Monday, August 29, 2005

An Eat Local wrap-up

As August comes to an end, Jen at Life Begins at 30 has asked us participants in the Eat Local Challenge to sum up our experiences. I’m more than glad to do so, especially since my four-pound September Vogue hasn’t arrived yet. (When that happens, I’ll be going into hiding to gawk at BCBG and Chloe ads until further notice.)

First of all, I think we all know I made it easy on myself by declaring the entire South “local.” But one thing I learned this month was that if I hadn’t done that, I’d have had a terribly rough month. As I said at the outset, August is not a particularly great time for vegetables in Georgia. And this year in particular we had a strange duality in the weather, which veered sharply between torrential rains and searing heat. I read an article this weekend in the Atlanta paper about an urban community farm and food shelf program that had missed its production goals by about 60 percent because of the severe weather. So I didn’t feel so bad about the fact that my garden had up and quit. On the other hand, empathy doesn’t fill up the shopping cart.

At the beginning of the month, there were still tomatoes and arugula and beans. Now, at the end of the month, the pickings are very slim indeed.

Mid-month, my whole Eat Local effort was knocked out of whack by my unplanned trip to Ohio. But that turned out to be the most instructive thing that could have happened to me. The contrast between the two states couldn’t have been greater. Admittedly, Ohio’s gardens were at their best this month, so the comparison isn’t 100 percent fair. But in Ohio I found farm markets full of gorgeous local foods at practically every intersection. Here, so-called farm markets are rare and, when they exist at all, tend to be stocked with fruit and vegetables that are trucked in from somewhere else.

Has the Deep South lost its small farming tradition completely? Definitely not. But I do think that most of the small farmers here are very small and very poor, growing little more than what they need for their own subsistence. Make no mistake, Georgia still has a plantation economy. Look around and you’ll see endless acres of white pine, cotton, corn, beef cattle, and (south of here) peanuts. But good luck finding someone who can sell you a cabbage or a sweet potato.

Of course, the story is completely different in the big cities, where transplanted idealistic Yankees (and a few intrepid locals) sell a great diversity of fancy produce to the well-off.

So here are a few things I started to think about during my Eat Local experience:

• I ended up eating a lot of regular old mass-produced food that just happened to be from Florida or Tennessee or North Carolina. Eventually it occurred to me that this wasn’t much to brag about. I used Dixie Crystals sugar--so what? On the other hand, I am very pleased to have supported some of Georgia’s small honey producers. I should have tried more often to replace the former with the latter.

• Some of the very best sausages, hams, and bacon come from the South. Thank goodness. But see below.

• A lot of the meat in the grocery store was probably local, especially the chicken and pork. But it wasn’t labeled, and I started getting angrier and angrier about that. Don’t I have a right to know where my food comes from? And on top of that, even if I did ascertain that a particular chicken came from Athens, I’d have to contend with the knowledge that the unlucky animal was a miserable debeaked White Leghorn that was processed in the Gold Kist chicken plant on the north side of town. That was when it occurred to me: The big food corporations don’t want to tell you where your meal is from because that might make you think too hard about it. My commitment to humanely produced meat has been considerably strengthened this month.

• On the other hand, the only humanely produced meat in the stores around here comes all the way from Colorado. Pointless! So I’m going to have to try harder to find a local source.

• And, of course, the absolute best way to know where your food comes from and how it’s been treated is to grow it, pick it, fish it, or hunt it yourself. I plan to do a lot more of all of these. And I plan to keep canning, too; my home-canned tomatoes, salsa, pickled peppers, and chutney saved me from many a woe!

But wait! August is almost over, right? What’s with this “I plan to” business? Well, here’s the thing. The s.o. and I have really enjoyed the Eat Local Challenge, so much so that we have made a commitment to use it as a guiding principle for our eating habits from here on out. There’ll be no hard and fast rules. But wherever possible, we plan to find fresh, local, knowable sources for our groceries.

Why? This sums it up nicely.

I have been especially impressed by how vibrant the flavors are in locally produced foods. And I’ve discovered fantastic new purveyors, products, and produce I might otherwise never have tried:

• Mennonite- and Amish-made cheeses, noodles, and elderberry jam from Ohio
• Shiro plums
• fresh lima beans and crowder peas (neither of which I’d ever seen in the pod before!)
• Red Mule grains
• Sweet Grass Dairy cheeses
• Pittman’s bulk sausage
• Italian honey figs

My favorite experience of all was probably the pick-your-own blueberry farm. It still resides in my mind like a treasured vacation memory.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that the Eat Local Challenge has led me to discover several blogs that I enjoy and identify with. That in itself was worth the price of admission (which was, er, free, because you've got to eat something, after all, and it's really not any more expensive to do it locally).

One of the questions Jen asked us to think about in our Eat Local wrap-ups was this: What did you deny yourself during August that you are dying to have on September 1? Well, I have to admit I cheated and had some Toblerone this month, so I’m not ready to kill someone for a chocolate bar. Oddly, the answer to the question is LETTUCE! LETTUCE LETTUCE LETTUCE! Late summer in Georgia is a lettuceless place. I am on my knees, desperate for spring greens and ready to worship at the unholy altar of Tanimura & Antle.

I thought I’d want bananas and mangos and other nonlocal fruit, but I don’t really. Fruit is the one thing that’s come easily to me this month, and it’s been extraordinary. Unsurprisingly, the temptation to buy pallid grocery store strawberries is approximately zero when you have a big bowl of juicy peaches in your kitchen.

The Eat Local Challenge has been life-changing for me (yes, really--I don’t think that’s overstating the case), and I plan to do it again next year as a “refresher.” I trust that I will have sold my house in Georgia long before that, and therefore the s.o. and I will be eating locally in an entirely new place. It’ll be a voyage of discovery all over again. I highly recommend that you all join me.