Posted on February 17, 2011 - by

Diversity Demons: The Struggle to Eat Local

The discontent arrived in fits and starts. Mere days after arriving in Italy, I stood crestfallen at the market, valiantly searching for a bunch of cilantro. Piles of parsley surrounded me, a taunting, isomorphic reminder that I was far from home. The bulk bins were swollen with cannellini beans and lentils, but there was nary a sign of black beans. In the baking aisle, I combed the shelves for baking powder. Instead, thin packages with florid photos of cakes touted the ammonia-based leavening agent inside. Skeptical, I stifled my frustration and went home to yet another meal with pasta.

In June, I fell in love with an avocado. The supple, emerald skin beckoned from across the supermarket aisle and I could not tear my eyes away. According to the label, the avocado had been imported from Israel. In lecture that morning, we had discussed the concept of food miles and the merits of buying local goods. I ignored a nagging feeling of guilt and bought the avocado anyway.

But wait, I moved abroad to learn about classic Italian cooking, did I not? Why on earth was I longing for corn tortillas? With freshly made focaccia and grissini in every corner bakery, how was it that I could not shake my yearning for one good bagel?

Italy is renowned for the depth and sophistication of its native cuisine, but the strength of this staunchly traditional food culture comes at a price. Despite the persistent forces of globalization, there have been few inroads made in the availability of international food products, particularly in Italy’s smaller towns. This poses a conundrum for an international student body, accustomed to cooking and eating in a more cosmopolitan fashion. In a land blessed with over 25 officially recognized types of cured meats and 400 cheeses, what happens when all you can do is fixate on finding a jar of peanut butter?

As I reluctantly settled into a more provincial lifestyle, whispers began trickling through the grapevine, hinting that there was more to the town’s food offerings than meets the eye. Check out the Ortobra grocery on Corso Novembre IV, they murmured, you just might find what you are looking for. One banal Tuesday afternoon, I strolled into the Ortobra and proceeded to the back corner. There it was, a shimmering oasis of foreign and ethnic goods, shelves lined with everything from cardamom to tapioca balls. Quaker oatmeal! Coconut milk! Best of all, stacked above the cans of condensed milk, there were jars of German-made peanut butter. Suddenly, it felt as though a hole of my life had been plugged with a dollop of gooey, finger-licking paste.

Upon hearing my ecstatic news, friends at home gently chastised me with bemused grins. “I’d love to be eating locally where you are now!” they exclaimed.

The principle of food sovereignty advocates access to “safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate” food for all. What does it mean to have access to culturally appropriate foods as an American? At the risk of sounding petulant and demanding, it means I want everything. It means that without leaving my hometown, I can explore and taste cuisines from all over the world. It means I can appreciate a fine glass of Barolo wine, followed by a bowl of macaroni and cheese, and end with a fish taco in hand. It means that the world is rapidly growing too small for any society to close itself off and sustain an entirely indigenous food culture.

The simple truth is that before “locavore” entered our lexicon, there was another word for people who confined themselves to eating foods produced near their homes: peasants. As the quintessential omnivores, we crave diversity in our diets and the pace of globalization means we are exposed to new and exciting foods at an unprecedented rate. I am certainly not alone. Already, consumers in developing countries have begun seeking a greater selection of international novelties. Italian wines in Brazil. Prosciutto in China. As palates grow more sophisticated, the demand will rise for the world’s finest truffles, authentic maple syrup, and fresh mangosteen. And why not? Maybe this cultural exchange will help bring us all closer together.

Is my kitchen filled with exotic condiments and imported cans? Yes. Do I encourage friends and family to shop locally? All the time. Am I a hypocrite? Perhaps. But in my opinion, traditional food culture is dead. Or maybe it never really existed, a romantic fairy tale valorized in modernity. Even in ancient times, wild game from Africa and spices from India traveled to the far reaches of the Roman Empire.

Think about that the next time you reach for the soy sauce.

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