Thinking about Local Eating

I’ve been listening to a lot of back episodes of The Splendid Table lately. My local NPR station doesn’t carry it, but I’ve been downloading episodes to my iPod and listening to them in the car or at the gym. Apparently, they had a year-long listener experiment in locavorism — they selected a dozen or so readers who tried to eat 80% local food for one year and blogged about it. So yesterday I had to do some errands and I was listening to the host check in with one of the locavore eaters, this is perhaps the second one of these segments I’ve heard, and I was somewhat surprised that the entire discussion was couched in terms of “what did you give up? how hard was it?”

Sigh.

It was interesting hearing this younger guy from North Carolina talking about how he’d been a big fan of cereal, and that was one thing he gave up. Sugary cereals with bannanas — Honey Nut Cheerios, Fruit Loops. He was wondering now that his year was coming to an end whether he’d fall back into that habit — he said he felt much better after eating whole, local foods for a year, and that walking down the cereal aisle felt like “visiting the halls of a high school you used to go to.”

This is where I feel like something of a freak. It’s been years really since I’ve shopped much in the interior aisles of the grocery store — you know, where all the processed foods and cereals and “snacks” lurk. In part, it’s because I didn’t grow up eating that stuff — my family were not snackers, and we didn’t eat much processed food. The occasional box of mac and cheese, but Cokes were a big treat, as was the occasional trip to McDonalds. Mostly we ate real food that we cooked for dinner every night.

I buy a few things in the interior aisles — stoned wheat thins are a staple, tea, salsa or rooster sauce from the “ethnic foods” aisle — but I don’t eat cereal (I don’t like sweets for breakfast) and I hate bannanas, so neither of those would be something I’d miss. I guess, looking at my diet from the outside it might seem to someone used to processed foods to be a diet of deprivation — I don’t eat very many fruits or veggies out of season, and frankly, I eat fewer and fewer fruits and veg that aren’t local mostly because they taste so bad. I’d really rather have good peaches for a few weeks when they’re delicious and in season than eat those weird crunchy things they sell in the store as “peaches.” I’d eat canned peaches before I’d eat those.

But it never feels like deprivation. I guess that’s the part that bewilders me — that the concept of eating food produced closer to home is parsed as some sort of deprivation. I’m lucky because between the garden and living in an agricultural state I can source my milk, eggs, wheat, lamb, pork, beef, and most of my vegetables from Montana producers. I do buy some stuff from non-local sources: wine, cheese, oranges, some vegetables (especially in winter), spices, olive oil, dry pasta.

I eat extraordinarily well, and while I might not cook with tomatoes out of season, it’s less out of some abstract rule-based thing than it is from having gotten used to my own tomatoes, and having learned enough to put them up. I wonder whether all this talk about “locavorism” might be, in the general discourse, masking a larger discussion about what Michael Pollan calls “food” versus “food-like substances”? That is, is the divide not between those of us who like to choose local products and those who don’t, but really between those of us who cook at all and those who don’t cook and rely on processed food?

I’m not trying to rag on The Splendid Table — it’s a terrific show and I’ve really been enjoying it. I do live in something of a bubble out here, all my friends cook and are interested in food, and well, we’re already slightly freaky artist types — so what I’m talking about is a meme I’m hearing from “out there” — the “normal” world if you will. And it’s the odd note that is catching my attention — if it’s such a radical idea to eat locally is that because it’s still a sort of radical idea to eat whole foods and to cook at all?

Walking the Dog in my Astronaut Suit

It was seven degrees this morning and originally I was going to leave Raymond at home and go to the gym instead of going for a walk. It’s a block and a half to the gym, and warm in there, while walking the mile and back to the dog park was going to be cold. But when I stepped outside and realized the wind wasn’t blowing, I went back in to suit up.

My winter dog-walking outfit must be a sight. When Patrick died, I kept his really really nice North Face jacket, which is, understandably quite large on me. This is the genius of the jacket. It’s huge. It’s like wearing a bubble. With fleecy tights underneath my ski pants, and my vintage Patagonia reverse-fleece jacket under the ginormous coat, and a hat, and the hood pulled up over the hat, and my thick ragg wool mittens, I’m actually quite toasty in there. I must look like a troll since I am a short person wearing a lot of clothes, some of which is very large — and frankly I feel like a little kid in a snowsuit (remember that immobilized feeling?). But it works, and so I made a deal with Ray this morning — if the wind isn’t blowing, we’ll still walk. If the wind is blowing all bets are off because even bundled up I hate it when my face freezes.

So off we went this morning in the near-dark. Me in my pile o’clothing, and him skipping along like the animal he is. It was a beautiful morning — sunny and clear and sparkly snow and the Crazy Mountains all pink in the sunrise. Totally worth bundling up for — and it’s such a relief to be old enough to not care that I look goofy. Forty minutes outside in the fresh air looking at the sights and saying hi to my dog park friends. It’s the best part of my weekdays.

Not Approved by the FDA

p8070026.JPGUsing my cold frame as a refrigerator. But it works! Last night, I put the pot with the chicken in it outside in the cold frame for the night. The pot is too big for the fridge, it was in the high 30s last night and even now it’s only in the mid-40s. Really, about the same as my fridge — and I don’t have raccoons or other critters to worry about. And as you can see from the photo, the cold frame is right outside the back door, which is off the mud room, which is off the kitchen. So into the cold frame it goes, and tonight I’ll de-fat it, and probably reheat and then pack it up afterwards in some less oddball manner — or I might not, it’s perfectly fine out there.

Home Sweet Chicken

While it was indeed a lovely drive up the Clearwater river yesterday on the way home from Seattle, it made for a very long day in the car — I didn’t get back until nearly ten and I was all road buzzy when I got here. But today was lovely — walked the dog, did some grocery shopping, and then tried to decide what to do with the requisite homecoming chicken.

I seem to be compelled to cook a chicken after returning from a trip. I’ve written any number of times about my mystical belief in the power of a well-cooked chicken to make everything right in the world, but I have to admit, I went back and forth on whether or not to do a chicken. I have so much food in my freezers already — half a pig, for instance, and there’s a substantial amount of lamb left, and even some cut-up chicken. But no, nothing else would really do so Raymond-the-dog and I walked to the grocery store and bought a chicken. It doesn’t feel like home until I’ve cooked a chicken.

Tonight is Poulet Bonne Femme or white coq au vin — a whole chicken, browned all over, then cooked with onions, carrots, parsnips (they were in the sale bin at the grocery this am), garlic, spices and a little white wine and spices. The whole house is beginning to smell like wine and chicken, the dogs are sleeping in their respective spots, and I’m reading Home: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson. All is indeed well with the world.

Eating from the Pantry

So, these past few weeks have been killer at work — we’re moving to some new tools, which is exciting and frustrating and involves a lot of training, and of course, everyone is a little nervous in the current economic climate — so it’s been long days at the computer after which I reel out of my home office slightly stunned that I can be as blinky and fried as I am considering that I haven’t even left the house. The weirdness of telecommuting — your job comes to you.

However, the silver lining has been that I was slightly crazed this summer and put up a lot of food. Which means that at the end of the day, dinner is actually kind of working out — polenta has been a staple lately — I’ve discovered that the rice cooker set on slow cook is the bomb for polenta. I have all that sauce I put up, and a freezer full of cooked greens, and I did a (small) pork shoulder in red chile last week, which as we all know you can reheat ad infinitum. So polenta with greens, or polenta with sauce, or polenta with pulled pork. Or pasta with any of the above. I also made an oddball dish the other day that turned out well — I took half a ham slab, and put it in a dish on top of a small savoy cabbage from the garden chopped up with a few garden carrots and potatoes and some of the little onions I grew. A few garlic slices, some salt and pepper, a good slug of white wine and a sprinkling of Herbes de la Garrigue from World Spice, then in the oven at 350 for about 40 minutes. I did it in one of my pyrex dishes from eBay that had a lid, so I cooked it covered for about 30 minutes, then took the lid off so the spuds and the ham got nice and crispy. It was way too much food, which means that it’s more than one dinner, which is good when I’m blinky after a long day at the computer.

The other thing I’ve been trying to do is to up the ratio of veggies to whatever meat is on the plate — so a little ham and a lot of veggies, a nice pile of polenta with a little sauce, or greens, or an egg. Basic cucina povera, which is, as we’re all discovering, actually a healthier way to live. Which isn’t to say that last night, after another long long day, I wasn’t tempted to call out for something — a pizza or Chinese food — but takeout in our little town takes forever, and it didn’t seem worth it when I have a fridge and pantry full of food. So I reheated some pork, and some rice, and chopped up a bunch of cilantro and scallions, and in 15 minutes I had a nice hot bowl of food (and I hadn’t dropped fifteen dollars in the middle of the week).

Blogging Post-Election

I’ve been in something of a blogging slump. I mean, it seems weird to be blogging about say, my newfound love of salted butter, in a world in which the financial markets are all collapsing and we have a president-elect who astonishes one every day with his deliberation and well, leadership. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt this way. As though I have a government I could actually trust to do the right thing — that is, even if they’re not doing every little thing I’d like, that I trust is actually working for the good of the nation (and the good of the global community). I’m finding it a little unsettling — unsettling in a good way, but unsettling nonetheless.

I’m also a little unmoored by the sudden manner in which the nation has been plunged into living small — and the screeching from the media that by doing so, we’re destroying the American economy. Something seems off to me. If our economy is so delicate that by simply not buying a new car every year we can destroy it, then perhaps we need to rethink our relationship to “growth” — as even Obama has said, every crisis bears an opportunity, and perhaps this is one. Can we, as a nation, rethink our relationship to stuff? Do we really need to consume at the rate we have been? Can we dial it back without causing a total collapse? Where is the balance?

I’m a little disoriented. It might take a while to figure out what it means to live in a world where you don’t actually feel like you’re shouting in the wilderness.

Winter Salad

winter saladI have a confession to make. I don’t really like salads much, particularly not in winter. Salad just seems so cold somehow. However, I am a big fan of what I like to call “winter salad” — a sort of cole slaw. Cabbage, red onion, carrot all shredded up and dressed with lime juice, salt, olive oil and some New Mexico chile. It’s crunchy and tart and goes with just about any sandwich or lunchtime quesadlila.

I made this one last week from one of my four savoy cabbages I grew this summer, and the onions and carrots also came from the garden. Raw cabbage is supposed to be really good for you, but mostly I just like this because it’s green and crunchy and goes with everything.

I also started a batch of sauerkraut last night. I used a clean, scrubbed kitchen pail since I don’t have a crock. I bought a monster cabbage grown locally by the Hutterites — it was a six pound cabbage. The recipe I went with is from Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning by the Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante. I love this book — it’s full of all sorts of very old world preservation techniques. I sliced up the cabbage and layered it with a couple of sliced onions, some bay leaves, cumin and coriander seeds. I sprinkled a big soup spoon of pickling salt over every layer. I then tamped it all down with a potato masher until it was wet, then covered the whole thing with a ginormous ziploc bag filled with enough water to form a seal. Then I set it in the pantry and we’ll see what transpires.