Are You Sure You’re Eating Local?

How the Global Spice Trade Facilitates the Flavors of Home

There is no doubt that the average consumer has become more aware of the origin of their food over the last few years. Between traditional media turning their sights on highlighting the vast amounts of food waste and foodies setting social media ablaze with hashtags related to local produce and livestock, you would have to live at the bottom of the ocean to escape the local food movement. Even if you did live on the seafloor, there is a good chance that a local kelp farmer would be pulling up baskets of shellfish all around you to provide restaurants with local inventory.

With all the focus on locally grown food you would think that your meal would be full of local flavor. In this day and age, it has been impressed upon the consumer that you aren’t what you eat but rather where you eat. Unfortunately, in the United States you would be sorely disappointed if your food came entirely from local sources.

While it is true that many vegetables impart fabulous flavors on the dishes you love, there are some commodities that you just can’t produce in all locales. Salt and pepper are wonderful examples. Salt and pepper are culinary cornerstones. Salt can only be harvested from mines and from the oceans and pepper grows in climates that are hotter and more humid than most of the U.S. Another excellent example is sugar or other sweeteners. If you’re tucking in to a cake or something with a caramel drizzle after the meal and you think that came from ingredients at a local farm you may be surprised to know that nearly all the sugar in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, most of which are grown in Upper Midwest, Great Plains, and the Far West.

Food is beautiful and interesting because it bridges gaps in time, location, culture, and age. Food unites people through shared meals, trade agreements, and the desire to create.
Consider this. What would your spice rack look like if it were filled only with spices grown in your state? It may be empty at that point! Even if you swear by eating locally produced food when you go out to eat you can’t be sure of the same when you are cooking for yourself, for guests, or you are a guest.

Sugar from North Dakota, cinnamon from Vietnam, and pumpkins from a local farm come together to make a lovely pie for Thanksgiving. Eggs from a local farm, mayonnaise made of local eggs and Italian olive oil, salt from Mexico, garlic powder from China, and paprika from Mexico all come together to make a simple deviled egg for your side dish. The simplest foods are more dependent on a global supply chain than you may realize. Our foods are wonderfully diverse and filled with flavors from all over the world!

I haven’t told you all of this because I think you should eat bland food and have the same dishes all the time. Quite the contrary! I think that a discerning consumer like you has the right idea by trying to eat local food. If a local farmers market has everything you want when the season is right, then buy it. Support your local farms. Invest back into your community. Learn about where your food comes from and who makes it.

All I ask is that when you’re eating your favorite home cooked meal, give a little thought to all the people from all over the world who had a hand in getting that food to your plate. Think of the farmer in China who grew the onion powder and sold it to a distributor who hired a shipping company to transport it to their warehouse and then sold it to the packaging company who sold it to the store you bought it from. Every time you buy spices you are a part of a supply chain that employs thousands of people worldwide and some of them may work and live in your community without you even knowing it.

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