The Spirit of Local Foods

Last weekend, we ate the last garden-fresh tomato of the year. Sure, there are jars of sauce and salsa that will keep us connected to the garden until next year, but it’s hard to beat a fresh tomato, sliced up and eaten just as nature provides it.

But it’s more than just flavor, or juiciness, or however you describe “fresh” food. There’s a spirit of sorts. Something I can’t quite describe. And beyond that, there is something inherently satisfying in knowing exactly where your food comes from. Like, the very plant from which it was picked and not the plant in which it was packaged. The very soil from which it grew and not the shelf from which it was plucked.

Apparently, others agree. According to the National Gardening Association, one in three US households grow food at home or in a community garden. That’s a 200 percent increase from 2008.

For the other two-thirds of the population, farmers markets have risen to meet the demand for local fare. Between 1994 and 2019, the number of farmers markets in the US increased more than four-fold, from 2,000 to more than 8,600.

Aside from the fact that fresh, local food just tastes better, there are some significant health benefits as well. A national study from 2011 showed that people who live where local food is readily available tend to have lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and tend to live longer. Other studies have also shown measurable differences in physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health in gardeners versus non-gardeners.

I’m not much of a green thumb myself, but others in my family are. And luckily, they’re happy to share their harvest. So I can’t speak to the holistic benefits of gardening but I have long extolled the virtues of a personal connection to the natural world.

Which brings me back to the spirit of food I mentioned above. It’s almost as if food carries with it something more than just its nutritional value. I don’t know what exactly to call it but it’s something.

Let me try to explain. Apples are coming into season and for me, fresh apples right off the tree also rank pretty high on my list of nature-provided loves. Now think about the sentiment that fresh apples conjure. For me, apples inspire feelings of crisp autumn air and turning leaves, sweatshirts and warm fires. It’s no wonder they’re so perfect for baking into things like pies and crisps. They come available just as the weather turns perfect for firing up the oven. What feelings do you get when you bite into a fresh Honeycrisp or smell fresh apple pie?

Now look backwards and compare that to fresh tomatoes. Very different vibe, right? Tomatoes are a summer treat, conjuring thoughts of fireworks and sprinklers and backyard barbeques. Sure, our modern world affords us access to tomatoes year-round. But eat one of those imported tomatoes in the middle of winter. One, it won’t be nearly as good and two, it will completely lack the “spirit” of a garden-fresh summertime one. Same holds true for out-of-season apples.

I’ve found this phenomenon holds even more true for protein. I hunt and fish and my experience is that consuming the fish and game I harvest is a far more visceral experience than eating packaged foods from the store. Again, I suspect it comes from knowing exactly where that food came from. It comes from the respect I have for that animal, the fact that I held it in my hands. I am always awed by the beauty of wild things. The colors of a pheasant, the iridescent scales of a fish, the raw musculature of a deer. Such beauty will never be found in stores, no matter how ‘modern’ we become.

Consuming game I’ve harvested conjures memories of times spent afield with family and friends, time spent in wild places watching sunrises and taking in nature’s awe-inspiring beauty. It inspires in me a love for such places that I can’t help but want to protect them for future generations of both people and wildlife. That, I suppose, is the “spirit” that wild game carries with it from field to fork. And that, I fear, is what is lost on those who never get to experience the habitat, hunt, or harvest.

We are descended from hunters and gatherers. We became famers. Now most of us are merely consumers and we lack that connection to the plants, animals, and soils that connect us. It’s too late to plant a garden this year, but it’s not too late to start planning one for next year. And it’s never too late to catch a fish and it’s just barely the start of hunting season.

The spirit of the wild lives in us. How will you nourish it?

This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.