(4 of 5)
But others are trying. Restaurants from Cinque Terre in Portland, Maine, to Mozza in Los Angeles are run by cooks who strive always to find local products first. Some chefs are not only buying locally but actually growing the food. The two Blue Hill restaurants in New York--one in Manhattan and the other in Pocantico Hills--buy less than 20% of their ingredients from outside the New York region, according to chef Dan Barber. Much of both restaurants' food (including all the chicken and pork) is raised on about 20 acres next to the Pocantico Hills location. In the 31/2 years since the farm was launched, Barber has become one of the nation's most eloquent pro-local spokesmen, not least because he makes local eating profitable (and delicious--his restaurants win raves). But his commitment to locality means that Barber can't always serve beef, since the quality and availability of steers in the Northeast are uneven.
Café 150 has access to local beef from Bassian Farms in San Jose, Calif., but the restaurant can't obtain everything it needs from the valley. Take salt. "There are salt flats a quarter-mile that way," said Keller, pointing to the horizon, "but they're for industrial purposes." So he buys salt "off the truck," from a food-service deliverer.
Still, apart from such staples, Café 150 is living up to its name. It never serves tropical fruits, and it has planted lemon and lime trees just outside to ensure local citrus. The restaurant grows many of its own herbs and makes its own ketchup. And last fall Café 150 jarred tomatoes and fruit so that even though it's March, Googlers can get a taste of the local harvest every day. Imagine that: a company as ostentatiously hip as Google canning fruit in its kitchens.
Could I do this? Could I operate my own "kitchen 150"?
Following Café 150's lead, I decided to keep basic dry goods like coffee, chocolate and spices. But since I have no interest in gardening (and no yard, for that matter--I live in an apartment), I needed a source of produce. I find farmers' markets inconvenient, if only because you have to pay each farmer separately for items, which can mean a lot of waiting in the cold. Then I heard about the farm shares run by Community Supported Agriculture (csa) programs.
They sounded a little lefty to me at first, but it turns out csas are a wonderfully market-driven idea: you join with others in your community to invest in a local farm. At the beginning of the season, members pay the farmer a lump sum. Each week, or perhaps once a month in the winter, the farm delivers fresh vegetables (and, for more money, items like fruit, eggs and flowers) to a central location. Prices vary widely depending on where you live. The csa in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx costs just $220 for five months for those with a low income (food stamps accepted). The csa run by Angelic Organics in Caledonia, Ill., starts at $600 for 20 weeks of vegetables and goes north of $1,000 when you add fruit.
There are some lefty aspects: You don't choose what the farmer grows. He does. You might get lettuce one week and then--if, say, a hailstorm hits the lettuce patch--none for several weeks after. Also, you're locked into a fixed amount of food each week, so if you don't feel like cooking for a couple nights in a row, you feel guilty. A farmer sweated over these beautiful ears of corn, and I'm going to throw them out so I can pick up riblets at Applebee's?
The benefit is that the food is affordable--for $40 a month at my csa, I get (to take February as an example) four bunches of winter greens, a head of red cabbage, 5 lbs. of apples, and about 2 lbs. each of beets, onions, carrots, turnips and Yukon Gold potatoes. The stuff is phenomenally fresh. I once discovered a nine-day-old head of lettuce from my CSA farm at the back of the refrigerator. Because it had come to me just 24 hours after being picked, it was still crisp.
But how local was my CSA farm? And was it organic?
Windflower Farm is in Valley Falls, N.Y., 185 miles northeast of my apartment. Mapquest calls it a 3 1/2-hr. drive, but if you leave on a weekday at 5:30 p.m., as Windflower's Ted Blomgren and I did, it can take closer to five hours. That meets Gussow's definition of local--"within a day's leisurely drive"--although our drive through Manhattan wasn't leisurely.
Blomgren runs Windflower with his wife Jan. He is 46, and on the day we rode to the farm, he wore sandals and glasses. Ted, who has a degree from Cornell, is balding and studious, and might pass for a professor if he didn't have so much dirt under his toenails. Ted and Jan--who has lovely bright blue eyes perpetually fixed in a startled expression--have operated Windflower for eight years with their sons Nathaniel, 14, and Jacob, 11. On the day I visited last summer, I watched a barefoot Nathaniel walk to the henhouse to collect eggs in an old white bucket, as he did every day. I had been eating those eggs most days--that's how I had replaced cereal. Seeing Nate carry that bucket into the smelly humidity of the chicken coop, I realized I had never before felt so connected to my food. I had not only seen the chickens that produced my eggs but had also met the person who gathered them.
That's a core goal of CSAS--to remind you that your food originates in some place other than a grocery store. There are now some 1,200 csa farms in the U.S., according to the Robyn Van En Center at Wilson College in Pennsylvania. Van En helped start the first American csa at her Massachusetts farm in 1985 after hearing about the idea of farm shares from a Swiss friend. (You can find a csa near you at sites like localharvest.org.
So I was finally eating local, and it tasted great. Ted's yellow wax beans last year were so crisp and oniony sweet you could eat them directly from the field. During the winter months, Ted has delivered sturdy vegetables from his cold storage that look as good as anything at Whole Foods and seem to taste better, if only because they remind me of a warm day on the farm. And yet I do worry that the Blomgrens aren't certified by the Federal Government as organic growers. They say they don't use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and Ted's policy is that any csa member can come to his farm to check his growing practices. "I couldn't show up at my local Agway and buy a jug of herbicide without it getting told to everybody," he said. Like many small farmers I met, Ted felt that organic certification would be too costly and time consuming.