Friday, June 15, 2007

What’s a Book-Loving Local Food Fan To Do?

Even faster than you can read them, publishers are producing well-written, thoughtful books on the virtues and pleasures of local food. Following the excitement generated last year by Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” look for Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal Vegetable Miracle” and “Plenty,” by Vancouver journalists Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon.

I’ve been a Barbara Kingsolver fan since reading her first novel “Bean Trees” some years ago. Originally drawn in by her story-telling talent, I later found myself really hooked as her fiction demonstrated her obvious connection with food.

“We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on one birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission. ‘And heaven knows,’ our mother predicted, ‘they won’t have Betty Crocker in the Congo.”

Thus begins her introductory chapter on Leah Price, the main character in Kingsolver’s runaway bestseller “The Poisonwood Bible.” Betty Crocker. The Congo. What a concept!

In “Animal Vegetable Mineral,” Kingsolver tells us that she and her family began their year-long quest of eating locally in early spring, defined as when the first asparagus came out of the ground. And thus by late March on their farm in Virginia, their grocery list included only goods produced locally, not those available just because they’d been shipped in from who-knows-where. The family grew a large amount of their food with a huge garden and some animals. They bought or bartered fresh food from neighbors, and spent endless hours preserving food at harvest time.

Each month gets its own chapter, which it shares with Kingsolver’s observations and research on a large variety of agricultural, economic, political, and sociological aspects of the 21st century food system. And most chapters have sidebars written by Steven Hopp, Kingsolver’s husband, an environmental studies professor, and her older daughter Camille, a Duke University student. Camille provides recipes the family used during their year of eating locally. Although I haven’t yet made any of them, I licked my lips as I read them.

Although Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” set the gold standard for contemporary books on local food, Kingsolver’s is more accessible, and easier to read, in fact, than one or two of her most recent novels. Not only did I learn a lot from her book, but I had a hard time putting it down. It’s just plain fun to read.

The second eating local book I read was “Plenty” by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, who defined “local” as grown within 100 miles of their small apartment in Vancouver. Unlike Kingsolver’s family, who granted themselves “exceptions” to their local diet (e.g., coffee, chocolate, wheat), Smith and MacKinnon made no allowance for the unavailability of items most of us wouldn’t think of abandoning, no matter how devoted we are to eating locally. (If you can imagine life without olive oil, you’re a better localvore than I.)

Just as Kingsolver’s book involved extensive commentary by her husband and older daughter, Smith and MacKinnon solved the dual author problem by alternating chapters. MacKinnon begins, I guess, because he was the one who proposed the idea. And he is certainly the more enthusiastic of the two throughout the year. Although both are good writers, I found Smith’s quizzical participation in the project something of a turnoff. But the book is a useful and undoubtedly more realistic counterpoint to the bucolic setting of Kingsolver’s Virginia farm.

The Kingsolver and Smith/MacKinnon books fall within a new paradigm of “eating locally,” or the “100-mile diet,” or, more simply “localvore.” Within the last year or two, dozens of chapters of Localvores have sprung up across the country, typically hosting one-week “eating local challenges” at various times of year.

For example, the Mad River Valley Localvores, headquartered in Warren, Vermont, held its first “challenge week” in September 2006. One hundred fifty-five people signed up, promising to eat only locally grown food. Well, it was September, so the challenge wasn’t too daunting. But they ran another challenge in late January, which, to be literal, was a far greater “challenge” than the one during harvest season. Yet 133 people signed up and fulfilled their pledge to spend one week eating locally.

The Mad River Valley Localvores gave their participants five “freebies,” foods which aren’t local but are considered necessary for psychic, if not physical survival—coffee, chocolate, wheat, tea, you get the drift. They also allow the “Marco Polo exception,” meaning you can use anything that sailors on a long voyage might have used: e.g., salt, pepper, spices.

I happened to be in Mad River Valley during the winter localvore challenge, and came back to the Berkshires determined to figure out how to introduce the concept here. If you’re interested, please let me know. Here at the Berkshire Grown Blog.

--Laury Epstein


Maria Nation said...

I love the blog! Great one, Laurily, and thanks for your thoughts. I might be one of the last people on earth who hasn't read Poisonwood Bible so thanks for reminding me of it. Kingsolver's latest, on eating locally, (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) is also on my list now. I am, cautiously, circling into accepting a "locavore" challenge. So count me in if you hear of anything like this happening in the Berkshires. In the meantime I’ll keep talking about the “locavore” concept at the dinners I go to and hopefully will help to ignite a spark of interest. Certainly, thanks to the Berkshire Grown website, I am more aware of foods that lay down “bad” carbon footprints. Congratulations Barbara and Laurily and all the Berkshire Grown staff on creating a great new look and a great blog for sharing ideas. Good luck!

Adie said...

Liz at Pocket Farm is hosting an eat local challenge for the summer called One Local Summer. Participants eat one local meal a week and send in their info about it or post in on their blog if they have one. It has grown to over 100 people this summer. Liz has closed her sign ups, but she has a link to one of her friends who will sign up more people. They have it broken down by region, so you can see what people in similar and very different areas are doing. Check it out! Its a great way to get started with challenges.

Widow in the Woods said...

Thanks for the tip, Adie.