We don't need a whole lot of excuses to buy local. It's one of the few issues on which Republicans, Unitarians, Rotarians, and vegetarians seem to agree. Buying local is good. There aren't many things that help both the environment and the economy, but that's one of them.
"If you're a small business, it's nice to think we're all in a community supporting each other," says chef Bruce Bogartz, who makes a point of buying local for his restaurant, Bogartz. "We're regional cuisine, and it's hard to serve regional cuisine without using regional produce."
Obviously, when you buy local, you help the local economy. The food-production industry employs about 3,000 in the Knoxville MSA: that's the food factories alone, not counting farmers, grocery or restaurant employees.
As a nutritionist, Connie Whitehead's main concern is freshness. "But think of all the money exported out of the region. Think of how it would be if we could keep that here." In buying local, we help keep unemployment down, which in turn keeps the crime rate down and property values up. You increase local tax collections for local public projects.
And when you buy local, you don't have to deal as much with creepy multinational corporations. Archer Daniels Midland, "Supermarket To the World," is one of our biggest food suppliers; their products are in many, perhaps most of the products we buy in Knoxville supermarkets. No matter how much they offer to charitable concerns, ADM may never live down the bizarre price-fixing scandals of the '90s, when executives were routinely colluding to make hundreds of millions from unsuspecting consumers; the FBI caught one executive on tape, declaring, "the customer is our enemy." The only way to avoid rewarding that sort of thinking is to buy from people you know and trust.
Buying local also minimizes interstate transportation and the complicated and sometimes terrifying costs we pay for it. Studies estimate that, by the time you buy it, the average American food item has traveled 1,300 miles from its source. If you rely mainly on out-of-region products, you can't really get too angry at the big-rig truckers who speed down the interstate and bear down on you from behind, flooding your car with bright lights as they tailgate you down each hill. Bless their hearts, they're trying to get your favorite faraway products to you as fast as possible. At the grocery next week, you may be buying something that was on that truck.
Those trucks on the interstate are also using lots and lots of oil, and our demand for it tends to get our nation entangled in all sorts of unsavory situations. It's safe to say that a certain percentage of any gasoline or diesel bill goes to support undemocratic regimes that we might, under any other circumstances, bomb.
Regardless of how guilty anybody feels about that, it's just possible that the U.S. will one day choose to stop supporting alleged sponsors of international terrorism. If we do, we'll see gasoline prices go through the roof, and with it the price of long-distance goods, including most of our food.
"The way our food systems are right now, we're highly vulnerable," says nutritionist Whitehead. "And I don't mean just after Sept. 11; I've been saying this for years." She says only a few corporations, including ADM, control most of America's food market.
Author and UT philosophy professor John Nolt, well known for his stands on environmental causes, shops from a farm stand on Chapman Highway. "One hundred years ago, this region could feed itself," he says. However, regardless of East Tennessee's prodigious production of produce, 40 percent of Knox County's fresh fruits and vegetables here in Knox County come from California. Nolt sees several things wrong with that picture, not the least of which is civic vulnerability.
"There's definitely a potential for terrorist disruptions," he says, citing an Oak Ridge study which suggested that terrorist attacks on only two or three interstate bridges over the Mississippi River could seriously disrupt America's supply lines, especially in the East.
"It's just prudent to have your own food supply," he says.
He also doesn't like what buying across regions does to the environment. "It increases our dependence on the 18-wheeler," he says. "It wastes energy. It causes pollution, global warming, ozone depletion. And it gets us involved in oil wars."
To Whitehead, a self-confessed "foodist," food is more than mere sustenance. "Look at Thanksgiving. Food is an important part of our culture. Two things create our culture," she says: "food and art. Would we let these five corporations control our art? We let them control our food."
Which is all the more reason to buy local.
THE LOCAL THANKSGIVING
Is there such thing as a local Thanksgiving dinner? Yes, but only if you're open-minded enough to break some national habits.
Turkey, the one staple of the American Thanksgiving, is tough to find in this neck of the woods, much harder than it was a couple of generations ago.
Time was when local farmers would sell fresh-killed turkeys on Market Square. The big corporations and suburban sprawl have squeezed the old turkey farmers out of Knox County, even out of East Tennessee. According to poultry patriarch Joe McKenry, perhaps Knoxville's most venerable authority on the poultry industry, the supermarkets have made it impossible for the little turkey farmer to survive; every holiday, groceries sell turkeys at cost or even less just to get the housewives into the store.
We looked into the regional poultry market, and heard some rumors of a turkey distributor in central North Carolina, about 300 miles from here, but we're not even sure those are local turkeys. You could always hunt one down—wild turkeys are still spotted hereabouts, even in Knox County—but as for a factory-fattened Tennessee turkey on sale at your grocery, you may be out of luck.
The ever-resourceful Chef Bruce Bogartz suggests an option. Here in Knoxville, ham was once at least as popular as a centerpiece as turkey. Over the years, pork has also dwindled in supply in East Tennessee, but Bogartz says there's nothing better than Allan Benton's country hams in Madisonville. For Thanksgiving, though, he recommends Benton's smoked pork roast.
Bogartz is, by the way, offering some of his own creations as "Thanksgiving To Go" side dishes: one example is pumpkin bisque with duck cracklings and brie. But for those who want to do their own cooking while still relying on local sources, it wouldn't hurt to serve that pork roast with some sautéed Monterrey Mushrooms.
Fortunately for us, sweet potatoes, with or without marshmallows, are a hallowed Thanksgiving side dish, and they do grow here. As of last week, Connie Whitehead reports, you could get local sweet potatoes at the Knox County Regional Farmers' Market and at the West Knox Farmers' Market, and for the unprejudiced, ones from Alabama at Pratt's on Tazewell Pike and Sherrill Perkins' stand on Market Square.
There is, alas, no such thing as a local cranberry, and there probably never had been. They're grown in special cranberry bogs in the Northeast. Several canned East Tennessee products regularly appear on Thanksgiving relish dishes, like watermelon pickles, corn relish, and chow-chow.
And, of course, a lot of that relish might go well with some Sweetwater cheddar cheese.
You can also finds fresh apples from North Carolina, Virginia, and our own Jefferson County at Knoxville farmer's markets; fried with some sugar, they make a worthy holiday side dish.
Then, for a green vegetable, some steamed kale, collard, turnip, or mustard greens, many of them from right around here in Knox County and available at most farmers' markets, especially Perkins' stand on Market Square, which is most predictably open on Fridays (but Wednesday this week).
Fill it out with some festive bread of your choice from Hogan's or Kern's. Wash it all down with some milk from Mayfield or Cruze's—or for the more daring, even a bottle of Tennessee Valley Wine.
And for dessert, of course, some pumpkin pie—the Knox County Regional Farmers' Market was selling pie pumpkins last week—or, as some prefer, butternut squash pie. Finish it off with some JFG coffee and maybe some dark chocolate from the South's Finest Chocolate Factory, which manufactures and sells chocolate in Knoxville—and you've got the makings of a new tradition.