Is Eating Local Even Possible?


I'm a grasshopper by nature. I procrastinate, I put off, I delay. Sometimes I simply can't get anything done -- and it's all because I love to read.

But reading can kick your ass. Thanks to books, I'm spending my summer like the fabled ant, building up food stores from local providers. Eating local -- goat cheese from the farmers' market or eggs from my friends' chickens, vegetables and fruit as abundant as weeds -- is easy right now in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley. But I want to stay as local as possible in the winter. And that desire has turned me into an ant, the workhorse of food procuring -- I don't even have time to read for pleasure anymore, except when I'm walking to the farmers' market. And it's all the fault of books.

Why am I spending my free hours drying, freezing and canning food? Three books. One is a work of fiction, Susan Beth Pfeiffer's 2006 young adult novel Life as We Knew It. Her dystopian disaster narrative clearly reflects fears about global warming -- and terrifies everyone who reads it. The other two are the hot nonfiction books of the liberal moment, at least for those of us concerned about food security, food safety and a cleaner, less polluted environment: Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Plenty (called The 100 Mile Diet in Canada, a far more accurate title), by young Vancouver journalists Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon.

In Life as We Knew It, a huge meteor hits the moon, causing massive tidal problems and creating volcanic upheaval. Smoke spreads over the globe, causing little light to get through the particle-laden atmosphere (like the year after a volcano caused the explosion of the island Krakatoa in the late 1800s). Nothing can grow. People subsist through the winter weakly on canned food and vitamins. The intimate terror of this book causes young adult librarians and high school teachers I know to purchase food in bulk from Costco. I'm not a Costco person. I decide to go local.

That attitude only grows after I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Plenty. I must say I adore Barbara Kingsolver's essays but find her fiction a bit too didactic. Animal, a work of nonfiction, frustrates me too, especially in the sections contemptuous of city dwellers and exalting of farmers. Sorry, good lady and your family, but city dwellers tend to use less energy per person than those in rural or suburban life. You know -- public transit? Apartments? Biking or walking to work and school?

Food miles, however: Those might run a little farther. She's got me there. Kingsolver, and Smith and MacKinnon, quote an Iowa State University study that shows the average piece of food in 1980 traveled 1,500 miles before it hit our plates; Smith and MacKinnon point out that's has only increased and that it isn't counting processed food like, say, my favorite Turtle Island tofu products. Damn!

While reading the anxiety producing Plenty (the couple does not have an easy time of it), I visit San Francisco and find myself searching out a local breakfast and ending up with goat yogurt. Hello? I don't like the taste of goat milk. But I'm adapting -- after eating goat cheese for a few weeks, I'm starting to enjoy it. And there's a cow dairy about 45 miles away that delivers organic milk, half and half and cheese.

I've been trying to eat organic for many years now, but I can see that organic Granny Smiths from New Zealand maybe aren't the answer. (Plus, if you can get local organic apples, you'll see how very much better they can taste: Cox's Orange Pippin bursts in the mouth with tart beauty at the Eugene farmers' market.)

But signs are positive for locavores this year. All over the country, 100-mile diet clubs and the Slow Food movement -- as the books and associated websites show -- spread the word. And the community garden movement isn't restricted to city-sanctioned places. Heather Flores' Food Not Lawns, another book I read early this year, suggests revolutionary food growing: planting zucchini seeds in cracks in sidewalks, reclaiming junked-out city lots and generally making our cities more efficient food production places.

A friend of mine in a yuppie area of a Pacific Northwest city shows off her piece of what she calls the "anarchist community garden." She grows flowers, squash, berries, corn, tomatoes and lots of potatoes; she's helped mulch paths and build an arbor -- all of this about seven blocks from her house in a bustling, built-up urban center. I'm sworn to secrecy about the garden's location despite the fact that it's both legal and was done with the owner's permission. Garden tools pile up in the unlocked shed, and gardeners can drink a cold beer in quiet seclusion half a block from a supremely busy street in a lot worth about $600,000. "Consider how much your Yukon Gold potatoes are worth!" I tell her. She laughs.

My potatoes (inspired by Flores) didn't pan out this year, but I'm working for the winter anyway. On a Thursday night, I head out after work. The farm stands are about six miles away, closer than 1,500 miles but farther than my walk to the three weekly farmers' markets, farther than I go to retrieve veggies from our two CSA boxes (one for our household, one at my workplace). And in my own garden, hard-won in our small raised beds and our pots, tomatoes and beans, lettuce and cabbage and kale and peppers demand attention.

Yet I want to buy in quantity. Neither my garden nor the farmers' markets make that reasonable. The farm isn't organic, but it advertised no-spray strawberries a couple of months ago, and I picked for a few hours in order to prepare and freeze them for the winter. (We also made a recipe for strawberry-wine ice cream topping from Russ Parsons' fascinating How to Pick a Peach, which explains why our vegetables might come from Canada or Holland, Mexico or Chile.) I enticed friends to pick cherries (7 pounds) and organic blueberries (12 pints, less than I hoped) with me earlier this summer. Soon I hope to pick peaches off another local farm's trees. Nothing like peach cobbler in January.

In a fit of optimism, I buy 15 pounds of green (snap) beans. That doesn't seem like so much when I'm hauling the bags to the car, but the bags stuff my refrigerator like hulking babies of the Jolly Green Giant. On Friday, I'll wash, snap, blanch, cool, dry, pack and freeze 10 pounds. On Saturday, I'll make pickled beans with garlic from the CSA, dried red peppers from last year's garden and dill from the farmers' market. I should now be freezing broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Ah, for enough time. Kingsolver enlisted her entire family, and it seems from the idyllic book that they willingly agreed to help process 50 plants worth of tomatoes, a huge amount of zucchini and who knows how much squash.

I have worries. What about local wine and beer? Yes, I'm lucky in that: Grapes and hops are grown nearby, and we have plenty of wineries and breweries. Uh-oh, what about local gin? Or, gulp, local tonic water? OK, I've given up bananas, but I decide that some things (like fair-trade dark chocolate espresso bars) can come from farther away.

Also, I don't want to be an asshole, and I'm afraid things are starting to go wrong. I nearly bite my partner's head off for buying nonlocal plums at the grocery store (I blame the store; it doesn't stock any of the plums falling off local trees to rot on the ground). I bore my book group with my local food obsession. A friend gently says to me, "You know, the local health food store probably hasn't started thinking about this yet. You can't be mad at them all of the time."

Right. Right! Not to mention that I haven't joined a 100-Mile Club or anything. It's just ... I keep reading things ... I'm a pescatarian, mostly a tofu and garbanzo bean eater but sometimes a wild salmon or albacore addict. The Vancouver couple and the Kingsolvers all decide to dive into local meat (the Kingsolver family raises, kills, grinds and stuffs its own heirloom turkeys), and I'm starting to see why.

Soybeans and soy products, says former New York Greenmarket manager Nina Planck in her infuriating but riveting Real Food, not only might not be safe if they're not fermented, but they're destroying the rainforest in Brazil and the farmland in Iowa. Wait, beef is healthier than tofu brats? Argh!

And can I even get local soybeans? Local garbanzo beans? Local black beans? The extension service doesn't answer my increasingly urgent emails and phone calls. Come on, guys, don't make me eat meat!

Planck explains in utterly convincing scientific detail (backed up by Jo Robinson's short Pasture Perfect) why grass-fed beef and foraging pigs make heart-healthy food for humans. Yes, I'll eat grass-fed dairy-cow butter, but I can't quite shake my belief that meat will kill me. In our freezer, we do have local, grass-fed beef; organic, free-range chicken; and local pork and lamb, all for my meat-loving partner. If I decide to go over to the bloody dark side, I've got options.

As blackberry picking and summer squash drying season arrives, I have questions: Where should I store those things called storage onions? If I give in to my desire for processed soy meat, can I make up for it by making my own cheese with local organic milk from grass-fed cows and the Kingsolver-recommended Ricki's Cheesemaking Kit? Will I make my own crackers and bread? Wait, does wheat grow in the Willamette Valley? Can I ever go out to eat again?

At the restaurant Salmon & Park in Portland, Ore., I settle quickly on the local fish of the day with local farmers' products underneath it. Later, though I'm deeply tempted by the food books section at Powell's, I can't hang out in Portland for long. Back home, there are zucchini in the crisper, waiting to be dried. There are several heads of dill that want to get packed into wide-mouth jars with local beets. There's a bag of basil that needs to be blended with olive oil and frozen into little cubelets of seasoning.

So the ant goes marching home again, hurrah. But I hope that come winter, I'll revert to grasshopper status, lolling with my book in one hand, a glass of Oregon wine in the other, a soup from my stock and my vegetables simmering on the stove. As Kingsolver says, "Eating locally in the winter is easy. But the time to think about that would be in August." So it is.

For further reading:

Plenty: One Man, one Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. New York: Harmony Books, 2007. Hardback. $24.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Hardback, $26.95.

Real Food: What to Eat and Why, by Nina Planck. New York: Bloomsbury, 2006. Hardback, $23.95

Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeiffer. New York: Harcourt Children's Books, 2006. Hardback, $17.

Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard Into a Garden and Your Neighborhood Into a Community, by Heather Coburn Flores. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2006. Trade paperback, $25.

How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor From Farm to Table, by Russ Parsons. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Hardback, $27.

Pasture Perfect: The Far-Reaching Benefits of Choosing Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Products From Grass-Fed Animals, by Jo Robinson. Washington: Vashon Island Press, 2004. Paperback, $14.95.

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