Man is born free and everywhere is in chain stores.
The year of eating locally began with one beautiful meal and one ugly statistic.
First, the meal. What we had on hand, really, was a head of cabbage. Deep inside its brainwork of folds it was probably nourishing enough, but the outer layers were greasy with rot, as though the vegetable were trying to be a metaphor for something. We had company to feed, and a three-week-old cabbage to offer them.
It wasn't as though we could step out to the local megamart. We—Alisa and I—were at our "cottage" in northern British Columbia, more honestly a drafty, jauntily leaning, eighty-yearold homestead that squats in a clearing between Sitka spruce and western redcedar trees large enough to crush it into splinters with the sweep of a limb. The front door looks out on a jumble of mountains named after long-forgotten British lords, from the peaks of which you can see, just to the northwest, the southern tip of the Alaska Panhandle. There is no corner store here. In fact, there is no electricity, no flush toilet, and no running water but for the Skeena River rapids known as the Devil's Elbow. They're just outside the back door. Our nearest neighbor is a black bear. There are also no roads. In fact, the only ways in or out are by canoe, by foot over the distance of a half-marathon to the nearest highway, or by the passenger train that passes once or twice a day, and not at all on Tuesdays. So: we had a cabbage, and a half-dozen mouths to feed for one more autumn evening. Necessity, as they say, can be a mother.
I can't remember now who said what, or how we made the plan, or even if we planned it at all. What I know is that my brother David, a strict vegetarian, hiked to the mouth of Fiddler Creek, which straight-lines out of a bowl of mountains so ancient they make you feel perpetually reborn, and reeled in an enormous Dolly Varden char. Our friends Kirk and Chandra, who are the sort of people who can tell a Bewick's wren from a rufous-crowned sparrow by ear, led a party into the forest and returned with pound upon pound of chanterelle, pine, and hedgehog mushrooms. I rooted through the tall grass to find the neglected garden plot where, months earlier, we had planted garlic and three kinds of potato; each turned up under the spade, as cool and autonomous as teenagers. Alisa cut baby dandelion leaves, while her mother picked apples and sour cherries from an abandoned orchard, and rose hips from the bushes that were attempting to swallow the outhouse. The fruit we steeped in red wine—all right, the wine came from Australia. Everything else we fried on the woodstove, all in a single huge pan.
It was delicious. It was a dinner that transcended the delicate freshness of the fish, the earthy goodness of the spuds that had sopped up the juices of mushrooms and garlic. The rich flavors were the evening's shallowest pleasure. We knew, now, that out there in the falling darkness the river and the forest spoke a subtle language we had only begun to learn. It was the kind of meal that, when the plates were clean, led some to dark corners to sleep with the hushing of the wind, and others to drink mulled wine until our voices had climbed an octave and finally deepened, in the small hours, into whispers. One of the night's final questions, passed around upon faces made golden by candlelight: Was there some way to carry this meal into the rest of our lives?
A week later we were back in our one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver, surrounded by two million other people and staring out the sitting-room window. We have a view of a parking lot and two perpetually overloaded Dumpsters. It was as good a place as any to contemplate the statistic. The number just kept turning up: in the reports that Alisa and I read as journalists; in the inch-long news briefs I've come to rely on as an earlywarning system for stories that would, in a few months or a few years, work their way into global headlines. According to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, the food we eat now typically travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles from farm to plate. The distance had increased by up to 25 percent between 1980 and 2001, when the study was published. It was likely continuing to climb.
I didn't know any more about it than that. It was enough. Like so many other people, Alisa and I had begun to search forways to live more lightly in an increasingly crowded and raggedy-assed world. There is no shortage of information about this bright blue planet and its merry trip to hell in a handbasket, and we had learned the necessary habit of shrugging off the latest news bites about "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico or creatures going extinct after 70 million years—70 million years—on Earth. What we could not ignore was the gut feeling, more common and more important than policy makers or even scientists like to admit, that things have gone sideways. That the winter snow is less deep than it was when we were children, the crabs fewer under the rocks by the shore, the birds at dawn too quiet, the forest oddly lonesome. That the weather and seasons have become strangers to us. And that we, the human species, are in one way or another responsible. Not guilty, but responsible.
The gut feeling affects people. I received a letter once, as a journalist, from a young man who had chained himself to a railing in a mall on the biggest shopping day of the year in America, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and set himself on fire to protest rampant consumerism. He survived, barely, and was ordered into mental health care, but all of his opinions were of a kind commonly held by some of the most lucid and admired ecologists and social theorists of our times. A friend of mine, a relationship counselor, told me of a couple whose marriage was being tested by a disagreement over the point at which the world's reserves of cheap petroleum will surpass maximum production and begin to decline. Concerned for his child's future in an "end of oil" scenario, the husband, an otherwise typical health-care provider, wanted to go bush, learn how to tan buckskins, teach their boy to hunt and forage. The wife, equally concerned for the child, preferred everyday life in a society where carbonated soda is the leading source of calories in the diet of the average teenager and the New England Journal of Medicine reports that, owing to obesity and physical inactivity, the life spans of today's children may be shorter than those of their parents. So who's crazy?
A more typical response is the refusal to purchase an enormous, fuel-inefficient SUV. Alisa and I had made that choice. Yet, as the Leopold Center numbers seemed to suggest, we had no cause to feel holier-than-thou. Each time we sat down to eat, we were consuming products that had traveled the equivalent distance of a drive from Toronto, Ontario, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, or from New York City to Denver, Colorado. We were living on an SUV diet.
"I think we should try eating local food for a year."
We were at the breakfast table when these words came out of my mouth. Alisa did not look up at me as though I were insane. We had begun to do these kinds of things, insuring the car in the summer only and getting through the winter by bicycle; or living part of each year in a northern hideaway where the "emergency procedure" was to wave your arms in front of a passing freight train and then sit tight and wait—the following train was the one that would stop.
Besides, I do all the cooking.
Alisa had a pensive look on her face. "It might not even be possible," she said. A long pause settled between us. "What about sugar?"
She knew immediately, I think, that she had lost the argument. What about sugar? Well, I had learned one or two things about sugar over the previous year, while researching a book set in the Dominican Republic. The journey had taken me through the bateys, the shanties inhabited by mainly ethnic Haitian sugar workers, certainly some of the world's poorest people. One afternoon I went out with a nun to pick up an elderly cane-cutter; there was a space for him in the old folks' home that had been set up by the Catholic sisters. We drove past walls of green cane stalks to a clearing with patched-together tin shelters and one room concrete shacks. The man was leaning against a wall, literally holding himself together with his hands. He had worked so hard and for so long that his hip socket had worn out, and he could not walk without pressing the femur into place. I carried his bag, which contained everything he had to show for a lifetime of labor. It was a schoolchild's backpack, with a broken zipper. Staring out at the men cutting cane as we departed, he said into the air, "Hungry. I've been hungry all these years."
I had taken on the irritating habit, whenever Alisa came to me with some complaint that I considered overly modern and urban, such as the effects of rainfall on suede or a pinched nerve from talking too long on the phone, of saying that I would make sure to let them know all about it in the bateys.
I arched an eyebrow in Alisa's direction. The question of sugar was a reminder of why I wanted to try this local-eating experiment in the first place. It isn't only that our food is traveling great distances to reach us; we, too, have moved a great distance from our food. This most intimate nourishment, this stuff of life—where does it come from? Who produces it? How do they treat their soil, crops, animals? How do their choices—my choices—affect my neighbors and the air, land, and water that surround us? If I knew where my food and drink came from, would I still want to eat it? If even my daily bread has become a mystery, might that total disconnection be somehow linked to the niggling sense that at any moment the apocalyptic frogs might start falling from the sky?
"We'll use honey," I said to Alisa.
"Yeah," she replied doubtfully. "Honey."
What, though, was eating locally? We'd signed up with a company that delivered a weekly box of organic produce to our apartment. For a time we tried to order only "local" foods— products from British Columbia and neighboring Washington State. The delivery company, a very West Coast kind of operation, included on its invoices a tally of our products' average "food miles," or the distance they had traveled to reach our doorstep. Sometimes the average was as low as 250 miles. Sometimes, though, it closed in on 1,000. North Americans live in enormous landscapes. As the writer Wade Davis noted of just one great northern plateau in our part of the world, "you could hide England here and the British would never find it."
We were familiar with the "ecological footprint" model developed by the bioecologist Dr. William Rees of the University of British Columbia. The concept is simple enough: punch in a basic accounting of your housing, along with your transportation, diet, and energy-use habits, and Rees's computer program will approximate the number of acres' worth of the world's resources you consume in a year. That acreage is the size of your ecological footprint. To drive the point home, the software then alerts you to the number of Earths we human beings would need if everyone on the planet consumed in the same way you do. It's usually a shocker—nine planets is a typical figure for a standard issue North American.
Interestingly, Rees traces the roots of his eco-footprint brain wave to a single meal on his mother's family farm in southern Ontario when he was a boy. It was the early 1950s, "the pretractor days," so some thirteen brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles were gathered on his grandmother's country porch for a workday lunch on a July afternoon. Young Bill looked down at his food and had a kind of epiphany. The baby carrots, the new potatoes, the fresh lettuce—there wasn't a single foodstuff on that plate that he hadn't had a hand in growing. It was a feeling, he remembers, like a rush of cold water being poured down his back. He was riveted. He was so excited he couldn't eat his lunch.
It was, like, everything was connected.
Rees's footprint calculator asks its users to estimate the average distance their food travels, giving as its lowest option "200 miles or less." When Alisa and I looked at a map, however, that distance didn't make sense. A 200-mile line, drawn outward from our apartment in Vancouver, might leap mountain ranges, cleave river valleys, enter landscapes so different from ours that if you took a stranger from one to the other, he might imagine he'd entered another country. Our West Coast landscape is defined by lushness and rain; 200 miles to the northeast the prairie is studded with prickly-pear cactus, and tumbleweeds roll along the shoulder of the highway.
Poring over the map that day, we considered, for the first time ever, the boundaries of the place in which we live. From the east flows the mighty Fraser River, the most productive salmon river in the world and, almost miraculously, never dammed. The great alluvial plain of the river, known simply as the Fraser Valley, widens from the foot of the Coast Range to the vast estuary where the fresh water meets the salt. Every inch of that valley is freighted with a million years' worth of soil perfect for the plough. Just to the north of the delta is the city of Vancouver, sprawling over two inlets and, increasingly, everything else besides. Farther north is Howe Sound, a classic fjord with canyons at its head that reach to the town of Pemberton, famous for its potatoes. There, again, closes a labyrinth of mountains. Look to the south, and it is just 38 miles to the Washington border and the Nooksack and Skagit lowlands, riverine landscapes less grand in scale than the Fraser Valley, but still places where a person has no trouble feeling small. Here, across an international border that wasn't drawn in ink until 1872, the Coast Range is known as the Cascade Mountains, peaks that wall in the farms between the summits and the sea. To the west is the ocean. But not the open ocean, not yet. The coast here is sheltered by Vancouver Island, itself the size of Vermont and hoary with forest. Between the mainland and the huge island are the Strait of Georgia, Juan de Fuca Strait, and Puget Sound, together forming a gulf that some now call the Salish Sea after the name used by the Indian nations who have lived on its shores for millennia. By any name, it is jeweled with islands, some Canadian and some American, but most of them checkered with small farms and orchards. On the southern tip of Vancouver Island is the city of Victoria, capital of British Columbia, surrounded by farm holdings and precocious vineyards. At last, on the island's far western shore, roars the wild, open Pacific.
All of this, blessed with mild winters and rain that falls as if someone once prayed too long and too hard for it to come.
We drew it into a circle and measured the distance. It was, almost to perfection, 100 miles. The 100-Mile Diet. I stood up from the map and caught Alisa's eye. "This might turn out to be too easy," I said.
We chose the first day of spring to begin what we hoped would be a year-long experiment. Like urbanites everywhere, we imagined that, at the stroke of midnight on the last day of winter, fresh green shoots would burst from the earth to nourish us. The fact that a woolen sky and bone chill still pressed down on the city could hardly worry us.
We had a single ironclad rule: that every ingredient in every product we bought had to come from within 100 miles. On the other hand, we are of that generation that mistrusts dogma, doctrine, and ironclad rules in general. We allowed ourselves what we called "the social life amendment." Should friends have us over for dinner, or working life lead to a business lunch at a Thai restaurant, we would not hesitate. We were off the hook, too, when we traveled—even the Koran allows travelers a break from the fast of Ramadan—unless we were able to buy our own groceries and prepare our own meals. When traveling, we were also free to bring home products from within 100 miles of wherever we were. That said, we could not plan a trip to Hawaii because of a pineapple craving.
Puritanism was not the goal, and neither was life as a couple of back-to-the-landing hermits. Our purpose was a lifestyle experiment that challenged us to explore, and explore deeply, the idea of local eating. There was one final point that would ease us into the diet. We allowed ourselves to use up whatever nonlocal products we had in the house on the day that we stepped cold turkey into 100-mile shopping. And so, when the morning of March 21 dawned sodden and gray, we had our first fight.
There was Alisa, spooning cocoa into a mug. Certain friends had snorted that the 100-mile diet would be easier for Alisa and me because neither of us drinks coffee, which wreaks havoc on our respective nervous systems. We had found a gentler replacement in hot chocolate, though, and a morning caffeine hit by any other name is still a morning caffeine hit.
"We have to start this clean," I said firmly. "A 100-percent local breakfast."
"It's in the rules," she said.
"But I'm not having any."
"And I am."
"You can't have any if I'm not having any." I could hear the eight-year-old in my voice, but couldn't seem to control him. Every spoonful she took without me was a lost share in the precious cargo. "It wouldn't be fair." "There's no 'you can't if I'm not' in the rules," she snapped back. "You're robbing me of future hot chocolate!" There was some mutual sulking over plates of potato fritters.
For the inaugural dinner, we had invited two good friends: Ron, whose interest in the arcane politics of food had led him to work cooking healthy dinners alongside heroin and crack addicts on the desperate streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside; and Keri, who is married to Ron and may be the first genuine green thumb I have ever known. Keri could spit a tomato seed into a dirty ashtray and harvest pendulous, sweet-to-bursting beefsteaks precisely eighty days later. Not even she had any sprouts coming up yet in her garden, though.
We had some shopping to do. The nearest grocery to our house, just three blocks away, is what once was called a "supermarket" but is now on the small end of mid-size. The morning was gray enough that the bank of front windows glowed, making even the parking lot seem cheery. I'd never entirely lost that childhood sense of importance that comes with the submissive giving-way of an automatic door, and today we were paying more than the usual attention to such familiar details, the way the shelves stood just as tall as our reach, the corridors of brightly packaged products incessantly refreshed.
All of it, gone. There was nothing there for us. Nothing. All of that plenty, vanished in an instant of cockeyed imagination. It would be a year without ice cream. A year without salad dressing. A year without all-purpose flour, soup mix, olives, olive oil, Miracle Whip. Without ketchup, Cheerios, Peek Freans Fruit Cremes, peanut butter, Rip-L-Chips, Philadelphia cream cheese, Tabasco sauce, Campbell's Chunky New England Clam Chowder, creamed corn, Minute Maid orange juice, no-name cola, Eggos, bulk pine nuts, Orville Redenbacher's popcorn, chipotle peppers, High Liner Multigrain Tilapia Fillets. The shopping aisles represented a kind of miracle. They were the terminus of a quarter-century of progress from a postwar North American diet that defined shrimp cocktail as exotic and offered maybe six brands of beer; they were a paean to a decade of global trade deregulation that finally collapsed as the world's richest nations refused to sincerely reduce the gross subsidies to—what else?— their farms and their farmers. A single supermarket today may carry 45,000 different items; 17,000 new food products are introduced each year in the United States. Yet here we were in the modern horn of plenty, and almost nothing came from the people or the landscape that surrounded us. How had our food system come to this?
We finally turned up our first few food choices in the produce department. Crimini mushrooms and potatoes from the Fraser Valley farmlands, perhaps 50 miles away. There was also a handful of greenhouse red peppers and tomatoes; later we found bottles of local milk. A trip to Capers Community Market, a premium grocery renowned for organic food, was only marginally better. Capers is a small chain store with what passes for venerable roots in a city as young as Vancouver; the flagship store opened its doors twenty years ago, staffed by the kind of people who called themselves "capricots" and felt okay about occasionally being paid in food. Since then, Capers has been subsumed into Wild Oats Markets, Inc., the Boulder, Colorado–based natural-food empire that today reports annual sales of over $1 billion. The produce manager still has dreadlocks and rides a bike to work, however, and blue stickers had recently begun to identify locally grown fruit and vegetables. Of course, this was the first day of spring. There was a sale on Happy Planet Organic Smoothies and Soyco Rice Shreds, but not a lot local on offer.
Ron called in the afternoon. "We're going to be a little bit late," he said.
"That's probably a good thing," I replied. "Can we bring anything?"
At 7:30 p.m., the table was set in what a real estate agent would call our "dining nook." We had, through a comprehensive search of our district's grocers and specialty shops, come up with quite a spread. For the salad, slices of greenhouse cucumber from the Fraser River delta, some 15 miles away. Each was capped with a slaw of winterkeeper organic carrots from Friesen Farm, legendary for its salad mix and located a comfortable 30 miles from where we were sitting, and beet and kohlrabi from our own community garden plot, precisely a quarter-mile away. Steamed kale, also from our garden. Spring salmon, which the fellow in the fish shop assured us was "local," though in fact it was caught off the west coast of Vancouver Island, near the outer limit of our self-imposed entrapment. I fried the fish in unsalted organic butter from a dairy whose cows we'd seen placidly free-ranging while we were cycling on a Fraser River island (21 miles away), infusing it with sage leaves from a plant on our balcony (zero miles). On the side, fritters of organic, free-range eggs (57 miles) and grated potato (99 miles) and turnip (30 miles), each one slathered in organic yogurt (15 miles) and sprigs of anise, which grows around the neighborhood like a weed. The only nonlocal product on the table was the salt in the shaker, from a bagful we had bought weeks earlier that came from Oregon, a few hundred miles away.
"I have a feeling we're going to be eating a lot of potatoes," said Alisa, as she tucked into her third potato-centric meal of the day.
"Ah, but think of how they'll change with the seasons," said Ron, who I suspect is an actual optimist. Even his last name, Plowright, has a can-do, family-farm lilt, though it's also undeniably pornographic. And indeed, his reddish, muttonchop sideburns bring to mind both blue-movie stars and The Old Farmer's Almanac. "Think of how excited you'll be to see the first baby potatoes. They'll be like jewels to you. They'll taste like nothing you've ever eaten before."
Keri, not an optimist, looked at Ron as though he were crazy. She looked at all of us as though we were crazy.
For dessert, triangles of warmed organic brie from Salt Spring Island in the Strait of Georgia (37 miles), topped with frozen blueberries from the exurban town of Agassiz (74 miles), drizzled with a cranberry juice (74) and honey (14) reduction. To drink, a bottle of white wine (32) and four glasses of a 7-percentalcohol hard apple mead in a style called "cyser," presumably because that is how a very drunk person pronounces the word "cider." It came from the Cowichan Valley, about 59 miles away on Vancouver Island, from the appropriately named Merridale cidery. The average distance from farm to plate for the entire meal? About 43 miles, an improvement of 1,457 on the Leopold Center's more conservative statistics.
"Jesus, you guys," said Ron, as he pushed back from what was inarguably a feast, a cornucopia, a horn-of-freaking-plenty. "That was amazing."
"How will we ever survive?" I mused, cradling my belly.
And we allowed ourselves this moment of happiness. Because the grocery bill for that single meal had come to $128.87. Alisa was polite enough to wait until our company had left to say the obvious. "This might not even be possible."
This is the part where some childhood memory is supposed to lift me above all doubt and equivocation. Like the time when I ran through the wind-rippled fields to my grandfather as he worked the soil with his old tractor. I handed him his brown-bag lunch, and he smiled and pulled me up onto his knee. Together we steered into the shade of an orchard, grandpa carrying me on his shoulders to reach for two perfect, sun-dappled peaches . . .
But no. There isn't any moment. I was raised with three brothers on a healthy but suburban diet, with more shredded wheat and less chocolate milk than I would have liked. We had nearly a quarter-acre of garden that I raided for strawberries but resented weeding. I have my share of fond recollections of family and food, but I also remember how, as a boy, I would inhale my dinner so I could get away from my fighting parents; I remember my mother working too hard to feel The Joy of Cooking. The smell of fresh-baked cinnamon buns on the weekends wasn't enough to keep our family together. Food is not, to me, the hearth of kinship or the storehouse of sweet memories. It has never been sacred ground.
Can I admit, then, that a part of me silently questioned my own idea for a year of eating locally? That the essential pointlessness of such a gesture is not lost on me? I am acutely aware that efforts like the 100-mile diet are readily dismissed as "the new earnestness," which is currently enjoying a very temporary cool, and I am not deluded enough to feel that I'm making a difference or being the change I want to see in the world. Both of these contemporary platitudes contain kernels of truth, but both are also overwhelmed by stark realities. I have traveled these ethical pathways in one way or another for twenty years now, choosing to ride a bicycle in homicidal traffic, to reuse my tinfoil and plastic bags as though I lived in the Depression, to shop little and buy less. It doesn't make me feel "good." It makes me feel like an alien. As I pedal through another midwinter rainfall, virtually every indicator of global ecological health continues to worsen, from biodiversity to energy consumption, and my being has done little to change the world. My actions are abstract and absurd, and they are neither saving the rain forests nor feeding the world's hungry.
Most of my acquaintances explain away these compulsions of mine as guilt, the environmentalist equivalent of the hair shirt. (Most of my friends, incidentally, are similarly compulsive.) But I don't consider myself guilty, and I've never been quick to wag the finger of shame. I have groped around for a better hypothesis, and the closest I've come, oddly enough, brings me back to northern British Columbia and the place where the 100-mile diet idea took root.
In 1966 the writer Edward Hoagland left New York City to wander the wilder frontiers of my province, for reasons he was unable to explain even to himself. It was an experiment, I suppose, in much the same way that choosing to eat locally is an experiment. At one point Hoagland settled for a time not at all far—about 40 linear miles—from the shack on the Skeena River where Alisa and I had wondered what to do with a moldering cabbage. He returned to New York with the question that might be the only explanation for how our own grand adventure got started. "The problem everywhere nowadays turns on how we shall decide to live. Neither the government leaders nor the demographers have been able to supply an answer."
And he repeated the question, more plainly:
"How shall we live?"
Recipe: Potato Amuse Bouche
1 large beet, peeled
1 large mashing potato, pared and cubed
3 tbsp blue cheese 1tbsp unsweetened applesauce
1 tbsp butter
Slice beets into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Steam until tender throughout and set aside. Boil potato until soft. Strain, reserving 1 cup of cooking liquid. Mash with blue cheese, adding cooking liquid as needed to achieve a creamy consistency. Spoon balls of potato mixture onto a cookie sheet and roast on the highest rack in the oven until golden. Meanwhile, melt butter in a small saucepan. Add applesauce and stir together over low heat. Cut beet slices into triangles or hearts, or leave as rounds. Place a potato ball in the middle of each beet slice. Drizzle with apple butter. Serve in the center of a very large plate, alone and a little heartbreaking.
From Plenty by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. Copyright 2007. Available from Harmony Books, a division of Random House, Inc.