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Coincidentally, Dollars are Green July 30, 2007

Posted by KG in Food.
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There’s a running joke in Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix where Unhygienix, the village fishmonger, imports all of his fish from Lutetia rather than using the nearby ocean, figuring that all imports from the Gallic capital are vastly superior to fish from right next to his backwater village. 

For some reason, that was the obscure reference that came to mind when I first glanced at the article on the front page of yesterday’s Post on the growing popularity of local produce at restaurants.   The timing seemed a little strange to me; I’d thought the popularity of locally sourced items has long supplanted the push for all things organic as the way to go for tasty, sustainable food.   The “locally sourced” tag has been around in markets for at least the last few years; restaurants have been trumpeting when their offerings are local for at least that long, if not longer.

Perhaps more interesting: in Asterix, the fishmonger bases his perception of superior quality on notions of class; the pedigree of Lutetian fish is judged as higher caliber because it comes from the cultural center miles inland.  The local stuff is for lower class, less discerning consumers.  That’s certainly not an unfamiliar prejudice in the food world, and to a certain extent there are still many foods judged as inherently better in some circles because of their provenance — think Caspian Sea caviar, Perigord truffles, or (hah) Mackinaw peaches.   But overall, local foods (especially produce) seem to be the trendy, high class items of the day, perhaps an amazingly slow trickledown from the Chez Panisse movement begun three decades ago, or simply a re-emergence of the same hastened by the newfound popularity of living “green.”

It’s interesting to think of the widening class gap associated with this and other exemplars of the popular trend to be more ecologically friendly in day-to-day life.   If Unhygienix set up a produce stand to appeal to his desired clientele in Eastern Market today, he’d most likely stock only the freshest, most local, and most expensive items, a reversal of his practices back at his Gallic village.  Those who could not afford his wares would be purchasing items shipped in from afar, priced cheaper.  This is in distinct contrast with common practices just half a century ago, when the produce came from nearby and was usually the same price as vegetables shipped across the country (if not cheaper). 

One of the more difficult realities of the popularity of local foods is that by and large, they are expensive.  I bought a half pound bag of wonderful mesclun from the stand of a local grower this Saturday and paid $4.  Compare that to the cost of pre-bagged salad mix at your local Safeway, which (if I remember correctly — it’s been a while) runs you about $2.99 a pound.   Produce grown in the neighborhood — if not tastier, at the very least better for the environment in the short and the long view — seems to be too expensive for your working-to-middle class American family.   It’s one small example of how living green is significantly more difficult for lower income individuals and families, and more to the point a rather nice luxury for the well off.

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