Eating Local, Cesium and All

Eating locally produced food–a 10,000-year-old practice that Americans have lately managed to rebrand as a sort of environmentally holy hedonism, enjoyed primarily by people whose eyelashes don’t bat at the sight of a $13 tariff for tomatoes and sheep’s milk feta–means different things in different places.

Okay, that sounds like the most obvious statement ever.  But I’m not talking about eating salmon in Alaska and settling for porgies in New Jersey.

Daisann McLane had a fascinating little dispatch in Slate last week about how some people in Japan have reacted—in dietary terms—to the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.  In recent months, unsafe cesium levels have been found in beef, shiitake mushrooms, tea leaves, and fish, among other foodstuffs.

Two things in particular stood out to me.  The first is when the writer invites a friend out to dinner.  “I don’t feel comfortable going to that restaurant, because I don’t know where they are getting their vegetables from,” her friend replies, adding:  “It’s not something you need to worry about, because you’re here for a short time. But I’m going to be eating in Japan over the rest of my lifetime, and I have to be concerned.”

Eating locally in Japan, then, has become a practice fraught with potential danger.

But also—and here’s what struck me even more—one fraught with tremendous (almost terrifying) responsibility.

When McLane broaches the topic of eating locally with the owner of a restaurant called Roppongi Nouen, where the “menu not only listed the places where every food item came from [but] also had pictures and biographies of the farmers,” his reply sounded a note that is humbling and wholly absent (thankfully, and by the grace of good fortune) from the rhapsodies of American foodies when they get to talking about farm-to-table eating.

Calling on the government to be square with Japanese citizens about just what and how much food has been contaminated, and positing that responsibility for the nuclear disaster ultimately rests with the citizenry itself, the owner says: “[W]e need to stop selling Japanese food outside of the country. We need to sell our food only to ourselves, for three to five years.”

Eating local as the ultimate gesture of accountability and self-sacrifice: it’s a sobering idea.  And perhaps an inspiring one as well.

Can Japan Recover? [Slate]