Local and localer

In the days before I had my own vegetable garden, I could hardly wait for the farmstands to fill up with local color and variety each year.  What’s better than a fresh carrot?  A purple carrot grown five miles away.  What’s better than a cool new radish?  a bunch of Easter Egg radishes, ovoid and pastel.  What’s better than a crisp just-picked apple?  A crisp, just-picked Westfield Seek-no-further, grown in its native orchard just to the south.

In theory, local produce sounds great, and it is. Especially on those rare occasions when it manages to also be both organic or heirloom or open-pollinated, and affordable.  But it’s one thing to cook local, and another thing to publish a local cookbook.  For example, consider The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, a gorgeous new production from Matt and Ted Lee, who are among my favorite Southern authors.

Every page is a testament to Lowcountry foodways, and many are doable in any part of the country, so long as there’s a well-stocked supermarket nearby.  But of course the most mouthwatering recipes are the ones that are the hardest to source.  Where am I going to get live she-crabs with their roe?  or red field peas? or chainey briar (“the tender shoots of the smilax vine”)? Who carries mako shark around here?  I can’t even get salsify, and fresh peaches are around for only 5 minutes in July.

I had a similar problem with Deborah Madison’s inspiring and beautiful Local Flavors in 2002.    It covers the whole country, so it’s not seasonally limited.  But the recipes call out specifically for opal basil and Freckles lettuce or sugar loaf chicory or lovage leaves or Romanesco broccoli.  Even when the author considerately assures you you can substitute something else, it’s somehow not satisfying to have to.  Because isn’t that sense of the artisanal and specific part of what made you fall in love with the book?  And if it was just a recipe for plain old beets, not golden ones or stripey Chioggias, would it be worth the trouble of springing for a cookbook?

Personally, I like cookbooks that have a strong, consistent sense of geographic season (so nobody’s going to be asking you to prepare something that has both apples and asparagus when one or the other of them is going to have to come from South America).  But I get frustrated with books which drive me toward hyper-local ingredients I can practically never get, or which, if I get them, will be seriously compromised in quality compared to what’s in the book.  I don’t fault the publishers, or the authors.  But it’s one of those cases where it pays (in book sales!) to be aware of what a cook can realistically source, and to go overboard helping out with sourcing or substitution if it’s going to be tricky.

What’s your local “threshold”?  Will you set aside a recipe if it’s got 1 ingredient you can’t source? 2 or 3?  Will you avoid buying a cookbook that clearly caters to a locale very different from your own?

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  • sir_ken_g  on  April 16, 2013

    Well I have books like that.
    Ones that I have bought as souvenirs in Cambodia and New Zealand for example. And others I have bought out of intellectual curiosity – Lao, Hmong.
    But in general I prefer books that know what I can reasonably get. I will certainly substitute or ignore an ingredient if I can but if it's a major ingredient there is no choice but to pass.

  • Vanessa  on  April 16, 2013

    I live in Lee Brothers territory, and I've been incredibly grateful to the CSA providers I've had over the years here. But I admit that I also enjoy the foods from far away. Lemongrass, anyone?!? NOT a Lowcountry staple, in spite of its affinity for so much that DOES grow here … too bad, more local farmers should be growing lemongrass! (Yes, Pete's Herb Farm can provide it if you are willing to grow your own, but I'm looking to support a farmer, not be a farmer!)

  • Lindsay  on  April 17, 2013

    I think it depends on whether the cookbooks just contain recipes or provide more – especially about culture. If it's just a recipe collection, then I don't think it makes sense to purchase it, but if you can vicariously experience a new place or culture, or learn about it through the book, then it may well be worth the money.

  • Queezle_Sister  on  April 19, 2013

    I love looking through cookbooks with local and specific ingredients, but then again, I feel no shame (or regret) about doing substitutions. I recently prepared a Deborah Madison recipe calling for fresh peas and shallots, but frozen peas and a regular old yellow onion still produced a spectacular dish.

    To some extent, cookbooks for me provide a sense of voyeurism, I can imagine the garden/CSA box/hunt in the wild, and yet still enjoy my local garden-variety dishes.

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