THE BLOG
04/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reading Walden While Eating a Cosi® Signature Salad

On a bright, mild winter day, I find myself eating a Signature Salad at Cosi®, a chain of casual restaurants which puts a little emblem next to its name to note that it has a legal lock on this completely ordinary Italian word. I'm the only customer, which doesn't bother me at all, because I have a copy of Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, open on the table in front of me. This is a book that assures me solitude is a desirable condition.

I'm in Cosi® because I've just moved and I'm wandering the new neighborhood searching for likely a likely place to get a haircut. I'm reading Thoreau because I want to hear what the agricultural counter-culture sounded like in the middle of the 19th century.

Walden is vaguely familiar from high school and a pleasure to reread, now that I'm more attuned to Thoreau's irony as he riffs on the marginal profits of growing beans. What is distracting, though, is my salad, a menu standard that is offered in every Cosi® restaurant, every day of the year. It is, as they say, their Signature dish. And it consists of ingredients that, until very recently, could never ever have been found in the same time and the same place.

The Signature Salad embodies the triumph of global food supply. Baby lettuce, the first sign of spring, is embellished with fresh grapes and pears, fruits that don't ripen until fall. Dried cranberries, North America's bog-bound contribution to the fruits of the world, are paired with pistachio nuts, a crop that requires a hot, semi-arid climate where cranberries could never grow. As for the Gorgonzola cheese, it probably comes from California or Wisconsin, not from the Italian town that claims to have invented the cheese over a thousand years ago--which means its presence here on my plate represents another aspect of the globalization of modern food production.

Did Thoreau ever eat a pistachio nut or taste a wedge of blue-veined Gorgonzola cheese? It's possible. His reclusive pose was a bit of a charade, after all, and Boston, which is not very far from Walden Pond, was a center of international shipping in the middle of the 19th century.

The more interesting question is what Thoreau would have thought of my lunch, a salad that manages to transcend all boundaries of season and geography in a single bowl. I suspect he would not have approved. The author of Walden was quite vocal in his rejection of the culture of commerce, and probably they would have lost him at the trademark emblem. Thoreau was also convinced of the value of paying close attention to the different qualities of each passing day, and week, and season. But if every product of every region of the world is available everywhere, in every season, how is anything going to seem special enough to merit notice?

I put down my fork to consider what it would mean to take Walden as my culinary guide. The fact is, I don't really want to eat like Thoreau, dining on beans, fish, and the occasional woodchuck, and I doubt many other people want to, either. A limited diet is hardly a model for world nutrition. Complete self-sufficiency, apart from being impossible, is very bad for community spirit.

Perhaps what we should do instead is take the time to savor our food and demand that it be fresh and reasonably wholesome. I chose this salad, after all, over the more locally sourced hot dog available in the joint next door, and also over the huge and highly caloric artisanal cookies, each a meal in itself, that beckoned from the window of the bakery on the other side. At the time (15 minutes ago), it seemed like a wise decision. Was I so very wrong?

I need to give this some thought. And to do that, I should start by putting away my book. Thoreau will still be hoeing his bean field whenever I get back to him. But if we are ever to honor our food with the passionate awareness Thoreau inspires, we really shouldn't read while we eat.