Monday, September 3, 2007

That Local Diet That Everyone's Doing

Dirtdog, my dear friend of 21 years (ack! We're getting old. People born on the day I first saw Dirtdog walking into my freshman physical science class and thought "Please don't sit with me, nerdy boy with the strange hat," can now legally buy alcohol in all 50 states.) mentioned something about that "local diet that everyone seems to be doing" as we were drinking New Glarus, WI beer, grilling Waunakee, WI brats with Waunakee, WI mustard sitting in on a deck in Waunakee, WI. Certainly there are signs that locavore lifestyles are proliferating among people of my acquaintance. One sibling's family belongs to a CSA, the other buys wondrous arsenal cheeses from an organic farmer's market. Then mention the 100 mile diet website in on-line conversations. Both sets of parents grow vegetables, although this is nothing new. The Mister is finding sources of WV pasture raised lamb. Slow Food and Heritage Food articles are reaching the Salina, KS newspaper. The Gorgeous Biologist Knitters left in Lawrence run into each other at the farmer's market every week, and those removed from Lawrence moan about the lack of a new local equivalent. People may be starting to take where their food comes from seriously.

If I thought this was entirely true, I wouldn't promote Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable Miracle about a year of eating locally, so heartily. My experience, however, is that my friends and family are a pretty non-random sample of the American population (I believe the most recent studies suggest that the median number of books read last year was 1 and the mean 4 for adult Americans. This is not true of my friends and family). Beyond that, people of my acquaintance may talk about eating locally but I'm not sure how much we do it. The Mister and I, for instance, have bagged spinach from California in our refrigerator, bananas on the counter and coffee in the pot as we speak. So, while Barbara and I may be preaching to the choir, the choir still needs the message, not just to hear their voices.

As previously mentioned, like every other biologist wanna-be novelist I know, I want to be Barbara Kingsolver. I could do without the failed marriage and horrible insomnia that led to her earlier novels, but still I want to be her. So this is not an objective review, but I suppose it says something that after writing my book, (food, family and environment being my domain [Barbara can have single motherhood, Arizona and African missionaries in the '60s]) I still want to be her, because she wrote my book as well as I would have, perhaps better, because I don't think that there is anyway I'd venture into turkey sex.

Whether Barbara, myself, or many other authors write it*, the case for eating locally is strong. I was planning on expounding on the many benefits, but I find that my blogging time is well-past used up, and I am interfering with far too much of my entomology learning time as I write. So I will limit myself to two points. One: there are compelling environmental, social, and taste benefits from eating locally in season. If you cannot think of them, I would be happy to expound in conversation (or would direct you to the 100 mile diet web site if you don't want to read Barbara's book). Two: I know that vegetables at the farmers market cost more (at least sometimes), that most of us don't live near any source of chocolate, coffee, or tea and might not make it without them, that your local grocery store is hideous (couldn't be much worse than ours as far as local produce goes), that you don't have space for a garden, that convenience foods are convenient . . . I know and I'm not asking you to become an exclusive locavore.

I am asking that you

  1. buy (or grow) more locally in season

  2. "put away" some local produce for the winter. Among people I know this ranges from drying apples to canning tomato sauce. Like many of you, I am not up for canning, but I am going to buy a bushel of chili peppers at the market next week and freeze most of them (sticking them in the freezer whole because the mister and I are too lazy to prep them). I am going out this afternoon to pick basil to make pesto to freeze and I hope to dry some tomatoes.

  3. If you live anywhere where you can purchase a large box of good Colorado peaches, do it now. Eat them, two a day and think of me. Or make a cobbler or a pie. Or freeze some.

  4. find local apples this fall. I have been shocked to find WV apples are as much better than grocery stores (WA and New Zealand) apples as garden tomatoes are from store tomatoes. Scrumptious.


*One criticism I've heard of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is that the idea is not novel. This is definitely true. Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan writes regularly on the subject, most notably with his 2001 Coming Home to Eat chronicling a year of eating locally (moderately recommended; good points, tiresome reading). His involvement with RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) helps ensure that Slow Food USA is an ecological as well as gastronomic movement, and I can support his Buffalo Nation treatise because it cites two of my local eating mentors, Kelly Kindscher and Alma Hogan Snell. Without at any point telling readers they should eat locally, Michael Pollan does an excellent job of explaining where our food does (and can) come from in Omnivore's Dilemma (very highly recommended). Jay Weinstein takes the opposite approach: little explanation, many directives, in The Ethical Gourmet (mildly recommended, a bit too much "Tell your cook not to buy bottled water" and "here's how to source coffee at high end stores in Manhattan" for my budget or location, but very clear priority lists for eating ethically). Vandana Shiva, Wendell Berry and to a lesser extent Wes Jackson have all written about the social and economic consequences of different agricultural systems. I haven't read the 100-Mile Diet (Plenty is the American title) yet. I will someday, but when I picked it up in Toronto, I was a bit displeased with the commentary on the back stating that Smith and McKinnon were introducing us to the idea of a food shed. It's petty on my part, since the authors themselves didn't make this claim, but as I have been reading and discussing foodsheds since my fabulous 2000 Geography of American Foodways class (and then it wasn't a new concept, just new to me), I was annoyed at anyone so disrespecting the vast foodshed literature : - )


Sparkling Squirrel said...

I intended it to read "artisanal" or "artisan" cheese, but I like the image of Maria stockpiling her arsenal of locally produced cheeses.

Maria said...

I like to have a well-stocked cheese arsenal. Our department apparently has an annual raclette-tasting event that stinks up the entire building and provides students with dangerously potent cheese. In fact, if the university were ever attacked around raclette-eating season, we could probably hold out for weeks with our arsenal. Unless we were attacked by mice . ..

By the way, I've read some things about "The Omnivore's Dilemma," too. It sounds as if the book has a good discussion of the various issues that you try to balance when purchasing food: taste, freshness, environmental sustainability, nutritional content, place of origin, and so on. Haven't read it yet, though.

One other book jumped to mind as I read your list. "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" by Euell Gibbons. The reason that Gibbons isn't talked about much now is that his book isn't about whay to buy. It also doesn't offer a charming fantasy of living an idyllic farm life (a la Verlyn Klinkenborg's dispatches from the boondocks of upstate NY) or the chance to dream of being what used to be called a "gentleman farmer."

Books like Gibbons', and some of the others you mention, suggest that an understanding of nature requires spending some time in nature, not just buying something labelled "natural." Thus they are unlikely to end up in the display are in Whole Foods or on the bestseller list in the NYT.

Sparkling Squirrel said...

An aresenal of raclette-- what a wonderful department you must work for. My parents had Stalking the Wild Asparagus on the shelf at some point, I'll have to see what happened to it. Thanks for the suggestion.