Thursday, May 24, 2012

Response: 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

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Local suburbs, local food


I was invited to be on a panel of bloggers at the Darebin Homemade Food & Wine Festival on the weekend, where I was asked, How do seasonal, sustainable and ethical food practices define local suburbs and strengthen local communities? This is my response.


First, to clarify. Seasonal food is local food, food which grows at a particular time of the year in a particular location close to home; and eating locally seems quite clearly to be the most ethical and sustainable way to eat.

Anyway, I've been asked to talk about how our food practices define local suburbs. But I'd like to turn the question on its head, and talk about how local suburbs define our food practices. To do so, I'll talk about two places I have lived.

When I was a teenager, my family moved to Washington, DC. We moved from a quarter acre block to an apartment in a planned development. No property had a garden, let alone a veggie patch; and there were no corner stores. One of the hardest things to become accustomed to was the absolute domination of the supermarkets. There were no greengrocers, no butchers, no delis, no markets, no milk bars and, except for a chain of bagel bakeries, nowhere to get bread.

Of course, with no local shops we learned to do our shopping once a week at the supermarket, like everybody else; and to carry that amount of shopping we needed to use the car, like everybody else. Anyway, a walk in that suburb often meant someone yelled at you as they drove past; being a pedestrian was and still is a highly suspicious activity in many parts of the US.

Driving thus defined the landscape; the county was crisscrossed by highways and freeways. Even more, driving to and shopping at big stores defined how people interacted. We never bumped into anyone at the shops or on the street; we never had casual conversations with people we didn't already know; we never knew anything about the check out chicks who whisked our groceries into brown paper bags and took our money.

Life was pretty anonymous in that suburb, and so was our food. Because we had to buy all our groceries from the supermarket, we bought the same groceries as everybody else. Choices were limited to what the big corporations could buy in bulk; there was no variation store to store or season to season. Fresh Californian strawberries and Dominican bananas were available year round, even when there was snow on the ground outside; and except for these broad regions, it was impossible to discover where most of our food came from.

Then I moved back to Australia, to the northern suburbs of Melbourne – talk about Kraft and camembert!

It's easy to make local, seasonal, sustainable choices here; and it has a great deal to do with the built environment. I don't have to shop at supermarkets; instead, I can go to the local shops. We know our local shopkeepers, so we can ask them questions and tell them what we want. You can't get that level of response in a big supermarket. Even better, by shopping locally and talking with the people who sell our food, we help the local shops survive. It's a positive feedback loop.

Sourcing local food often relies on, and builds, good relationships, which you can't form with a supermarket. We've been involved in a CSA, which is community supported agriculture. This means that a group of people commit to buying the produce from one local farm direct from the farmer, in our case a guy named Rod from Captains Creek. We've bought lots of taties from Jack Taters, who comes down regularly from Gembrook in his white ute with his taties and onions and peaches; you might have heard him driving through the suburbs calling 'fresh new potatoes' through his megaphone. We get Brunswick honey and lip balm from Robert at Bee Sustainable, at the top end of Lygon Street. We occasionally order meat from Maria and Jeff in Gippsland, and chicken from Shane in Tarwin Lower. We buy veggies from CERES, which sells stuff grown at their Coburg market garden, and labels the origin of most of its produce. We were involved in an Urban Orchard project, swapping fruit and herbs with other local residents; less formally, we swap eggs for lemons with our neighbour across the road. And, of course, we drop in on farmer's markets from time to time.

These relationships with the retailers and producers of our food are important. They help us remember that food is always the result of somebody's labour. It makes it easier to make ethical choices when you can put a face to the process and know that your food choices affect this person, or that; this landscape, or that. Even better, these relationships give us all a strong sense of belonging to a particular city and the farms which service it.

Our sense of belonging is also strengthened by how we shop: when we're not ordering directly from the Strzelecki Ranges or Captain's Creek, we shop daily, and on foot. It helps our suburb maintain its character as a great place to walk, with lots of little shops and cafes dotted round the place; and we bump into people we know all the time.

Local eating isn't just about shopping and swapping, though. It's also about growing and gleaning. Unlike my apartment in the US, we have a garden here, and it's planted to permaculture principles. But I wasn't born a gardener. I saw only one veggie patch in the US; and I came home and spent years admiring front gardens thickly planted with chicory and rapa before I summoned up the courage to try growing food myself. I learned to keep hens by living with friends who had chooks; it wasn't something that came naturally to me. And in watching older residents carrying bunches of strange herbs, I discovered edible weeds, and now wander the streets myself finding amaranth, lamb's quarters, fennel tops and other good things to eat. Gardening and gleaning are learned skills, which I picked up by observing friends and neighbours, and asking questions.

So the built environment and existing culture of the northern suburbs encouraged my interest in eating locally; and the more interested I became, the more relationships I formed and the more I fed back into the culture of eating locally. This is the opposite of my experience in the US, where I, and my food, were anonymous.

Instead, my life is now woven into a particular time, a particular place and a particular group of people in a dynamic suburb known for its food, its shopping, its street life, and its sense of neighbourhood. And the best way I know to sustain this all, to feed back into the loop and make this lively and life-giving culture stronger, is to keep on blogging and talking and writing about the ways we eat and drink.

(Photo shows the epitome of local eating, one of our backyard egg producers; keeping chickens was impossible where we lived in the US.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Notes on Mallow / Green Salad


I first moved to Brunswick almost twenty years ago. I was a student, living with friends; and we moved here because it was close to the university and, at that time, affordable. After a childhood in the more affluent leafy suburbs and an adolescence in the tree lined suburbs of Virginia, I was shocked by my new neighbourhood. There were no trees. There were no nature strips. There was no shade, and that first long hot summer I saw mirages everywhere. Each long wide road shimmered with heat; and cool blue pools, tricks of the eye, rippled and beckoned. I remember sitting on the end of my bed and sobbing, sure that I had landed in hell.

Since then, of course, I have fallen in love. For one, the suburb has changed: trees have been planted; parks have been tended; cafes and bars and interesting little shops have proliferated. But for the most part, I have acculturated. I have learned to drink my coffee thick and black; I buy my groceries at the Lebanese and Middle Eastern and Mediterranean wholesalers; I have turned my yard into a food garden. And, between grabbing milk thistles for my chooks and herbs for my family while I'm out and about, I am beginning to resemble one of those Greek grandmothers who wander our streets carrying bunches of leaves.

I keep a plastic shopping bag in my pocket to grab choice weeds, and more and more shun the floppy flaccid foliage that is for sale at most greengrocers. I've been aided by a little book which I recently picked up, Edible Weeds and Garden Plants of Melbourne. It is a photographic guide to the most common edible weeds, along with notes on their nutritional value, growth habit, and the best ways to eat them. I had already eaten many of the weeds in the book, but I was delighted to discover some new ones.

In particular, I am now eating mallow. It's a ubiquitous weed, one of the first colonisers of bulldozed blocks and something often found growing in dry dirt; it doesn't seem to need good soil. The chooks avoid it; and I've pulled it out of our garden a thousand times on the assumption it was useless. But now I discover that it's edible, and not in the way dandelion greens are edible but so bitter that you know they must be Good For You, but edible in the sense of mild, soft and delicious. It has been eaten since Greek and Roman times, and is packed with vitamin C, calcium, iron and other nutrients. It often grows in the company of fat hen, another tasty edible weed.

Mallow is everywhere you look. It has a flat, wide growth habit, and the leaves are very distinctive, whether they are an inch across or the size of the palm of your hand. We always have small plants in the garden; but now I also whisk it out of roadside plantings, people's front yards, and wherever else seems a reasonably safe place to pick it. I've been eating it Indian style; I've cooked it up with and without borage leaves in horta; and I've been tossing the smaller soft leaves into salad.

When I'm not wandering the neighbourhood looking for mallow and other goodies, I'm in the garden assembling a salad of soft leaves. You can mix baby mallow leaves into any salad; the photograph shows mallow with salad burnet, two types of rocket, and land cress for a bit of a kick. Salad burnet has a light soft cucumber-y sort of flavour; and land cress, for all its heat, is also reminiscent of cucumber; they go very well together, two themes on a motif.

Such a salad doesn't have a recipe, of course; instead, it's just a gentle reminder that there is a world of good things to eat growing just outside the door – and, if you spend a weekend planting edible herbs, you'll have even more choice. There is little you can eat that is more sustainable than a handful of weeds and herbs dressed with a squeeze of lemon from the tree; and little else that tastes so clean, fresh and good. And it's all growing right here, in the concrete jungle that is Brunswick.

Green Salad

- 1 handful baby mallow leaves
- 1 handful salad burnet
- 1 handful rocket (any type)
- 1 handful cress (land or water)
- a good pinch salt
- a nice drizzle extra virgin olive oil
- the juice of half a lemon, or to taste

Wash the leaves carefully, and spin or pat dry. Do not refrigerate. Cold leaves lose their softness and delicate flavour; thus a leaf salad should always be served at room temperature. Of course, if you must wait hours between picking and eating, refrigerate, but allow enough time beforehand for the greens to come to room temperature before you serve them.

Sprinkle a good pinch of salt into your salad bowl or platter. Add the lemon juice and a nice drizzle of olive oil. Taste for sharpness, and adjust as necessary.

Throw in the dry leaves and, using your fingertips, toss gently but thoroughly until each leaf is glistening.

Serve immediately.

Best eaten with fingers (nyuck nyuck), or a local organic traceable rump steak, bloody juices drizzled over the salad. Yes, I do eat a steak from time to time. Shocking, isn't it?

I bought my copy of Edible Weeds from Bee Sustainable, a fantastic shop which sells all sorts of tools to make your own stuff (bee hives, olive presses, Fowler's preserving kits and parts etc); local honey, jams, panforte, candles and soap; open pollinated seeds; and lots of good books. You can also order Edible Weeds direct from The author hosts weed walks all over Melbourne, for which you can book on the website. If you're not sure what exactly is edible, you may wish to do a weed walk before you go out foraging.

If you do decide to forage on the basis of this blog, use your common sense. Eat only what you know to be edible, avoid areas which have been sprayed, and don't eat anything that is near a steaming pile of doggy doo! All care but no responsibility is taken for the information on this blog.

(Backyard / gleaned: all salad leaves, lemon. Wimmera: olive oil, salt.)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Apple Snow


Several years ago we visited Berlin in winter and it snowed every day. Snow covered cars and bicycles; snow heaped up in the streets. Cafés and bars left their outdoor furniture on the pavement, and snow was piled foot high on the tables and chairs. Snowploughs focussed on the main roads, so our suburban street packed down into ice and the cars drove through at a very cautious 10 kph. All was quiet and still; bliss.

We went to the playground and rode the flying fox into a snowdrift, laughing and screaming; we borrowed a sled and went scudding down the local hill. We watched a giant snow fight set to house music between two suburbs, and laughed at adults running to the fight clutching readymade snowballs in their arms. We sat for hours watching the snow fall outside the window of our apartment. To snow neophytes like us, we were in heaven.

It doesn’t snow in Melbourne except at our house. The new season’s apples are ripe, and we are making snow – apple snow, that is. Apple snow is a lovely light English classic, and a great way to use up egg whites. Even better, it takes about five minutes and your three year old can do most of it. Just supervise her with the mix master and she’ll be fine!

Apple Snow

- 400g smooth apple purée
- the whites of two large eggs
- 120g caster sugar (I often use raw caster sugar for the extra flavour, but it is at the expense of a pure white snow)
- pinch of cinnamon

Place the eggwhites into a mix master or a large stainless steel bowl*. Beat until they resemble soft peaks. Sprinkle in the cinnamon and then, very gradually, add the sugar tablespoon by tablespoon, until it has all been absorbed and the egg whites resemble stiff peaks.

Very gently fold in the apple purée, taking care not to knock out the air which you have just so painstakingly introduced into the egg whites.

Spoon the mixture into large glasses or bowls, and serve. You can refrigerate it for an hour or two, but no longer as the apple will begin to separate from the meringue.

Use the leftover egg yolks to make hollandaise sauce or mayonnaise.

*Note: Egg whites will not stiffen if there is any residual fat in the bowl. Plastic bowls are porous and always hold traces of fat, so do not use plastic. Aluminium bowls turn the whites grey, so do not use aluminium. Copper bowls are unbearably expensive, so do not use copper. Glass is a possibility, but the whites slip and slide down the sides. Ergo, stainless steel.

Adapted from the ever charming Apple Source Book, a cornucopia of information about English apples including recipes for food and cider, orchard advice, and a comprehensive list of apple varieties with notes on their provenance, history and usefulness.

(Backyard: eggs. Gleaned from Gembrook: apples. Nasty stuff: sugar. Question: is it better to buy organic sugar from Brazil, or conventional sugar from Queensland? I can’t decide, so I fluctuate. Organic: cinnamon.)

The Apple Source Book