The Meaning of Local in KCAnyone who has eaten a home-grown tomato from his or her own garden knows at least one advantage of locally raised food-taste. Big science, big business, big farming has changed the way we eat, often not for the better. In many ways we don’t even think about it: for instance, strawberries and bananas year round? Fresh caught shrimp in the dead of winter? New potatoes in February?
There’s both good and bad to that source-ability. And there is another way. Perhaps.
|Gift baskets of heirloom tomatoes from Kurlbaum’s Heirloom Tomato Farm|
For years now, we’ve all been hearing about all the reasons to only eat locally produced foodstuffs. And by that, people usually mean food grown in smaller farms, outside, and preferably without pesticides, hormones, or any of the nasties that have made our food bigger, easier to transport longer distances, cheaper usually -- and probably more tasteless.
For restaurants in the Midwest, it’s a dilemma. Kansas City chefs want great tasting ingredients to make better tasting dishes all year round. But what if at least six months of the year, just not that much is growing? Is the local food mania largely more hype than reality? Is it just a California dream?
The Meaning of LocalFor starters, you need to know that “local” has not been precisely defined. Five hundred miles and truckable? Ten miles? Many seem to have settled on a 100-mile radius. From 12th and Main in Kansas City, that gets us past Topeka but not to Manhattan on the west; not to Columbia on the south but does include Sedalia and Marshall; to Clinton on the east; and to Falls City but not Omaha on the north. Not a huge change of climate or land in that definition and NOT a giant variety of foods. We’re good on flour, though.
But local devotees, or “locavores,” mostly TRY to eat food that is local, sustainable, and healthier (due to its typical organic nature) than packaged foods or fruits, veggies, and meats from all over the country. The word didn’t even exist before 2005 and in 2007 was chosen as the “Word of the Year” by the Oxford American dictionary, just demonstrating how fast this trend has grown. Martin Woods, an executive chef for PB&J Restaurants at Newport Grill and Paradise Diner, says his guests are so much more educated today, they ask for local foods, and “It will never go back to what it was.” Local is here to stay.
Hitching Up to the Local BandwagonEating local is really a dilemma for starters, due to our location. Our growing season is short; our weather conditions are harsh. Woods points out that sourcing local can be really challenging – especially if your restaurant is more than 20 seats. He recently did a dinner at Powell Gardens – which was comparatively simple to do given their plethora of fresh produce. But like the majority of restaurants, most of us don’t can, preserve, or freeze large quantities of foods in season that will see us through the winter. We don’t have root cellars. We already throw away copious amounts of food. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, in the U.S., organic waste is the second highest component of landfills, which are the largest source of methane emissions and 30-40% of the food supply is wasted, equaling more than 20 pounds of food per person per month. Locavores try not to waste food.
|Going local at CHARISSE: Everything on the plate is locally sourced – Duroc pork tenderloin with Roots,Fruits & Greens Farm onions, potatoes and herbs; the beans are from Holland's Organic Garden.|
An additional reason locavores join the movement is the effect of greenhouse gas emissions. They want to reduce the environmental effect of their food – transportation over long distances which contributes to pollution and climate change. But these claims have to be carefully weighed – for instance, some studies have demonstrated that trucking may have less effect then trying to grow organically in a greenhouse.
Another important rationale is that people want the money they spend to improve their local economy. The number you often hear is that farmers average 20 cents per dollar while the rest goes for transport, packaging, processing, refrigeration and marketing. If you’re buying your veggies from a farmer, those costs are hugely reduced and he gets more the money himself and can pay his employees more. And the thinking goes, as the farmland remains profitable, urban sprawl is held back, at least a little. Spend local, stay local is a huge economic incentive.
Smaller, local farms who sell within a small area often tend to use less pesticide and chemicals even if they do not tout organic – and this is in contrast to the large, commercial farms. To put this in perspective, there were just over four million farms in the United States in 1959, and that number had been halved by 2011. The trend continues today. But farm size has exploded as farms have consolidated and industrialized. This may make food cheaper as it eliminates farms and farmers, but it also has created a system in the long run that may not be the best for our world, at least according to some.
Paying Attention to the Locavorish Persuasion in Your Restaurant ChoicesSo the reasons for eating local as much as you can are pretty persuasive. But how do you do that in restaurants? It’s not as hard as you think. You can do it if you:
• Tend to buy foods you know are in season around here. This means white asparagus dishes from Affäre in May or heirloom tomatoes in July at JJ’s (from Powell Gardens who supplies many local restaurants) or Classic Cup or Pig & Finch (Kurlbaum’s), or scrumptious peach dishes from Café Trio co-owner Chris Youngers’ tree in summer.
• Ask your server where the food is from and look for them on menus. The better restaurants’ staff will know. Waldo Pizza uses The Local Pig for several meats and Scimeca’s for sausages, while Chef/Owner Martin Heuser of Affäre buys his bison from the Lazy D Bison Ranch in Westmoreland, Kansas, about two hours west of here, just outside that 100 mile boundary.
• Get to know some local names like Farm to Market bread (Ruins Pub, Providence, Ophelia’s) or Benish's Bakery who makes the biscotti for Pizzabella. Or Green Dirt Farms for sheep’s milk cheese and yogurt (Harvey’s, Westside Local, JJ’s, Café Provence, Affäre or almost anywhere with a great cheese board) or Campo Lindo free-range chickens at Story, Pierpont’s, Room 39, Classic Cup, Providence. One cool note: you can find these providers in some grocery stores as well.
• If you find a great product out there, tell your favorite restaurant(s) about it. It could be the tortillas from La Fonda El Taquito served at District Pour House or the cheesecake from Ronnie D’s at JJ’s or rum cake from Jude’s at Café Trio. Scimeca’s famous Italian sausage (since 1935) or Cupini’s homemade pasta or Louisburg Cider for instance, can now be found in some restaurants. Smart restaurateurs are always looking for the best providers and sometimes they are from outside the restaurant but still inside the area. We’re pretty sure that’s why so many places began serving then local Boulevard Beer and certainly the surge of local craft beers speaks to the same mentality. And don’t forget the now rather large number of distilleries around town.
• When you’ve enjoyed something local off a menu, thank the manager, chef or owner. Tell him or her that it’s important to you that they are sourcing as close to K.C. as possible. That just increases their efforts to continually find closer-to-home foods, which is not always an easy task. Every manager or chef in this town listens to their guests if they want to stay in business.
There are, of course, many other restaurants who source as much as they can locally. Finding those sources is yet another challenging task of executive chefs.
Where Does “Local” Go in the Midwestern Winter?Brandon Strick, managing partner of The Westside Local, puts it simply: “Wintertime is tough.” Since not everything can be sourced locally, he does use local purveyors like Liberty Fruit and may focus more dishes on mushrooms which are available all year from Wakarusa Farm or hydroponic or micro greens from Two Sisters in Lawrence. “There are good alternatives now,” he says happily. (But it’s still tough.)
There are “hoop houses” which are basically greenhouses without glass – an alternative to permanent structures. These are created usually of PVC pipe or galvanized steel poles with a special greenhouse grade plastic covering them. They can be completely enclosed or not. A farmer like John Goode of Goode Acres Farm in Wathena, Kansas (near St. Joseph) can manage the climate inside, protecting produce from varmints of all kinds and controlling the temperature, thus extending the season. During winter, he also sells specialty fire woods. Some local farmers also have greenhouses. And some, like Kurlbaum’s Heirloom Tomato Farm in Kansas City, Kansas, have decided to simply live with an extremely short growing season and even shorter selling season.
Winter is a good time for heartier meals. A local meats distributor like Arrowhead Specialty Meats delivers both local and even international game and meats year-round. Steve’s Meat Market in DeSoto, now in its third generation, has been providing local meats and poultry since the 40s in their shop, at markets, and to restaurants. The steakhouses, like 801 Chophouse or Sullivan’s or Hereford House, as do the barbeque places like Jack Stack and most of the better restaurants, use meats and poultry from the region. Fish (other than lake) may be a different story, but given the transportation available today, it is at least still fresh here. Restaurants look for local companies as either distributors or end-product suppliers, too, like Roasterie Coffee or DiCapo Foods Italian cookies or taco shells from Perez Food Products or Liberty Fruit Company, all Kansas City family based.
The End of the StoryLiving in the Midwest is clearly more limiting than California. Duh. But no one place can really supply everything we eat, unless we limit and change our food habits and cravings drastically. No coffee? No orange juice? No chocolate? Yikes.
It’s daunting to contemplate a truly local farm to table dedication in this environment – and think what it must have been like even in pioneer days when food came only by river and horse. Or you shot, caught, or trapped it yourself. But for any number of good reasons, we should do more than fantasize about eating local, even if we don’t go all the way to becoming true locavores.
Don't call it California dreamin' though, because in Kansas City, farm or ranch-to-table is reality.
Uncommon Local Foods...
We’re listing just a few – there really are many products you can find in stores, markets,
grocery stores, and of course, great restaurants.
Goddard Farms goat cheese
Green Dirt Farm cheeses and yogurts
Ever so many barbeque sauces
Shatto milk, ice cream,
Local Pig meats and sausages
Farm to Market breads
Borgman’s Farmstead Dairy for goat cheese, caramel,
Peaceful Hills Farm (dairy, pork, eggs)
Strawberry Hill povitica
Chocolates from Christopher Elbow, Annedore’s or Andrés
Goode Acres Farm
ValoMilk or Chase’s Cherry Mash
Local and Hermann, MO wines
25 or so local beers
Holladay Distillery for bourbon
Tom’s Town Distillery for gin, vodka, whisky, rum
J. Rieger & Company’s whiskey, vodka, gin
Check out localstart.com
Local Stars...Lots of restaurants get some items locally. But if you’d like to eat mostly local, be sure to put these luminaries on your list.
Blue Bird Bistro
The Westside Local
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