Friday, August 13, 2010

A Better Way of Eating

In my last post I described the Public Markets of Montreal, where I prefer to buy my produce. It is not the most convenient thing but I choose to do so anyway. There is a good supermarket a block away from me but I will still travel a good distance on the Metro (subway system) to get to Jean-Talon market. The primary reason is the quality and freshness of the product available at the market compared to that at the supermarket. Another reason is that I believe strongly in the principle of local eating and want to support local producers whenever possible.

In the 80's and 90's, the leading trend in creative cuisine was fusion. In practice, this involved sourcing ingredients from every corner of the world and combining them in new and (hopefully) tasty ways. This trend had its place as it did introduce global flavours to the dining public. Unfortunately, it was frequently the case that the bounty at our feet was completely ignored. In the past several years, the trend has swung the other way. Local cuisine is the new driving force in culinary creativity. The best chefs want to let the ingredients speak for themselves. This ethos fits very well with other concerns of the culinary world: reducing environmental impact and ensuring sustainability. The pursuit of global ingredients to feed an insatiable dining public has led to dramatic depletions of many fish stocks and heavy pollution due to transportation of products.

There is even a movement is some places to encourage a 100% local diet, or at least to get as close to it as possible. There was a well publicised “100 Mile Challenge” held in British Columbia, Canada, where participants would only eat things that were produced within a 100-mile radius of their home for a period of 100 days. I don’t think we have to go to this extreme. We do live in a global village and there is nothing wrong with making use of some ingredients from elsewhere. For instance, I use imported soy sauce and other asian ingredients, spices from around the world, and tropical fruits such as pineapples and passion fruit. However, if an equivalent product is available locally we should use it. Why should I buy garlic that was picked months ago in China and required vast quantities of fuel to get it here, when I can buy better garlic picked just the other day a few miles away, just outside the city?

A related food trend in the recent years is the slow food movement. This phenomenon has its origin as a reaction the public obsession with convenience and “fast foods”. Slow food refers to food that takes time and effort to prepare but, more importantly, uses natural ingredients and avoids manufactured and processed foods. This movement began in Italy, a country where the cuisine is primarily based on quality and freshness of ingredients. Even in Italy, fast food and convenience items have become more popular and the slow food movement was an attempt to get people back to the origins of cooking. It would be even more useful, though perhaps not as easy a sell, in North America and the UK, where food habits seem to have deteriorated far more.

I fully realize that many of you may argue that, while the goals of slow food and local eating are laudable, you do not have the time, skills or budget to follow through on this. While the very term slow food implies that natural, wholesome eating takes a lot of time to prepare, this does not have to be the case at all. Since the goal is to preserve the essence of the natural product, many foods can be prepared very quickly and simply. As for skills, cooking can be accomplished at any skill level, from avant-garde professional, to complete novice. All it takes a willingness to put a certain amount of effort into preparing one’s food and, once that criterion is met, you should have no problem producing something tasty. Finally, although it is sad but true that local produce can often be more expensive than ingredients brought in from halfway around the world, home cooking is always cheaper than eating out, even if you are eating fast food. The one thing you do have to have is the commitment to put some effort in and assign some importance to food preparation.

Even with the desire to embrace a more natural approach to cooking, we still need to get the ingredients. Supermarkets are fine for some things, and I shop at one regularly. However, markets are much better. In addition to the great local, high quality meat and produce available, there are sometimes arts and crafts, snack vendors selling freshly made food and even entertainers. It can also be a social gathering place, since some smaller markets are only on weekends. I even like to visit markets while on vacation. I will be in Washington DC for the next few days to attend a family event, and one of the sights I plan to see is Eastern Market, the city’s largest farmers market, located close to Capitol Hill.

If this post is not quite as well written as usual, it is because I am in a hurry to get this posted before I leave for Washington. While I am away, I will NOT be updating the blog or writing posts, but when I get back there will be plenty to write about. I will be telling you something of my trip and there is some good news in the world of gay rights I would like to share.

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