One should never underestimate the value of having friends whose first reaction, when you tell them you need two In-N-Out burgers FedExed from Los Angeles to New York by the next morning, is to ask, “Regular or Double-Double?” These are the kind of people with whom you’d be happy to share either a foxhole or a beer, the kind you know would be willing to follow you into any drunkenly conceived, willfully contrary, possibly wrongheaded, and certainly obnoxious scheme you’d manage to dream up. I happen to have such friends (their names are Oliver and Sarah), and I happened to have had such a scheme. It was this: To get as many foods as possible, from all over the world, sent overnight via FedEx to my home in Brooklyn.
The idea came to me in the midst of one of those morose funks that occur after coming home from a long trip. In this case, I had just returned from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was moping about the house, dreaming of days spent stuffing myself with a mix of Chinese, Indian, and Malay delicacies unavailable anywhere else in the world.
Or were they? I suddenly thought, snapping awake. Unavailable? What did that even mean in these modern times? After all, there is a network of couriers crisscrossing the globe twenty-four hours a day and promising that anything can be anywhere within a matter of hours. So if I craved a bowl of pork noodles of the sort sold on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, why would I need to do something as old-fashioned as actually visiting Kuala Lumpur? International shipping may be pricey, but as a way to stay connected to the tastes of the planet during lean times, it seems downright affordable.
But hold on, I hear you say, doesn’t this fly in the face of every single thing going on in the food world? Aren’t all right-minded eaters supposed to be eating locally, seasonally, and sustainably, with exquisite sensitivity to each ingredient’s provenance, genetic heritage, and carbon footprint?
Well, yes. And the truth is that this made the prospect all the sweeter. It’s not that I don’t believe in local and seasonal eating. Clearly, the food revolution of the past two decades has made eating in America a better experience for mouth, belly, and conscience alike. The thing is, the revolutionaries have won. Ask any young chef for his or her culinary philosophy and you’ll hear localandseasonal rattled off so fast the actual words lose all meaning. Even behemoths like McDonald’s and Walmart have made concessions to the values of Alice Waters and Michael Pollan.
Obviously, the local eating orthodoxy can produce some astonishing food. At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Dan Barber’s restaurant-cum-farm in Westchester County, New York, I had a midwinter dinner that, as far as I could tell, eschewed even such alien ingredients as lemon and black pepper. The meal was very beige and utterly transcendent. But like any other true belief that morphs into a tired buzzword, it’s worth taking a step back to note how, in the hands of lesser talents, this one may be abused: by the restaurateurs who believe that having a chalkboard menu crammed with farm names is more important than such incidentals as serving well-prepared, delicious food. By the chefs who equate the word local with a chance to up a dish’s price by $10. By those who would deny us the joy of acknowledging that we live in a gastronomic Age of Miracles. (Tomatoes in January? In biblical times, you could get five or six apostles for less.) And by the just plain silly; it was about the time that my local bar started listing Blue Diamond Almonds on its snack menu with the added parenthetical “(Sacramento)” that it became clear that local, seasonal, and their attendant food pieties had jumped the line-caught, fair-trade, National Marine Fisheries Service-approved mako shark.
And the fact remains that, at Blue Hill, I had paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege of enacting a massive historical reversal. For the rest of human existence, as Felipe Fernández-Armesto points out in Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food, one mark of a great empire has been the diversity of its ingredients and the distances they traveled to get to the elite. The Greeks and Romans filled their tables with spices, fruits, and fish from the farthest reaches of their dominions. Peter the Great had oysters brought to then landlocked Russia from thousands of miles away, packed in sawdust and hay. The British once cooled their gin-and-tonics in Calcutta with ice cut from Massachusetts ponds.
Moreover, the movement of food across vast distances is literally the story of civilization: Science, mathematics, religion, language—all were carried around the world in ships’ holds filled with breadfruit, amid camel caravans carrying spices, even (or especially) in shipping containers crammed with frozen McDonald’s beef. Locavore may have been the 2007 New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year, but there’s already been a word for those whose diets are restricted to seasonal items grown in their immediate area: That word is peasant.
Which, anyway, is what I told myself at 8:30 A.M. when the doorbell rang and I signed for a miraculous purple-white-and-orange package containing two slightly wilted but—or was it my imagination?—still warm In-N-Out Double-Doubles.
here were my criteria: I would only order foods that were distinctly of their place. They would have to be meals—prepared dishes that, in the past, I would have been obliged to travel to distant lands to taste, or taste again. My dream list included bollito misto from Ristorante Diana in Bologna, Italy—dripping cuts of meat boiled together in a rich stock and served with spicy fruit mustards; muffuletta sandwiches from New Orleans’s Central Grocery Co.; Allen & Son Barbeque’s North Carolina pulled pork; parsley-and-marrow salad from St. John Restaurant in London; tonkatsu from Tokyo; the Malaysian noodles.
I suppose I expected the food purveyors of the world to hear my plan, join hands, sing a round of “It’s a Small World,” and make haste for the nearest FedEx drop box. This may have been a touch naive. For one thing, I do not know the words for “obnoxious scheme” in Italian or Japanese. Even in English, the mission proved a hard sell. “That is not something we could possibly do,” the general manager of St. John politely told me. A Bolognese friend living in Brazil burned up his Skype account trying to find a willing partner for me in Italy. “How to FedEx a bollito misto…this is a very difficult thing to explain,” he reported sorrowfully. My contact in Toulouse, France, from whom I’d hoped to procure some cassoulet, had only this to say: “Clearly you are not familiar with the French.”
Old Europe, though, was nothing compared with the legal issues here at home. The great traders of old dealt with sandstorms and tsunamis; they crossed mountain ranges and dodged pirates. My challenge was to navigate something called the Animal Product Manual, a publication of the United States Department of Agriculture. I would have rather had pirates.
At 931 pages, filled with more acronyms than a Tom Clancy novel and more appendixes than a hospital Dumpster, the APM suggests a national strategy of protectionism through sheer confusion. The regulations on receiving gifts of food from foreign countries are buried somewhere among categories like “Powdered Bird Guano That Lacks Certification” and “Commercial Importations of Cooked Meat or Meat Products of Poultry and Fowl from a Country or Region of Origin Known to Be Free from HPAI (H5N1) but Affected with END.” What little I could decipher was not promising: Malaysia, it seemed, was, by USDA standards, a veritable pit of disease, home to “Classical Swine Fever, Exotic Newcastle Disease, Foot and Mouth Disease, Highly Contagious Avian Influenza and Swine Vesicular Disease.” It was amazing I’d even gotten out alive. Sweden was hardly better. That meant that, even for those dishes allowed into the United States, each ingredient would need to be accompanied by reams of paperwork. When I got USDA senior staff veterinarian Christopher Robinson on the phone to assess my plan, he cut handily through the bureaucrat-speak: “I’d say it was pretty much impossible,” he said.
Indeed, while I can’t vouch for dirty bombs, bales of heroin, or hordes of illegal aliens, I can report that our nation is perfectly safe from rogue shipments of suckling pig. That’s what I had coming in from the restaurant Ibu Oka in Ubud, Bali, where the pigs are stuffed to bursting with shallots, garlic, lemongrass, and chilies, bathed in coconut oil, and then hand-turned before a blazing pyre of coffee branches. The beauty of that description left customs agents at JFK unmoved: The shipment was destroyed. Likewise the noodles from KL. And a shipment of cotechino and tortellini from Italy. I began picturing my house as one of those little bases in Missile Command: Packages of delicious food came arcing toward my door from around the world, only to get zapped at the last moment by authorities at various ports of entry.
clearly, another approach was needed. But while I plotted, I contented myself with domestic goodies.
I am convinced that we are evolutionarily equipped with a gene that makes us forget the taste of North Carolina barbecue, just so we continue to eat lesser foods in between pulled-pork sandwiches. The tub of Allen & Son pulled pork that showed up at my door was every bit as good in Brooklyn as it had been the last time I’d gorged on it at the restaurant’s vinyl-covered tables in Chapel Hill. In college my friends and I had stonedly fantasized about being able to be faxed a pizza. This wasn’t quite that level of instant gratification, but it was damned close. Even the hush puppies worked well when reheated, though owner and eponymous “Son” Keith Allen had categorically refused to send coleslaw, saying it wouldn’t survive the trip in a condition up to Allen & Son standards. “Sometimes I worry about you northern boys,” he told me.
From New Orleans came the muffuletta, a stacked sheaf of sliced Italian meats and sharp provolone stuck between enormous rounds of bread and topped with olive relish. Central Grocery would only send frozen batches of three, but they arrived in surprisingly perfect shape. From New Mexico came a Tupperware container of green-chili enchiladas from a legendary shack of a diner called El Farolito; from Kansas City, Missouri, an order of Arthur Bryant’s “burnt ends,” the most grizzled, succulent parts of a smoked brisket.
When a friend said, “You’re pretty much obliged to get something from Chez Panisse,” a shiver went up my spine. Alice Waters’s Berkeley restaurant is considered the very cradle of the localandseasonal movement. When I asked them to FedEx me a dinner, I was told, with just a hint of Northern California frost, “We don’t do takeout.” Undeterred, I dragooned a friend who happened to be visiting the Bay Area into visiting for dinner, ordering an extra entrée, and then shipping me the doggie bag. The short ribs with polenta were delicious but unmistakably tinged with guilt. I felt like I had just peed on Jacques Pépin.
Meanwhile I thought I’d solved my international-shipping issues. It occurred to me that the USDA doesn’t police fish, so I switched to an all-seafood menu, carefully avoiding any knowledge of ingredients like chicken stock and butter to preserve deniability when it came to customs forms. From Stockholm’s great fish emporium, Melanders Fisk, I ordered fatty Baltic herring—strömming—pickled, and then breaded and fried. Then I breathlessly watched the FedEx tracking page. Sure enough, after a short delay at JFK, the package was released. Emboldened, my Malaysian contact and I switched to a noodle dish that seemed to pass the USDA test—prawn mee, a deeply spicy, complex seafood soup. I watched as it was picked up in KL, cleared Malaysian customs, and took wing across the Pacific. The next morning, it reached Anchorage and then…stopped, held for inspection.
The herring, on the other hand, had arrived accompanied by tiny plastic containers of dill-laced mashed potatoes, lingonberry preserves, and drawn butter. (Oops.) It was delicious, but standing and eating in my kitchen, once the FedEx man had departed, I felt my vague misgivings begin to solidify. Was the strömming really as good as when I’d had it as a picnic on an island just north of Stockholm, drenched in sunshine and surrounded by happy, pink vacationing families? By the same token, the muffuletta had been a fantastic sandwich, but did it really measure up to the one I’d had in New Orleans years before—the time I’d snuck out of the hotel while my girlfriend napped to greedily down a sandwich between the second of two lunches and a dinner at Galatoire’s? Cervantes may have said that hunger was the best sauce, but context runs a close second.
I was even more conflicted about the dishes from places I hadn’t been. For years I’d planned on making the trip to Kansas City to visit Arthur Bryant’s. Now, why would I ever go to Kansas City? Or to the lonely high-desert crossroads where El Farolito sits? Even the massive carbon footprint of the sourdough loaf I’d had sent from San Francisco wasn’t quite enough to assuage my melancholy at having never been to San Francisco. I wondered if Peter the Great dreamt of standing knee-deep in the Atlantic, gathering his own oysters.
This, I realized, is the dark side of the miracle of everything, everywhere, all the time—something we experience in realms well beyond food. Once upon a time, I would wait for the chance to hear Bessie Banks’s original version of “Go Now.” Banks’s version would come on the radio about once every two years. Each time I happened to catch it, I would all but have to pull the car over to let her stirring, wounded vocal wash over me. Now, of course, I own a digital copy of the song, but I have to keep it off my iTunes playlist for fear of it popping up on shuffle too often and losing all meaning.
For that matter, there’s the rush of emotion that occurs every time a long-lost friend suddenly pops up on Facebook, which is so frequently that I’ve been forced to either stop caring or lose whole days in a paralysis of nostalgic reverie. For all its legitimate political, environmental, and gastronomic rationales, it may be that the localandseasonal movement is more about this, ultimately conservative, impulse than anything else—a self-protective retrenchment in the face of too much available data.
i had one more free-floating bit of data out there, one more missile aimed at my front door. Day after day, I tracked the status of my prawn mee, greeted each time by the dread message: clearance delay. By the time it arrived, it had been a week since it was packed, some 10,000 miles away.
Unwilling to give up the dream, I called the Customs and Border Protection office in Anchorage. Had the package been refrigerated? I asked the woman who picked up the phone. No, she said, it had probably just sat in a fenced-in portion of the warehouse.
Hmm. What temperature would she say it was?
“Um, this is Alaska. It’s pretty cold,” she said. “I sometimes wear a sweater in there.”
Dear reader, is it weird that I still thought long and hard about eating the soup? Even though the package was starting to smell downright funky? Well, consider this: The last time I’d smelled prawn mee had been at a sidewalk market filled with all kinds of smells—cooking meat, fermented fish paste, ripe-to-bursting melons, tropical flowers. Maybe the funky aroma had been just one perfectly healthy note in the symphony? More to the point, isn’t that where it belonged?
I’d like to think that it was this, rather than fear of salmonella, that brought my experiment to an end. I took a deep breath and dumped the soup down the sink. I took care to bale up the FedEx box for recycling. Then I went out for a slice of pizza.