The author’s fashions from Artifax on the Plaza.
I don’t pickle. I don’t preserve, put up, put by or pressure cook. I don’t freeze or root-cellar (yes, a verb!). But it’s beyond not storing food for the Apocalypse or the next “long, hard” winter in Sonoma (?). I don’t cook, either. A book nerd, reading a recipe is my favorite kitchen skill, maybe my only kitchen skill. My kitchen, no bigger than a walk-in closet—appliances vintage 1958—suits me just fine. My last meal, should I have a choice, will be a one-potter—Kraft Mac ’n’ Cheese in the blue box. And I will die with a powdered-cheesy grin on my face.
So obviously I’m one of the last people anyone would accuse of being a locavore—the word itself was new to me. What most people seemed to know already is that a locavore is someone who eats only what’s grown and raised within a certain radius, usually 100 miles, from their home. (The term was actually the Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 Word of the Year.) The area within the 100 miles served up another new word—foodshed.
But, alas, I was challenged by a professor to be a locavore—eating not just locally, but organically or sustainably—for a month as part of a course I was taking in the ethics of food.
In my mind, the “L” word, once I heard it, meant making your own ketchup, hot jars steaming the wallpaper off the kitchen walls, growing mushrooms in icky dank places, whacking off chicken’s heads with abandon, none of which appealed. Quick conclusion: If I did this, I would have to eat just what was in season and prepare it in my own kitchen/closet. No canning, no growing, no whacking.
And certainly no need to rush into it either. With due deliberation, I dug out a map of the San Francisco foodshed, and studied it. From within the 100-mile circle, my attitude about the project shifted a bit. Anyone, even someone with my jaded eyes, could see it was a dream foodshed. It included parts of the Central and Salinas valleys, prime agricultural areas by any measure. It also comprised bay and ocean, teaming with seafood. And of course all of Sonoma and Napa counties were there too. Wine would be ubiquitous, maybe taking the edge off giving up Chinese takeout.
“Piece of cake,” I now said to myself, uncharacteristically. Poor choice of words, it turned out. More on that later. But indeed, once I jumped in, the water was, like, OK. The first week was an easy feast, no one more surprised than me. I got chicken and eggs and dairy products from Petaluma, the Egg Capital of the World, just 18 miles away. I found grass-fed and finished beef from Humboldt County (a hair inside my 100-mile limit) in the meat counter at Sonoma Market and locally raised lamb from Pozzi Farm in Valley Ford, 23 miles west of my house, at Whole Foods. Fruit and vegetables—tomatoes, corn, melons, beans, summer squash, corn, peaches, figs, apricots, honey, cheeses and more weighed down tables at the Tuesday night and Friday morning farmers markets in Sonoma. “The Patch,” acres of black soil right behind the center of town, offered much of the same every day at its Second Street West stand. It’s hard to get more local than that.
In the time it takes to press a button on the microwave, though, I realized that if I were to remain reasonably sane during the coming month, I was going to have to put the inevitable snags right out on the table, so to speak. Shaking me to the core on the very first day was The Big One: coffee. No coffee is grown anywhere in California or the U.S. (with the exception of Hawaii)—the climate is just not conducive. I compromised by buying fair trade, organically grown beans with the shortest plane ride (fuel consumption issue) to these shores.
By the same token, no cacao is grown anywhere in the United States (most comes from Africa and South America), so bye-bye chocolate. (Sob.) U.S tea is rare, although one teensy South Carolina variety is apparently drunk at the White House (!). Spices, which I use a lot, come mostly from halfway around the world. On Whole Foods’ shelves, most of the salt originates at the Dead Sea, a scootch out of my 100-mile range. Sugarcane is grown only in Florida, Hawaii, Texas and Louisiana. Local honey, though readily available, is pricey. Out of reach, too, were bananas, cereal, shrimp and more I didn’t want to think about.
But the biggest and most unexpected problem was wheat. While some bread available in Sonoma is made from organic Northern California bulgur wheat, I could not find it, or pastries of any kind, made with local wheat flour. So much for “piece of cake.” Gone was my main food group: pancakes, English muffins, flour tortillas, cookies, pie crust, pasta, rolls. Even a local restaurant that grinds its own corn for tortillas buys Nebraska corn, which the proprietor says is “cleaner” than California corn.
Locavoring can sometimes require research, which is a nice way of saying you’ll inevitably become a supermarket or telephone pest, inquiring about origins of ingredients. (At the drive-through, “Your pink slime is from where?”) At the time, I had been eating a lot of so-called thin bagels, to cut back on carbs but still have a healthy dose of dough. The package said they were made in Sacramento (yippee!). When I called the company, they said Yes, indeed, they baked thousands of pounds of these items each day in Sac City. But then I asked where the wheat came from. “Anywhere in the world,” they said (it sounded like they were proud of this), “wherever it is cheapest, and right now that’s usually Europe.” Europe?? What about “amber waves of grain”? Some bakers even grind their own flour locally, but the wheat is shipped in from elsewhere. I decided, reluctantly, to not cheat on this one, i.e, to go without flour-based products for the duration.
[After my locavore month was over, I discovered The Bejkr, Mike Zakowski, who uses local red wheat and makes it into breads and pretzels he sells at the farmers market on Friday. “It’s really not cold enough here,” he said, “for commercial wheat production. What is grown in California is mostly sold to China.”] Argh.
Oh, my. Could I live, love and be happy without all those carbs?
This ingredient thing was a real downer. In the first week of my experiment, I had downed with delight Clover ice cream, from Clover Stornetta Farms in Petaluma. That was a mistake, it turned out. An ice cream might be made locally but does the milk and cream come from local, happy cows, humanely raised? And then, what about the sugar, the vanilla (mostly from Madagascar), the chocolate (see above)? Same goes for bakery-made cookies or pasta or even local granola made by a neighborhood entrepreneur (Where does she get her oats?).
A carnivore, I quickly realized I also needed to find a wider range of local, humanely raised, pasture-raised meat. By pure chance I discovered Tara Firma Farm at the very south edge of Petaluma (16 miles from my home). Owned by Craig and Tara Smith, the farm is modeled after Joel Sallitin’s self-sustaining farm described in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. Tara Firma grows a wide variety of pesticide-free seasonal produce and raises smiling cows and pigs, chickens and turkeys on its beautiful 30-plus acres of hilly, windswept fields. The animals live what seems to be a stress-free life, free to roam new pastures every few days. When the time comes to slaughter a cow, it is shot, supposedly the quickest and most painless death. And rumor has it that the cow dies to strains of Italian opera. I toured the farm and bought bacon, pork chops and ground beef, welcome additions to my larder.
So how was I eating? For the first two weeks actually very well. Mostly meat and vegetables steamed or roasted or in salads. Spaghetti squash became a staple to make up for the lack of pasta, with local marinara sauce from a jar (I didn’t check the origin of all ingredients) grass-fed ground beef and cheese from Vella Cheese on Second Street East. The local lamb on sale at Whole Foods was available only sporadically, which made lamb chops a rare treat, which they were anyway. Burgers without buns or ketchup were acceptable, no more. Roasted or baked chicken was also a useful mainstay. The bad news? The lack of flour, condiments, desserts, bananas and takeout was making me whiney. And speaking of wine, it quickly occurred to me that organic wine was a rarity, and sustainably grown wine available but certainly not ubiquitous.
And now, alas, as my locavore month was proceeding, the season was advancing inexorably. It was already mid-October; summer vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, basil, corn were slowly but inevitably disappearing from the farm stands and farmers markets. Worse, the bloated Sonoma Tuesday farmers market itself was closing for the season.Yikes! My easy, sweet summer meals of sliced tomatoes, a fresh salad and a piece of happy meat were coming to an end. Would I have to create breakfast, lunch and dinner out of meat, bitter winter greens, hard squashes, turnips, beets and the occasional apple? Oak Hill Farm, just seven miles up Highway 12, kept their Red Barn store open through Christmas, so that became a good backup.
I did manage at this juncture to cook a flavorful whole chicken in my slow cooker with carrots, turnips, leeks, and garlic, of course from Gilroy. But squashes were looming large. I looked at them proliferating at the market, taking over, it seemed, and shyly touched their hard shells. But no squash came home with me. And every day the squashes got bigger, some reaching beachball proportions. I was told by Candi Edmondson of Paul’s Produce that one squash they sold (incongruously named “blue ballet”) would have to be cracked open with an ax or dropped off a roof onto concrete. I decided, no need to rush into it—I’d try to “get to know them” first. So I made a painting of them, with what I hoped they saw as the utmost respect. Then my fear was mitigated somewhat by the discovery of delicata squash, small and unthreatening, i.e., easy to cut open. I simply roasted it with a little local butter. That became my main way of enjoying all the squashes (no axes were used), except for a casserole I tried and some pureed soups.
One night I lost it and really cheated. I ate fresh pasta labeled “Wine Country Pasta,” knowing full well that, while the pasta was made here, the wheat, its main ingredient, wasn’t from Wine Country.
There were other bad surprises too. Mushrooms in local stores were all from Canada or New Zealand (!). And most seafood was not local—tuna was out, as was salmon. Sellers of meat and fish are now required by law to show country of origin (COO) on labels next to the item, so it’s easy to see just how much fish and shellfish is from Asia and/or farmed.
Then my last squash casserole was in the oven and, just like that, the month ended. I was no longer a locavore, and I had gained great respect for those who are, although Sonoma’s location makes it relatively easy to be one. Certainly the food is more healthful, tastier and—something I really enjoyed—more colorful. The plates I put together just looked really good.
If I were to do it again, I would have to give in and do some canning, at the very least of tomatoes, and do a more scrupulous search for bread and pasta or flour to make my own.
I saved lots of jet fuel by buying locally and supported community farms and farmers, which is certainly worth doing to keep condos off our gorgeous hills. Strangely, though, I used a lot more gasoline, driving to and from out of-town farms once the farmers markets closed. Yet I’m still buying and eating mostly locally. Just with a blue box thrown in now and again.
From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMA