THE BLOG
10/01/2010 02:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Real L Word

No, no --- not that one.

I'm talking about the other one. You know: it's the one that's showing up everywhere today in the food world. The word itself conjures up images of dusty farm boots and tractors, piles of lush vegetables and happy, grass-fed animals frolicking in emerald green valleys. In devilish hands, however, it's also the sort of marketing tool that even a simp could use to great advantage in the following equation: trend plus attention deficient consumer base who only picks up on catch phrases plus mislabeled products equals cash.

The other day, while walking my dogs around my lovely-but-fresh-food-deprived neighborhood, one of my neighbors informed me that a meat market had opened up on the far end of town. Now, this lady -- who is extremely savvy and is hardly a pushover -- happens to be a locavore convert, and she and her husband are going far out of their way to buy local, grass-fed meats, and chickens who eat worms, and vegetables that aren't sprayed with defoliant derivatives. So imagine her glee when she informed me that this new market had told her that they were carrying meat from local farmers in neighboring towns; I was delighted, because these particular farmers are creating extraordinary grass-fed products, and they're only about ten miles away. But I was also a little bit skeptical for two reasons: first, the place billed itself as a meat market, as opposed to butcher. Second, having been on the other side of the counter in my life, I know full well that if these farmers, whose yields are quite low, were supplying product to this place -- which is a large market -- they'd have to do so in fairly high volume. Which means their yields would have to change, and so too, their production standards. It's the simple law of supply and demand.

But, I said nothing to my friend, and off I went yesterday, to check it out myself. The place was immaculately, operating room clean and shiny; there was a cheese case on one side of the store where they carried local-ish products from purveyors like the remarkable Vermont Butter & Cheese. The manager showed me around: many if not most of the packaged goods -- beans, jams, chutneys -- were from local, small-run producers. The vegetable section, which was a bit truncated, had no signs indicating whether it was local, organic, or conventional. And then there was the meat counter.

Enormous, stocked with every conceivable cut available, it offered as its centerpiece gigantic racks of dry aged prime. I had questions.

"If I want a porterhouse for the grill---?"

"We'll cut it for you, ma'am. That's what we do," he said.

"And if I want a boneless lamb shoulder?" I asked.

"Um, it'd take about four days to get it," he replied.

I listened while he spoke, and there, behind the counter, hung a chalkboard that said Local! Organic!

I had one more question.

"Where do your meats come from?" I asked.

He stammered, and then he sang like a canary.

"From the midwest, mostly Iowa. I know they're expensive, but hey, if someone told me that the same steak would cost them $4.99 a pound at the supermarket, I'd give this one to them for the same price." He motioned to a two inch thick strip steak in the case, marked $11.99 a pound. I suddenly had a flashback to my last car buying experience.

When I inquired about the local meats they claimed to be selling, he first said, "oh, we have some in the back -- " and then he offered the truth: that small producers couldn't provide him with enough volume to make it worth his (or their) while. I thanked him, bought a square of inexplicably $3.00 Robiola, and left.

On my way home, I stopped in to the tiny, nondescript butcher shop I've only recently discovered after living in my town for seven years, and we had a chat: Jeff, who mostly works by himself, had just received two whole pigs the night before from a farm in a neighboring town, and he was busily processing them.

"I just cut the Boston butt -- it'd be great for porchetta," he said.

"I'll take it," I told him. "And some bacon."

While he wrapped up my purchases (after asking if I wanted the skin, which I did) we talked some more: his pastured lamb was coming from a local farm in our town, and if I wanted a boneless shoulder for a tagine, he'd have it next week. He was using absolutely every part of every product he butchered, and while his scrapple never really took off, his sausages were flying out the door. And if I really was serious about learning how to make pates and terrines this winter, he could easily supply me with as much goose liver as I wanted or needed. And all the beef he sold--absolutely all of it pastured--came from farms less than twenty miles away. He knew the farmers, and therefore, he knew the animals.

I drove home, thinking about all the supermarket meats out there that are labelled "all-natural," and all the signs that say "Local!" but then don't tell you what is and what isn't, and that Local! can mean Argentina, relative to, say, Vietnam. I thought about the myths that everyone who is complicit in the success of Big Agriculture -- from the Con Agras and the Smithfields of the world on down to the meat market manager who claims his products are local when they're clearly not, just to make a sale -- perpetrates on average folks who are just trying to eat well.

And then I considered Jeff: my local town butcher who works late into the night to process the local meats that arrive at his tiny shop from local farmers and producers. There is absolutely no substitute for this simple equation:

Local plus Local equals Local.

Nothing more, and nothing less.