Become a Locavore

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.)

28 comments

Republic of Doyle Tweets: Episode Two

Mystery Doyle Theatre 3000: Adam Clarke live blogs the second episode of Republic of Doyle.

13 January 2010

  1. Darcy Fitzpatrick · January 13, 2010

    It’s true, we’re somewhat inundated with terms for how we eat, but I think Locavore is one of the best I’ve heard in a while – and a fantastic concept. Great article. Thanks Andreae!

  2. Rich · January 13, 2010

    Lets not forget that just because Farmer Jonathan raises his crops/livestock here does not mean your money stays in the province. When John has to buy new equipment or supplies, chances are it isnt coming from here. The trucks he uses on his farm were not made in Dildo, they were made in Detroit, and shipped here on the back of an even bigger truck. Likewise, the big-box-supermarkets may be based elsewhere, but they employ hundreds of very local people who spend their earnings locally. As for national/international franchises? It may be more hip to eat at a tiny, trendy restaurant on Duckworth, but when you eat at McDonalds on Kenmount, you’re still supporting a local entrepeneur who, once again, employs more locals than most places downtown.

    I buy local when it’s convenient, but I dont see any environmental, cultural, or economic benefits in doing so. People who make a point of only buying local are really just following a pointless, and sometimes annoying trend.

    Just had to get that off my chest. I do enjoy your articles. Keep em coming.

  3. alison dyer · January 13, 2010

    bacalao… several different recipes – i’ve made salt cod this summer & look forward to having it with layers of my homegrown potatoes. only problem – for a locavore -is my love of black olives, an essential ingredient. anyone interested in dabbling in the growing of same here?

  4. Andreae Prozesky · January 13, 2010

    Darcy: Thank you!

    Alison: You made salt cod? Amazing! I agree on the olive issue – I’m not sure how long I’d last without the gallons of olive oil I use over the course of a year. Or tea and coffee. And I suppose I needn’t mention chocolate… ahem… I wonder what it would take to set up a small olive grove in one of the province’s microclimate zones?

    Rich: It’s true that the fast-food industry does employ loads of locals and they do spend much of their money in the community, but I think it is pretty well agreed that the social, environmental, and health effects of fast food (which isn’t really food, but “food artifact” ot “food product”) are all but entirely detrimental. I agree that the trendiness of the local foods movement can be a little irritating – just the same as how “organic” has become such a buzzword than now many of the old-school organic farmers want to distance themselves from it – but I think that, ultimately, raising consciousness about our relationship with the food we put in our systems is a good thing. One statistic I was given says that if we substitute just 10% of our food choices with locally-produced items a year, we’ll reduce our associated carbon dioxide emissions by a half-ton a year. That’s a trend I can get behind! High-waisted pants, not so much.

    (For the record, food trends drive me nuts. Anyone remember that year when every single cooking magazine had a picture of a serving-sized molten chocolate cake on the front? Yeesh, people!)

  5. Jean Graham · January 13, 2010

    And of course, fresh local food just tastes so darn much better!

    My teenagers and I were discussing our food plans for Friday. I have local eggs, milk and butter, so maybe French toast with jam for breakfast? (Although wheat, yeast, and pectin come from elsewhere …)

    For supper, a curry of chicken, potatoes, and whatever Seed to Spoon comes up with this week. Of course, spices don’t grow here, but most of mine were packaged by The Spice Barn. Speaking of which, does anyone know if that particular business has re-opened? I thought I saw a refurbished display at the grocery store somewhere recently.

  6. bryhanna · January 13, 2010

    Hey I’ve been on the look out for those Spice Barn packets too–haven’t seen them in ages. They’re on the small side which is good–it doesn’t take years to get through a packet.

    So yeah, does anyone know where to find Spice Barn spices these days?

  7. Elling Lien · January 13, 2010

    I think I saw them at Sobeys on Merrymeeting near the baked goods section. That was a week ago, I think.

    I just left a message on their machine and they should get back to me today.

  8. kelly white · January 13, 2010

    it would be so cool to have the greater generation share their cookery and living-off-the land skills to people like us in some organised way. my almost-79 year old nan was in her macdonald drive yard for days last summer salting cod to mail to me in toronto. i then (drifting away from the ‘local’ concept) learned from a jamaican coworker how to eat it with ackee from a tin – yum!

    p.s. andreae, i read and love every column that you write with a twinge of homesickness. thanks for the great ideas and well-written execution.

  9. kelly white · January 13, 2010

    p.p.s. it is right to be disgusted at the limitless market for people to sell old ideas back to us with a veneer of hipness. just don’t throw out the baby with the acid-washed urban outfitters fall 2009 jeans. babies deserve love regardless of their attire.

  10. Jennifer · January 13, 2010

    Some interesting points from: http://greenterrafirma.com/wordpress/is-the-100-mile-diet-a-bad-thing/

    Food has to travel to get from the farm to your plate. The farther it travels, the more transportation emissions it causes. Therefore, buy food that’s produced locally (100 miles) and reduce the carbon footprint of the food you consume – low “food miles”.

    The simple idea of “food miles” can lead you in the wrong direction. You must consider the entire emissions a foodstuff has created. For example, growing tomatoes in a local greenhouse, with all the heating and lighting it takes, can cause more emissions than raising the tomatoes in a sunny climate and shipping them to your door.

    As a good rule of thumb, if it’s in season and grown locally, it’s likely lower in emissions. If it’s out of season locally, you need to dig much deeper.

    _____________________
    I’m all for eating local whenever you can get it, and yes, it usually always tastes better!

  11. gerard · January 13, 2010

    As folks are saying, in-season local stuff (fresh, cheap, green) is good sense and good for the senses. And that last jar of jam made with backyard plums is a highlight of March.

    On a slightly facetious note, though: I use a lot of dried stuff (peppers, grains, beans, flour, fruit, tomatoes, mushrooms, spices) that comes from far away, but I reconstitute it with local water. Which means a lot of my meals are 75% local (by weight), right? At least compared to buying (say) black bean chili in a can? I wonder how those energy savings compare to running a freezer all year. I’m not being a jerk about this (okay, maybe I am), I honestly don’t know how it all shakes out.

  12. Andreae · January 13, 2010

    Kelly,

    Thank you so much for the compliment!

    I did the Radio Noon call-in on Thursday, and the callers who were really rockin’ the local foods life were the ones who were living around the bay (or who had grown up there) and hunting/catching/growing/preserving a year’s worth of food for themselves and their families. We young urban types have so much to learn!

  13. Andreae · January 13, 2010

    Too true! And if hipsterism helps advance a good cause, I can accept it. Even in mom jeans. If I must.

  14. Andreae · January 13, 2010

    Jennifer,

    I tried the link, but I got a not-found message. Is it possible that the post could have been removed?

    You make a very good point about greenhouses and the energy they use. I’ve all but given up fresh tomatoes for that reason: I eat them at this time of year when I can get them locally, and I try to freez the rest. I wonder: does anybody know if the tomatoes you buy in tins are field-grown or hothouse grown? Then, of course, there’s the issue of transporting heavy tinned goods.

    Same goes for salad greens. There’s absolutely no reason why we should be eating salad in the off-season anyway. Traditionally, tender greens were eaten as a spring and early summer tonic, then you would move on to tougher greens like beet tops and cabbage, then you would eat rood vegetables through the winter. I think our bodies probably get confused when we feed them summer foods all year long.

  15. Andreae · January 13, 2010

    Gerard,

    You’re quite right about dried grains and such: they’re light to tansport, at the very least, and much more friendly than cans (especially given our recycling situation here). I don’t know the numbers on running a freezer, but you’re right, it does take energy. In terms of energy used, sun-drying would be the best way to preserve food, then maybe canning (home canning, I mean, not industrial), then freezing last. *Except* that to make jam or other fruit preserves you need a lot of sugar, which of course comes from far away, and can be a pretty ugly industry. Is that better or worse than running a home freezer over the winter? (I mean this earnestly… I really have no idea how they stack up either!)

  16. Alison · January 13, 2010

    Beet sugar! From Alberta! It’s not 100 miles, but it ain’t a part of the slave trade either.

    a tricky one I find when eating a vegan diet is replacing coconut milk and nuts

    check out http://rootcellarsrock.ca/blog/ for a local local local initiative

  17. Alex · January 13, 2010

    I won’t argue with the environmental benefits to eating locally (although the comments conversation about them has been quite interesting), but I remain skeptical about the social and economic benefits of only eating locally.

    If eating only locally grown products were to spread from niche-market to popular consumption in Newfoundland, I can’t imagine how it would be economically sustainable. Furthermore, large farm subsidies would likely be needed to make many forms of food production profitable at that level. NL has tried such subsides before, only to meet in failure. But a bigger concern of mine is that agricultural subsidies are the greatest distorter of food prices and cost of production in the world (particularly the EU agricultural subsidies), and are one of the biggest reasons for the continuing discrepancy between rich and poor countries. I also disagree wholeheartedly that we’re doing the poor, mistreated labourer any favours by not buying the food from his country.

  18. Andreae · January 13, 2010

    Not since the great iced coffee debate of a couple summers back has a Food Nerd column garnered such lively comments!

    For most of us, eating locally all the time, soup to nuts (or… um… seeds), would require a complete shift – upheaval even – of lifestyle. I don’t see it as a model where we would be replacing imported large-scale agribusiness products with domestic large-scale agribusiness products, but rather with a focus on individual self-sustainability, backyard gardening, community chicken coops, canning co-ops, that kind of thing. I know that for a whole lot of people this is completely unappealing! But it’s a beautiful vision as far as I’m concerned. So in terms of farm subsidies and what have you, I’m not sure it would have to come to that. I think that people at FEASt and the Food Security Network would have more data on how such a model would run – any of you folks reading and wish to comment?

    I have always been taught that when you give your money to a businessperson or a company, you’re rewarding them for their corporate behaviour. I do as much as I can to reward the companies and individuals whose practices I admire, and to not throw money at the companies whose practices I don’t appreciate. Obviously I can’t do this all the time since most of the companies I admire are small, and their products are more expensive than mass-produced ones. But I try my best. When I can, I support fair trade organizations dedicated to improving the lives of workers. I think it’s important for everyone to know just how powerful their dollars are.

    I know that a 100% local diet while living in a province where we have such a small agriculture industry is pretty much impossible. The goal I’ve set for myself and my family is to have 50% of our food come from Atlantic Canadian sources, and for as much of the remaining 50% to come from responsible businesses as possible (given budget and availability). This doesn’t seem unreasonable at all to me!

  19. Andreae · January 13, 2010

    Oooh! Do you have names for any companies distributing beet sugar? I would very happily buy that if I could.

    I think the vegan diet might be the single most difficult one to sustain on locally-produced food. You can get pumpkin seeds from Speerville Mills in New Brunswick if I’m not mistaken, but that’s about all. They also produce white and brown rice – you could make rice milk, but that’s certainly no substitute for coconut milk.

  20. Andreae · January 13, 2010

    (I’ve just re-read this, and I hope it doesn’t come off as snarky or self-righteous. I’m really being completely earnest here! My sincerity never translates well without my enthusiastic facial expressions.)

  21. Elling Lien · January 13, 2010

    The spice people didn’t get back to me, but I’ve been in grocery stores since, and it appears they’re usually placed between the produce and bread sections, for some reason.

  22. Jennifer · January 13, 2010

    Sorry for the bad link! I tried it myself today and can’t get it to come up again, weird.

  23. gerard · January 13, 2010

    If enough people were serious about eating locally (where feasible), and voted with their dollars, I can see that a fair bit of it would be sustainable. Alex’s comment reminded me of when I was in Finland, where you’d see local garlic right next to imported (Portuguese) garlic in the supermarket, at four times the price, and people across the political spectrum would buy the local, for reasons ranging from environmental to nationalist. I met a guy named Teppo, who was a garlic farmer in the summer/fall and a sausage factory worker in the winter. The only government aid he got was loan guarantees. It all seemed to work. Would it work here? Ehhh… you’d probably need a different political/social sales pitch to entice people outside the Scope-readin’ scene…

  24. Elling Lien · January 13, 2010

    Spice Barn update:

    Ian MacDonald of The Spice Barn just gave me a call and let me know that they’re only located in Sobeys here in town. They’ve been working on Dominion for a long time, but since Loblaw’s sells their own spices, it’s been an uphill battle. He says he’s close though.

  25. Andreae Prozesky · January 13, 2010

    Gerard, I think this is really interesting – I don’t imagine that Finland’s climate is inherently more suited to agriculture than ours is, is it? And yet, because there is a demand, they’re selling domestic garlic in the grocery stores. Brilliant!

    Now, how to get the people of Newfoundland to make the connection between nationalism and consumption?

    I wonder – and maybe you or some other reader could venture a guess – what would happen to seafood prices if we focused on domestic rather than international processing and sales?

  26. gerard · January 13, 2010

    After being reminded of this discussion (thanks Lidia), I was compelled to read up on sugar beets, and it turns out they’re kind of evil. Sugar cane is good — it grows like a weed and can be monocropped, and the trash parts become fuel for the evaporators. Sugar beet needs a lot of (petrochemical) weed killers, has to be crop-rotated (so the processors are 4 times as far apart, which means longer shipping routes), and the processors and evaporators are energy hogs. Sugar beets are a major crop only in countries with huge agricultural subsidies.

    Plus, the beet sugar by-products aren’t so healthy, so they become animal feed, while cane sugar by-products become molasses and rum!

  27. Starr · January 13, 2010

    You have some good ideas – however, the mussel is a bivalve that filters polluted ocean water – and then we eat it?
    Scald cream – not good for the arteries!
    Eating local is great but considering the amount of topsoil that Nfld. doesn’t have, its often not as nutritious as we’d like to think. But still better than most imported stuff I ‘spose.

  28. Starr · January 13, 2010

    You make some excellent points! I do agree with supporting local however but sometimes this ‘local’ stuff is too soapbox.

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