Thursday, June 12, 2008

Local, but Not From Here

There has been a very interesting discussion among the participants of One Local Summer about what defines a diet as local. Joy has a lovely post outlining some of the most central issues. For example, she discusses the conflict between buying nonlocal organic versus local nonorganic, nonlocal grassfed versus local grainfed, locally milled or packaged but not locally grown grains and beans, etc. I recommend her totally non-preachy exploration of these issues.

We are lucky enough to have access to several different all-local farmers markets, organic-style (meaning not always certified) produce from our CSA and several booths, and an organic-style pasture-fed farm source for meat and dairy products. We even can get maple sugar, maple syrup, honey, candles, and soap at our local farmers market.

Grain has not been nearly so easy. This year we bought some non-local bulk grain and a small hand-cranked grain mill--and what we produce from that we count in our local diet--but this is not necessarily something everybody else would allow.

We've also allowed ourselves--no, encouraged ourselves--to buy local foods in the places we travel. We've brought home rice and tea from South Carolina, grits and chow-chow from North Carolina, peanuts from Virginia, maple syrup and cheese from Vermont, current cordial from Quebec, and wine from the state of Washington. Are these local? They were when we bought them... Does that count? Well, it does for us.

* * *

Buying local foods supports one's local economy and helps it further develop. If the local food is from the places we are visiting, it still supports the local economy there. If our major issue is creating food security where we live, channeling money into other localities does not help at all--but obviously it is important to help others create food security where they are. So we feel pretty good about our purchases--in addition to enjoying one of the most tangible expressions of the culture of these other places: food.

Eating local also reduces the amount of petroleum products that have to be used up to bring us food from around the world which is out of season for us or that cannot be (or just isn't) grown here. When we bring home food from vacation or buy grain in bulk from a non-local source, we're adding in that petroleum, although perhaps there is an argument that the oil is not as high as it might be otherwise. I'm not sure about that, though.

One of the things I'm most drawn to is the goal of making my purchases from non-corporate sources, whether they are local or not. Although there are a few very large food companies that are located in our area, we typically don't count their food as truly local.

* * *

All these issues swim around in my head when I contemplate ordering online tepary beans. The beans, deeply local to the place from which I order, will be trucked and trained across the United States to my doorway. This is not in our local diet rules--but in a way much more profound than are the greenhouse tomatoes that show up in early June in Maryland, these beans are indeed local.

Tepary beans, once a staple in the Sonoran Desert and throughout Mesoamerica, are one of North America's oldest native crops and are now members of Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste. They have been cultivated for more than 8,000 years. You can read more about the history of this crop in Gary Paul Nabhan's wonderful Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods and also his Gathering the Desert.

Tepary beans are considered by many to be the most drought-tolerant annual legume in the world. They are capable of producing a harvest of beans with a single rain in the harshest conditions. When irrigated, they produce higher yields only up to a certain point, after which excess moisture becomes a detriment and leads to overproduction of foliage and low bean production. In fact, it appears that moisture stress is necessary to trigger fruiting. As water shortages become a reality in many parts of the U.S. and around the world, teparies can play an important role in dryland agriculture. In fact, tepary cultivation is now taking place in dry areas of Africa and is being revived in southern Arizona where it was quite common as recently as seventy years ago.

The tepary bean has a higher protein content (23–30%) than common beans such as pinto, kidney, navy, and even soy. It also has higher levels of calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and potassium. While higher in all of these desired nutrients, tepary beans are lower in polyunsaturated fat and in the anti-enzymatic compounds which make common beans hard to digest.

Many native people in the Sonora Desert once depended on teparies along with other high fiber and mucilaginous foods, such as cactus and mesquite, as dietary staples. As these native people gradually abandoned their native foods and embraced a highly-processed "Western" diet, type-2 diabetes diagnoses soared. In some native populations, diabetes is fifteen times the national average. Tepary beans seem to be an ideal food for people prone to diabetes (or living with diabetes) since tepary bean sugars are released slowly and steadily. Many reservations in southern Arizona have re-embraced the tepary bean and now cultivate the beans for their own use, as well as for sale to support the community.

The teparies we have are from a community- based organization dedicated to creating cultural revitalization, community health and sustainable development within the Tohono O'odham Nation. The Tohono O'odham (formerly known as Papago) Nation sits in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, sixty miles west of Tucson, Arizona. Approximately 18,000 of the tribe's 24,000 members live on this main section of the Tohono O'odham Reservation.

Check out Heritage Foods USA for the sale of this product and other community-supporting foods.


Madeline said...

Great post! I agree with you. We make a point of buying and bringing home from wherever we are on vacation. I also think that it is not a black and white issue. It takes being conscious and having common sense. I had never heard of these beans. Thanks for sharing the info.

Carrie K said...

I keep thinking of the Spice Trade and how very fraught with danger that was, how so few were able to afford it.

And now we have the opposite problem.

Great post! Vacation buying is still local. Shipping car pool? Close enough.

el said...

One word of caution regarding tepary beans: they commonly carry the common mosaic virus, which could easily spread to other bean plants. Believe me I am not saying this to stop you because I am a fool for weird veg, especially if it has a cool's just something you might want to be aware of if you are considering them. I am a bean fiend and even a threat of the BCMV stops me from teparies!

(I agree with you re: the local stuff, too. My issue with local eating is dairy, but I have finally found a source I don't need to drive far to get, whew.)

The Purloined Letter said...

Thanks, El. I was planning to order them to eat this year--but I've been dreaming about planting them next year. We might get enough rain around here that they wouldn't work anyway. Your warning will be well heeded!

Do you know by any chance if Tiger Eye beans have similar problems?

rachelbess said...

Funny you should mention the tepary, I didn't know people outside of the Southwest even knew about it. I am in Phoenix and in the process of developing my native garden (to compliment the more conventional one) that will be full of plants like the tepary bean and amaranth etc. I'm doing it more out of practicality-- since we only get 8 or so inches of rain a year here, it makes sense to plant plants that are adapted to our climate so you aren't irresponsible with the water. I am curious to see how it will grow in places that actually get rain.

rachelbess said...

Oh-- also carries a variety that is called "Virus Free Yellow Tepary" it is what it sounds like, for those who are concerned about mosaic virus.

el said...

Well, good on those teparies! Tiger Eye should be no problem. I figured if the teparies carried BCMV it's because they've been grown so long and are now resistant. That's kind of cool, I think.

CG said...

and while I'm on the wrong post to comment this, try Gary Nabhan's of nativeseeds book, Coming Home to Eat. I thought Kingsolver's book terribly week (but then, she's local to me so I know more about who and what she is really dealing with and it is not literary to me, which everything in the SW, where Nabhan is, is).

I found this post very interesting because there is so much choice. I have a friend very into organic who eats WAY out of season and non-local seemingly without thought and it confuses me. But I'll eat hot dogs on occasion so who exactly am I to call the kettle black?

Which reminds me of another book, This Organic Life by somebody. It wasn't a great book but it provided a good structure to think about thing in. For example, she talked about not being averse to shipping things without much water in them and that you couldn't get locally. Eleutheros (but I don't remember on which blog of his) has talked about calorie miles instead of just "miles". There's much to be thoughtful about.

The Purloined Letter said...

CG--Wonderful point about shipping. This Organic Life is the first food-politics book I read, and it was one of the things that opened my eyes. I think it is time to pull it out again!

CG said...

also, please excuse my spelling. "week"? Puuleeez. And "thinking about thing"? ummm, sorry for the poor first impression.


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