Our month of eating local
I remember exactly where I was when the idea hit. The clothing donation bins on my left, the corner I was about to turn and see an empty lot, which on Tuesdays transforms into a farmers market. My white knuckles on the wheel as the radio delivered more bad news. What could I do what could I do?
A voice in my ear said: Eat local. In September.
What? Um, no.
At 35, I am learning the value of that two-letter word that toddlers wield so exuberantly. When people ask me to join anything – mom groups, committees – I thank them for the important work they’re doing, and my answer is no. All I want to do is get home, swing open that garden gate and pick caterpillars off the kale with my kids.
Thank you for your important work, I tried telling the voice, now go away. But the words just floated around in my frontal lobe: eat local in September.
The idea did kind of scratch all my itches. By doing this one thing, we could stop handing our money to corporations and instead support the farmers who are the hardest working humans I know. We could take personal responsibility, at least, for slashing our own environmental footprint. We could jumpstart a different conversation; heck, re-shape the world around us, simply by tweaking what we ate.
First, though, I had to ask husband Joe, the non-fiction section of our household. Joe said, and I quote, “pshaw.”
“We’re basically doing it already,” he added, unloading the dishwasher.
I had my doubts about the “pshaw” part, but it was on. For the month of September, we would source our food from within a 250-mile radius of home. What does that mean? Good question. It’s not enough that your bread was baked at the bakery in town; the wheat has to be grown here. You get five exceptions: coffee, lemons, whatever you can’t live without. Spices are free.
I’d planned to do some Armageddon level prep, to stuff the freezer and line the basement with jars. Then September was tomorrow, and I had put by a loaf of zucchini bread and six jars of canned peaches. They were a start; with some yogurt they’d get us through a few breakfasts and desserts. Now for lunch and dinner, every day for the next four weeks.
Half a day in, I felt like renaming the challenge: How to lose friends in 30 days! The look I got from a friend who’d been dragged into this by his wife and had just realized he would have no sugar in his coffee, made me bite my lip and look away. Neighbors tried to hide their Chinese takeout containers when I popped over. That the lollipops at the bank weren’t local was a blow to four-year-old Kai. I became that party guest who smiles wanly and places one thing on her plate. There was no coming home from a long day and saying, let’s go out. (We did eat out once with my dad, at a farm-to-table restaurant where, after the waitress had submitted to my inquisition, we got drunk on oysters, duck breast and sangria.) A friend who works at a distillery gave me a bottle of local bourbon that I brought around with me, like a comfort blanky.
Surprisingly, I don’t seem to have lost all my friends. Once we got past the initial shock, people starting getting into the spirit of the thing. The one who missed sugar in his coffee, later that week made strawberry ice cream with his kids — using dry ice, just for fun. They ate it over his wife’s peach crumble. People shared photos of meals: venison roast, fermented fairytale eggplant, grilled shishito peppers with homemade naan. Eggs with kale and tomatillo hot sauce, homemade bread with scallion cream cheese and plum jam. The venison came from a hunting trip. The cream cheese had hung to drain from a light fixture over the kitchen counter. Each ingredient was a labor of love, heavy on the labor.
The kids and I became regulars on the farmers market circuit. We brought the booty home to Joe, to work his magic. Once we tumbled in to find that Joe had just slaughtered a goat and two roosters. Spattered in blood, his cut hand bandaged in duct tape, he looked about as cheerful as Rambo. Joe does not even eat goat. I am the only one in my family who does, but I do my best to enjoy it enough for four.
At home, we were feasting. Once we’d tracked down local flour and oats, and sunflower seed oil for cooking, we shifted out of survival mode and into fine dining. I’d sit down to Joe’s spreads and find myself at a loss for words. Spaghetti dinner meant pasta hand-rolled with our own eggs and sauce that was our garden in liquid form. Our gratitude journal, stashed in the junk drawer, reappeared, this time for documenting our meals.
The hardest part? Leaving the house, I tell people. Especially with kids, it required packing like an Arctic explorer about to cross the polar ice cap. When I found my blood sugar running low, I reminded myself that no one ever died of starvation in an afternoon, drank water or coffee (my exception), and ate when I got home. I lost a few pounds, and I hope I gained a measure of Buddhist self-discipline. A little hunger made me sincerely reverential when I did sit down to eat.
If you really want to know what the hardest part was, though, you’d have to ask Joe, and he’s a man of few words (“this interview,” he said when I asked).
These four weeks did, predictably, see us devolve into shouting maniacs as we tried to get lunches prepped and out the door on a weekday morning. But they also felt right on a visceral level, like calling a time out in a tense game and huddling up, our sweaty foreheads pressed against each other’s.
For Kai’s birthday party, which happened to fall on September 30, the kids’ activity was baking carrot-apple cupcakes. We ate Joe’s black bean chili and squash soup, then those hot donut-y cupcakes, brushed with melted butter and rolled in maple sugar and cinnamon. It was our best party yet, fitting of two momentous occasions. Kai had turned five, and we had survived.