Of course, there's no question that having food sent to you from just about anywhere is cheaper than flying your entire self to Thailand for some delicacy that left an indelible imprint on your amygdala while you were backpacking 20 years ago. Check out ImportFood.com in that case; it posts video clips of Thai street-food vendors preparing dishes such as crab fried rice, pork satay, and pad Thai. It puts you right there—except that if you were actually standing on a sidewalk in Saochingcha, you couldn't slide your mouse over, print a recipe, then add the ingredients and equipment, from green papaya to a "street-vendor wok," to your shopping basket.
Despite all these discoveries, my conversion to exurban life was not seamless. Because, well, there was still this guilt that racked me every time another huge carton appeared on my doorstep. I couldn't reconcile my growing habit with my purported support for sustainable eating. Then I talked to Christopher Weber, research assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, who recently cowrote a study on the carbon footprint of e-tailing and found that it's surprisingly modest—if you buy direct from the producer. "The biggest reason you see greenhouse-gas savings is that you don't drive to and from the store," he says. Indeed, "customer transport" accounts for 65 percent of the energy spent on traditional shopping. "Then the store itself needs to be lit and heated," he said. Add to that distribution and warehousing, and the UPS guy starts to look more and more like Al Gore.
A year ago, Weber did another study, which examined the carbon footprint of eating locally. He found that what you eat (in particular, whether it's red meat or not) matters far more than where it comes from. Still, the professor didn't give me a total free pass: "Usually, the packaging question comes out better for the retail store." "Ugh, don't remind me," I thought, eyeing the heap of styrofoam and cardboard boxes that were accumulating by the back door.
One other downside to virtual shopping is that you never exit a website with a bag of provisions swinging from your hand. Often these days I find myself waiting. And waiting. And sometimes, depending on the e-tailer, waiting so long that I forget what I've ordered until it shows up on my doorstep and I think, "Well, then! Crab cakes for dinner tonight!"
Yet whenever impatience gets the better of me, I curl up in bed and contemplate Queen Isabella, the patron saint of food delivery, who had to sit around for seven months wondering when Columbus would show up with the delicacies she'd requested from the New World. And it occurs to me that craving foods from far away is not an extravagance of just our lazy, overindulged era. The human desire to taste something new—pepper, spices, seeds, fruits—has been a motivating force for thousands of years, worth building roads and launching ships and risking lives for. Foods from far away are part of what makes it so very cozy to stay right here at home.
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