionally made just one type of cheese, unlike their American counterparts who may delve into different varieties. “They’ll be changing and adding, because it’s not like they’ve been making a cheese for 200 years. It’s new for them.”

Old Traditions, New Generations

What’s old is new here, but in France, what’s old is disappearing: a recent news article discussed the decline of artisanal cheese making that once indelibly connected a product to a particular place. In effect, cheeses are going extinct because many are so locally tied – in some cases, to just one family – that there is no one to whom methods and recipes can be passed. But the culprits singled out as main causes of this downturn are the acceptance of pasteurization and the limited-variety, mass-produced cheeses so readily available in supermarkets, two developments that are often laid at the feet of Americans.

Does this mean we should accept the blame and make up for it by importing obscure French cheese or other European foods? No, but it also doesn’t mean that we should separate ourselves from them because of geographic distance. Local cheesemakers such as Marieke Penterman and Mike Gingrich are able to provide delicious, handcrafted food that are rooted in Old World traditions because they’ve adapted them to American terroirs. European cheesemakers have been creating unique cheeses for centuries past; by making what’s global local, perhaps our resident food artisans can continue these traditions into centuries future.

Tracey Paska, a student at the University of Minnesota, is pursuing a self-designed degree in food studies, which combines coursework in anthropology, history and sociology as they pertain to the foods we eat. She was born in the Philippines, but now lives in the western suburbs of Minneapolis with her husband. When she's not composing research papers, she writes about the complex, confusing and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle. She also has contributed articles to the Minnesota Women's Press and hopes to make food writing her profession.