For Green Bean’s Bookworm Challenge, I chose to read Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally. The one overriding theme that stuck out to me in this book is having a sense of place. What do I mean by “place”? When I say place, I mean a connection to where you live. I first consciously realized the importance of place when I went to the Island School Teacher Conference last summer, a school in the Bahamas that focuses on place-based learning. I came back with a desire to bring place-based learning into my own classroom, and over the past year I have incorporated our place. But the reality is, I’ve always had a strong sense of place because of how I grew up. I couldn’t imagine leaving my home and my family and our farm. But back to the book… The authors Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon spend an entire year eating local, sustainable, and wild foods. They search out people who grow all of their necessities, and in the process they learn a great deal about their own place, Vancouver. They learn about the agricultural practices of Native Americans and early settlers as well as get acquainted with the local farmers. They also feel the very real effects of environmental accidents.
There is a term for the experience of tugging your little red wagon through a strawberry field, and that term is traceability. It’s a measure of how close or how distant one is from one’s food. The majority of the world’s farmers, saving their own seeds and cultivating, raising, and harvesting the plants and animals they themselves eat, have total traceability. They know exactly where their food comes from, and under what circumstances it was produced. On the other hand, there’s a person eating an all-dressed hot dog on a Manhattan street corner.
This term “traceability” is directly related to the place where your food comes from, as well as the people who produce it. The food that the majority of people eat these days, in my opinion, is anonymous. They don’t know where it grew, they don’t know who raised or processed it, and in the case of the hot dog, they may not even know what animal it is made from. In speaking with a group of teachers at my school today, this issue came up. I made the point that I would much rather eat an animal that was loved than an anonymous animal. Eyes rolled, faces were made, and some folks stopped eating lunch. OK people, the reality is that if you eat meat, you are eating animals. Why would you prefer to eat an animal that has no name and has never experienced kindness from humans? I don’t think I’ll ever understand that.
On a paleoecological time scale, the separation between us human beings and the landscapes that sustain us is brand-new. It has widened in the blink of an eye. For almost all of our history as a species, we depended on our surroundings and abused the environment at our peril. The sudden death of a local river was not a saddening sound bite; it was a life-threatening catastrophe.
This quote describes a loss of place. And also an insight: pollution of a local river does not affect us as much as it did our ancestors. We can buy imported bottled water and import our fish from somewhere out of sight, out of mind. Unless you happen to make your living off that waterway, you won’t even think about losing money, let alone starving.
Introduced from Europe, the blackberries have become everyone’s favorite weed. This is the only common urban foraging that I know of.
Back at my place we dumped the berries in a big pot and put the burner on low to start cooking out the juice. We added cupfuls of sweetener, following the wisdom of hippie books that suggest using 40 percent as much honey as the white sugar called for. Gradually we brought the mash to a constant bubble, stirred now and again with a wooden spoon. By then, every burner was in action, boiling empty jars to sertilize them. Throughout, we talked of writing, men, of whether or not we would have children, of places we had visited or hoped to visit… Making jam had taken all afternoon and evening, but the last thing I’d call it was work.
It was living.
This description of making jam is the perfect example of a way to reconnect with the place you live. The act of finding and picking berries makes a connection to the local plant life. Using local honey instead of sugar creates a connection to not only local plant life, but also the local honeybees. Sharing your work with a friend creates a connection between people. Overall, there is a connection to the ecosystem, including human beings in their local food web. It seems so strange to me that there are food connections going on all around us, and yet some people are totally absent from our local food web.
I cannot help but be reminded of the apple epiphany that happened at my school last fall. My principal asked me to bring in a bushel of apples for the teachers at our October faculty meeting. Of course, I chose Macouns, even though they were coming to an end. I cannot even count how many teachers came up to me and remarked how good the apples were. Some said that they had never tasted apples so crisp and juicy, and that the flavors were new to them. Some told me they now knew they could never get an apple that tasted that way from the supermarket. Some people said that they didn’t like apples, but they liked these apples. At the end of the meeting, teachers were sneaking the extra apples into their bags to take home. One teacher later told me she made the best apple pie out of her stolen apples. And here I was, worried that the apples wouldn’t be received well because Macouns are almost out of season by early October, and a couple had imperfections. Silly me.
At the end of their year-long experiment, not much changed.
Our 100-mile diet hadn’t ended, not really. The day after the final dinner, at lunchtime, James used a dash of black pepper on some leftover pasta. Alisa suggested a nice Indian place for dinner, and we ordered jackfruit, which probably came from Southeast Asia or Brazil. A few favorites have slowly made their way back into the kitchen–lemons, and rice, and beer. Many others, like bland bananas and white sugar, haven’t yet. For us, the balance of global versus local food has been reversed. It comes down to this: we just like the new way better.
At the end of the book, I was left wondering if Ed and I could make the 100-mile diet work for ourselves. I thought about what we’d have to give up, and what we’d make staples of our diet. Fish would be a huge part of our diet, because a large chunk of our 100-mile radius is Long Island Sound. Ed and his brother could catch a lot of it. Ed’s parents are getting pigs in July, so they’d help to fill our freezer. I would want to get chickens for eggs and meat, as well as turkeys. We could get a cow and keep it with my family or Ed’s. My family grows apples, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, plums, pears… so we’d be pretty well set with produce. We’d have to skip white sugar in favor of honey (made by Aunt Wendy and Uncle Dave) and maple syrup (made by my family or Ed’s). My garden would probably need to get bigger. I’d can and freeze strawberries, wild wineberries, blueberries, raspberries, apples and applesauce, peaches, corn, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables (clearly not in that order). I guess we’d need a chest freezer. I’d make growing food that could last us through the winter, like pumpkins, potatoes, winter squash and carrots, a priority. What would we have to skip? Coffee, which I don’t drink but Ed would miss. Ditto for beer. I’m not sure about flour or oats. I think I would feel the same despair as Alisa did without bread or pasta. Seasonings would be an issue as well, and I would especially miss black pepper. I would really miss lemons with all the seafood we’d be eating. I guess the bottom line of whether or not we could survive on a 100-mile diet is that we clearly could. It would be an extremely interesting experience, but I’m just not up for it right now. What I will do is make every effort to eat locally when I can, and avoid foods that I know have been shipped long distances, like bananas and pineapples. I’ll also work harder to pass on an understanding of place to my students and others.
I would recommend Plenty to those who want to reconnect with their home and community through food.