PLENTY: ONE MAN, ONE WOMAN, AND A RAUCOUS YEAR OF EATING LOCALLY, by Alissa Smith & J. B. MacKinnon, is the book I barely opened yesterday. I’d made more headway (having started it earlier) with THE ART OF SIMPLE FOOD: NOTES, LESSONS, AND RECIPES FROM A DELICIOUS REVOLUTION, by Alice Waters. The books go well together, with their emphasis on what the French call ‘terroir,’ or regional soil. Grow, buy, eat what you can get close to home is the message of both books. For Smith and MacKinnon it was a challenge they made more stringent by drawing the acceptable border of home at 100 miles in any direction. I can’t imagine that Waters would rule out food that hadn’t been grown or produced within 100 miles of Berkeley, California; on the other hand, she’s been in this local food game a lot longer and has been responsible for a lot of fresh local food production, domestic and commercial.
Well, anyway, I woke up this morning thinking “Honey! Honey, too!” Yesterday I wrote that I’d have to add maple syrup to the list of staples Waters recommends, and this morning I rushed to the book to look at the list again, finding only sugar as a sweetener. What I guess is that AW uses very little sugar, that most of what she cooks relies more on olive oil, vinegars and herbs than on sweeteners.
Late this afternoon, I got back to PLENTY for a while. The original, inspirational northwoods dinner consisted of a fresh-caught Dolly Varden char; chanterelle, pine and hedgehog mushrooms; garlic and three kinds of potatoes (from a neglected garden); baby dandelion leaves; apples and sour cherries. Red wine they had brought with them. Aside from that dinner, the second inspiration was a statistic that kept nagging at MacKinnon, wherever he turned, recurring news items telling him over and over that “the food we eat now typically travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles from farm to plate.” That’s a big carbon footprint. And what, MacKinnon wondered, do we know about food that comes to us from that far away? What connection can we possibly feel to it? Smith and MacKinnon tell their story month by month, their voices alternating chapters. The writing is entertaining and down-to-earth. (No pun intended.) One of her first questions when he comes up with the idea for this year of limits is, “What about sugar?” Predictably, his answer is honey.
Then I went to the grocery store, Tom’s Market, around the corner from Dog Ears Books, where I shop almost every single day. (Coming back from the veterinarian’s office yesterday, I’d stopped at the Leland Mercantile for the steel-cut oats I can’t get in Northport. Not local, obviously.) Some people complain about Tom’s, but I say we’re lucky to have such a good grocery store, and it gets better every year. Today my first decision was maple syrup: Michigan or Vermont? That might not even sound like an issue—why not automatically Michigan?—except that my experience has been that maple syrup keeps better in glass than in plastic. Both were reasonably priced (the one Michigan label in Leland cost more than I wanted to pay), but the Vermont syrup came in a glass bottle, the Michigan syrup in a plastic jug, and while I don’t even like plastic, I’d buy it, because it’s Michigan, if I hadn’t had syrup in plastic jugs grow moldy too often.
Canned soybeans. Those aren’t local, but after the ingredient ‘edamame’ came up twice in two days, sending me scurrying to find out what the heck it was, I’ve been curious to try these little guys. It’s hard to tell where canned food is grown. This can says the certified organic product inside was “manufactured” in Melville, New York. Does that mean processed and canned? Where were the soybeans grown? The consumer relations people who might be able to tell me are way out in Boulder, Colorado. Well, I want to try these things, so I’m buying them.
Fresh spinach. The bunches look great, not even wrapped in plastic! There’s a brand name on the twist-tie holding them. It says Tanimura & Antle. No indication of where it comes from, but again, I’m buying. Fresh blueberries? No, they’re not from South Haven (how could they be, in January) but South America, so I choose two apples and a pear instead, all grown somewhere in the USA, though that’s as specific as their stickers get. The little bag of turnips, bless its heart, says Michigan right on it. Hudsonville, Michigan. But “packed in”? Where were they grown? Surely it came from somewhere close to Hudsonville!
There are two egg choices, the Spartan brand (no clue where they come from) or the eggs from Pennsylvania hens fed a vegetarian diet. I prefer and buy the latter, which have much firmer, darker, higher yolks. What I really need in my life (until I persuade David we should keep our own hens) is an egg lady, preferably one between Northport and my house.
I’ve been annoyed for years when the only carrots and potatoes I can find come from California. Why not Michigan carrots in Michigan stores? But living in the country as I do, what’s my excuse for not having my own Gills Pier carrots? It’s the old story of the neglected garden, and this year I vow to use part of that college teaching paycheck to get the plot in order before planting season arrives. I don’t have the time or strength in my hands to do it myself any more, but I can pay someone to do it for me.
Susan’s right (comment to yesterday’s posting) in saying that it’s easier to eat locally grown food in northern Michigan in the summer. But if I had chickens (or an egg lady), if I grew and canned and froze and dried (staying home or working the night shift to get it done), if I shopped more in Suttons Bay or Traverse City (driving fewer miles to buy Michigan food than food would travel to Northport from Pennsylvania, New York, California, etc.), it could be done. Bottom line, though: we won’t be going on the 100-mile diet in our house. Still, I don’t mind becoming more conscious of the choices I’m making, and these two food books together are inspiring me to make some changes.