This is The Locavore Moment: The trend toward eating local, in-season foods has gained remarkable momentum over the last few years, celebrated in best-selling books and championed by movements like the “100-Mile Diet,” the brainchild of Canadians Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, and Slow Food, the international group that works to preserve food traditions. Where sophisticated eaters once sought rare delicacies from distant lands — Italian truffles, Caspian sturgeon caviar, French foie gras — now those same savvy gourmands are likely to rhapsodize over more homely fare — an heirloom tomato, a parsnip, house-fermented sauerkraut.
It’s easy to see the effects of the locavore moment in the Twin Cities food scene — every year seems to bring a new and notable farmers’ market, and small-scale producers of meat, milk, and vegetables, bucking the corporate trend, are vaunted as “food heroes.”
The local-foods spotlight illuminates restaurant menus, too. It’s understandable, given the current zeitgeist, that chefs are eager to stress the farm-to-table connection. Sometimes they go a bit over the top, and a simple salad becomes a discourse on terroir and all its implications, with the provenance of every leaf of arugula, every drop of artisanal oil, every sliver of farmstead, raw-milk, cave-aged cheese explained in wearying detail. I halfway expect to open the paper one morning to the headline: “Chef Wins Nobel Prize in Agriculture for Knowing Name of Farmer.”
The local-foods movement is a good thing — good for our local economy, our health and happiness, and for the planet; and, at the same time, the hype surrounding it can make one a little cynical. A new cookbook, The Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook by Tim King and Alice Tanghe (Voyageur Press, $29.95), illustrates both sides of the coin.
The book is a diner’s tour of Minnesota. Though billed as a cookbook, it’s essentially a coffee-table book, packed with excellent photographs. It’s fun to see the farmers in their home setting, and there’s an appealing lightness to some of the photographs — I laughed out loud at the shot of New Scenic Café chef Scott Graden standing knee-deep in Lake Superior in his chef’s whites, next to Knife River fisherman Stephen Dahl in his waders. The food photos that accompany the recipe pages are uniformly appetizing.
The book does a service in highlighting outstate restaurants and B&Bs that keep it truly local, buying food from producers who are literally their neighbors. If I’m heading Up North, I’ll surely jot down the address of Prairie Bay Restaurant in Baxter, and I’m eager to try chef Matt Annand’s sweet corn polenta. I was drawn to the lovely breads that Lisa Durkee turns out at the Amboy Cottage Café using the superb flours from Whole Grain Milling Company. Indeed, if you’re traveling to any corner of the state, or the great middle, you would do well to consult this book as you plan your meal stops — your stomach and your soul will thank you.
And, yet, my overall impression of this book was one of missed opportunities. Each chapter pairs a restaurant with a producer, but the restaurants take center stage while the producers often languish in the wings. Also, there’s a sameness to what the chefs have to say; I couldn’t help thinking how much more lively and various the conversation would have been had the farmers, cheese makers, millers, etc., been given a greater voice.
Sometimes what the chefs have to say is puzzling at best. When I see the loyal shoppers at our local farmers’ market walk away laden with fresh produce, meats, cheese, and eggs every week of the summer, putting cash directly into the hands of small, local producers, I have a hard time understanding Lucia Watson’s assertion that “The truth is, if you committed to buying all-local milk for one year, you would be making more of a difference in the local economy than going to the farmers’ market every Saturday for the whole summer.”
And then, some of the recipes fall well short of the locavore standard. A barbecue chicken recipe calls for local wings, then glazes them in a cup of ketchup and a bottle of Heinz 57 sauce; can’t we do better than promoting high-fructose corn syrup as a local delicacy? A smoked salmon appetizer has almost nothing local about it.
I’m lucky to be able to criticize such relatively fine points. The abundance of quality local foods available to us now is remarkable, and the community that supports the system that makes that possible is remarkably energetic, notably generous. The Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook leaves room for a follow-up, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s just another opportunity to get more people out of the supermarkets and into the farmers’ markets.
Brett Laidlaw and his wife, Mary Eckmeier, sell their homemade bread at the Midtown Farmers’ Market in south Minneapolis, and Brett writes a local-foods blog, Trout Caviar