By Brett Martin, GQ
One should never underestimate the value of having friends whose first reaction, when you tell them you need two In-N-Out burgers FedExed from Los Angeles to New York by the next morning, is to ask, "Regular or Double-Double?" I happen to have such friends (their names are Oliver and Sarah), and I happened to have had this scheme: To get as many foods as possible, from all over the world, sent overnight via FedEx to my home in Brooklyn.
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But hold on, I hear you say, doesn't this fly in the face of every single thing going on in the food world? Aren't all right-minded eaters supposed to be eating locally, seasonally, and sustainably, with exquisite sensitivity to each ingredient's provenance, genetic heritage, and carbon footprint?
Well, yes. And the truth is that this made the prospect all the sweeter. It's not that I don't believe in local and seasonal eating. The thing is, the revolutionaries have won. Ask any young chef for his or her culinary philosophy and you'll hear localandseasonal rattled off so fast the actual words lose all meaning.
Obviously, the local eating orthodoxy can produce some astonishing food. But like any other true belief that morphs into a tired buzzword, it's worth taking a step back to note how, in the hands of lesser talents, this one may be abused: by the restaurateurs who believe that having a chalkboard menu crammed with farm names is more important than such incidentals as serving well-prepared, delicious food. By the chefs who equate the word local with a chance to up a dish's price by $10.
Moreover, the movement of food across vast distances is literally the story of civilization: Science, mathematics, religion, language-all were carried around the world in ships' holds filled with breadfruit, amid camel caravans carrying spices, even (or especially) in shipping containers crammed with frozen McDonald's beef. Locavore may have been the 2007 New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year, but there's already been a word for those whose diets are restricted to seasonal items grown in their immediate area: That word is peasant.
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Here were my criteria: I would only order foods that were distinctly of their place. They would have to be meals-prepared dishes that, in the past, I would have been obliged to travel to distant lands to taste, or taste again.
I suppose I expected the food purveyors of the world to hear my plan, join hands, sing a round of "It's a Small World," and make haste for the nearest FedEx drop box. This may have been a touch naive. "That is not something we could possibly do," the general manager of St. John Restaurant in London politely told me.
Old Europe, though, was nothing compared with the legal issues here at home. My challenge was to navigate something called the Animal Product Manual, a publication of the United States Department of Agriculture. When I got USDA senior staff veterinarian Christopher Robinson on the phone to assess my plan, he cut handily through the bureaucrat-speak: "I'd say it was pretty much impossible," he said.
It then occurred to me that the USDA doesn't police fish, so I switched to an all-seafood menu, carefully avoiding any knowledge of ingredients like chicken stock and butter to preserve deniability when it came to customs forms. From Stockholm's great fish emporium, Melanders Fisk, I ordered fatty Baltic herring-strömming-pickled, and then breaded and fried. Sure enough, after a short delay at JFK, the package was released. Emboldened, my Malaysian contact and I switched to a noodle dish that seemed to pass the USDA test-prawn mee, a deeply spicy, complex seafood soup. I watched as it was picked up in KL, cleared Malaysian customs, and took wing across the Pacific. The next morning, it reached Anchorage and then…stopped, held for inspection.
Edited for Yahoo! Shine. Read the full story at GQ.com.
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By Brett Martin, GQ