In August 2002, a friend came over with a bucket of apricots gleaned from an undisclosed tree. Last week, the spicy apricot chutney we made turned out to be the icing on a culinary cake that came to fruition in the form of a sandwich.
But this story is about more than my sandwich. It’s about the possibility of local cuisine, a concept that here in Montana appears rarely to extend beyond fried cow balls and chicken fried steak. We’re not France, where centuries of careful experimentation with local ingredients has led to a legendary cuisine. But maybe, someday, our cuisine could rival that of France. 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 are 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 made of.
If you combine the above phrases, with a bit of verbal algebra you can arrive at the 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 Indian 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 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 in France, or Moscow.
Meanwhile, we all have the power—if not the responsibility—to ask 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 the apricot chutney we made, many things improve with age. And little steps accumulate. I’ll now explain the preparation of my sandwich, in the form of a timeline.
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 the Farmer’s Market; pickle them in cider vinegar.
October, 2003: Plant more garlic for summer, 2004.
November, 2003: Shoot deer.
April, 2004: Plant spinach and cilantro.
June 21, 2004: Solstice day. 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 week’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 vinegar from the pickled pepper jar and soy sauce on the meat. Let sit.
Heat grapeseed oil in the pan and add chopped bacon (from a farm down the valley). Fry meat—crispy on outside, rare inside. When it’s about half done, add garlic flowers and spinach around the meat; stir-fry in the grease.
Toast bread. Spread apricot chutney on one slice, mayo on the other. Remove meat 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 in place. 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, and where there are chickens, there is mayonnaise—not to mention chicken fried steak!
Maybe you should 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.