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A Raucous Year of Eating Locally, Part 2: She Said
There are two sides to every story, and here’s mine on how this all began: James always carries things one step further than your typical person.
If James decides that materialism is a problem in modern society, well, he won’t shop. It’s embarrassing at times. Like when the soles of his favorite brown shoes had worn into stubby flaps. One afternoon, as he dug in his pocket to give a panhandler some change, the guy said, “Keep it, man. You look like you need it.”
So when James said, as we sat eating breakfast, “Let’s eat only local food for one year,” my arm froze before I could deliver my forkful of syrup-slathered French toast to my mouth. His pale blue eyes with their sweet Finnish tilt looked so seriously at me, so expectant, excited, hopeful—and challenging.
Is this going to be one of those shoes-that-hoboes-pity kind of projects? I asked myself.
That afternoon, though, I found myself flipping through the gardening catalog, pausing on vegetables I’d never considered before. French Breakfast Radish (a radish for breakfast?), an old-fashioned or “heritage” variety that can be planted in March on the West Coast and matures in twenty-five to thirty days. Komatsuna, a Japanese green also known as mustard spinach; sow in March, twenty-one days to maturity. Arugula, thirty to forty days. I could feel myself giving in.
The next thing you know, I was eating a whole lot of latkes.
Within days we had homed in on the humbler cold-weather harvest: root crops and hardy winter greens. James is the household cook—so good in the kitchen that I’ve never had an incentive to try—and bore the burden of creating the new menus.
Breakfast might be potato and parsnip fritters made with free-range eggs. For lunch, colcannon, the sexed-up name the Irish give to mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage. He would try to surprise me at dinner: some golden rutabaga, maybe, with grated raw beet and goat cheese salad, and sunchokes scalloped in milk. In the first weeks we ate a lot of borscht.
For amber waves of grain, and sinner’s salt
I had never stopped to consider that flour might not be available. Most of the foods we had to do without were obvious enough—like oranges and mangoes—but others seemed like whims of an invisible economy.
Our first shopping trips around town revealed that there were no local cooking oils; we would have to get by with butter. Vancouver’s sugar factory got its sugar beets from the Prairies and raw cane from the tropics. No one seemed to grow tea around here or, James realized with despair, barley for beer.
I mournfully placed back on the shelf the bags of rice labeled “product of Thailand” or “proudly grown in California”; we used to eat rice nearly every day. There was no pepper and no salt.
No salt? It was only the staple seasoning of the entire world. I could taste it in the air, but couldn’t buy it in a box. We would have to ration the two-pound bag of Oregon sea salt that was already in our cupboard. We dubbed it “sinner’s salt.”
More than anything, I kept coming back to the wheat. It is the staff of life, present at every meal in one way or another. I had assumed it grew everywhere, too. But of course: my mental images of late-afternoon light falling on golden fields of grain were all from my childhood on the Canadian Prairies, or from long holiday drives through the American plains. Now I lived in a mountain landscape drenched with rain.
My hopes soared when, scouring a health-food store, I found a brown bag labeled Anita’s Organic Grain & Flour Mill, which was located about 60 miles up the Fraser River Valley. I called as soon as I got home, and reached Anita herself. She gently explained that her nearest grain suppliers were 800 miles away by road. She sounded sorry for me. Would it be a year until I tasted a pie?
The ugly (2,500 mile) American diet
Apple trees are a familiar sight in Vancouver backyards—the city is at the point of a triangle formed by the great apple-growing regions … Yet these apples were being edged out of local supermarkets. What happened to the fruits of our region? Don’t apples store for months if kept cool?
It was time for a closer look at the ugly statistic about the distances that food now travels from farm to plate. I sat down and phoned Rich Pirog, the food systems program leader for the Leopold Center at Iowa State University, and the man responsible for the statistic.
Pirog has seen his 1,500-mile statistic reach far and wide through the media. But look more closely, he said. The study only covered fresh produce, not packaged goods that each can contain a laundry list of ingredients from across the continent and around the world. The public health department of Waterloo, Ontario, puts the typical distance from farm to plate at more like 2,500 miles.
More and more, North American consumers will eat produce from distant places at exactly the same time [that same produce is] growing just a few miles away. This is called “redundant trade”; consider the fact that international strawberry imports to California peak during that state’s strawberry season.
But as one week turned into two and three on our 100-mile diet, I began to wonder how long I would have to go without tossed salad. Our local farmers’ markets wouldn’t open until May.
I looked despairingly at the rows of days left on the calendar. Even the local beets were gone from store shelves now. I wondered if we had done it singlehandedly. Who else eats that much borscht?
We could continue to decipher every far-flung product that appeared on our supermarket shelves. Or we could immerse ourselves in the here and now, and the simple pleasures of eating would become a form of knowing.
We’ll start fresh — and won’t starve
Three weeks into our local-eating experiment, James and I had eaten the last slice of bread from the refrigerator freezer.
I had to admit it. I was hungry. Whether boiled, fried, baked, roasted, or mashed, potatoes just didn’t have the caloric oomph of bleached white flour.
“Tell it to the bateys,” James said over a hash-brown breakfast. We were not starving; this was neither the Long Winter nor the nineteenth-century Russian steppes. We lived five blocks from a fish shop with local salmon, oysters, clams, and mussels.
Capers grocery store, while thus far bereft of local spring produce, did have artisan cheeses and organic eggs, and anything we could find we could fry in Fraser Valley butter. Yet my pants were sagging off my hips. It was like an accidental Atkins diet.
“I think your ass fell off,” said James as I stood up to clear the table.
“So did yours,” I snapped.
A few hours later he popped his head into my office—the bedroom—and asked what I wanted for lunch. It was his little joke. Lunch, we both knew, would be potatoes with whatever else was in a nearly empty fridge.
“I’d kill for a sandwich,” I replied.
James paused for a moment. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll make you a sandwich.”
I sat at my desk, curiosity and suspicion aroused. How would he make a sandwich? We had no bread, only a few tablespoons of remnant flour. I had scoured the list of farmers on the local Certified Organic website, which named a single farm that grew wheat. “I tried that last year, but there was no market for it,” the farmer had told me over the phone. Another farmer supposedly grew oats. “For animal fodder,” he explained. I didn’t tell him that soon I’d be ready to fight a goat for its feed.
I was drawn from my thoughts by the sounds of pans clattering and James humming, the oven door slamming. I crept out toward him, but he heard me and roared, “Stay out of the kitchen!” Finally he called me to the table. It was neatly set, as it often is when James feels he has managed something special. He flourished a hand toward what appeared to be a sandwich festooned with a red-tipped deli toothpick. It actually looked beautiful, like something you might see in an upscale restaurant. Layers of bright red greenhouse peppers and fried mushrooms peeked out beneath delectably oozing goat cheese.
“But what is that?” I asked, pointing at the twin slabs, grilled to a golden brown, that bookended the sandwich filling.
“That is the ‘bread,’ ” said James.
A by-now familiar odor was offering hints. “And what is the ‘bread’ made of, exactly?”
He grinned triumphantly. “Turnips,” he said.
It was delicious and I finished it all.
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.