Saturday, February 23, 2008

Let the Locavory Begin

I've mentioned this to several people now. But I'd yet to make a public commitment. Here goes:

My daughter and I are “eating local” (with a couple exceptions), for a year, starting June 3 with the opening of the first of two local farmer’s markets.

In this, as many will recognize, we are inspired by Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful and immensely popular Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I also raved about here.

It’s also the case that, as my shopping habits have changed over the past few years, I have naturally increased my use of local products. The majority of my vegetables this year have come from a farm called Gallatin Valley Botanical, where I have a CSA share; I ate them fresh during the summer, and froze some for winter (I’m still eating them now, at the end of February). My bread and flour, and my milk and cream and eggs and butter, have long come from local or regional producers. I don’t buy much meat, but we have excellent local beef, buffalo, and other meats in Montana, and I try to choose grassfed products from nearby ranches. In various seasons, I can and do get local apples, dried beans, vegetable oil, honey, and other products.

But I’ve always approached food shopping with list in hand, the question of what do I need/want? having been considered ahead of time, and the choice amounting to which version to purchase (local? organic? cheapest? etc.). Because, in our American market environment (with the exception of certain “food desert” areas), everything on the list is virtually certain to be available. Years ago, when I did a lot of exotic cooking, yet thought little of seasonality or food transportation distance, I’d be flummoxed on the rare occasion when some fresh produce item demanded in a recipe was not to be found in any of my several nearby supermarkets. It was scandalous, because anomalous, when nobody happened to have lemongrass, or Belgian endive.

The real problem, as Kingsolver and others have made clear, is not that it is difficult to adequately feed oneself on mostly local products. The challenge is to change one’s mental habits so that one embraces the food available, then figures out how to best and most deliciously use it. This requires abandoning the idea, I think, pushed by many American personal-budget gurus, that meal planning must come before shopping. When endeavoring to eat locally, we need to take an approach that should come more naturally to us as a formerly foraging species: go out and gather what there is, whether from our own garden, a nearby farm, or a market. If we live in an area with a cold season, then we have to gather more than we immediately need; avoiding waste means preserving the excess, not shopping according to a rigorous plan.

After all, which gives me more joy? Buying a jar of spaghetti sauce, a bag of pasta, and a pie slice of parmesan cheese in preparation for a dinner when we will surely have spaghetti (again)? Or receiving those unsolicited boxes of tomatoes, or root vegetables, or apples, that our elderly neighbors used to leave on our doorstep, overflow from their productive back yard, and musing over “how to use them up”? Even leaving aside all questions of sustainability, the first task is simple, carefully-delineated, impersonal, and more or less the same from week to week; the second is creative, complex, invokes a neighborly relationship, and never failed to give me a feeling of abundance and satisfaction. Potatoes, carrots or apples, yes, I did always have a use for them.

I am positively looking forward to what feels almost like a luxury: instead of budgeting some precise weekly amount for food, if I find something wonderful at the farmer’s market, I will buy it. (Maybe a lot of it, because we only get fresh foods, here in Montana, from about June to October.) I will give myself leave to explore the really good stuff that’s out there, instead of always maintaining a carefully balanced larder of peanut butter and breakfast cereal and salsa and rice and frozen juice concentrate and spaghetti sauce. I will enthusiastically take my friend up on her offer of sharing her yard’s yield of apples and rhubarb and raspberries, in exchange for picking labor and some vacation garden-watering. (Fruit is a northern-climate luxury: YES, I’m interested.)

I bet I’ll eat better than I do now, though I may have to give up peanut butter (honestly, I don’t really care). I’ll be motivated for the first time to fully explore what foods are produced in my area. And you know what’ll be fun? Travelling. When I go to Austin in July, it’ll be exciting, because there will be different local foods there.

There are a few things I can’t give up. Coffee—it’ll be locally-roasted, but I have to have it. Spices and salt—but these are dry goods used in small quantities, and I don’t feel too badly about their transport. The same would probably go for things like leavening. The idea is not to suffer deprivation, but to investigate and enjoy what is available, and to relearn some more traditional ways of food use and preservation.

And, if I’m at your house, of course I’ll eat anything you serve me.

As we are living this project, I expect there will be many follow-up posts about various details.

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