Localism Overload

Today we’re extra-pleased to present today’s guest post from Jessie Knadler, a former Manhattan magazine writer and editor who now lives in rural Virginia with her husband, 30-odd chickens, two rambunctious dogs, and a host of farm equipment. Her adventures as a city girl attempting country living are chronicled on her “awesome blog” (her words and our feelings exactly) Rurally Screwed. We’re eagerly awaiting her canning-focused cookbook with co-author Kelly Geary that will be published by Rodale in Spring 2011.

When I first moved from Manhattan to rural Virginia four years ago, I assumed I was saying goodbye to the foodie fascism that had taken hold of the city. I took it as a given I’d never have to overhear two Brooklyn yoga moms prattle on about the virtues of free-range eggs for little Dexter and Elliot or listen to well-meaning friends pester waiters with questions like, “Is this beef really grass-fed?” I was fed up with thinking I too had to define myself by what I ate.

If only I was a little more organic, a little more free-range, steel-cut, Meyer lemon-eating, blah-blah-blah, I’d somehow be a better person. To me, the pursuit of dietary asceticism seemed like just another form of subtle social stratification, right up there with carrying the right handbag, only somehow less shallow, more “real.”

So I was excited at the prospect of moving somewhere where people, I assumed, still ate Slim Jims and where cocktail party food centered around Philadelphia cream cheese in various guises. I thought the most probing food question I’d encounter here was “Does the chicken fried steak come with brown or white gravy?”

Well, this is what happens when a pampered urbanite moves to the middle of nowhere—you quickly realize how provincial and ignorant you really are. Organic piety, I’ve since realized, extends to small-town America as well, to conservative communities where the rebel flag still proudly flies and where 30-somethings don’t think much about living in a cabin or a yurt.

In fact, dietary hysteria is actually worse here than in places like Park Slope or Berkeley because people in my small southern community tend to lead less frenzied lives—there’s less pressure to get your kid into the “right” school, the cost of living is pretty cheap, and people generally live closer to the land since much of the local economy revolves around agriculture and construction.

Rewarding career opportunities, especially for women, are somewhat limited, so a lot of moms end up making the procurement of food—organic, locally grown food—their primary occupation. And some take it to an almost fetishistic degree.

this chick is now an egg-laying machine

Here’s one recent example: A couple of months ago, I attended a lunch for which I brought each guest a carton of eggs. (My husband and I have a flock of 30 chickens.) When one of the guests—who was refusing to let her five-year-old even eat a Hershey’s Kiss because they’re “poison”—saw my carton of eggs, she hesitated. “I don’t know,” she said. “Let me look at them.” She opened the carton, eyeballed the eggs and, in a distinctly withering tone, said, “On second thought, I don’t need any.”

I was offended. I had no idea why she refused my eggs. My flock is clean, they free-range over eight acres, they eat bugs and grass and grubs. I wondered, were my eggs not white enough? Did she refuse them because the carton was Styrofoam and not more eco-friendly cardboard? Or was it because she knew my husband and I supplement our chickens’ diet with shudder commercial feed from the farmer’s co-op?

The incident illustrated that food snobbery is not limited to the upwardly mobile in coastal cities, but also to people who live in cabins in the woods. It’s everywhere. There’s no getting away from it. It’s an entrenched part of the national conversation and I keep waiting for the day when it will all kind of go away, like the rollerblade craze of the early ’90s.

This is not to suggest that food awareness—knowing where your food comes from—isn’t important. Every time you turn around, there’s another study linking processed food to obesity, ADD, asthma… the list keeps growing. And the way animals in factory farms are raised is unconscionable at best. It is precisely because I am concerned with these matters that I now have two freezers stocked with three deer, shot for us by our rifle-toting neighbor, plus half a pig and half a cow (both locally raised and butchered, natch.)

Even deep-friend Twinkies are not off limits from time to time.

I have a huge garden and can my weight in fruits and vegetables like a deranged pioneering lunatic in the warmer months. My husband brews his own beer. We churn our own ice cream. We bought chickens so we wouldn’t have to eat the watery, jaundiced specimens that pass for eggs at the grocery store.

I’m about as homestead-y as you can get without owning a carpet beater, but I try not to look down my nose about it because the truth is, I still occasionally eat Funyuns. I sometimes eat fried mozzarella sticks dunked in Sysco marinara sauce. I snack on Milk Duds and processed crackers and hoover up the remaining flavor dust residue from my husband’s Roy Rogers French fries.

The problem with proselytizing about the virtues of organic food is that most of us, with the exception of maybe Alice Waters, are not always so sacrosanct. It’s like the vegan who rails against eating animal products but wears leather shoes: it’s too easy to be exposed as a hypocrite. So I prefer to keep my mouth shut about what I eat and where it came from because who among us hasn’t occasionally lost ourselves in a bucket of processed movie popcorn? Or grazed a plate of deli counter cold cuts at a party?

Even I spotted the food nazi who refused my eggs—the same one who won’t eat ice cream down at the local ice cream parlor because it’s “too full of fillers”—inhaling a plate of chili cheese fries down at the drive-in a few months prior! I’m no Michael Pollan, but I’m pretty sure the cheese on those fries didn’t come from a cow up the road, but a pump. In my mind, that made her refusal of my eggs more a rebuke of me than it was a stand for organically pure ovum. Which is to say, I probably won’t be inviting her to my next potluck.

So this is my gentle plea for 2010: Can we all please stop talking about localism and organic food now? Everyone’s a locavore anymore. (Or those that want to be anyway.) We get it. The eggs are free-range. The meat in the freezer is from a farmer down the road. The fish is sustainably caught. Understood. Here’s a gold star.

I welcome the day when we can all just sit down to the table and take it as a given that what we’re eating is good wholesome, nutritious food without feeling the urge to itemize the sourcing of each dish. You know, sort of like they do in Europe. Besides, odds are, somewhere along the line a Dorito will probably pass your lips.

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  1. lovely post. can’t agree more.
    i’m willing to eat your eggs anytime.
    we import foods from small artisans in Italy. they are so isolated, they don’t even have a local market. if we didn’t sell them in the “global” market, they would disappear. no good.
    looking forward to reading from you more.
    grazie mille.
    beatrice from http://www.gustiamo.com

  2. ps as someone who lives in Europe, I’m afraid to say that we can’t yet sit down to the table and assume that the food is good, wholesome and nutritious. Unfortunately, food snobbery is alive and well here too, but if my last visit stateside was anything to go by it remains a little less pervasive. By comparison. Hope it stays that way.

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