About five years ago, two books began to influence how I thought about the food my family ate. One was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and the second was The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. A first consideration of this new diet was to eat as well as possible to promote good health. The second consideration was that, having grown up with gardens and farms that sustained me, it is important to me that farmers and gardeners are supported in their effort to feed communities.
For these reasons, I use what I loosely call a “modified” 100-Mile Diet. Any purists attracted to this essay because of its title can now sign off telling themselves, “She cheats,” because I do and I will talk about how I cheat right now. The greatest way that I cheat is by the definition of “100 miles”. “100 miles”, for me, includes 100 miles from two cities I visit a lot which are more than 100 miles from my home. One is Toronto and the other is Montreal. Another way that I cheat is also based on the 100 mile definition but, since I travel a lot, I will make a point of buying local foods wherever I travel. Some of the best local foods from other regions of the world make it into my diet, but only when I can have them without additional shipping because I am travelling anyway.
The reason that I started this is that Pollan convinced me that there was a better way to eat and it included more vegetables and less meat, and that the vegetables and meat should be grown as naturally as possible. The reason that I have continued to eat this way is that the food is actually better tasting and less expensive. Pollan has written a lot but a primer of his philosophy can be found in this 2011 New York Times Magazine Article, Michael Pollan Answers Readers’ Questions. http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/michael-pollan-answers-readers-questions/. Pollan started out thinking about a better diet and developed food rules which he has published in their own small guide. He personally summarized the rules into this statement: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This is from The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
If I cheat on local by including local foods from places I visit, it’s because I believe that the local food movement must be supported wherever it is making an effort. This cheating does ensure that I can get some items that are not available 100 miles from me, like olive oil, or flour, or citrus. Locally, I can get very good cold-pressed sunflower oil and a historic mill in Manotick produces flour that can be bought in small amounts but, in general these are difficult items on a local diet close to Ottawa, where I live.
Another facet of this new diet is that I have begun to forage, grow a few foods and preserve a lot of food in season for future use. I have become very good at foraging, to the distress of my family, but have compensated for this with being an excellent canner/preserver. Despite having grown up gardening, I am not having nearly the success with this that I once had but I am improving.
Let me describe my foraging first and get the weirdest thing I do out of the way. I live near the Central Experimental Farm and the Dominion Arboretum. As on any wild area of land, a number of food items grow wild now, although the plants were deliberately planted. Each year for several years, I have collected my apples, blackberries and pears for jelly, jam and butters from the bushes and trees at the farm. I believe that my husband and children are convinced that I am going to be picked up for trespassing – although this is recreational land – and I can’t say that I don’t wonder about this occasionally myself. What might some farm official say if they found me gathering up the apples and pears and even picking the blackberries off bushes? This would probably not be such an odd thing to do in the country, but I am in the middle of Canada’s fourth largest city. Also, not everyone is convinced that wild food is completely edible – Won’t the apples have worms? Did you really clean those berries? These are the questions of city folks, however, and this is perfectly good food. Actually, these are excellent foods since they make wonderful preserves. This year, I have brought home butternuts, which were the nut my grandmother used in her Christmas cooking. I am still figuring out what to do with them. I am also still figuring out how to get them out of their shells. I also take advantage of foods growing wild at friend’s homes and yards. My grape jam comes from the fruit of a friend’s vines.
As for crops, I grow herbs, tomatoes and peppers. I did not get big enough crops of tomatoes or peppers for anything but eating, but everyone thought they were delicious. I have herbs in abundance, as well as my own homemade pesto, herbed vinegars and oils, and dried herbs. For vegetables in the quantity required to make a winter’s worth of tomato sauce, I went to my local market and boughtt one quarter of a bushel of tomatoes. I also bought the other vegetables for salsa at the market. I do not necessarily buy organic, but I always buy from a farmer who is careful about pests and fertilization. Not every farmer can deal with the bureaucracy of certification and the farmers at my local market are certainly not Monsanto personnel disguised as Ontario farmers.
For canning, I have used the book Canning For A New Generation: Bold, Fresh Flavors for the Modern Pantry by Liana Krissof. I recommend this book because it preserves fruit without commercial pectin and so I can use far less sugar in preserves. This means that my preserves are a bit tart but the flavor of the fruit really emerges.
I have absolutely no idea whether all this extra effort on my part makes any difference in the effort to build a more sustainable food system, or whether it will result in better health, but it seems as right to me as the 30 minutes of exercise I do every morning. These habits certainly honour the traditions of frugality and stewardship that I was raised with and the work of the farmers of my own community and the communities I have visited. There is beginning to be a body of evidence that this kind of local food promotion and activism does ensure a sustainable food supply. The evidence also tells us that this will be demonstrated within the next ten years.