Tuesday, December 18, 2007

local eating challenge: the summary

Thank goodness! I have finally been forced to do a local eating challenge, which has been on my to-do list for years! Though one reason or another has prevented me from going all out in the past, my eating habits have had a clear trajectory toward being more local, more organic, more relationship-oriented (knowing (or being!) those who grow my food) so intensifying my focus on this by consuming only locally-grown fare was really the next logical step. This exercise took my existing knowledge to satisfying new depths and adjusted perspectives – from connecting with soil and nearby farmers to seeing the big picture of global industrial agriculture.

For the purposes of my first local eating challenge, I defined local food as completely grown and processed within a 100-mile radius. Why 100 miles? As Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon of 100 Mile Diet suggest, “It's an easy way to start thinking local. A 100-mile radius is large enough to reach beyond a big city and small enough to feel truly local.” I determined that a comfortable variety of foods could be found in this range for my inaugural attempt at local-only eating.

I focused sincere attention on adhering to this definition – even in the face of my partner’s greasy taco urges. Minor and infrequent exceptions occurred for a few cups of tea, for three restaurant meals (though I did always attempt to choose the “most local” menu item and/or restaurant), and for benevolent acceptance of a couple of ingredients that others put in homemade communal meals without my input.

Because there is such an amazing variety of fruits and vegetables grown in and around Sonoma County, I found local eating outrageously delicious as well as easy. Only on a few rare occasions did I eat the same meal twice. I just let my cooking creativity go! I connected fully with a style of cooking that I love to do but usually only partially engage, in which I buy a riot of potential ingredients and then see what I think of to make with them. My first trip to stock up on supplies was to Tierra Vegetables where I spent a whopping 93 bucks! Most of this sum went towards buying approximately twelve pounds of dried sangre de torro (bull’s blood) beans – little Mexican red beans introduced to the farm by an employee who brought the seeds back from his hometown – which I shared with friends and classmates doing their local eating challenge at the same time.

One of my first meals consisted of these same delicious red beans suspended in a chili with Tierra’s torpedo onions and sweet corn, Quetzal Farm’s gypsy peppers, basil and oregano grown in my housemate’s backyard garden, and heirloom brandywine tomatoes purchased from Bob Cannard himself at his Petaluma-based operation, Green String Farm. Might I just say, “Yum!” The scrumptious menu options only flourished from there. I savored localized versions of garlic mashed potatoes, rosemary roasted vegetables, pizza, and even babaganouj.

Trading staples and sharing meals proved to be a delightful way to broaden everyone’s ability to eat a vital variety of foods, to encourage each other’s commitment, and, of course, to have fun in the process. I traded beans for whole wheat flour and homemade yogurt, and was the bean supplier for others who paid cash. 100% local pizza (and classic rock) night, rocked by four committed local eaters and two sympathetic guests, held a place as one of several communal meals – sometimes amongst fellow locavores and sometimes exposing the unconverted to a deliciously community version of garlic mashed potatoes or simple roasted corn.

Inspired to think longer-term by the Eat Local Challenge folks of the web world who are focusing their 2007 campaign on food preservation, I cracked into the food dehydrator that I had inherited from an old housemate and had never used. I am pleased to report that the results satisfied not only my taste buds but my burgeoning love of food preservation – first came freezing, now dehydrating! I filled every available food storage container with chewy dried figs, pears, apples, and hot peppers. It is surely only a matter of time before I find myself the owner of a raw foods cookbook delving into the realms of sprouted flax crackers and the like. Perhaps this phase will then be followed by a fermented foods frenzy or a canning obsession. Oh, the possibilities!

Resisting the desire to slurp down tacos at the farmers’ market while Reed was drooling over them proved much easier than I might have expected (thanks in large part to his gracious declination to actually consume the corn-wrapped delight). Besides, I had bigger challenges to face. Grains seem to receive little attention from growers in the 100-mile region though we did (through collective efforts) eventually come up with whole wheat flour, brown rice, and corn flour. Additionally, eating with others occasionally tested the integrity of my personal version of eating completely locally as some made exceptions that I would not. At the same time, I consider communal meals an integral part of what local eating means and as such, will always seek to include them. Another interesting effect occurred with regard to my generally vegetarian diet in that I ate meat (gasp!) in the forms of abalone and chicken.

To cap off my two-week commitment, Reed and I discovered a black walnut tree in central Santa Rosa whose nuts languished on the ground, no one seeing fit to harvest them. Nuts had been another tricky item to find so I was excited to have found this supply. The black stains on our fingers endured long after our evening of processing our find.

Touring a local organic dairy brought up an important question that I had not previously considered: What about the origin of agricultural inputs? This particular dairy was definitely within my range (within 30 miles, in fact) and used organic practices to boot but, as one astute tour participant uncovered, they do get some of their feed grains from far off sources both national and international. Though I chose not to use this factor as a constraining consideration in food selection (for now), one must wonder how sustainable organic agriculture really is when it relies on such far flung resources if one is to view local eating as a way toward a more sustainable food system. It seems clear that if achieving this sustainable food system vision means that we must eventually constrain ourselves to entirely local cuisine, so must the dairy cows not to mention the goats, chickens, hogs, and beef cows.

All in all, I found my brief commitment to all fare regional a gratifying experience. I enjoyed learning what farms were closest to me (Tierra Vegetables, Laguna Farm), how to access their food (farm stand, work trade, farmers’ market), and then getting to interact with the farmers themselves – great people, farmers. I learned that I like abalone and that salt, while tasty, is great to omit sometimes allowing you to savor the natural flavor of fresh ingredients. Given that Sonoma County is home to many wonderful small, organic farms, I came to realize that I could have chosen an even tighter radius and still found myself eating quite royally. As it was, I estimate that 90% of what I consumed came from within Sonoma County or within about 30 miles. Better yet was the food that I participated in growing or gathering myself or that my friends made, grew or harvested including sun gold tomatoes, sweet peppers, rye bread, homemade raw yogurt and the aforementioned abalone. The fresher and closer to home (the closer to my heart) the better.

Ironically, eating only local foods seems a great way to begin to question and understand the larger food system. What foods are we eating out of season? Where must they come from? One begins to recognize the systemic ignorance of the industrial food system illustrated in the lack of transparency in most food products – even those coming from ostensibly “natural” or “organic” sources. And you wonder, where does one obtain guar gum or evaporated cane juice? Should I even be eating these ingredients at all? Looking forward, I see my trajectory of more local, more organic and more relationship-oriented food continuing. Growing more of my own food is a definite future endeavor. A scheme has already been devised to plant perennial fruit at my parents’ farmstead to get them and the rest of our family eating more locally too [conspiratorial snickering and hand rubbing]. Once they get a taste of those fresh raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries, I’m hoping that they won’t be able to resist coming back for more. As for me, you can find me next summer working in my garden, pruning berries, or preserving like a madwoman.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

looking for inspiration? get turned on by TED!

Recently, I was turned on by TED. My mind is still being blown. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) started out as a conference for all kinds of smarty pants, bigwig geeks & has now grown into this truly amazing convergence of innovative thinkers & doers including folks like Jane Goodall, Janine Benyus (Biomimicry), America's first Tibetan Monk and, yes, the "Skeptical Environmentalist" Bjorn Lomborg. Al Gore gave the talk that would become An Inconvenient Truth at the 2006 TED Conference. One of the best things that they do is post talks to their web site. As a burgeoning & proud TED Geek, I highly recommend that you check it out: www.ted.com.