LEO Dining Guide: How big is your dinner”s carbon footprint?

Nov 6, 2007 at 8:01 pm

Image by Vorob’yev Denis
Image by Vorob’yev Denis
“Food miles” is a major buzz term in culinary circles these days: How far does your food travel to reach your table?

There are a lot of sound reasons to choose local meats and produce, and “food miles” advocates argue that this matter of distance is one important issue. It takes less gas and oil to transport mushrooms to Louisville from Bath County, Ky., than it does to fly them in from Japan, so dining locally literally helps save the Earth.

Others, though, argue that this argument is bogus. Local produce may be splendid, but food transportation and distribution issues are so much more complex that the impact of distance can’t be measured in any realistic way. New Zealand’s lamb producers, for instance, argue that their climate is so much more efficient for lamb raising that it’s less of an insult to the environment to fly their meat to the UK than it is for Brit producers to undertake the energy-intensive processes needed to raise their own lamb in chilly Blighty.

We’ll leave these inconvenient truths to the environmentalists to wrangle about. What we want to know, though, is whether food miles matter on your dinner plate.

As an intriguing experiment in food miles and flavor, we invited two local chefs to turn their imagination loose and come up with indulgent banquets.
Chef Jim Gerhardt of Limestone (10001 Forest Green Blvd., 426-7477), who has been a long-time advocate of supporting local farmers and producers, came up with a five-course banquet in which every major ingredient was sourced right here in Kentucky or Southern Indiana. His meal tallies up only a few hundred food miles from soup to nuts to dessert.

Meanwhile, placing tongue firmly in cheek as advocate for the “what, me worry about global warming” brigade, Chef David Clancy of the late, lamented, Bistro New Albany plates up a hypothetical banquet of similar scale, this one fashioned with intriguing ingredients sourced from all around the world. Clancy’s undeniably delicious dinner requires so many food miles that it stomps down with a carbon footprint the size of Montana.

Save-the-Miles Dinner

Jim Gerhardt: Photo by Marty Pearl  Limestone’s Jim Gerhardt has made his mark using local and regional ingredients, and so his stance in LEO’s mock “food miles” debate is not much of a stretch. Great food “needs great ingredients to start with,” he says, “and fresh is
Jim Gerhardt: Photo by Marty Pearl Limestone’s Jim Gerhardt has made his mark using local and regional ingredients, and so his stance in LEO’s mock “food miles” debate is not much of a stretch. Great food “needs great ingredients to start with,” he says, “and fresh is
(Chef Jim Gerhardt, Limestone)
Jim Gerhardt has been a strong advocate of local produce since back when he was executive chef at the Seelbach Hotel’s Oakroom and nurtured the old hotel dining room to its lofty status near the top of the local ratings peak. It’s a principle that he and associate Mike Cunha took with them when they opened their similarly highly rated Limestone Restaurant in Louisville’s East End in 2003.

“Food miles are important to me,” Gerhardt says. “Great food — and most chefs agree that about 85 percent of a great dish — needs great ingredients to start with ... and fresh is the most important. Even with the improvements in distribution, it makes sense to use foods from your own region. They usually have better flavor, since you can let them ripen rather then prematurely picking so they survive travel.”

What’s more, Gerhardt says, buying locally helps keep the local economy thriving. And local bread cast on the local waters generally comes back: “For us, a lot of the same farmers and producers have become our best sales people, directing and entertaining visiting guests for a nice meal as well as showing off their product.
“Less gas, less packaging, less landfill, less bills and statements crossing paths in the mail. ... and we are right in the middle of one of the country’s greatest agricultural regions.”
Gerhardt’s a food-miles believer, and his menu shows it. Here’s his hypothetical “think local” repast, in which every ingredient comes from a nearby producer.

For appetizers, Gerhardt proposes four small bites:
• A peppered beef canape featuring beef from Kentucky’s Green River Cattle Co. in Greensburg, Ky., just 87 food miles from Limestone’s stylish quarters on Forest Green Boulevard, flavored with Pop’s Pepper Patch Steak Marinade from South Louisville (14 miles).
• A smoked-trout mousse canape using trout from Shuckman’s Fish Co. & Smokery in West Louisville (16 miles).
• A country ham tartlet with meat from Col. Bill Newsom’s Country Ham in Princeton, Ky. This shipment from the western tip of Kentucky comes in as Gerhardt’s top food-miles ingredient, having traveled 176 miles from the farm near Paducah. It’s seasoned with Gib’s Bottled Hell hot sauce (produced just off Newburg Road, 10 miles) and Donald McCoun sorghum from Woodford County (70 miles).
• Barbecued rib plates from Kentucky Bison Co. at Woodland Farm in Goshen (13 miles), seasoned with Makers Mark BBQ sauce from Loretto, Ky. (52 miles) and garnished with Louisville Pickle Co. pickles from Charlestown, Ind. (29 miles) and Lyndon Farms Cabbage Slaw, just three miles from Limestone. (“The farmer drives his produce up in his truck and we shop out of the back,” Gerhardt says.)
• Staying close to home for the salad course, Gerhardt assembles a tastefully local dish with baby arugula, basil sprouts and watercress from Grateful Greens, with its greenhouses in a new industrial park at the old Henry Vogt Machine Co. on West Ormsby Street just west of Old Louisville (15 miles). It’s dressed with Woodford New Spirit Citrus Basil Vinaigrette from Woodford Reserve Distillery in Woodford County near Versailles, Ky. (55 miles), garnished with a cheese crisp from Kenny’s Country Cheese in Austin, Ky. (119 miles) and fresh basil leaves that Gerhardt snips from his backyard garden at home (0 miles).
• For a fish course, Gerhardt returns to Shuckman’s, which has been a West End institution since it started life as a neighborhood grocery in 1919, for seared striped bass. He plates the fish with a goat-cheese butter citrus sauce with cheese from internationally famous Capriole Farms in Greenville, Ind. (33 miles) and accompanies it with stone-ground grits with crawfish from the 142-year-old Weisenberger Mill in Midway, Ky. (53 miles).
• Gerhardt’s main course features another Central Kentucky tradition, turkey scallopini made from Kentucky Bourbon Red Turkey grown at Kathy and Scott Wheeler’s Star Farms in Hardyville, Ky., near Elizabethtown (87 miles). “She meets us at the turnoff from I-65 for the exchange,” Gerhardt says with a laugh. “She says we would get lost trying to find her farm!” This simple dish adds aromatics with Kentucky-grown organic garlic from Blue Moon Farm, located on the Kentucky River in Madison County, Ky., south of Lexington near Richmond. (96 miles).
• For dessert, Gerhardt stays on theme with Mocha Chess Pie, using free-range eggs from WaterWorks Farm in Shelbyville, Ky. (28 miles), or those marketed by the stellar mushroom producer Sheltowee Farms in Bath County, Ky. (112 miles). The mocha comes together with chocolate from Jamieson’s in Mount Sterling, Ky. (98 miles) and coffee from Consumer’s Choice in West Louisville (15 miles). And if that chocolate came originally from Ghana and the coffee from Java, we won’t ask too many questions ... after all, food miles can only take us so far.

Humongous Carbon Footprint Dinner

(Chef David Clancy)

David Clancy: Photo by Ross Gordon  David Clancy of the late-great Bistro New Albany was on our Dining Guide cover last year when he took the “Cheez Whiz Challenge.” He also understands the importance of food miles, but he agreed to play the “villain” in our debate, an
David Clancy: Photo by Ross Gordon David Clancy of the late-great Bistro New Albany was on our Dining Guide cover last year when he took the “Cheez Whiz Challenge.” He also understands the importance of food miles, but he agreed to play the “villain” in our debate, an
Clancy, whose much-loved Bistro New Albany closed amid great lamentation from local foodies last month, said he had no problem putting on an anti-PC hat and getting in the face of the keep-it-local advocates. In real life, he, too, understands the value of regional cuisine (and demonstrated that at the Bistro with his choice of Creekstone Farm beef from Henry County, Ky., and his fervid support of beer microbrewers in Louisville and Southern Indiana). But Clancy also understands the appeal of reaching out for the finest and best ingredients, no matter how far you have to reach.

Here is his “Humongous Carbon Footprint” banquet, which puts tongue firmly in cheek to come up with an imagined dinner in which every ingredient is sourced from as far away from downtown New Albany as possible.
Let us begin this ’round-and-’round-the-world culinary voyage, then, with a cheese platter featuring Gjetost, a firm, brown and sweet goat cream cheese from Norway (4,195 miles); Manchego, a firm, buttery and mildly tangy sheep’s milk cheese from Spain (4,228 miles); mild, creamy, blue-veined Brie-style Saga Blue from Denmark (4,390 miles); and Montasio, a delicate, sweet cow’s milk cheese from Northeastern Italy (4,757 miles). He accompanies the cheeses with paté-like rillettes of rabbit — French rabbit, that is (4,438 miles) and water crackers from England (4,057 miles).

Next, for a hearty appetizer course, Clancy heads for the Canadian Rockies (1,639 miles) for elk tenderloin, which he presents as a carpaccio flavored with anise-flavor Mahlab liqueur from Greece (5,536 miles) and chocolate-orange Sabra liqueur from Israel (6,276 miles); it’s topped with tiny nonpareilles capers from Provence in France (4,614 miles) and delicate cow’s milk Asiago cheese from Italy’s Vicenza region (4,757 miles).

Next it’s over to North Africa for Clancy’s soup course, a tagine from Morocco (4,269 miles) that’s more akin to stew than soup. It’s built on loukanika, an orange-scented lamb-and-pork sausage from Greece (5,536 miles) and tiny-grained North African cous-cous (4,269 miles).

A palate-cleansing intermezzo course revives the food-miles-weary diner with a sorbet of loquat, a somewhat pear-like stone fruit from Southeastern China (7,342 miles) and juicy, papaya-like babaco (“Champagne fruit”) from Ecuador (2,670 miles). It’s doused in anise-scented Absinthe, the real thing as Van Gogh knew it, from Portugal (4,024 miles).

Clancy’s proposed main course reaches out for the most food miles of all, sourcing only the finest wild-boar tenderloin from Papua, New Guinea (8,616 miles) for char-broiling with a glaze of raki, the anise liquor from Turkey (5,797 miles). He’ll plate it with roasted blue potatoes from Peru (3,508 miles) and grilled slender purple eggplants from Japan (6,576 miles).

Finally, the chef wraps it up with a decadent dessert based on European ingredients: profiteroles stuffed with lekvar, a rich puree of plums, apricots and other fruit from Hungary (4,949 miles) and black buns, a hearty, fruitcake-like winter treat from Scotland (3,830 miles) topped with billows of rich, thick Schlag from Vienna (4,808 miles).

The tale of the tape
So, dinner’s over, and both were splendid. How did they treat the poor, battered Earth?
Paying full respect to food miles, Gerhardt kept all his sources within Kentucky and nearby Southern Indiana, tallying a total of just 1,197 food miles, about the equivalent of a round trip from Fulton County in far Western Kentucky to Pike County on the eastern tip and back again.

In his hypothetical effort to bust the food miles barrier, Clancy racked up a grand total of 115,081 food miles, the equivalent of a little more than four and a half trips around the Equator. He’s been doing some hard traveling. We thought you know’d.

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