The Local Narrative: Why what we know about food makes it taste better

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June 3, 2009 at 8:50 am

David Hammond

Taste: All in the Head

Let’s say you’re serving two bottles of the exact same and generally decent California wine. One of those bottles is labeled “Chateau Margaux”; the other, “Hearty Burgundy from Grand Rapids, Michigan”. Most of your guests will prefer the bottle with the fancy French label though they may condescend to make a few patronizing comments about the bottle with the lesser label. Point is: they will perceive a quality difference based on what they believe they’re drinking.

Research has shown that even wine “experts” will think they detect red wine qualities in a white wine that’s been doctored with red food coloring.

No doubt, what we think about our food influences what we taste in our food and how much we enjoy our food.

The Story Behind Dinner

People eat local for lots of reasons, like saving transport miles or enjoying fresher food. But we also eat local, in part, because of the stories behind the things that we eat. Unlike what’s found on the corporate grocery store shelf, local food tends to carry background information from the farmers who grew the stuff.

Each year, before my garden kicks into full production, we get our spring veggies from farmer Vicki Westhoff at Genesis Growers in St. Anne, Illinois. Vicki sends us an email every week to let us know what’s in our CSA box, and she includes a few words about what’s been growing, what hasn’t, and what it’s like to be living on her small farm growing food for me and my family. For instance:

Last fall I had a very large praying mantis in the rosemary plants. Over the winter I found two egg sacks in the rosemary and figured it may well be mantis babies. Come spring, I moved the plants outside. Nothing happened. Then, we began to see tiny little mantis babies all over the tomatoes. This week we noticed that some of the mantis have grown to about five inches in length. Now, the coolest thing it that they have begun to move back to the rosemary plants. It is as if they are returning home in time to mate and lay their eggs back at the home front. How blessed am I to have these majestic creatures making their abode in my rosemary.

I think about this story whenever I eat the rosemary from Genesis Growers, connecting with Vicki’s experiences there, what she planted, what she grew. That simple backstory forges an immediate connection between me and the platter of goodness in front of me. These locally sourced provisions come from smaller farms, grown by people in close contact with the soil and its produce. The weekly CSA boxes are much more than just something I “picked up on the way home” and whipped up for dinner; it’s chow with a history and that history tastes good.

Ever watch “Antiques Roadshow”? Let’s say you have a mid-nineteenth century writing desk. It’s nice enough. You didn’t refinish it, so it still retains the patina of age, and there are finger marks at the upper panel where a great great grandmother pulled down the shelf every day before penning an entry in her diary. Now, let’s say you have an old daguerreotype of that great great grandmother actually writing in her diary at this very desk…and you have the diary itself! Suddenly, that old piece of furniture is worth way more. Why? Because the furniture now has a story that adds dimension, a narrative that explains why the piece of furniture is in your home and where it’s been. Stories add value and they increase our appreciation of all things in the material world.

Nibbling ramps pulled from the mud outside Spence Farms or cutting into a steak from Michelle Dietzler, I’m remembering the enthusiasm of the Spences as they talked about rejuvenating the family business and how Michelle grinned with pride as she explained why beef from her well-cared-for herd is so darn good. Dimension in food, as in all art, is valuable; stories add depth to the enjoyment of what’s set before us. Food wrapped in narrative becomes even more delicious.

Technology Makes the Global Local

In April, 2009, I attended a “Digital Tasting” at Lockwood in the Palmer House. The concept behind this event was that we would have dinner, featuring a number of innovative dishes prepared by Chef Phillip Foss, all the while hearing from both chef and Lee Jones, the farmer who grew some of the food. Lee – a real character, always decked out in overalls, white shirt, and bow tie – spoke to us from Milan, Iowa, via live video-feed.

I really liked the concept because it brought the farmer right into the dining room. With IP-based technology, diners and farmers can actually start talking with one another while sitting at the table, which is a step beyond what many of us can do with our CSA farmers. Of course, there’s no reason why the farmer couldn’t be located much further away than Iowa. Having a digital tasting with a farmer in Chile or the south of France would not be in line with the locavore desire to reduce food miles or to eat local food in season, but it does satisfy this locavore’s desire to hear the story behind the food. Like a lot of others who live to eat, I’m looking for a connection, whether it comes from across the state or around the world, and I want that connection because, like most humans, I like stories. Food with a story is more flavorful because what you taste is what you know about the food.

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4 Comments

  1. REB says:

    Agreed. At the Mado/Lula whole pig dinner a few months back, we were fortunate enough to be seated next to the Slagel Family farmers, who’d raised the pig we were enjoying that evening. We learned about the pig’s life, the butchering process, etc. It definitely provided a context and made the experience more personal and added to our enjoyment.

  2. cooksguide says:

    Hi, David, very nice article. It explained a lot to me. Stories, dimension, yeah! Stories about food are probably among the first human communications…come to think of it, the birds and bees do it, too…communicate about food that is.

    I’m sure I’ll see you soon at the OP farmer’s market. I think back fondly to our cicada adventures.Marilyn

  3. I sat with Lee at a clambake in RI at the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs conference a few years back – he most definitely is a character. I don’t know whether he share the story of how the farm took the direction that it did. Apparently, they almost lost it and this chef connection is what helped them save it. Very cool story.

  4. klouvat says:

    Great article. Thanks!

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