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A Raucous Year of Eating Locally, Part 1: He Said
The year of eating locally began with one beautiful meal and one ugly statistic.
First, the meal. We had company to feed, and only a three-week-old cabbage to offer them.
It wasn’t as though we could step out to the local megamart. We — Alisa and I — were at our “cottage” in northern British Columbia, more honestly a drafty, jauntily leaning, eighty-year-old homestead that squats in a clearing between Sitka spruce and western redcedar trees.
There is no corner store here. There are also no roads. In fact, the only ways in or out are by canoe, by foot over the distance of a half-marathon to the nearest highway. Necessity, as they say, can be a mother.
My brother David, a strict vegetarian, hiked to the mouth of Fiddler Creek and reeled in an enormous Dolly Varden char. Our friends Kirk and Chandra led a party into the forest and returned with chanterelle, pine, and hedgehog mushrooms. I rooted through the tall grass to find the neglected garden plot where, months earlier, we had planted garlic and three kinds of potato. Alisa cut baby dandelion leaves, while her mother picked apples and sour cherries from an abandoned orchard, and rose hips from the bushes that were attempting to swallow the outhouse.
The fruit we steeped in red wine — all right, the wine came from Australia. Everything else we fried on the woodstove, all in a single huge pan.
It was delicious. It was a dinner that transcended the delicate freshness of the fish, the earthy goodness of the spuds that had sopped up the juices of mushrooms and garlic. One of the night’s final questions, passed around upon faces made golden by candlelight: Was there some way to carry this meal into the rest of our lives?
Not guilty, but responsible
A week later we were back in our one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver, surrounded by two million other people and staring out the sitting-room window, we have a view of a parking lot and two perpetually overloaded Dumpsters.
It was as good a place as any to contemplate the statistic: According to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, the food we eat now typically travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles from farm to plate. The distance had increased by up to 25 percent between 1980 and 2001.
I didn’t know any more about it than that. It was enough.
Like so many other people, Alisa and I had begun to search for ways to live more lightly in an increasingly crowded and raggedy-assed world. There is no shortage of information about this bright blue planet and its merry trip to hell in a hand-basket, and we had learned the necessary habit of shrugging off the latest news bites about “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico or creatures going extinct after 70 million years — 70 million years — on Earth.
What we could not ignore was the gut feeling, more common and more important than policy makers or even scientists like to admit, that things have gone sideways. That the weather and seasons have become strangers to us. And that we, the human species, are in one way or another responsible. Not guilty, but responsible.
The SUV diet
The gut feeling affects people. A friend of mine, a relationship counselor, told me of a couple whose marriage was being tested by a disagreement over the point at which the world’s reserves of cheap petroleum will surpass maximum production and begin to decline. Concerned for his child’s future in an “end of oil” scenario, the husband, an otherwise typical health-care provider, wanted to go bush, learn how to tan buckskins, teach their boy to hunt and forage.
The wife, equally concerned for the child, preferred everyday life in a society where carbonated soda is the leading source of calories in the diet of the average teenager and the New England Journal of Medicine reports that, owing to obesity and physical inactivity, the life spans of today’s children may be shorter than those of their parents. So who’s crazy?
A more typical response is the refusal to purchase an enormous, fuel-inefficient SUV. Alisa and I had made that choice. Yet, as the Leopold Center numbers seemed to suggest, we had no cause to feel holier-than-thou. Each time we sat down to eat, we were consuming products that had traveled the equivalent distance of a drive from Toronto, Ontario, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, or from New York City to Denver, Colorado. We were living on an SUV diet.
“I think we should try eating local food for a year.”
We were at the breakfast table when these words came out of my mouth. Alisa did not look up at me as though I were insane.
From "Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally" by by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. © 2007 Harmony Books, a division of Random House, Inc.