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My eat-local challenge: Four weeks of exclusively regional food

Credit:Narayan Mahon

Over the last decade, food has become a national pastime. It's even become a spectator sport. Television shows like Iron Chef and Chopped captivate millions of viewers, turning once obscure chefs into full-blown celebrities. An entire generation is growing up "foodie," dining out constantly, reviewing restaurants on blogs and taking photo after photo of it all.

Alongside some of the questionable aspects of our burgeoning obsession with food, there's also a growing belief that how we eat can be a vehicle for environmental, political and social change. Sure, there are the Paula Deens and Guy Fieris, but there are also the Michael Pollans and Alice Waters - writers and activists for whom food is a focal point for larger social questions, a source of possible solutions.

In 2002, ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan published his landmark book Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasure and Politics of Eating Local. He details how, for a year, he ate only food that was grown within 200 miles of his Arizona home. While the book is a manifesto for environmental preservation, it can also be read as the quasi-spiritual journey of an eater who becomes aware of - and part of - his surroundings as he unplugs from the supermarket.

The French have the concept of terroir, or the specific geography and climate that gives food its flavor and sense of place. In Nabhan's chronicle, he discovers what Arizona tastes like, its hidden and nearly forgotten richness, its terroir. I came away from his book asking: Have I ever experienced what where I live tastes like?

It's disconcerting to think that most of us live our lives as food zombies, dependent on a distribution system that imports food to us as though we don't live in any place in particular.

In 2005, Nabhan's book inspired a group of women in San Francisco to try eating exclusively from within a hundred-mile radius of their homes for a month. Thus, the first "eat local challenge" was born, and the San Francisco Chronicle published an article about the group using the newly minted term "locavore."

Shortly after, writer Barbara Kingsolver moved from Arizona to Appalachia to begin living the life of a locavore with her family. She chronicled the adventure in her 2007 book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Nabhan's ideas had gone mainstream.

Since that time, a group in Alaska has lived on a local diet for a year, and someone has attempted to live off food grown exclusively in his own Brooklyn, N.Y., backyard. There are locavore-inspired food banks in California, and there's now a locavore ranking of all U.S. states (Wisconsin is 15th).

Madison's Willy Street Co-op launched its Eat Local Challenge in 2010, and in its third year has roughly 700 members who pledge to eat from within a 150-mile radius during September.

It's estimated that the average American meal travels 1,500 miles from where it is grown to your mouth. That can translate into huge amounts of fossil fuel. Kingsolver quotes the jarring statistic that if "every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country's oil consumption by 1.1 million barrels of oil every week." Imagine a whole month. What about a mostly local diet most of the time?

The environmental cost for transporting edibles has been simplistically termed "food miles," a concept that has come under sharp scrutiny because it fails to take into account, for one thing, that the greatest amount of environmental impact happens during production, not transportation.

It's also been argued that a good grocery system is more sustainable than farmers' markets, because at markets both the consumers and the farmers drive to meet.

But arguments for or against "food miles" are abstract and not to the point. The shift to local eating isn't reducible to a "gas per carrot" equation.

Eating local is about prioritizing food that's more nutritious, safer, pesticide-free, indigenous; that preserves the land and genetic diversity; that's grown by and for families, creates jobs and builds community.

This past spring, a mixture of curiosity and growing convictions made me want to try the Eat Local Challenge for myself.

Preseason training

Going local can mean a big change in eating habits. So as not to scare off would-be participants, there are three levels of intensity.

The easiest is "loophole locavore." This allows for participants to eat out at restaurants that source locally, as well as buy locally processed foods (even when the ingredients may not have been grown here). Think RP's Pasta or Potter's Crackers - great local companies; not necessarily local wheat.

Next is the "extreme locavore." As the Willy Street Co-op defines it, this allows for five nonlocal items that entrants feel they simply cannot live without. Common choices are coffee, chocolate and lemons.

Finally, there's the 100% local. It allows for one exception: salt.

At first, winnowing out nonlocal foods seems like a painful study in self-deprivation. Brendon Smith, the co-op's Eat Local Challenge coordinator, estimates that only 5%-10% of Madison's participants go completely local. "I'm always surprised it's more than three people," Smith admits, "because it is so hard."

Before I decided which group I would be in, I began by making a list of things that would not be available as local. These turned out to be important items in my cooking such as olive oil, citrus, avocados, soy sauce, peanuts and rice.

Later, I had the shock that every Madison participant gets: vinegar. There is no local vinegar. All those gorgeous vegetables without a hit of balsamic? Suddenly what seems like an intriguing project turns sour as an entire dietary way of life is put in jeopardy.

Despite the severe limitations, I wanted to eat entirely local anyway. Because that would be the level at which things would get most interesting, where I would be forced to learn the most.

Not wanting to frame the challenge only in terms of loss, I made a list of products there would be. Wisconsin has an unbelievably rich foodshed. If Nabhan could do it in Arizona, I reasoned, it should be easy to do here.

Since I was thinking about the challenge already in early spring, my next step was to freeze a few things for later. I stashed away peas, strawberries and asparagus.

Next, I began the important cost-saving process of slowly replacing nonlocal pantry ingredients with local ones. This is necessary, not just because it's easier financially to phase into the challenge rather than starting it abruptly, but because a well-stocked larder means more options.

And that meant there would be a higher chance of success. At this early stage I was defining success as 1) not starving and 2) not devouring a frozen pizza at 2 a.m. a few days into the challenge. Both seemed like very real possibilities.

Finally, I made a list of things I could try making in advance: chicken and pork stock, ketchup, mayonnaise and applesauce (or any fruit preserves).

I also considered carbohydrates, or, let's call it "the problem of fullness." If you're a big eater, or you have a family to feed, there is the task of making sure your all-local recipes fill bellies.

For instance, in the first couple of years of the Madison challenge there was no local flour (today there is Lonesome Stone). As a result, recipes relied heavily on potatoes. Could I think of creative fillers? Cauliflower? Corn? Zucchini?

Then I made a list of breads, crackers, pretzels, tortillas and pastas that are all commonly used to supplement veggies and meat and picked out a lot of recipes. I thought of dishes I'd always wanted to make but never had the excuse to. I looked in favorite cookbooks and determined what could be made sourcing local ingredients. I joined Pinterest, the online pinboard, and followed food magazines to get additional ideas and inspiration.

Surviving, thriving...cheating

Shopping with an eye to buying exclusively local ingredients changes Madison's food landscape. Not only is it educational, but thrilling and motivating. I discovered there are locally grown peanuts! Sylvan and Avis Disch grow them in Monticello and sell them at the Dane County Farmers' Market. For me, it gave shopping a renewed sense of adventure.

With local-only goggles on, I walked the farmers' markets almost as though for the first time. I found Hickory Hills Farm, where I can't recall ever having stopped before, offering yellow-eye beans, soybeans and rye. The stand also sold grape leaves, which I later stuffed with Black Earth Meats' ground lamb.

I found two varieties of sunflower oil. I even coughed up money for Bob and Audrey Biersach's hickory nuts (from Hickory Nut Heaven, in Columbus). Then I bought black walnuts from San-Kor-Tea Herbs, where I had a memorable conversation with the proprietor about vegetables' relation to the zodiac, and how "walnuts are controlled by the sun." It seemed plausible enough at the time.

Normally these items would seem like crazy splurges ($6 for a tiny bag of nuts), but because of the local imperative they became necessary. I needed hickory nuts and walnuts to replace almonds and pine nuts. I wanted to make pesto.

The expense didn't seem so unreasonable once I considered how much I was saving by not buying nonlocal, processed foods. No more tossing a bag of chips into the grocery cart at checkout.

I knew my local food chase had probably gone too far when I found Jones Valley Farm artichokes. Artichokes! I started phoning friends to share my excitement, and one suggested I needed an intervention.

For a time, Jones Valley also had Rosa de Milano onions. Until I began looking with new eyes at local markets, I knew next to nothing about some of the less common onion varieties.

Later, I found salsa from Tomato Mountain Farm in nearby Brooklyn, Wis. I also discovered Old Sugar Distillery's all-local Mitchell Brandy, which uses grapes grown right outside of Madison. Then I found local Drumlin Community Farm heirloom ketchup. Although Drumlin uses apple cider vinegar that can't be local (as well as cinnamon and cloves), the rest of the ingredients are.

This brings me to a quandary. While I was not comfortable with opening the floodgates to items that were only locally prepared, it was difficult to justify not buying some of them.

The crisis over locally prepared food came to a head with Sweetie's Lefse at the East Side Farmers' Market. I asked proprietor Beth Miller if the sweet potatoes she used were local, and she confirmed that they were not - the cost was prohibitive.

Here is my issue: If we're going to foster local food culture, should we exclude items like the heirloom tomato ketchup that is mostly local? Or lefse, which one could argue is reviving part of Wisconsin's Norwegian heritage/terroir? How will local sweet potatoes ever make it into Miller's product or others - thus finding a market and lowering cost - if eat-local fans don't support these businesses?

I bought the lefse, and found them remarkably useful as wraps and as dessert (filled with grilled peaches and crème frache). Late one night I found their ultimate calling when I had a hazardous nonlocal food craving; I turned them into a quesadilla using Bleu Mont Dairy Bandaged Cheddar. No late-night frozen pizza. No regrets.

Now here come the confessions.

Fairly early on in the challenge I started using lemons. I also added soy sauce to a barbecue marinade when I needed the acidity and umami to make a $16 dollar Jordanian Farms chicken taste as good as the expense demanded.

In theory, soy sauce could be local, as Kikkoman brand has a processing plant in Walworth, but I used the organic San-J brand.

Jonny Hunter from Underground Food Collective took pity on my vinegar plight and invited me to Underground's production kitchen to sample an array of vinegars the group is working on. I went home with a pint of the best apple cider vinegar I've ever tasted. Regrettably, it's not available for retail.

I decided that Jeff Ford at Cress Spring Bakery provided bread with enough local ethos that I could buy it when I didn't have time to make my own. Likewise, I began to purchase some other local products such as Potter's Crackers and eventually coffee from both Just Coffee and Kickapoo Coffee Roasters.

Outside the farmers' markets, my other resources were friends' gardens, the co-op, Jenifer Street Market and Metcalfe's. Metcalfe's displays food miles on items year-round, and when I asked chef Leah Caplan about the deli, she confirmed that ingredients were always as local as possible. REAP Food Group's locavore coupon booklet was also a valuable money saver.

Madison terroir

Does Madison taste different when you're consuming only locally grown food? Is there a flavor profile that does not appear otherwise?

Surprisingly (a surprise to me, because I always thought I ate relatively locally prior to the challenge), the answer is yes.

Madison is rich. It tastes like pasture butter and ultra-flavorful chicken and rabbit. Like sharp aged cheese, tangy feta and herbaceous greens. Like astringent hickory nuts, tart apples and sour plums. Ubiquitous sunflower oil lends a nutty base to everything, and breakfast often has the opulent flavor of duck eggs. Madison tastes like trout, berries and lard; chive blossoms and dirt-encrusted potatoes.

Because there is only wheat flour, and there is also hardly any acidity, Madison terroir has a stubborn earthiness that is hard to break. There also isn't enough spice.

For someone like me whose quick default had been chopping-up CSA veggies and making a southeast Asian-inspired stir-fry with limes, green curry, lemongrass, galangal and coconut milk served over rice, the Eat Local Challenge changed the taste of my summer entirely. There was a lot more bread, dairy and meat.

Brendon Smith from the Willy Street Co-op relates that during the first year of the challenge, the store went through the process of discovering what was available locally, much as all first-time participants do. "We're always looking for more local products," says Smith. "For instance, we've said we'll bring in local beans if anyone can produce them on a scale that we need them. Fortunately, wheat got taken care of."

Eating local challenges people to give up some of their most beloved foods. But new flavors appear, making eating locally pleasurable and refreshing. It's really not that hard. But it can get expensive. And it is time-consuming.

More difficult than suffering the loss of beloved ingredients is the constant need to plan and cook. The challenge can be something of a lifestyle change, demanding attention on evenings and weekends. As I work 9 to 5, always planning ahead for lunch was a trial.

It was easiest to cope when friends became interested in the challenge and helped plan local meals. If you can find another person, couple or family with which to swap meals, the month becomes significantly easier. Careful use of leftovers also decreases the burden.

Maybe someday during September, there will be an all-local-ingredient restaurant week. Or at least one daily local special at participating establishments. This may be not far off, as many spots have already adopted an as-local-as-possible ethos.

As much an intellectual and emotional exercise as physical or environmental, eating locally will make nearly everyone face some personal food demons. If it didn't, it would be called the Eat Local Snooze. Lacking basics like vinegar and beans (although there are some beans available from farmers) means our local food supplies need serious improvement.

But the fact that we can eat mostly locally here in Madison relatively comfortably - with a few tweaks to diets and habits - means that we are blessed with a remarkably sustaining environment. We are lucky to already belong to a strong community food system that helps growers nourish consumers, and vice versa, even if we personally haven't yet made the choice to be a part of it.

The question for us Madisonians is not "why eat local?" It's "why don't we?"

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