I was at Fred Meyer in Ballard on Saturday, and noticed a huge mound of asparagus on sale for $1.99 a pound. I thought: Hmm...I want asparagus...March 15 is spring in the warmer states...perhaps it's not shipped from Peru or New Zealand... So I looked at the tag on the asparagus, and it read "Altar Produce: Calexico, CA." Domestic asparagus for $2! I bought a bunch, drove home, and flipped on the oven. I tossed the asparagus with shallots, olive oil, and salt, then roasted them at 40 until the tips got crispy, the stalks blackened and shriveled just a little, and the shallots turned cola-brown and nutty. It's my favorite spring snack, one that I'd pass up a plate of salt-and-vinegar potato chips for any day. During the height of asparagus season, I can down a pound in 10 minutes.
And you know what? The asparagus weren't local, or organic, and I didn't give a shit.
Oh, what a change that represents. About five years ago, I committed to buying only organic food -- sure, I knew that USDA organic certification was imperfect, but I figured that it was as good a way to sort out what I should or shouldn't buy as any other rule I could come up with. The rule held until I attended the Omnivore's Dilemma book-release lecture in Berkeley. After the reading, someone asked Michael Pollan, "So if you're in the supermarket, and you see two types of peaches, one organic and shipped from far away and the other non-organic and local, which one would you buy?"
He responded, "Local. Always local." Jessica Prentice had just come out with the word locavore, but it was pretty much considered a novelty in Berkeley, until Pollan gave it his stamp of approval. And from that night on, my new rule became: Buy local, and if local's not available, buy organic.
That actually wasn't a huge shift, since I already bought most of my produce at farmers markets, though when I moved up to Washington I was shocked by how much higher produce prices were (sometimes as much as 50 percent). Eating locally and seasonally is the perfect strategy for an eater like me: Every month, there's a new crop of vegetables and fruits I'm thrilled to see; I get obsessed; and by the time I'm bored, there's a new crop to get excited about. Plus I have an easy out -- since I don't have to feed a family and I eat out anywhere from four to ten meals a week, I don't have to stick to my guns 24/7, and the cost implications of sticking to my rules are fairly minimal.
Shopping rule 2.0 held until 18 months ago, when I received a copy of Cindy Burke's To Buy or Not to Buy Organic. Burke is a local author who has a family, and recognizes that cost matters. So she examined studies of pesticide residues on various types of fruits and vegetables, talked with farmers and ranchers from all over, and came up with a guide to which produce you really should buy organic, which fruits & vegetables taste best only when they're locally grown, and which kinds of produce contain low levels of pesticide residues and ship/store well. After finishing the book, I launched rule 2.5, which allowed me to buy nonorganic broccoli, cabbage, and onions at the major supermarkets, as long as they were domestically grown, a decision that saved me about $10 a week.
Oh, and asparagus? That's at the top of Burke's "Clean 15" list of fruits and vegetables conventionally grown with few, if any, pesticides. Asparagus qualified for the exception, too.
Not surprisingly, that first pound of asparagus went fast, but by then my asparagus OCD had kicked in. Last night I made a furtive pass through Safeway. I spotted $3/lb asparagus, but it was labeled "grown in Mexico," so I walked over to QFC. Like Fred Meyer, QFC is owned by Kroger, and I found the same Altar asparagus for a dollar more a pound (also proving that the markup at the Capitol Hill QFCs is ridiculous).
You know, I feel less and less guilt about buying produce in the winter and spring that is grown two states away. Maybe it's because I'm lazy, maybe it's because California produce used to be "local" for me, and maybe I'm just tired of the fact that the 100-mile radius has become the definition of "local" food simply because it was the limit Prentice and a few writers set for their "locavore challenges" -- which were always meant to be consciousness-raising experiments more than rules to live by. Locavorism has only been around for -- what, three years? Four? And already it's become this moral doctrine for food people like me, fraught with those Puritanical feelings of sinfulness and guilt that liberals have redirected into secular choices like which brands we buy and which words we use to describe ourselves.
So, casting off the shackles of moral tyranny, eager to suck down another pound of crunchy-tipped grasses, I returned home with my booty, flipped the oven to 400, and minced a shallot. Then I started removing the blue rubber band that held the green bundle together, and what did I see?
Sigh. Altar Produce turns out to be a Mexican-produce importer, not a farm.