Filaments from China

It’s been a while since I’ve been here. Long enough for the meyer lemons at the market to have eclipsed pale yellow and waxed into orange, ripening beyond tart. Long enough to have nearly forgotten what it was like to have a lesser president, to have forgotten the times when NPR didn’t wake me up in the morning with a reminder that the world is crashing down around us. Enough, even, for an entire academic quarter to have passed, shifting from blissfully free (I can write for fun all the time!) to preoccupied (I would write for fun, but I’ve really got to think about that paper due in five weeks) to currently inundated (those papers, due next week, don’t have a sentence to their titles). This last frantic phase, however, is also the coziest nook from which to write. Indeed, to write for fun.

I’ve also moved since I’ve last been here, to a city within a city where the 10 freeway unravels itself into the Pacific—Santa Monica—and I’ve been dutifully filling the extra bit of space in my now-roomier freezer with a winter’s worth of lumpy leftover scones and the remnants of multi-day chocolate chip cookie experiments. And I’ve been squinting one eye at the dwindling stack of vintage jarred stone fruit in the corner of my open pantry shelves, staving off fret with a solemn intuition that the stack will be built again soon. Berry jams and all that.

I had a craving for first-of-the-season strawberries the other day, and though chilly nights are lingering on for now, the jasmine is in fragrant bloom here and root vegetables no longer feel obligatory. And it’s just about the only time of year when the rain clouds lazily drift on in once each week or so, carrying with them on their way east the particulate matter typically suspended in the air over this corner of Los Angeles. I don’t really know where the matter goes from here, however sorry I am to whomever has to receive it. But I’m pretty sure of the fact that some of this matter begins its life as filaments spewed from factories in China. We are well-reminded when the air clears of these Chinese imports that Southern California has mountains in its midst (no, definitely not hills), still crowned with white, that seem to rise where Wilshire traffic drives off into the vanishing point. Of course, everyone knows that Wilshire actually ends at the Pacific and doesn’t nearly reach these mountains. But for a brief moment, when my morning bus pauses at the stop sign to cross Ocean Park Boulevard (which also ends in the Pacific), I can turn my head quick enough from west to east to see both the ocean and the suspended snowy mountains that float as if part of a backdrop for a Nepalese film. This Janus-inspired view anchors my small-town neighborhood to the sprawling metropolis that sometimes feels like an endless abstraction to me when I can’t see the mountains that form the farthest boundaries of this urban locality, and that allow the next terra cognita to begin.

How does one remain attentive to the global within the local economy? Darra Goldstein, editor of the chicly erudite journal Gastronomica, offered this question at the Tasting Histories conference I was attending last week (I have some more thoughts on this here, at Civil Eats).

Having spent nearly every weekend in college taking the NYC subways to the ends of the outer boroughs, on a perpetual scavenger hunt for the most obscure ethnic hole-in-the-walls, my life now by comparison could hardly be more local. Food from elsewhere (or eaten elsewhere) is a rare indulgence; nearly everyone who sells me what I eat I’ve greeted the week before. I walk to all of my food markets. The beans in my near-daily meal of dollied-up rice and beans are grown in Napa by Rancho Gordo; the indulgently sweet brown rice, by Lundberg Family Farm, also in Northern California. My yogurt and milk? Marin County. Every frilly green cabbage, golden beet, bunch of cilantro, and blood orange that’s taken up temporary residence in my refrigerator this winter? All local, by nearly anyone’s definition.

I’m not intending this grocery list as a point from which to gloat (though that is perhaps unavoidable by those of us who live in California during the otherwise cruelest months), but to raise the question of “so what?” Or less cynically, “now what?” Have I, after years of tweaking, finally found a lifestyle that affords me every opportunity to eat locally that I could ever want? If I’m supposed to feel rather self-satisfied, or satiated, I don’t really—I want to know what’s next. Sure there’s so much more work to be done, around Los Angeles even, if I thought everyone should be aspiring to the local food lifestyle that I seem to have nailed down (though I’m not entirely sure I think that). And I still have edibles in mind that might grow nicely on my property this summer, basil and lemongrass to beat out my farmer’s market’s herbs in food blocks. But I’m also interested in what life is like post-local, given that the “local” has been co-opted by the food authorities as a stand-in for the benevolent eating life, and is on its way to being applaud-worthy national rhetoric. But can we find a way to act globally in our local economies, and should we? Is there a benevolent global here in my neighborhood that doesn’t recall the particulate matter from China, that we don’t necessarily feel we have to resist with our proudly-purchased local roots and fruits?

One of my students sent me this note about two months ago, via email, after a class on industrial food systems and my closing rant on the importance of knowing where your food comes from. The timing of the comment now seems uncannily apropos, invoking hardship in a way that is no longer being tried on by the mainstream for show.

“Hello Ms. Jennifer:

A late thought that occurred to me after the discussion today: in some cultures, at least in my hometown (Cerritos, CA), which is predominantly Asian, it's normal for one to choose gifts for others that are imported from far-away places. I.e. It would be best to buy someone a packaged pear from Korea or Japan as opposed to buying one from California. I think the idea that the item came from a long distance away means that you care enough to give the receiver something that went out of its way to get here, and that you have enough status or are financially successful enough to afford and give away such an item. Giving domestically produced items as gifts may indicate financial hardship or apathy.”

I still don’t miss those filaments from China when they’re absent, nor will I let South American strawberries rid me of a craving that will only truly be contained by the impending arrival of the smallest, sweetest berries from Ventura. But I do like to recall this comment every now and then, especially when the mountains surface in the distance and my head turns to the ocean that crashes here where I dwell and I know that it's also crashing in someone else’s locality, very far away.