Regional, Local and Traditional

22 Sep

Rachel here!  Recently we sent our loyal Locavore Challenge registrants (still time–click here to say, “I’m a Locavore, too!”) a tip of the day that encouraged them to interview friends and family about their food traditions.  While I didn’t do that on the particular day, and I’m late in writing this essay (which is what it’s turned into), I DO think traditional food is so interesting. I’ve written about my grandfather’s insistence on simple but classic food.  He was the one that once, in the manner that a drug pusher might, opened up the fridge and pulled out a mysterious jar of dark goo.  He said it was the darkest maple syrup, the really good stuff.  We kept Aunt Jemima on the table for my grandmother, but some of us dared to spoon (no, SCOOP) some dark, probably-meant-as-cooking-grade syrup onto our own pancakes.  He knew real food.  My dear mother (who reads these posts faithfully, and thinks I write them all–mom, hi, this one IS me) fed her two young athletic vegetarian children lots of pasta with sauce and alternated it with chips and cheese and rice and beans and veggies piled in the middle.  We had to try everything we were given, and I don’t remember refusing veggies except for salad.  Obviously that changed.  I somehow became addicted to veggies and to cooking elaborate food and she patiently (maybe eventually gratefully) stepped aside to let me run the kitchen–messes and delayed dinner times included.  The first week of September I was able to cook many meals for her using Maine-grown produce while we were on vacation there.  We ate lots of corn (still in season up there) and cole slaw and seafood and pies and treats of all sorts.  Not all local ingredients, but strongly rooted in tradition.  Cole slaw, for instance.  It COULD have all been local, and probably started out as a regional food in the Northeast because cabbage is such a champion grower, eggs for mayonnaise could be easily found, and because it’s such a great flavor pair for fish.  I think that’s the point of this post as I set out to write it.

Regional Downeast Maine food–lobster, mussels, cole slaw, corn, cornbread, potato salad. All local-able and in this case, likely it was actually locally sourced down to the veggies.

When thinking about a food that’s tied to a place by people, local ingredients are an obvious choice–a lot to do with convenience, a lot to do with flavor, a lot to do with knowing the farmer, and a lot to do with nothing else being available at a good quality or price, until recent strange product-chain “developments” changed that.  The recipes remain, and it’s up to the cook or chef to find the ingredient–we, as locavores, can seek out the local foods that make those recipes what they used to be!  I remember some fancy NY Italian restaurant getting a lot of press for not importing Italian ingredients.  The chefs put it plainly that REAL Italian food uses mostly what’s local because it tastes the best.  Things like olive oil and particular spices and ingredients were still imported.

That’s why I (and so many of us) love traveling–the first thing I do, often before I even reach my destination, is look for a farm stand or market, regardless of country or county.  (New York, by the way, is a minefield.  My work trips usually end up with a backseat full of produce rolling around.  It’s not that different from my Rochester produce, but I love to find the early crops in the Hudson Valley or the late ones up north.)  To learn about other food traditions when I can’t travel, I spend a LOT of time reading cookbooks as if they were textbooks.  I’m not talking about the cookbooks that don’t seem to feel uncomfortable putting a mid-winter storage crop with a tender summer herb, page after page.  I’m talking about cookbooks that generally call out a country or region of the US, or region of the world, and then use that “regional” descriptor.  We’re in a great age when a lot of these reference materials (cookbooks, if you must) are available to us.  My public library is full of gems.  The best ones have long descriptions of the region’s climate, and recipes that make you nod your head thinking, oh I could get most of those ingredients at one time.  Many recipes seem stupid-simple, but they’re included because that’s the traditional way.  There are nuances in the techniques that tie that list of ingredients to that tradition.  A basket of green peppers, tomatoes, onions and carrots means something to different cooks in different cultures.   A hard thing for me, personally, is to stick to recipes that seem to simple.  To actually measure things.  I know the traditional cooks don’t do that, but clearly someone studied what a grandma or grandpa did and tried to record it for all time, and for a reason…so I try to follow a recipe closely when I’m world-eating.

I happened to be working my way through a Turkish regional cookbook recently.  Turkey must be amping its tourism efforts lately as everyone but me seems to be going there.  When I go, I’ll be ready to find all those interesting ingredients and foods I’ve read about.  Reading this book, I kept nodding my head to the ingredient lists and simple recipes.  Everything seemed to fit with seasons in New York (except lentils, which need a long dry summer that NY just doesn’t guarantee).  I wondered, is Turkey like New York, growing-conditions wise?  I am a plant scientist, after all.  So then I looked up this map of world climates:

Seems like if you eliminate the fact that New York is a “snow” region, we aren’t too far different from the climate around the Black Sea.  While I love to learn about food traditions around the world and sometimes get lucky with a recipe that uses co-seasonal ingredients (I made that term up), I don’t anticipate such an exact match up.  I didn’t realize that this cuisine, regardless of region within the country, would be so vegetable-grain-legume heavy.  I could source and cook these recipes with the greatest of ease!  Turkey, where had you been all my life?  Right there, I suppose, changing your name from Constantinople to Istanbul…but still.  It was cool to find out that the Black Sea region is heavily cornmeal-focused, even down to their standard bread.  Now, as a Pennsylvania girl, I can get behind corn and cornmeal!  Great that we also have several organic NY grain corn (not sweet corn…which also is amazing) growers and millers.  I learned that many of the soups from that region, including those that use now-abundant chard and leafy greens, have this added step of toasting cornmeal in a dry skillet and adding the nutty thickener to the soup right at the end.  I tried this right away-definitely a new trick for my arsenal.  A cool thing about New York is that we have all four seasons.  In winter, we can learn about Russian food traditions and get into beet-y borschts.  In summer, we can use our plates to travel to South America and Asia, with a few spices thrown in, thanks to Marco Polo rules of Locavorism.

United Noshes is a great blog for this sort of experiment, as is Global Table Adventure.  These blogs are starting points and interesting, but I think cookbooks do more thorough work due to the nature of the medium.  Perennial Plate does some very honest and captivating work, and they toured through New York last year!

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One Response to “Regional, Local and Traditional”

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  1. Reach Out: Your #Locavore Friends are Waiting! | NY Locavore Challenge - September 8, 2013

    […] not think of this challenge as anything but normal.  That’s where traditional foods and regional cuisine comes from–what used to be the best things to eat in that place and time.  If you’re […]

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