Thursday, May 24, 2012

The 100-Mile Diet

The 100-mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating

Very belatedly for one who is interested in local food, I have finally picked up The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by Alisa Smith and JB McKinnon (published in the US under the title, Plenty). I admit I avoided it for a long time. I had already read a book on similar themes, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating by Barbara Kingsolver; the thought of a whole book about what a couple ate for a year seemed too boring for words; and anyway, I know the theory of why we should eat locally and didn't see the need to be told all over again. Of course, my assumptions were completely wrong; this is a fine book. Richer than a food diary and more engaging than a polemic – and much funnier than Kingsolver – here is an intimate portrait of a Vancouver couple. The story is structured around the year they ate only food grown within 100 miles of their home, but it is much more than a story about dinner.

The book certainly has aspects of a food log, telling where and how they found local produce. They write nicely of the satisfaction of a successful run to the farmer's market, or finding an unexpected farm gate. They learn the intricacies of honey and squash; gorge on blueberries; pick strawberries; meet local fishermen; and learn how to cook, preserve and eat all sorts of new things.

It is also a fascinating history of a local area, charting the shifts in agriculture over the last few centuries. From an abundant food region for the Salish and other coastal tribes, to a self-sufficient colony feeding itself and exporting crops, to an area which imports most of its food while shipping out monocrops, the use of the land has changed dramatically. In that time, the stocks of wild foods, particularly fish, have also plummeted, so that an area which was once unimaginably abundant with seafood now enforces fishing controls to try and preserve what is left. Most sad are the devastating effects industrial accidents have had on the area; during their year of eating locally, half a million river fish were killed by a caustic soda spill. In the face of such devastation, however, the authors refuse to despair; instead, they choose to live responsibly and orient themselves towards hope.

These stories of shopping, eating and growing are interesting. Even more engaging, however, is Alisa's story. Alisa and James wrote alternate chapters, interweaving their views into one story. James's chapters are more finessed, but Alisa's are more personal; and I found her writing moving. She has suffered from cyclical depression since childhood, and although she doesn't dwell on the depression, it certainly has an impact on their year. She writes of what is, to me, a very familiar way of life, that is, living with one eye always on the alternatives, obsessing about real estate, other places, other houses, other lives, and that which might have been. The key to the book, and what is for me the key to local eating, is found in the pages where Alisa argues that eating locally has helped ground her into her particular existence, her particular time and place, in a way that is deeply and psychically healing; so much so that once the year was up, she (and they) decided to maintain, in large part, the diet.

I resonate very deeply with this part of the story, recognising myself in her description of living with one eye always fixed on the alternatives. I don't really know why I feel this way. It may be the curse of colonialism: I am the descendant of colonists; I live two thousand miles from the city of my grandparents; I have no long family history which links me to this place. It may be the curse of third culture kids: I lived in a couple different countries as a child, and all and none of them feel like home. It may just be a pervasive sense of saudade.

Whatever it is, I find this rootlessness and its corresponding restlessness corrosive. It's exhausting; I long for somewhere to relax and belong. I look at other cities, other houses, other lives, with the illusion that somewhere I may find my rest; but deep down I know that the answer does not lie elsewhere. Wherever I live, I will soon feel the same way.

Instead, what matters is that I work towards making whichever place I am in home. This takes learning: learning the seasons, learning the weather patterns, learning the annual changes of particular trees and the visits of particular birds. It's noticing small things: our May visitor, the thrush, which turns up for a week or two every year; the almond, which always blossoms in July.

And a crucial aspect of this project of rooting myself to this place is to learn the food – the people who grow it, the places it is grown, the seasons when it is ripe. Food is so primal, and so intimately linked to the land and our bodies, that it has the potential to locate us firmly in the present.

My family is by no means fully committed to local eating. By the time we factor in our family's multiple food allergies, intolerances and ethical choices, we'd just about starve eating solely local foods; and anyway, I'm not cooking potatoes for breakfast. However, over the last few years, as I have made an effort to source and feed my family with as much local food as reasonably manageable, I have found myself feeling correspondingly more grounded. The delight I take in knowing that in Koo Wee Rup, asparagus is growing its way towards spring; that fresh potatoes from Gembrook have skins so thin they are translucent; that Brunswick honey is at the base of my lip gloss is profound, more than just pleasure: it's the deep slow rooting of my life to the here and now.

The authors of The 100-Mile Diet, with their insights into place and belonging, clearly articulate what I have been fumbling towards on the other side of the world. They do this in between simple recipes for often overlooked foods; hilarious stories of separating grain from mouse poop with a credit card; and rollcalls of species and varieties that are now but a memory: the fish, the wheat, the potatoes, the apples that once stocked the region around Vancouver.

It is an engaging book, clear and well written, gentle and self-mocking even as it is inspiring. We might not all be freelance writers with the time to cook every meal, even breakfast, for a year; but in telling their story, the authors encourage us to think about how we might reconnect with our own locality and give us reasons beyond ethics. In short, in their view and mine, eating local food feeds more than the stomach: it is deeply grounding nourishment for the soul.

'We felt like pioneers setting foot on a strange place called home.' (James, on eating an indigenous camas bulb for the first time).

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating

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