Simon Preston noticed that most areas of Britain don’t have a vibrant food culture. Besides obvious place-tied dishes—things like Cornish pasties—few other dishes had a distinctive regional trademark. In an article at the Guardian, Preston writes that many Brits have developed a rather globally encompassing attitude toward food:
We’re a population that grazes dishes from across the world and, for the most part, we feel no more connected to a local dish than we do to a curry. When travelling abroad, we’re quite taken with the regional dishes that appear again and again, but closer to home, local food culture is still a fairly new idea, mostly driven by the trend-led efforts of creative chefs and encouraged by food hobbyists.
Eating international cuisine isn’t a problem—but, as Preston points out, there are benefits to having a local food culture, as well. So he asks this interesting question: is it possible to invent a food culture in the 21st century? He decided to try and create one in the rural Aberdeenshire town of Huntly:
I set up a dining table and chairs in the supermarket and used tea and cake to entice shoppers to join me. Chattering families, reminiscing pensioners and bemused workers who had raced in for a ready meal shared their stories: how they came to Huntly, why they stayed, places they had loved and lost, ghost stories and tall tales.
… A huddle of local chefs gathered and soon, my dossier of local anecdotes became dishes. The ancient standing stones in the town square were represented in the positioning of prize-winning local haggis bonbons on a plate. Barley appeared in a risotto, which in turn referenced the Italian connection found in so many Scottish towns. A schoolgirl’s tale of a JK Rowling manuscript locked in the local police station safe inspired a Huntly Mess, made with local raspberries and whisky, and the Deveron river – a place where the town goes to play, to think, to celebrate and to court – brought local trout to one dish and a river bend slick of sauce to another.
The dishes began to catch on as local restaurants and pubs served them. Customers were delighted to see their stories and memories take gastronomic form. The food culture can, it seems, be invented from scratch.
It’s an interesting idea, especially for many American who have lost the culinary cultures of their past, due to the burgeoning influences of other cultures and food chains in their homelands. Excepting certain cities with distinctive gastronomic traditions, like New York City or Philadelphia, many American towns don’t have dishes to call their own. But as Preston points out, it’s never too late to begin examining local ingredients again: our states, counties, and cities offer us a wealth of history, terrain, crops, and animals with which to build a local food culture.
In the Idaho town where I grew up, corn and onion fields had a distinctive presence. Farmers grew a lot of alfalfa and mint, and there were orchards scattered here and there. We got fresh goat’s milk from one farmer, and fresh beef from another. My brothers raised chickens. There’s a local coffee roaster in the town beside us. There are a couple nearby lakes for fishing, and the Salmon River isn’t far off. It’s only a couple hour drive into the mountains, if you want fresh huckleberries.
There are also some incredible recipes, handed down over time, jotted on note cards in spidery script, that I would add to my local food culture: my grandmother’s baked beans, my aunt’s “mile-high biscuits,” grandpa’s barbecued chicken, my great-grandmother’s brown bread, and her much-coveted recipe for peach pie.
Many chefs here throughout the Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. area love to use local produce—and they have ample resources to work with. Farms in NOVA and Maryland feature high-quality and fantastic tasting produce. With these resources, it’s entirely possible to create and curate a local flavor, to showcase the parts of your culture that are distinctively local.
Of course, this isn’t meant to demean the rich international traditions that influence our various cities—in Idaho’s capitol, Boise, there’s an entire Basque district, with its own distinctive (and incredible) food culture. Outside D.C., in Annandale, Virginia, there’s a significant Korean immigrant population, and the restaurants there are fantastic. New York City’s immigrants are part of what give the city such incredible food. The point isn’t that imported ingredients and recipes are bad—to the contrary, they help form a vibrant local food culture. Without them, our regions wouldn’t have as much culinary color and vibrancy.
But foods that are chosen from local ingredients also have a distinctive story. Whether invented or preserved, local foods help define, and give flavor, to our places. That’s why Preston invented a food culture, and why I have the beginnings of mine.
What’s your local food culture?