Essence and Distance

In 1993, at the foot of the Rialto Bridge, beside St. Mark’s Place the most tourist-soaked place in Venice, I shopped for souvenirs and settled on a short strand of Venetian beads. Venetian beads are attention hogs. To the eye and hand, they’re the love child of marbles, peas, and taffy, in the case of mine, dominated by shades of black, blue, white, and red.

This necklace was more expensive than a postcard, but cheaper than a gondola ride. I hesitated to buy it because on that muggy day, pressed on every side by other camera-toting foreigners and overwhelmed by the hundreds of identical necklaces that hung all around me, it was hard to feel that anything was worth having. I remember saying to myself, “There will only be one of these when I get away from this stand and in its solitude it will be beautiful to me.”

This turned out to be true.

When I wear my beads, I am wearing being 24 and losing my glasses swimming in the Adriatic; I am wearing gossiping about Werner and Maria, the glamorous transnational couple whose apartment I glimpsed from a street near the Campo Santa Maria Formosa; and I am wearing stifling a giggle as I ate cuttlefish next to a couple breaking up in a restaurant called Paradise Lost.

Despite my dreamy descriptions, this necklace remains a poorly made object (I know because it fell apart about ten years ago and I spent twice what it cost me to have it restrung). I have made it mine, stubbornly I might add, by investing it with emotion and memory as well as cold, hard cash.

The distance between my point of origin and this scene of consumption (as well as the distance between those places and the dog fur covered armchair in which I presently sit) makes this necklace nearly priceless.

This small story may seem to have nothing to do with eating local, but what’s visible in a durable, decorative object like a necklace can also been seen in an object like a cinnamon stick.

Vanilla and coffee beans, peppercorns, tea leaves, paprika powder, coconut flakes, saffron. The words themselves induce reverie. They transport me to souks and rain forests and rocky islands, the romanticized versions of these places, of course, where there are no mosquitoes or impatient merchants or fluctuating currency exchange rates.

What these long-distance travelers share is potency, a concentration of form. The spices have been dried; many ground into powder, processes which render them compact and aromatic. Whatever bulk they possess (mostly water weight) that might raise the cost of transport has been eliminated. An unexpected by-product of this cost-saving measure is intensity: these substances transcend the very idea of the humdrum, making stuff made close to home seem bloated and pedestrian by comparison. Wise and hard, these leaves, powders, flakes, and pods carry not an ounce of the unnecessary. Wizened, faded or darkened by their losses and journeys, they are rough enough to scratch my plump, soft fingertips. Everything they give me seems worth having.

When we debate the value and necessity of local food, it seems we must confront all the reasons long-distance foods enthrall us. Their intensity is seductive. The distances they travel lend glamour to life.

My Venetian beads, though, have as much in common with the zucchinis currently threatening to bury me as they do with the slick, crinkly vanilla pod I scraped clean and whose aroma I inhaled like a drowning woman last week. Everyday foods can be invested with memory and care, thus becoming special; likewise, the true cost of a peppercorn or coconut flake can be obscured by people whose interests are limited to short-term financial gain.

I have few answers to the very important questions about how much longer we can afford to maintain a global food trade network or what it means for industrialized nations to turn their backs on the developing food economies of countries harmed by centuries of colonialism. I know that no matter what I do, my food choices affect people I will never meet. I have only these things which came up through their soil, passed through their hands, bounced in their bags and baskets, and perhaps were looked upon quizzically by their children. I trust imagination to guide me as I try to decide what I really need and what I just want.