Every year, about this time, I get carried away with a marvelously optimistic conviction that our little island, left to its own agricultural devices, just might be okay.
The hills and paths are resplendent with wild fruit, the backyard gardens are tumbling over with zucchini, the woods are teeming with game, the farmers’ market tables are groaning under the weight of beets and broccoli, the fields at Lester’s are waving with tall, beautiful corn.
At each meal I tally how many of my ingredients have come from somewhere on the island, and from the beginning of August until after Thanksgiving, I don’t do too badly. Veggies from local farms and city plots, foraged mushrooms, vacant-lot berries, eggs and milk from local producers, a bit of fish, and some Spyglass butter get thrown together and we eat like kings. And every year I become more convinced that, with a little more planning and forethought, and a slightly bigger freezer, I could eat this way all year ‘round.
It’s not quite the 100-mile diet, but close.
Chances are you’ve heard of the 100-mile diet by now, but if not, here’s the gist: rather than buying just any old groceries from any old place, 100-mile-dieters dedicate their food dollars and their time to the acquisition of local produce. The phrase was coined by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, who spent a year eating nothing but food produced within a 100-mile radius of their home in Vancouver. No Mexican mangoes, no Costa Rican pineapples, no olives, no chocolate, and nothing packaged up with shrink-wrap.
“Why on earth would anybody want to do that?” you may well ask.
Well, I can think of a bunch of reasons, but the quality of produce shipped from halfway around the world is reason enough, as far as I’m concerned. Limp greens, mealy tomatoes, and polystyrene-flavoured strawberries have become the norm. We don’t know who grew them, or what sort of environments they came from, we just pick them up at the grocery store, pop them out of their plastic clamshells, give them a rinse and feed them to our families, pleased that we’ve managed to get our kids to choke down their five servings of fruit and veg a day, no matter what the ultimate cost.
What else? Well, how about the fossil fuel required to move produce from one side of the planet to the other, the chemical additives needed to keep fruit looking good for days and weeks on end, the conditions of the workers in the far-off countries that the fruit comes from, the lack of connection to the seasons when you buy the same produce all year round, the uneasy position of relying on imports when we live on an island… need I go on?
“100-mile diet” is just one term for this kind of thinking. The Slow Food movement is a similar phenomenon, encouraging people to celebrate local food traditions, to connect with farmers in their area, and to savour the production and the consumption of food rather than just stuffing something into their mouths and hurrying about their days. “Locavore” is another new term, describing someone who eats only food grown or produces within a certain radius of their community, usually 100 or 150 miles.
Catering to locavores is career ambition for Andrea Maunder, co-owner of Bacalao restaurant, where the “Nouvelle Newfoundland Cuisine” focuses on fresh local ingredients. The foodstuffs aren’t 100% local, but as close as possible given the volume required to keep the kitchen running. Maunder finds it ridiculous “that we need phrases like ‘100-mile diet’ and ‘slow foods movement,’ all this new terminology for stuff we should be doing anyway.”
She has a good point: up until about fifty years ago, the bulk of what Newfoundlanders ate was grown in backyard fields and on small farms. The idea of eating a potato from anything other than Newfoundland soil would have been laughable, and fruit like oranges would have been exotic Christmas treats rather than flavourless commodities, picked while green, shot through with food colouring, and shipped here in unimaginable numbers.
Local traditions carry a great deal of weight for Maunder.
“In the olden days, we canned,” she says. And that’s just what they do at the restaurant. During our interview, in fact, a slew of local veggies were being made into mustard pickles in the kitchen behind me.
To ensure a supply of local berries through the winter, Maunder and her staff freeze some and can the rest. The restaurant has four “dirty big freezers” full of local meat and produce, and, says Maunder, if they ever get a line on moose meat, they’ll “sooner go out and buy another freezer than turn it down.”
Sounds wonderfully Nan-and-Pop-ish to me (aside from the buying-a-new-freezer part) but then Maunder has a very successful restaurant, so she can get away with it.
For those of us working on a smaller scale, a closet-sized deep-freeze and a home-canning kit are probably enough.
If you want to feast on local foods through the year, “you have to start in the summertime,” says Maunder. “It takes planning and preparation.” And I know that not everybody is a freelance food writer on a flexible schedule, or a restaurant owner. But what about heading out to the farmer’s market or your favourite farm stand, buying as much broccoli as you can, and spending a weekend afternoon cutting it into spears, blanching it, packing it into bags, and stuffing it in the freezer? Or picking rosehips on Signal Hill after the first frost, taking them home, and making jelly? How about calling up your great-aunt for advice on making piccalilli with the too-late-to-ripen tomatoes from your balcony tomato pots, or letting your “got-to-get-me-moose, b’y” uncle know that you’ll happily take some stew meat off his hands?
It doesn’t have to be all pickles and moose meat either, of course. Beautiful scald cream (like clotted cream) is being made here, by Glenview’s Finest. There are delicate salad greens being produced seasonally by The Organic Farm and Seed To Spoon, and year-round by The Lettuce Farm (or you can grow your own in a plastic bin in a sunny window). There are juniper berries along the Signal Hill trail, and there is wild mint growing just about everywhere it’s wet.
The biggest difficulty with eating local around St. John’s is that the farmers and producers haven’t had much help in terms of networking and marketing. It takes a lot if legwork to find local farmers and, when you do, it’s not always clear what sort of farming they’re doing.
Maunder recalls looking for her locally-sourced produce: ”I’d find a listing for ‘Jonathan’s Farm,’ but I don’t know whether Jonathan raised carrots or emus.” The St. John’s Farmer’s Market has done a lot to connect area farmers with customers, but if you want to get some rabbit or bakeapples or wild mussels or a duck, you have to put your feelers out and ask around.
Often, though, asking around is all it takes. St. John’s, for all the availability of avocadoes in February, is still a small town, and if you ask a few people to spread the word that you like a bit of flipper pie in the spring, chances are there will be someone, or ten someones, hauling you to a flipper dinner at a church hall the first chance they get.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few years, it’s that foodies like other foodies. If you want to build a network of locavores, even part-time locavores, the first step is announcing your intentions. That done, be prepared to swap some of your frozen blackberries for a chicken, or to paint someone’s fence for a feed of cod tongues. Blow your birthday money on dinner at a local-foods restaurant or market stand to show them that what they’re doing is important.
It’s how things have always worked, and how they should.
Note: these menus have not yet been tried, just dreamed up. If they inspire you, please leave a comment, send a photo, or share your recipe by commenting below.
1. Lamb sausages, dandelion or turnip greens sautéed in local butter, steamed and buttered potatoes, baked rhubarb with honey and scald cream
2. Roast corn, steamed fava beans, mussels steamed in Iceberg vodka with local garlic and shallots and finely–chopped parsley, clafouti-inspired custard made from local cream and eggs, sweetened with honey, and baked with local berries (merci à Martha Muzychka for that one)
3. Cream of chanterelle (wild mushroom) soup, layered casserole of local tomatoes and rainbow Swiss chard with homemade ricotta cheese, baked local apples stuffed with dried chuckley pears (Saskatoon berries) and honey, served with whipped cream
4. Moose pot roast with buttercup squash and kale, potato dumplings, homemade Greek-style yogurt with partridgeberry jam
5. Big ol’ boiled dinner, massive bowl of blueberries with full-fat milk (Okay, this particular menu has been tested and approved.)