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    Saturday, March 02, 2024

    All food on the table comes from a farm, right?

    I asked ChatGPT, "What is meant by 'farm to table'?"

    The artificial intelligence site answered: "'Farm to table' refers to a food production and consumption model that emphasizes the direct connection between farmers and consumers. ... This movement seeks to promote local and sustainable agriculture, support small scale farmers, and provide consumers with fresh, locally sourced produce."

    Who isn't all thumbs-up for local farmers? And fresh food is the best food. "Farm to table" always sounded like a good thing and remains to this day a sales pitch for upscale restaurants.

    The label is problematic, however. For starters, logic states that it could be applied to just about any ingredient that makes its way onto one's fork, spoon or fingers. After all, with the exception perhaps of mushrooms, some greens and a few hothouse items, all food comes from farms. The apple that sailed and was then trucked 8,000 miles from New Zealand to Minneapolis came from a farm.

    That said, New Zealand apples at American supermarkets always seemed a strange sight. Washington state is the biggest producer of applies in this country and about 6,000 miles closer to the Twin Cities. Add to that the ease with which apples grow in Minnesota. The state produces over 20 varieties, according to the University of Minnesota. Why must they travel from the South Pacific?

    Thomas Keller, the celebrated American chef, thinks "farm to table" is an absurd concept. And the idea that ingredients should come from within a 25-mile radius, he says, makes little culinary sense.

    By that definition, a grower of mediocre carrots located 20 miles away is OK. But "there's a guy 210 miles away who's like so, so, so in love with his ground and carrots," Keller says. "He can't sell them to you ... And you know what, he can't sell them to anybody else because there's not a town that's close to him."

    A restaurant claiming to offer "farm to table" recently opened in Grand Central Terminal, in the concrete heart of New York City. The food at Cornelius may well be superb, but the likelihood that much, if any, of it was produced within 25 miles of Manhattan is slim.

    Though popularized in recent years, the term, "farm to table" is not new. In August 1914, at the start of World War I, the U.S. postal service launched a trial using the parcel post as a vehicle of "direct exchange" between farmers and consumers in 10 cities. It expected that shipments of perishable items, such as butter and "dressed" poultry, would fall off during the midsummer months. The "farm-to-table plan" didn't last.

    Today many menus simply specify place of origin. Virginia ham. Alaska salmon. That's nice. Am I interested in knowing whether the oysters came from the Puget Sound, Prince Edward Island or Matunuck, R.I.? Yes, I must admit.

    Every summer, however, I beat the farm-to-table restaurants at their game with my backyard-to-cutting-board produce. And I do it on a city lot with not much sunlight thanks to the monster oak next door. Starting May, I grow lettuce, herbs, cucumbers, eggplant and, above all, tomatoes. What can get more local than 20 feet away?

    However, I recently bought an unusually good tomato from Arizona. And so now that my ground is freezing, I say, keep them shipping. Most of my produce from now until spring will come from afar.

    Meanwhile, there have been no complaints that bananas in every season are grown in far-off places like Ecuador, while the avocados are trucked from Mexico. Come to think of it, they, too, come from farms, don't they?

    Froma Harrop covers the waterfront of politics, economics and culture with an unconventional approach. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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