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Eating Local Doesn’t Have to be Limiting

Choose authentic San Marzano tomatoes by looking for the DOP seal (Protected Designation of Origin in the EU).

One of the issues with eating local foods exclusively is the simple fact that not all foods are grown in every region. We know we can’t grow almonds in the southwest or citrus in the northeast. The climates of those regions simply don’t support it. So, if and when is there a place for non-regional foods? Is the impact on the environment so great that we need to accept that and omit them completely?

Let’s take the example of San Marzano tomatoes.  Any Italian chef knows that true San Marzano tomatoes have 2 distinct characteristics that set them apart from the others:

  1. They’re the variety of tomato called San Marzano
  2. They’re grown in a western region of Italy, near Mt. Vesuvius, where the ashy soil contributes minerals that enhance the flavor distinctly.

However, companies that grow, can, and distribute San Marzano tomatoes for home cooks often grow the variety outside the region.  They are, essentially, no superior, regionally specific, or unique than any other type of canned tomato.  Only the San Marzano tomato variety grown in that region would be the high quality Italian tomato that you, the consumer, are attempting to purchase.

So what does this mean? I believe that regionally specific ingredients have a place in the global food system, but there needs to be more stringent policies that require proper labeling.  I would rather make an informed purchase – particularly when an item is out of season.  If I had the choice between San Marzano tomatoes from Chile or plum tomatoes from New York, I’d choose the New York tomatoes!  If my choice was between canned tomatoes from New York or true canned San Marzanos, I would select the canned San Marzanos.

Regionally specific foods and cuisine is valuable – not only for that specific region’s food system, but also to celebrate culture and the uniqueness of native species of food. If we can reduce the food miles, carbon emissions, and environmental impact of crops that can be grown worldwide, we can leave the expenditure to the truly unique ingredients.

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