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Cocoa beans don't grow in New England

Fresh corn starts appearing at out local supermarket in Spring, shipped from Mexico or Florida or Georgia. I don't buy it.

As the weeks progress, the shipments come from closer and closer to home, but still I wait to buy any—until July, when the corn begins to ripen at our local farm. They grow the best maize in the world. But even if it wasn't, having tasted truly fresh corn, purchased from someone who picked it that day, anything that has taken several days to get to me just doesn't taste as good. The kernels become starchy as the sugars break down. It's a matter of chemistry.

I'm also particular about tomatoes. The very best are grown locally, not on farms far away. I can't wait for the months when a typical side dish consists of freshly picked tomatoes, sliced, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with a dash of salt and pepper. Mmm.

The list is long.

Cucumbers are only sweet from local farms. Apples are crispest from our local orchards. Store bought strawberries taste like water when they aren't from close by. I aim for dairy products from our state, if I can. Buy fresh eggs from a farm stand when I'm given the chance.

But you know, there are some foods that won't grow here in the winter. Lettuce. Most veggies. Most fruits. And others that don't grow around here, no matter what the season. Coffee. Rice. Lemons. Olives. Peppercorns. A whole bunch of nuts and legumes.

I've been following the growing locavore movement and have found it perplexing. Some things are not better grown locally—it uses more energy to grow things in an artificial environment than to grow them in their natural climate. In fact in many cases, you use less energy transporting them from their home climate, than trying to produce them locally. Besides, some plants will not produce even if you transplant them: you cannot make maple syrup in Florida; you cannot grow cocoa beans in New England.

This recent New York Times Op-Ed piece by Stephen Budiansky explains the math. In the long path from growing to consumption, the biggest energy usage is not in the transportation of food products, but in storing them in your refrigerator.

There are very many good reasons to buy locally grown food—taste, supporting local farms, improving the supply chain, just to name a few. And I, too, think that tasteless tomatoes, engineered to survive transport, are an abomination. The food industry has problems—more informed people than I have written intelligent books and articles about the subject.

But let's be realistic. Not everything can come from local farms year round. Not everything can be produced locally, period. Humans have transported food for as long as we have been moving around, and we've become better and better at it. This isn’t a bad thing. I might not serve corn on the cob in February, but my family does appreciate hot cocoa, or tea, or coffee, on a cold winter’s morning.

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