Two years ago this August, a friend came over with a bucket of apricots gleaned from an undisclosed tree. Last week, the spicy chutney we made from those apricots propelled a culinary trajectory that culminated in a sandwich.
But this story is about more than my sandwich. It's about the possibility of local cuisine, a concept that here in the West appears rarely to extend beyond fried cow balls and chicken fried steak. This isn't France, where centuries of careful experimentation with local ingredients have led to legendary cuisine. But maybe, someday, our cuisine could rival that of the French. Why not? We have the raw ingredients for some fantastic food.
Gary Snyder once said, "You can't know who you are if you don't know where you are." In other words, you're part of the landscape. It's also been said that you are what you eat. Indeed, the molecules that we ingest as food are what our bodies are
If you combine the above phrases, with a bit of verbal algebra you can arrive at a semantic equation: You can't know what you eat if you don't know where you are. In other words: We eat our landscape. This used to be truer than it is now, back when the Indians of the Southwest were made of corn, Greeks were made of olives, and Eskimos were made of seal. But today, people eat less and less from the particular landscapes they inhabit.
The long-distance shipping of food makes many wonderful things possible, like French, Japanese, or Thai food here in America. In their spice mixtures, the preparation of vegetables, and the overall combination of ingredients, culinary traditions that have simmered slowly over the years can produce flavor that is truly mind-expanding. Beyond the exotic spices and fruits that you cannot produce at home, these regional cuisines bring us methods, culture, and place.
On the other hand, there is the bland side of long-distance food shipping: food that tells you absolutely nothing about place. Frozen pizza is not from Italy. Frozen jalapeno poppers aren't from the Southwest. A Big Mac in Tokyo will taste the same as one in Singapore or in Moscow.
Meanwhile, we're all capable of asking some simple questions: What can be grown and gathered from my landscape? What culinary traditions, however obscure, do we have? What more can we create, or borrow from others?
Don't expect to turn around your food supply chain in one stroke. It takes time. But like that apricot chutney, many things improve with age. Small steps accumulate - but you need to take the first one. I'll now explain the preparation of my aforementioned sandwich, in the form of a timeline.
August 2002: Make apricot chutney.
October 2002: Plant garlic for the following summer's harvest.
July 2003: Harvest garlic; store it in my garage.
August 2003: Buy hot and sweet peppers at a farmers' market; pickle them in cider vinegar.
October 2003: Plant more garlic for summer 2004.
November 2003: Shoot deer; dress and freeze venison.
April 2004: Plant spinach and cilantro.
June 21, 2004: Summer solstice. Remove package of deer from freezer and thaw. Buy bread from the local bakery -- baked with Montana wheat. Pick spinach, cilantro, and garlic flowers from this year's crop. Mash cilantro in mortar and pestle with garlic cloves from last year's crop (which is about to run out). Rub the garlic-cilantro paste on the meat. Pour soy sauce and vinegar from the pickled pepper jar on the meat. Let sit.
Heat grapeseed oil in a pan and add chopped bacon (from a farm down the valley). Fry the deer meat in the grease -- crispy on outside, rare inside. When it's almost done, cut the meat into medallions, add garlic flowers and spinach, stir-fry it all in the grease. Remove from heat.
Toast bread. Spread apricot chutney on one slice, mayo on the other. Remove meat medallions from pan and place on the bread slice with the apricot chutney. Place spinach-garlic flower mixture on top of meat. Pour grease from the pan over everything, and put the mayo bread slice on top. Serve with a glass of Farm Dog Red from the local winery.
The only components of this meal that weren't from around here were the mayo, soy sauce, and grapeseed oil. But remember: These things could have been local. Soy beans grow here. Grapes grow here -- why not press the seeds from the grapes in that Farm Dog Red wine? Chickens grow here too, and where there are chickens, there is mayonnaise -- not to mention chicken fried steak!
Try your own local cuisine experiment, and see what you come up with. As you eat your landscape, you become evermore a part of it. Perhaps you will become more in tune with your identity. At the very least, it will taste really good.
Chef Boy Ari (aka Ari LeVaux), a food columnist whose work regularly appears in the Missoula Independent, will be appearing here on a semi-regular basis.