Eating locally anytime of the year

By Annette Gallagher Weisman
edibleASPEN—Summer, 2009

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy — especially for locavores. Roadside stalls and farmers’ markets overflow with fresh fruits and vegetables stacked in rows like colorful swatches of fabric, a feast for the eye as well as the palate.

But what about eating locally produced food year-round? How easy is that? Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, in his book “Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods” (W.W. Norton, $16.95), spent a year eating foods grown, fished or gathered within a 250-mile loop around his Arizona home. One inventive menu included rattlesnake roadkill, which he combined with blue corn meal to make fritters!

An early pioneer of the locavore movement, and lauded by my hero Michael Pollan, Nabhan decries the food industry’s vast use of corn containing BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), a pest-control microbe, as well as the near-loss of saguaro cactus fruit as a dietary staple, due to its being transplanted to shopping malls, golf courses and retirement centers for “local” ambience. In this series of linked essays, Nabhan writes lyrically about the many benefits of our foodshed and the “communion of neighbors” that enriches our lives along the way.

By contrast, “Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet,” by Alisa Smith and J. B. Mackinnon (Three Rivers Press, $13.95), is a memoir about how this married couple spent a year hunting and gathering local food and how that experiment almost drove them apart. It began with a dinner made entirely from local, sustainable foods that was so good they wondered if there was a way “to carry this meal into the rest of our lives.”

Knowing that many of the foods they purchased had traveled 1,500 miles or more, they embarked on a plan to be kind to the planet by reducing their ecological footprint. Leaving their Vancouver home, they lived in a remote cabin for several months and traveled to other parts of the Pacific Northwest, competing with bruins for berries and toughing out harsh conditions with limited resources. During the winter, when food was sparse and the silence between them had grown, this reader felt like the couple was forced to live in a gulag rather than choosing to live off the land. However, Smith, a journalist, and Mackinnon, a writer and home chef, emerge the better for the experience. Their account is not only informative, it’s well written. A bonus: Each month is preceded by a tasty recipe, such as maple-walnut crepes, squash-flower soup and gooseberry oysters.

Savvy locavores know how to freeze, can, dehydrate or otherwise preserve foods to eat anytime of year, but some of us are not so competent. Lou Bendrick, a former journalist with The Aspen Times and currently a columnist with Grist online magazine, says in her book “Eat Where You Live: How to Find and Enjoy Local and Sustainable Food No Matter Where You Live” (Skipstone, $16.95) that she’s too lazy to can food and couldn’t even grow dandelions until she moved to Massachusetts. But this little book is a must have. It’s crammed with useful and helpful information that includes advice for growing and storing foods, along with multiple sources for related topics you may want to pursue, such as foraging. When I asked Bendrick what advice she’d give to an aspiring locavore, she said, “Have fun. Talking to a farmer beats the hell out of pushing your cart, alone, around a grocery aisle under the fluorescent lights. Also — and this is ironic — one of the great ways to find local food is the World Wide Web. The Internet is chock full of great websites and databases.”

The cyber world has many advantages, but while Twittering, emailing or Facebooking results in instant gratification, these connections fall short compared to sharing a meal with those you care about, enjoying the slow food way of life.

Alice Waters, president of Slow Food International, wrote the foreword to “Come to the Table: The Slow Food Way of Living,” edited by Katrina Heron (Rodale, $29.95). Inside you’ll find inspirational stories about a dozen California farmers and how their farms have survived and grown in an age when America’s farmland is dwindling. Favorite recipes from these farms are given at the back of the book, including peach and nectarine salsa, pasta-less vegetable lasagna and organic cheesecake. You’ll also find separate sections on controversial issues such as pasteurization and organic certification.

Whether you buy food from a local farm or use produce from your own garden, it’s comforting to know where it came from and that it was grown without harmful pesticides. Still, like dieters snarfing a few forbidden cookies, I don’t think we should feel bad nor worry obsessively about our carbon footprint for craving the occasional out-of-season, out-of-state food. Rattlesnake fritters, anyone?

Annette Gallagher Weisman is a freelance writer and a longtime parttime Aspenite. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, she has written for many publications, including national magazines.