Friday, October 05, 2007

Eating What We Are

I finally got around to reading "The 100-Mile Diet" by Alisa Smith and James B Mackinnon (entitled "Plenty" in the US -- I don't know why they came up with a different title for you guys. Isn't that kind of weird??). Actually, my name in the queue at the library hold listings finally came up. It was a good read -- funny, warm, quirky, non-self-righteous.

It's also like a gauntlet being tossed down. Eat locally. Pull thy head out of the sand. Take up this quest.

We've sort of being eating a sort of local diet for a long while now. Mostly the meats and veges. But it's that final push we've never done, the business of saying No More. This book has inspired me. I mean, if they can do it...

Food is a metaphor of a culture. North American food is cheap, low-interest, low-taste, and low-nutrition. This is what we as a people have become. We'd rather import garlic all the way from China and put our local farmers out of work than to pay two bucks more per bushel. It's been bouncing around on a boat for two weeks, but we don't care.

Doing the 100 mile diet brings up some really interesting problems. Where will I get sugar, rice, and flour in eastern Ontario?

The truth is I don't know. The likely answer is that I won't. And that's something we have to work out one item at a time. I have to let go of the ideas about food that are tying me to an insane global agro-food business.

For now, sugar is coming from maple syrup (50 km), honey (40 km), and corn syrup from the grocery store that I have rationalized since Ontario grows lots of corn that this is sort of maybe local syrup. The muffins this week weren't so bad, especially with the local pumpkin mush (30 km) to help sweeten them. I am now trying to persuade one farmer at the farmer's market to grow sugar beets next spring and then find an elderly German immigrant to teach her how to turn them into syrup. Maybe you can process sweet corn into syrup in the same way. Has anyone ever tried it?

Maybe I'll try it this weekend.

Is eating local a spiritual principle? I don't think quakers ever made a distinction between everyday living and spiritual living. This little quest is like a prayer for the earth, to make it better.

And as we head into Thanksgiving weekend, it's good to think of food prayerfully.

We can, truly, eat ourselves into being again.

From the second-last chapter, when Alisa and James are at a local food restaurant with a table full of local food critics. A bottle of wine had been presented to them (200 miles), and everyone at the table had hesitated to accept it:

I had expected the 100-mile experiment to be a platform to think about many things, among them a long list of bummers from climate change to the failure of whole generations to learn how to recognize edibel mushrooms. What I could see around thetable now was a less tangible consideration: a sense of adventure. We are at a point in world history where bad news about the state of the Earth is just as jaded and timeworn as the idea that there is nowhere left to go, nothing new to explore. Put those two statements side by side, however, and something hidden is revealed. Of course there are new things to do, and no shortage of them. We need to find new ways to live in the future. We can start any time; we can live them here and now .


At 8:28 PM, Blogger Robin M. said...

Hmmm. People keep throwing this gauntlet in my general direction. One of these days it's going to make a direct hit. I bookmarked this post for that day.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Brian Spolarich said...

The liberal guilt in me says "that's all well and good, but having the choice to do this is the luxury of the rich".

I try to buy local when I can, but the notion of doing this in toto would require a level of devotion only possible for someone with enormous amounts of leisure time.

I guess I'm saying I have mixed feelings about this. :-)

At 7:04 PM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Hi Brian -- Welcome!

Hm, I don't feel guilt. I wouldn't see that as the prime motivator here. Life is just life. We are who we are. We don't carry the sins of our ancestors.

Surprisingly, I have found it doesn't take that much more time to find local food. Most localities are getting very organized about getting their food to the consumer. I happen to have a root cellar and a freezer, so I stock up. If anything, I go shopping for food less frequently than before.

What takes time is cooking. You have to cook to eat local food because it doesn't come prepackaged. Since most north Americans don't know how to cook anymore, this is a barrier.

Simply put, local food tastes better, because its fresh. Real cooking tastes better, because it's done with care. Local diets are healthier, because they don't include cheap low-nutrient techno-foods.

So I don't see this being about guilt. It's about reaching out for a better life.

Hi Robin -- Try finding the book at the local library as a way to start. If way hasn't opened, then perhaps it has opened to explore the topic. I've heard the Barbara Kingsolver has written one too, pretty much on the same topic. There's a long wait list for that book too!

At 11:10 AM, Blogger earthfreak (Pam) said...


I don't think Brian was saying that he'd eat locally out of guilt, more that since the choice isn't available to the poor (at least largely unavailable) it's questionable.

I would disagree, as the more we support a local economy, the more available it WILL be for the poor. In addition, there are ways that it is better for the eater (the feeling it gives you, the food is fresher, etc) but it's also better for everyone - the trucks that would haul your lettuce from CA are polluting EVERYONE'S air that much less for eveyrone who eats local.

As far as the 100 mile diet, that seems a bit random. The coops here did an eat local challenge recently, and labelled that as the 5 state area (mn, dakotas, iowa and wisconsin) - some folks here include michigan, though there's a lake in between so it feels a lot less local.

I know you can get MN flour, which is at least *relatively* local (it's not chinese) and I think you'd be amazed what else grows locally, on a smaller scale

Also, my local farmer's market accepts food stamps, so it's not entirely unavailable to poorer folks, and I think that one of the best things about it.

I had honey in my coffee the other day, cause it's local and sugar, at least mostly, isn't. Actually, we do grow sugar beets in MN, and have local sugar, I guess, but I'm used to eating the less processed turbinado sugar, which I think is all from sugar cane.

I wouldn't necessarily assume that corn syrup is likely to be local. For one thing, even if the corn is, it's likely to be shipped far for processing and then shipped back, sadly...

It's a really interesting project, I'm looking forward to hearing about it.

(I'm lucky to live in a city that has a number of cafes that focus on the local - not entirely, as most have coffee, but largely)

My favorite ice cream place uses local organic milk from small farmers, in addition to local berried, locally processed coffee and chocolate (fair trade, I'm pretty sure) organic bananas, etc. I should ask about the sugar she uses, she probably could get it locally, but I don't knwo if she does.

At 11:46 AM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Hi Pam

I see your point.

I thought of you when I was reading this book because there is one chapter in the book where one of the authors goes to a local-eating group in (of all places) northern Minnesota. This group was doing a 250-mile diet instead of a 100-mile diet, for obvious reasons. They had been doing it successfully for a few years. So that was kind of interesting to read.

My sister in Sudbury says local eating wouldn't be possible there, since there is no agriculture within a 250-mile radius. But I point out to her that the Ojibwe have been living there for at least 2000 years. They had to be eating something before grocery stores came.

Maybe what's difficult for us is the shift in thinking and food culture that this idea entails.

It's interesting that the two authors of The 100-Mile Diet were poor -- or at least poor by my standards. (Okay, everybody in Vancouver is poor my standards, since the cost of living is so high). They insured their car only four months of the year and did everything else by bike. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment, which included their offices (they are freelancers).

But there are many different kinds of poverty. We could talk about time poverty (who has time to cook?) or self poverty (I don't care what I eat as long as I can get my job done) or connection poverty (I could live anywhere, it doesn't matter to me).

I see many kinds of poverties intertwined with each other and with the globalized, time-crunched way of life. Each supports and makes necessary the other. Maybe this is why stepping out of those cycles strikes some people as nuts.

But people thought recycling was nuts not so long ago. And today, it's law (at least in Canada) that you have to recycle all your plastics, papers, soft plastics, cardboards, glass, and metals and compost your vege waste. Our city is now drawing up plans for a wet collection for bones and meat. Soon there will be hardly anything in the garbage. So it wasn't so nuts after all.

Like most adventures, we don't know where it leads to till we get there.

At 12:40 PM, Blogger earthfreak (Pam) said...

The woman who owns the ice cream shop I mentioned is apparently also doing a local dinner club thing. Like, there are a number of people who are each hosting one dinner a month all *winter* (it starts this month) - with all local food. It sounds like fun, but she pointed out, it takes a lot of planning. I'm excited to hear how that goes too.

I've thought a lot about how long first nations people have lived on the land I live on (ojibwe and dakota where I am). Clearly it's *possible* (though maybe not at the level of population we have now) - but not something most of us think about now.

At 12:42 PM, Blogger earthfreak (Pam) said...

And it's funny, I thought they were sort of rich :)

At 8:03 AM, Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

As for the Ojibwe (however you want to spell it), a great deal of their diet was wild meat and fish — food sources that would not support a whole Sudbury's worth of people, because they weren't that plentiful.

At 9:14 AM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Hi Marshall - yes, point taken.

Sudbury is an especially apt example, since its mining industry has destroyed all its topsoil for a hundred miles, acidified its many lakes, and chemicalized its fish. So local eating near Sudbury would be ew.

However, draw a wide ring around the 150,000 population of Sudbury and you'll find completely unpopulated wilderness as far as you can go. The North (always capitalized) is more or less completely unpopulated. There would be safe game and fish in there. In fact, many northerners bag a moose or deer every year to act as their beef.

There are some important reasons why the North should adopt a more local diet. Produce shippers and grocery chains send all the good, fresh produce to southern cities and ship only the leftovers to the North. Usually the broccoli is wilting and the cauliflower turning brown before it even hits the stores. The nutritional value is lost, and so is the taste. The global distribution system has its favourites, and northerners are not among them.

I grew up some 5 hours north of Sudbury in a small town, so I speak from experience. However, our community grew some of its own produce. The oil pipelines run from north to south, sitting a few feet below the surface, heated to keep the oil flowing. Some clever people built greenhouses over the pipelines, thereby trapping some of the heat. This was enough to allow for an early start to the season.

To my way of thinking, there are reasons for northerners to embrace local eating, and ways to do it.

At 8:19 PM, Blogger Robin M. said...

I looked into the locavore movement, which has great online and on the ground resources in the SF Bay Area. I'm thinking of starting with a potluck dinner party - challenge everyone to bring a dish that is sourced locally. Then we can compare notes and see what we can come up with. Like I said to Pam earlier, it's a start!


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