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The Foreignvore Challenge

My week of eating globally


Published September 22, 2009 at 4:44 p.m.

  • Michael Tonn

In 2005, a clever local-food advocate from San Francisco named Jessica Prentice coined the term “locavore.” Two years later, the Oxford American Dictionary bestowed on the term its Word of the Year honor. Today, everybody and her mother is a locavore, or “localvore,” as they call themselves in Vermont. These people won’t touch a cucumber if it traveled more than 100 miles before ending up in their salad. Mangoes, bananas and avocados are likewise off the menu, because there’s no way they were grown anywhere near our northern latitude. And don’t even think of offering dedicated localvores a Slim Jim or a Klondike bar, because if a local farmer didn’t grow or produce it, they aren’t eating it.

Localvores eat more healthily, celebrate their connection to the land, keep their carbon footprints in check and contribute to the local economy. They also try to enlist other people in the lifestyle by issuing “localvore challenges.” These encourage some regular Nabisco, Frito-Lay and Heinz consumers to ditch their corporate brands for a week in favor of food that was grown or produced close to home.

In Vermont, you can’t throw a locally grown potato without whacking a localvore in the gob. This fall, no fewer than a dozen local-food groups are organizing weeklong challenges. Currently, City Market in Burlington is sponsoring the Eat Local VT Challenge, which runs until Saturday.

I will not be participating in this or any other localvore challenge. Instead, in the spirit of personal competition and general button pushing of the holier than thou, I created my own little test: the Foreignvore Challenge. For the last week, I have striven to eat only food that has traveled at least 100 miles. If the sweet potatoes came from Shoreham, I had to pass. Ditto if the corn came from Colchester or the broccoli from Barton.

For my week of eating globally, I followed the model set forth by folks such as the Mad River Localvores, perhaps Vermont’s best-known group of its kind. I looked at a map, drew a circle with a radius of 100 miles around Burlington and vowed to eat only food that came from outside it for seven days. If something was made in Vermont with ingredients originating outside the radius — such as Madhouse Munchies potato chips, Vermont Bread Company sandwich loaves or Lake Champlain Chocolates — it was acceptable for consumption.

Localvores have a “Marco Polo” exception list that allows them to consume things such as coffee, tea, chocolate, salt and spices that can’t be grown in this part of the world. Like them, I gave myself a list of culinary exceptions — an “Ethan Allen” list. On my list was Dragonfly Sugarworks maple syrup, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Vermont Butter and Cheese Company butter and any Vermont apple cider. Because I allowed myself local apple cider, it made sense that I should also be able to eat cider doughnuts. There is only so much deprivation one can endure. The maple syrup and the butter are staples in my house, and I wasn’t about to waste money buying nonlocal varieties. The rationales for the Ben & Jerry’s, the cider and the doughnuts should be self-evident.

On the first day of the challenge, I thought eating would be a breeze. Already my breakfast was not local. Every day without fail I eat a bowl of corn, flax and amaranth cereal made in Washington state, and chocolate soy milk made in Michigan. I also have half a cup of grapefruit juice that comes from somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. Cumulatively, my morning meal components traveled more than 5000 miles to get to my table.

After breakfast, I cruised into the office feeling confident that I had this challenge whupped. Then, around 11:30 a.m., panic set in. I didn’t know what to eat for lunch. Normally, I would have gone to one of the Burlington eateries I frequent during the work week. But for the most part they all serve local food. Curses! In a pinch, I biked up to City Market and bought an organic microwave burrito, a yogurt from California and a “natural soda” bottled west of the Continental Divide. It only cost me $6.52. Despite the stress of changing my routine, I was beginning to like this foreignvore challenge, if only for the savings.

But that evening brought another roadblock. My neighbor Warren asked me to dinner with him, his wife and their two kids. Depending on what he was serving, I might not be able to eat it. While it’s perfectly acceptable to decline food based on allergies or even vegetarianism, it did not feel OK to say, “Thanks ,but no thanks,” because of a self-imposed eating challenge. But when Warren told me we’d be eating grilled cheese and tomato soup, my fears were allayed. How local could that be?

Very, as it turned out. Warren likes to cook, so when I arrived, I found a pot of homemade soup bubbling on the stove. It was made with fresh, local tomatoes. Cooling on the counter was a loaf of bread he had just whipped up using local whole wheat flour from the bulk bin at the grocery store. The cheese Warren planned to use was Cabot cheddar. Good thing I’d brought along a can of tomato soup from Colorado.

Luckily, Warren was understanding of my plight. He graciously agreed to cook my canned soup, and, as I stood around his kitchen looking sheepish, he searched the fridge for nonlocal cheese. He found a chunk of provolone of unknown origin, but that was the best he could do on the nonlocal front. When Warren put a bowl of steaming broccoli on the table, I didn’t even ask where it came from.

The next day, I vowed to be better. Breakfast was the same, but for lunch I made a little more effort. I figured I would go continental — a seeded baguette with some cheese and a tomato. Wash that down with some tea and finish the meal with a spot of chocolate.

No problems with local there. A man working the cheese counter at City Market assured me the Red Hen baguette was not made from local wheat. Then he pointed me in the direction of some smoked goat Gouda from Holland. When I told him of my challenge, he chuckled. “You’re going a little against the breeze, aren’t you?” he said, standing beside a sign touting the store’s only localvore bread. I grabbed a hydroponically grown tomato from Québec and some chocolate from Seattle, and my meal was complete. It cost me $9.77.

Dinner that night was a #2 and a #18, no cilantro, from Pho Hong. It was definitely not local. I didn’t even need to inquire.

The following day, finding a nonlocal lunch again gave me some agita, until I realized the ultimate nonlocal restaurant was less than a block from my office.

Handy’s Lunch doesn’t put on airs when it comes to food. Owner Earl Handy acknowledged that localvores would be unlikely to fulfill their mission in his establishment. It sounded like the perfect place for me. Before I ordered my grilled cheese with tomato and French fries, I asked him if I needed to worry. “We try to support the national economy,” he quipped. Handy explained that if he used local ingredients, I wouldn’t be getting my sandwich for $3.50. Touché.

After that, I was on a roll with my global eating — until I hit a massive speed bump late in the week. My first “local oops” happened when I grabbed a quick egg, cheese and tomato sandwich at August First while conducting an interview for work. When I returned to the office, I realized I hadn’t even bothered to learn the provenance of my meal. Head hanging, I trudged back up the street to the café to ask.

The bread was made from Québecois wheat, but the tomatoes were from the Intervale and the cheese was from Cabot. The eggs were from Shadow Cross, which isn’t exactly local, since they distribute eggs from all over New England. So I only half-succeeded in fulfilling my mandate. In other words, I failed.

My second local oops was the result of another dinner party. Friends invited my girlfriend, Becca, and me over for an evening meal, and I figured there was a 50/50 chance the dinner would be nonlocal. Because one-half of the couple is Pakistani, they often cook food from that part of the world — lentils, rice, etc. Just in case, I brought my trusty canned soup.

Sadly, this dinner officially destroyed my chances of finishing the challenge respectably. The meal my friends made consisted almost totally of ingredients from their CSA share at Intervale Community Farm. The salad greens were so fresh I could still taste the earth on them. Local beets topped the mesclun mix. Thank goodness for Maytag blue cheese from Iowa, the only foreign part of the salad.

For the entrée, my friends cooked up local tomatoes and broccoli rabe with some pasta — which probably didn’t come from Vermont, since durum wheat is not grown here. At this point in the meal, I tried to pull out my can of lentil vegetable soup from California, but Becca admonished me for rudeness. My friends concurred that I was being lame.

The next day I tried to salvage my foreignvore cred. I went to the Burlington farmers market and ate a bowl of mixed-lentil curry from the Tibetan folks while everyone around me basked in localvore do-goodery. Later, I bought a chocolate bar made in Switzerland and drank some water stolen from Fiji islanders.

The last evening of the challenge, Becca made pesto with purple basil from a friend’s garden in Williston and garlic and parsley she’d bought at the farmers market. She combined that with kale from Pitchfork Farm and cabbage from the Williston friend. The pesto went on pasta from our neighborhood Lebanese corner store and it was decidedly not local. Instead of indulging in this homemade meal, I heated my can of soup and slurped it down while trying not to look at Becca’s far more interesting fare. I’m pretty sure she smacked her lips extra loud just to tease me.

My foreignvore challenge has come to an end, and here is the takeaway: Eating locally in Vermont is easy. Eating globally here is hard. Eating locally makes me feel healthy and responsible. Eating globally makes me feel like a fat slob. Eating locally is shockingly expensive. Eating globally is refreshingly cheap. Were we in another place — Cleveland, perhaps — or in another season, such as the dead of winter, this challenge might not be so difficult. But during summer in Vermont — New England’s horn of plenty— local is hard to avoid. And that’s not such a bad thing.