13 Jul “Local” Is Relative…It Depends On Where You Are
The term “local food” is so much more than just eating food grown or made within a certain distance from my home. For me, it represents a sustainable and self-reliant economy, entrepreneurship, eating seasonally, appreciating artisan foods often based in historical methods, slow food, connection to place, community and savoring time with loved ones. This may seem like a lot to wrap up into two words; this concept is what fuels my work and the passion dedicated to supporting, both with my dollars and my time, local food. I feel fortunate to be a part of the renaissance of local food over the past 20 years from the highly processed, limited food options that dominated the 1950s through the 1990s.
Most of the time Colorado is how I define what is local relative to my home. In Northern Colorado we are fortunate to have access to farmland with a new generation of farmers committed to growing a wide variety of fruit and vegetables during our relatively long growing season. We also have a rich history of preservation, utilization and artisan foods that was not lost through the decades of the industrial food complex. Multiple farmers markets, independent stores wiling to bring in local products and a new consumer demand for better, local food has created a nurturing environment for food entrepreneurs to bring their passion to market. Venture farther past our region into Boulder followed by Denver and you will find food companies leading the nation in going from farmers markets to making it big in the CPG (consumer packaged goods) category on grocery store shelves.
Seeking out the best local food (everything from barbecue to pho) has been a theme on my vacations for two decades. Itineraries are marked by getting away from tourist traps and chains and into the heart of the community where food brings people together. Now, with a focus on value-added products as my core business, I spend more time seeking out locally-made food products to learn their story and lessons we can learn on how local food is impacting (or not) the local economy. Plus, there is the added bonus of tax write-offs.
2018 has included three such ventures so far. In April, a girlfriend and I took a road trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Browsing through the downtown shops, I delighted in the local pepper based products, but it also felt very commercial. The Pinon coffee, brewed by the Native Americans for centuries, upon closer inspection contained “natural flavoring”.
It wasn’t until we stumbled into the local bookstore and Iconik Coffee Roasters that we found locally-roasted coffee, kombucha, root beer, baked goods and other locally-sourced food products. This is the place to find and support the real local food artisans of Santa Fe. You can also find a bustling farmers market on Saturdays with additional weekdays in the warmer months.
We did find a campaign by the New Mexico Visitor’s Bureau called New Mexico True. It is not food specific, but does have a food category. Looking through the list of food and beverage companies, it was mostly restaurants with only a few products listed, including the aforementioned piñon coffee, that bear the symbol on their label. Its a nice idea, but maybe hasn’t taken off in the same way the Colorado Proud symbol has, which is food and drink specific.
Heading home, we took the longer route through Taos. In between cell phone dead zones we found The Farmhouse Cafe which also had a market and its own farm. After enjoying a delicious brunch and asking a bunch of questions about their CSA and Farm to School Program we popped in to the market to see what local foods they had available.
All in all, our short trip to Santa Fe was a delicious one and is definitely an area to watch for unique and authentic local foods, hopefully coming to a store near you.
Now for a summer trip to Washington and Alaska…
It isn’t ideal to have a best friend who has moved thousands of miles away, but I guess of all the places to visit frequently, Seattle is pretty great. Downtown and Pikes Place Market has been done so now my annual visits are about venturing into smaller neighborhood restaurants, stores and farmers markets to seek out the latest trends and up and coming businesses. This year’s trip was only a few days, but we packed a lot in. Our first meal was at Minion featuring Shigoku oysters from just up the bay that were so good we had to order another dozen.
Hitting the PCC after dinner, Seattle’s small chain food co-op, I lazily walked the amazing produce department. We splurged on golden raspberries, blueberries and whipping cream (all local) to top our pancakes the next morning along with our local Tony’s coffee (what is it about Seattle that brings out my inner coffee drinker? I could drink coffee all day there!)
A visit to Canon, one of the hottest bars in Capital Hill was in order as I had heard so many great things. It did not disappoint. With a creative and highly inventive menu that accompanied a gorgeous space that looked like a warm library, but with beautiful bottles instead of books. Seeing pictures next to the drinks listed on the menu didn’t cue me into the fact that this was how your drink would be served so when the person next to me ordered the Whole Paycheck and received a mini shopping cart with a paper bag filled with the mixer, a spring of mint and a mini bottle of Bulleit on the side inspired delight. Her partner’s drink was served in a Nintendo game cartridge (The Legend of Zelda in case you are wondering). As I looked around, the bar was marked by mini bathtubs, glass pipes, skulls and barrels all filled with their own libation. Canon did not disappoint!
An early flight to Alaska the next morning brought us home relatively early wrapping up a great visit. My sister and her husband moved to Juneau 10 years ago to work for the forest service and I have never been! It was definitely time to make the trip and see this beautiful state (or at least a small part of it). Tourism, in addition to being the state’s capital, is what drives the local economy. Giant cruise ships dominate the ports with thousands of tourists filing onto busses scrambling to see a glacier, some whales, salmon or bears, go up the mountain on a tram and get back to their ship on time for dinner. We heard one passenger exclaim that the boat had been moved only to learn that they had missed their boarding time and the ship had sailed onto its next destination…yikes! Slowing down with no time constraints to hike, take in the view and find the off-the-beaten path menus is more my style than the minute by minute schedule of a cruise ship.
First and foremost was the coffee situation. Local to Juneau, Heritage Coffee Roasters with self-contained drive-thrus in the valley and the roasting and coffee shop downtown seemed like the best local option. On the second day though, my brother-in-law introduced me to Tibbs. A self-contained drive-thru coffee building that served Raven’s Brew coffee. $2 got me a four shot Americano and some of the best coffee I have had. While not hyper local, Raven’s Brew is roasted just south in Ketchecan. I was hooked and every morning involved a short drive to for the good stuff. I bought as many bags (six, I think) as I could fit into my luggage for myself and (maybe) gifts.
Hitting the local Super Bear grocery store after dropping off my luggage, I purchased local smoked salmon, smoked salmon spread made by Jerry’s Meat and Seafood just up the road. Halibut is also in season and I took full advantage of halibut tacos, halibut curry and just plain ol’ grilled halibut. My brother and his family, who just by happenstance also vacationed in Juneau for a few days, chartered a fishing boat and caught several large halibut. They had the deckhands breakdown and mail their fish, so I am hoping they might share a bit of their catch when I return so I can savor this Alaskan delicacy well after vacation.
We decided to head over to the Douglas just over the bridge from Juneau on the Fourth to be a part of Americana with a parade, sack races and a sand sculpture contest.
A handful of food trucks filled an area to create a food court. I couldn’t resist trying a reindeer sausage, but I suspect, much like the pinon coffee, it contained very little Rudolph. It did make for a good Instagram photo though. There was also an interesting Korean/Mexican fusion food truck that had a huge line, so it must be good…
My sister told me about a new online marketplace called Salt & Soil for locals to order everything from locally grown vegetables to fish to body care. Spruce tips and local wild blueberries were available for pre-order. An order is placed by the cutoff time and is available for pick-up at a new local food store in the valley. Unfortunately, we missed the cutoff time, but a trip to The Port in downtown featured many of the same options.
There we sampled locally-made kombucha, sea kelp in both pickled and salsa form, spruce tip chocolate and salmon berry jam. I grabbed a bit of each including a canned smoked salmon from a local fishing operation and some Alaska sea salt from Sitka. My sister purchased a spruce tip flower kombucha and a Devil’s Thumb salve. It was odd to have such a hyper-local, small storefront amid commercial, many cruise line-owned, retail stores, but I love that it was there.
We then headed over to Salt, probably the highest-end restaurant in Juneau. We started with a local butter lettuce salad and then moved on to local roasted gold beets and scallops with sea asparagus, which was delicious.
Salmon was predictably on every menu and is one of the backbones of the Alaskan economy. On one of the sunny days we were so lucky to have, my sister and I went kayaking on Amaga Bay. We got down to the water and were in awe of the 80 or so commercial fishing vessels. Each season the state’s fish and game department take a count of the salmon starting on their journey upstream and then determine when, where and for how long boats can lower their nets into the water. The announcement had gone out that salmon chum fishing would be open for three days and boats raced to the bay. As we lowered our boat into the water giant salmon were jumping and flopping all around us. We paddled out into open water and found ourselves in the middle of the action navigating around skiffs taking huge nets out to encircle the fish and hope for a big payoff. This was the last day of fishing that closed in just a few hours, so it seemed like boats were even more aggressive that usual (I don’t have anything to compare this to except episodes of The Deadliest Catch).
Kayakers have the right away and we soon became braver going right over the net buoys stretched out across the ocean to make our way to an island that was our destination. While at Whole Foods Market, it was my job to tell these stories about where our food comes from. Here I was in the thick of the action and at the source of my food. It was awesome.
Foraging and selling foraged product is completely legal in the state of Alaska, which brings in a unique component to the local food scene. There is a thriving community garden in the valley with a waiting list for plots to grow hearty vegetables over the Alaska summer (not super sunny, but 16 hour days help).
There is also an attitude among locals of survival that includes not letting anything go to waste and bartering for what they need rather than just going out and buying it. There was a great article in Edible Alaska about The Rookery Cafe using spent grain from a local Amalga Distillery to make bread and the distillery using leftover pickling brine from the cafe for cocktails. Alaska does have several local programs through the state economic development division including the Buy the Bear campaign indicating at least 51% of the materials are produced in the state as well as an Alaska Grown and Alaska Seafood icons to indicate food produced in the state. I don’t know how much the tourists filing off cruise ships are looking for local food options, but I would venture that buying local is top of mind for those that call Juneau home. When your friends and neighbors are a part of catching, making and growing your food, it would be hard to look them in the eye if you didn’t support them with your local food dollar. And that is a lesson we can definitely apply to those who grow and make our food in Colorado, or where ever you call home.