Saturday, September 15, 2007

Read it: "Plenty"

Right before I came to Argentina, I read “Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally", the book by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon that has brought much recent attention to eating locally grown food. It was a great, fast read, and details how the authors spent one year eating only foods whose origins they could trace to within 100 miles of their Vancouver apartment.
While cynics might dismiss their experiment as just another gimmick in the “let’s try something sustainable for one year and write a book about it” trend, it’s clear from the opening pages that this was anything but that. “Plenty” is an authentic and heart-felt attempt by one couple to wrestle control back from our highly flawed, destructive, polluting and wasteful agricultural system. Ok, this is starting to sound like a newspaper book review, but bear with me. They trace how an impromptu feast from all local ingredients illuminated their lurking suspicions that something just isn’t right with how we eat, and that they could do better. The book details their journey from subsisting primarily on potatoes for the first month…to educating themselves about what is grown around them and the satisfaction of knowing precisely where each apple and onion came from…enjoying the abundant months of farmers’ discovering how grounding and enjoyable some old-school culinary arts can be: Think canning tomatoes for winter, turning cabbage into sauerkraut, and making cheese. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?!

By now you’ve probably heard the statistics. The average ingredient in any given North American meal travels at least 1500 miles--and often many more--to get to our plates. Think about all the fossil fuels used up and burned just to bring you a tomato that never gets ripe in December. And why? Somewhere along the way we’ve gotten spoiled, expecting oranges in january and tropical bananas year round. Does anyone actually recall the days of seasonal fruit? I am not old enough to have that memory…And as any foodie will tell attest, it’s a gastronomic crime to eat out of season, mediocre, unripe produce that is a poor imitation of its seasonal counterparts. On the other hand, eating locally can be as gourmet as it gets, like at Chez Panisse, the original regional foodie restaurant in Berkeley. A couple months ago, I got treated to one of the best meals I've ever had...Just look at that dessert!

But Alisa and James didn’t just eat locally grown produce. We’re talking grains, eggs, fish, and dairy products too—their entire diet. That meant honey instead of sugar, and they went without any wheat products for almost the entire year until they found one lone wheat farmer at the edge of their 100 miles. But they discovered other grains, and other ways of making balanced meals. Obviously, their experiment automatically ruled out supermarket food, chocked full, as it is, of a medley of ingredients and “flavors” of whose origins are unknown (and disturbing to ponder). Eating locally necessarily means eliminating processed, factory made foods, which is not only healthier, but also makes a statement for a smaller, healthier, and more connected food production system.

What’s most illuminating about "Plenty" is that Alisa and James discover that eating locally is not any kind of deprivation or punishment. On the contrary, they found eating a more joyful experience and became not only more connected to what they put in their bodies, but also to the very specific place they live and to the conditions that make their food possible. When a toxic spill killed the area’s salmon supply in a nearby river, they felt it deeply, and went without salmon for the year. I suspect that if we were all eating more locally, we would more quickly see how dependent we are on the delicate balance of nature that makes our nourishment possible. If we knew where our food came from, we would undoubtedly be more alert to the early signs when something is off balance, and we would hopefully be inclined to react more quickly.

So what to do? The easiest step to eat locally is of course, visiting our farmers’ market regularly. Most have way more offerings than just scrumptious produce—at mine I can get eggs, honey, the best cheese in the world, milk, hummus, bread, nuts and dried fruits. I’ve yet to try the grass-fed bison, but I bet it’s juicy. Discover what your area has to offer! (See below for how to find local food). Host a local-foods potluck, which will be a good excuse to hunt down some local wine or beer. As summer comes to a close, get crazy and can some fruit to enjoy in the winter. I can already see it—canning parties becoming the newest hipster pastime...And be sure to check out the 100-mile diet website and get inspired by how many people are taking on the local eating challenge, at some level or another. Eating as locally as we can is one crucial step towards creating a more sustainable way of feeding ourselves.

P.S. Eating in Argentina has been an adventure. On the one hand, out of economic necessity, everything is much more local—I’m pretty sure most of the food I’ve eaten comes from within a couple hundred miles, because they just can’t afford to truck food thousands of kilometers. But on the other hand, there’s not much diversity—tons of pizza, pasta, meat and bread, and not many “whole foods”, as we would call them. So I’ve found myself almost obsessively searching for decidedly unlocal foods like, peanut butter (I’ve heard tales of its existence in at least one store in Buenos Aires, but have yet to find it), which is somewhat legit because I need protein. A little less justified was my quest for salsa, simply because I’ve been craving some spice and in my normal life I subsist on Mexican food. When I finally found some “Newman’s Own Chunky Salsa”—I know, not even the good stuff--in the “Imported Foods” aisle of a huge supermarket, I unthinkingly snapped it up. Yikes—I can’t imagine the thousands of miles that jar traveled! Woops. Ironically, far from being the satisfying and familiar explosion of flavor I was anticipating, eating it has been a reminder of why it’s a good idea to eat locally. You see, you just can’t find good tortilla chips here.

Check out this great resource to find locally grown food near you, at farmer’s markets or through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture): Local Harvest. Just type in your zip code...You can even search for specific foods and it will tell you if there is anything in your area!

The 100-Mile Diet.. Has lots of fun features and lets you find your own 100 miles.

Ask your local bookstore to order "Plenty", or order it from Powell's.


Anonymous said...

Sara - I heard these guys on the radio, and I was surprised when they sounded totally sane! It is a cool idea. I think I'm going to have to get over my reluctance to go to our local farmer's market. It seems so burby! I would love to try even a few days of eating within 100 miles.
Thanks for another inspiring post with practical tips! You rock!
(BTW I remember eating in Buenos Aires - you had to go pretty upscale before things got very inspired. There was hardly any street food!)

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic?
I'd be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Cheers!

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