Food Mavens in Our Midst: Rob Gardner

A Conversation with One of Oak Park's Most Articulate Locavores

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By David Hammond

Rob Gardner and I met years ago, when we both used to post on Chowhound.com, a national food discussion board.  Later, we co-founded LTHForum.com, an almost 9K member Chicago food chat site. Rob later co-founded The Local Beet, a site dedicated to a defining “The Practical Approach to Local Eating.”

I asked Rob for his thoughts on a number of issues related to eating locally grown food, something Rob and his family have been doing long before the word “locavore” was recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Rob, How  do you define “local” and what exceptions do you make?

A few years ago, my wife and I heard a farmer talk, and he said "Local was as far as it took you to get what you need."  This roughly translates into, if we can get it locally, we get it locally, and if we cannot get it locally, then we cannot get it locally.  We do not forsake chocolate or spices or coffee or any other product just because we cannot get it from "local sources."  We would also say that we prefer the local, so we are going to stick with local cheeses, local beer, etc.  Of course, this still begs the question, What is local?  We consider local to be food from the Chicago area or food that's within a day from Chicago.  It would include parts of Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and maybe a nibble of Minnesota or Ohio, which is why I've also said we eat from the Big Ten Conference.  

Tell us a little about The Local Beet. What are you trying to accomplish, what’s your mission?

The Local Beet’s mission is to "Provide a Practical Approach to Local Eating."  We do that in two ways.  First, we show how we are eating local, hopefully inspiring people to do as we do.  Second, we provide resources that people need to eat local, such as a listing of CSAs or a guide to getting the most of shopping a winter farmer's market.  We also like to think that we entertain and make people think in the process.

A Practical Approach to Local Eating means, firstly, foremost, that you don't make yourself nuts trying to eat local; do the best you can; strive to improve the amount of local food, perhaps working more on preserving; do what you can.  It also means that Local Beet is about giving good commonsense advice.  We want to show you how much fun we are having eating local, and we want to give you the resources necessary to eat local.

So what satisfaction do you get from eating locally? Economic, political, philosophical, gustatory…other?

I started eating local because I loved the farmer's market, loved shopping there, loved following the seasons, seeing what I could get, especially as compared to shopping at "normal" stores.  I kept on doing it because it satisfied my foodie interests.  Instead of chasing the next hot restaurant or "hounding" for some discovery, I found that I could eat best with local food.  I continue to eat local because it does not just taste better but it gives food meaning.  It means that I do not have to participate in the industrial food system.  It means that my dollars count towards the types of farming and business practices I appreciate and that my dollars go towards businesses I know or respect--I don't always get that with everything I buy, but in totality I do.  I believe that eating local is not the end but the means; the means to get the food made more sustainably, more tasty, more humane, more for my community, more for the things I believe.

Have you discovered local foods at any unexpected places?

Let me say that we differentiate "local" from "farmer's markets.  We look for local food whether it is from the farmer's market or not.  We try to find local food whenever we shop. We have found local onions at the Dollar Store.  Not that long ago, we bought a big bag of Illinois beets at the restaurant supply store.  We find local apples all over the place, including Costco.  We always say “Look. And make the choice.”

What’s the hardest part of eating local?

The hardest thing remains the work it takes to eat local.  One cannot do weekly shopping at a neighborhood store.  There is no farmer's market, even in season, that has all of one's food.  Between November and May there are hardly any farmer's markets, and the ones that do exist, have little produce, so during that period, if one wants to eat local they may have to rely on what they have stored and preserved. 

Sharon Bautista recently wrote in Local Beet that the locavore movement is “primarily white and upper-middle class.” Do you agree? And is that a problem?

We do not want to be Pravda.  There is not a party line to eating local.  As we said when we published Sharon's piece, we did not agree with everything she has to say.  We are not trying to be provocative for the sake of being provocative, but we want people to think about certain assumptions and perceptions.  Certainly, there are people like Sharon who perceive that eating local is "primarily white and upper middle class."  Given that my family for sure does not fall into the upper middle class, I can safely say that the statement is not true.  I can also say, from experience, that I know people from across economic categories (and other categories) that care about good food.  Yet, I believe the perception is there.

I believe we cannot tackle that perception without acknowledging that people feel that way.  I also have seen farmer's markets struggle in certain communities, for instance Maywood.  I know that there are few "ethnic" restaurants that buy their food from farmer's markets.  Generally, I think if the Local Beet succeeds at its stated mission and continues to grow as described above, with more experts and more community, these problems will be ameliorated.

Eating local seems now to have gone beyond a trend or a fad. Sourcing locally is almost an entrance requirement for opening a restaurant in Chicago.  How has the local movement (if we can call it that) influenced the way business is done, the economics of the small farm, the food consciousness of the average eater?

I'm not sure I agree with that.  I know that Graham Elliott Bowles (I think it was him) made a stir that the evil locavores were keeping chefs from putting what they really wanted on their menus.  I think the restaurants that make a point of sourcing local food do so because they know it gives them the best ingredients to use, and that includes places like Alinea that use local food but don't make a huge deal about it.  I also think that there are chefs like Paul Virant of Vie who care about issues beyond just putting out the best tasting dish.  Still, I think most chefs just want the best ingredients they can get.

I do think that interest in local food has created many business opportunities from farms all the way to retail enterprises, and I only see more businesses involved in this area.  Did you know that a group of "Angel" investors have formed a $500,000 fund to invest in businesses in the local food arena?  I'm not alone.  There are more and more people that want to eat the way that I eat, and there will be more and more businesses popping up to serve them.  There will be a time, soon, where it won't be so hard to eat local.

We live in Oak Park. It’s the dead of winter. Is it possible to eat locally this late in the game, or do I have to wait until spring? How do you get through the winter?

What do you want to eat and how far are you willing to go to get it?  There are stores, including Marion Street Cheese in Oak Park, that sell local food year round.  There are winter's farmer's markets.  You can find Michigan apples at Caputo's.  There are Wisconsin potatoes all over the place.  How much do you like mushrooms?  You can grow your own sprouts or micro-greens pretty easily.  If you are gung-ho, maybe you can drive to Madison, WI where ample farmer's market runs year round. 

Maybe next year you will have made more effort to store and preserve for this time of year.  Freezing food is easy, although it requires a certain amount of capacity.  Canning food is a chore but can provide the pleasures of summer tomatoes in the cold.  Storing food is hardly complicated if you can find someplace cold and damp.  And if you cannot do that, winter squash stores at room temperature.  It just takes a bit of effort and forethought.  Then, you combine that with any and everything you can find from the winter markets and locally focused retailers.

It is satisfying to eat with the seasons, including a season called winter.  I've written on the Local Beet about how we have been fooled into thinking fresh produce was always the best, but your local food, processed well, will most likely be better tasting this time of year.  In the summer have a tomato salad; in the winter have tomato sauce.  The winter larder is full with root veg, cabbage, apples, pumpkins, potatoes.  You can supplement that selection with indoor grown-produce like cucumbers, rocket, chard.  Also, during the winter, eat more meat.  Winter does not have to be a time of privation.

 

 

 

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