Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Eat Local Cheese

Create Your Food Culture

Jeanne Carpenter of the Cheese Underground ponders the new Atlas of American Artesian Cheese (h/t the hated Martha B at the Reader)
California is home to the most artisan cheesemakers, with 36; Vermont has the most per capita, with 34, while Wisconsin weighs in with a paltry 22 artisan producers.
Rightly, she's miffed. She wonders if it's due to a limited definition of "artisan". I wonder if it's just lack of respect for the heartland.

I had a very good meal at Avec last week, a Chicago restaurant that does a pan-Euro take on wine bar food. It's not really Avec's fault that its cheese list contains no local cheeses. I mean it does not even have any American cheeses to offer. But what about local non-cheese? Avec's Chef, Paul Kahn, is a very visible and notable farmers market shopper. I recognized him at Green City Market (because he was always there) before I knew he was Paul Kahn (and before I ate at Avec or his main place, Blackbird). Yet, after interrogation of the staff at Avec last week, it was determined that the menu contained about one local ingredient, asparagus for a salad. Avec wants to be of another place. It is of another place. Fine.

312 Chicago is another place that shops some local. Chef Dean Zanella is known to buy an entire Wettstein pig (yes!). Yet again, a recent meal at his restaurant found that local ingredients comprised less than 1/4 of the menu. Here it was like asparagus AND beets. And again, it's because Zanella looks to another place. He is through and through an Italian restaurant. His focuses seems on foods that would be in Italy like squid. He goes local only when it fits, as in using the Wettstein's piggies to sub for a Tuscan porchetta.

I've actually been on tour of late, checking out local restaurants that serve local food. I've had recent meals at Hot Chocolate, Lula's and Vie. (North Pond's next on the list.) So far, only Vie really produces a menu that's mostly local. Vie, however, still reads mostly foreign in its dishes.

Something I think about when I think about my vocation of eating local is, what defines my local. Not what defines the boundary of where food has to be farmed to be considered local. I mean what is the local as in our local culinary custom. I mean I am not so sure myself. I had pasta carbonara last night...

I have one idea and one source to mill. The source first. Cathy Lambrecht and others are spearheading a Midwestern Food Alliance. As reported in the CTrib's food blog:
A Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance is in the works to celebrate, preserve and promote the region's food traditions and treasures, including top Chicago chefs and homecooks, church suppers and Wisconsin fish boils, barbecue, hot dogs and pies. The organization is modeled after the well-known Southern Foodways Alliance and promises to set a "common table" where "black and white, rich and poor--all who gather--may consider our history and future."

That shoud be a great start. I look forward to participating.

I do have one idea of what our food is about. It's hard to think of a Midwestern cuisine. There are few if any axiomatic recipes, our bagna cauda, cassoulet or gumbo. Instead, we are a region of foodstuffs. The raw not the cooked. From persimmons at one end to those lawyers (burbot) off the other end. Black walnuts to wild rice, we do have many unique products. Moreover, we are blessed with about the ideal climate and conditions for farming. Anything that can survive a winter can grow and prosper here, and we have outstanding examples of cherries, tomatoes, peaches, grapes (maybe not the kind you ferment), apples, potatoes. It is no accident that the Green Giant took his first giant steps in Minnesota. Finally, we are blessed with artisans, people who care about the land and care about their food. They make caviar, chocolates, roast coffees, brew beers, and they make cheese. Don't ignore our cheese makers because they are in the Midwest. Don't ignore them because we have no local in our local.

We will.

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