I finally listened to the Food Philosophy podcast with Thomas Keller yesterday and I've been mulling over one thing chef Keller said ever since. He said everything can be local now with overnight delivery, and so local needs to be redefined in the modern era. Fresh butter from Maine can be "local" in Napa the next day.
When we talk about eating local, we're actually conflating two different concepts in the term "local:" freshness (Keller uses the term "quality of product") and environmental responsibility. With freshness, the idea is that the closer your food is produced, the sooner it's available to you to eat. It can be picked closer to or at peak ripeness because it doesn't need to endure a week of travel to arrive at its destination. Asparagus cut the evening before can be on your plate for lunch, and that tastes better than asparagus that's a week old.
With environmental responsibility, proponents of this strain of localism argue that it's wasteful to ship asparagus thousands of miles from Chile to New York, or ship carrots across the United States from California to the east coast. It consumes a tremendous amount of fossil fuels and contributes to pollution. If you eat asparagus when it's in season from New Jersey, you cut out nearly the entire long trip that green has to make to your table.
(I think there's also a subtle third philosophy buried in local eating as well, an idea that this is just "right", that you should be eating food in season from close by because that's the way it's always been done. It's an almost luddite rejection of our modern agricultural system and an embracement of the old ways.)
When Keller says we need to redefine local, he's admits he's talking only about the freshness/quality philosophy, and he acknowledges in the podcast that he's not talking about the environmental/moral issues. For someone who has the luxury of procuring the best ingredients, even if it means an overnight shipment of butter from Maine to Napa, it's easy to want to redefine local. But for the rest of us who rely on the supermarket distribution system for our food (as opposed to direct relationships with producers and a FedEx account), local is still all about getting great food because of its geographic proximity. Local is still very much about being, well, local!
As the high season approaches and farmer's markets around the country begin to fill up with summer's bounty, now is the time to embrace local eating. The heirloom tomato, the strawberries, the sweet corn, perhaps we could ship these things from California overnight. But there's something about eating an ear of corn that was grown on Nantucket while you're on Nantucket that just feels right to me.